Why should curriculum development be participatory?

You will find some real benefits if you use a participatory approach to curriculum development. Primarily, the training you provide, and the learning of all participants, will become more effective. Why is that? As an example, let’s first think about something that you are probably very familiar with: the delivery of the training. No doubt, you have experienced training as a participant at some time in your life.


It is very common, unfortunately, for teachers and trainers to do a lot of talking. The trainer takes on the role of ‘expert’, and tries to transfer ‘knowledge’ to the learners. The learners are not asked to do anything, other than to be there, and perhaps to be quiet. Maybe sometimes they ask a question, which the trainer will answer. In this situation, it is unlikely that anyone will be trained to do anything, and not much learning will take place. Except that some people will learn that training can be a very boring activity. How does this compare with training courses you have experienced, either as a trainer, or as a participant?


In some training courses, however, there is much more participation. This means that more people than the trainer are actively taking part. If learners participate actively in the learning process, then they are more likely to learn, and training is more likely to be effective. They will have more ownership in the training, because their needs will have been identified, and hopefully they will also be involved in deciding how their needs can be met. This will increase their motivation, which will help them to learn more effectively.


Many people would agree with the idea that participation in training and learning is a good thing. Unfortunately, participation rarely extends beyond the delivery of the training. Much greater benefits can be achieved by encouraging participation throughout the entire curriculum development process. What benefits will you find if you follow this principle?



Here are several:

You should have greater opportunities for discussion and reflection with different stakeholders (people and groups who have an interest in the training). This will help everyone learn, and work together more effectively.

You should be able to form links and networks more easily, which will allow you               to share information better than before; your courses should become more relevant to the local context.

Some groups and individuals who do not normally have a ‘voice’, such as women, poor people, or children, may become included in negotiations and dialogue; they will benefit more as a result of the training.

You should be able to establish a dynamic course design process as new linkages and lines of communication are set up, resulting in greater satisfaction with your training programmes.

Different stakeholders can gain greater responsibility for various stages of the curriculum development process; this increases the motivation and commitment of everyone who participates.


We can summarize all these benefits by saying that if you use a participatory curriculum development approach, your training will be more effective, and the benefits (the learning which takes place, and the change in behaviour which results) will be more sustainable. With benefits like these, you might expect participatory curriculum development to be a very common approach. Unfortunately, the evidence shows that many people, especially in rural areas, are involved very little in the development of education and training programmes, which affect them directly. It is interesting that participatory approaches seem to have been adopted more widely by grass-roots extension organizations than by universities and formal teaching institutions. Moreover, where participatory approaches have been used, the benefits have been seen: greater ownership by everyone involved, better solutions to complex problems, and more sustainable outcomes. 


So why are participatory approaches not used more often?


One reason is that participation is perceived as requiring more time and resources. This is often true, but it is also commonly found that the better the process and means of production (which means more time may be needed), the higher the quality of the outputs. Careful management of inputs such as time and money is therefore very important. Another reason is that real participation means sharing power. Power over resources and their use, power over decision-making, power over who gets the benefits. Many people and organizations find it difficult to really share power and its benefits. Sometimes this is because they think they will lose some benefits themselves, but more often, it is because they have never really thought about participation in practice. If you use a participatory approach to curriculum development, you will be able to help more people to learn more things that are useful, so that they can use what they have learned for the benefit of themselves and others. Everyone, including you, will gain.


Participatory approaches are not new, of course. There are a number of recent examples of initiatives in the area of forestry education and training which attempt to increase the extent of participation in curriculum development, for example in east and southern Africa (Temu, Kasolo and Rudebjer 1995; Järlind 1998), in Nepal (Dearden 1998) and in the Philippines (Dalmacio 1999). In all these cases, participation has been seen as a factor critical to the success of the curriculum development process, and efforts have been made to increase the extent of participation of different stakeholders through activities such as workshops, meetings and surveys. Frequently, stakeholders have been called upon to provide information on the nature of the jobs which foresters should carry out in their working environment, as in the DACUM approach we mentioned earlier (Temu, Kasolo and Rudebjer 1995). There is no doubt that this is a sound way of working where jobs are clearly defined. In many contexts, however, the work of foresters and people engaged in (agro)forestry-related activities is changing so rapidly that the job cannot be used as a starting point. In these cases, job descriptions or profiles are often non-existent or out-dated, and so it is necessary to explore the context much more deeply and intensively. A wider range of tools and methodologies may be needed, and so approaches such as DACUM may be quite complementary as a component within the PCD process.


Maybe now you have some questions about participation? How much should someone participate at any one particular time? And who should participate? When you set up a process of participatory curriculum development, you need to decide to what extent different groups or individuals can or should participate.