Traditional approaches to curriculum development

Content approach

We can identify several different ‘traditional’ approaches to curriculum development. The most common approach until recently is the ‘content’ approach. This is where the curriculum is basically a list of knowledge – things that the learners need to know. Usually this list is made either by the trainer, or by subject-matter specialists, or by a curriculum committee or group. The content approach usually results in a curriculum, which is very theoretical, academic, and based on disciplines (e.g. ‘soils’, ‘plant physiology’, ‘forest inventory’, ‘soil-water interactions’ etc.). In this approach, the trainer receives little or no guidance on how to facilitate the learning process.


Product approach

Another approach commonly used is the ‘product’ approach. In this case, the focus is on what the learners will be able to do (and the knowledge and skills they require) after the course has finished. This approach usually follows a systematic planning procedure, and assumes that there are common goals for the learners, with the provision of adequate expertise, resources and technology. Setting objectives is a very important part of this approach. Needs identification is strongly linked to an analysis of a job or sets of tasks that should be carried out. The DACUM1 methodology is a well-known tool for needs identification, in which different stakeholders, especially those with specific job-related skills, are called upon to provide information on the nature of the jobs which professionals should carry out in their working environment. It requires an accurate, detailed identification and description of what a job involves (the tasks and the skills) – sometimes these are termed ‘competences’. DACUM itself can be quite participatory, but it still assumes that a full set of skills for a particular ‘job’ can be identified. This is certainly true for some jobs, but farming or forestry are very complex ‘professions’. Identifying the competences needed by farmers and foresters can be very difficult, especially in a dynamic and changing ‘agroforestry’ environment.


Process approach

The ‘process’ approach is characterized by the recognition of individual perception and behaviour, and the variations in the social contexts of different groups of learners. It adopts a less structured procedure, and is based upon an appreciation that understanding and knowledge depend on a process of constantly shifting interactions between individuals, and between them and their environments. The ‘content’ and ‘product’ approaches are more closed, uniform, predictable and ‘safe’. The ‘process’ approach results in a more open, varied, unpredictable and ‘risky’ curriculum. Specific objectives are often not used, although there may be an attempt to identify overall ‘learning outcomes’. These are more likely to be set on an individual basis rather than for all the learners. With a process approach, the curriculum development itself becomes an intervention, which may have an impact upon individuals as well as on organizations and institutions.


Which approach to use?

We cannot say that one of these approaches is always better than the others, although the content approach is least likely to result in successful learning, and is not recommended! Both the product and process approaches have definite advantages and disadvantages. The analysis of the situation prior to training should help the trainer to decide which approach is most suitable. For example, where a job and the tasks are very clearly defined, then a product approach should be very effective, as long as individual learners’ requirements are taken into consideration. Where it is difficult to identify specific job-related competences, it may be better to have a more open-ended, process approach, whereby the learners and trainers can constantly review the learning needs as they progress through the learning process together.


Whether a product or a process approach is used, it is vitally important to identify who is involved in curriculum development, and ensure that all the groups and individuals who have a real interest or stake in the training are able to contribute to the curriculum development process. This often does not happen; the product approach is usually carried out in a very top-down way. Manpower planning, is an example of a product approach, and is often done at a very high level of government. A few people make decisions on behalf of many others. DACUM, on the other hand, is often very participatory, although it is based on the assumption that a job can be described by a group who are perceived to be ‘experts’ in that field. In addition, a process approach is likely to be participatory by nature. However, with the process approach there is a danger that not enough effort is made to monitor and evaluate any products as well as the process, to ensure that there is actually an impact from training. Clearly in training, good quality products are needed. So, what kind of process will increase the likelihood of these products being realized?

We can see that there are different approaches to curriculum development, and there are advantages and disadvantages of using different approaches in different circumstances. Moreover, curriculum development is more likely to bring about effective results if a participatory approach is used.