ResEdChat Ep 49: Paul Gordon Brown on the Current State of the Curricular Approach

Paul comes back to the podcast again this week to chat with Dustin about the the past, present, and future of the curricular approach in residential education. Paul brings his wealth of knowledge and experience in this area to the conversation to help capture why this practice is so important for supporting student learning.


  • Paul Gordon Brown, Director of the Campus Experience at Roompact

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Dustin Ramsdell:
Welcome back everyone to Roompact’s Res Ed Chat podcast. I’m your host, Dustin Ramsdell. The podcast series here features a variety of topics of interest to hired professionals who work in and with college and university housing. And this episode today will be a little bit of an interesting one. Another in our series. It kind of goes into 101 crash courses on different topics. This one on the curricular approach. So this one will be doing a very brief definition, but then talking about the history, the future, and the present state of the curricular approach in resident’s life and residential education. So Paul, you’re joining us again as you have in all the previous one-on-one episodes here. But if you want to just start us out with a super brief, the textbook definition of what a curricular approach is when it comes to residential education, then we’ll get into much more of the context of past, present, future.

Paul Brown:
Of course, I’m excited to be back. It is approaching curricular season as it is. The institute on the curricular approach always happening every October. I had to look it up for this is number 17, that’s coming up this year in 2023. And really it’s been an interesting journey. I’ve been with it almost since the beginning. And at its core, a curricular approach is just really a different way of thinking about the way that we organize the work and the way we go about it. At its core, it’s really about setting good solid learning goals and outcomes, and then designing an experience for students to go through from the ground up, a backwards design style approach. And this not only means that we’re more intentional, but it also means that we get better assessment data. We’re able to continuously improve over time, which is really something that our older approaches, I call them older approaches, but the idea of, “Oh, we’ll go off and we’ll do our random bits,” and they’re not necessarily connected together or really designed as an integrated experience for students just really aren’t as effective as achieving.
And that’s really what the institute’s designed to do is to help people to start on that journey, to help people that are already on that journey, engage it and bring it more deeply. But it’s really at its core. So I think it’s Keith Edwards that says, “A curricular approach is both new and not new,” meaning these are concepts that we’ve talked about for, gosh, ever. I think back into my master’s program, we talked about this, but no one put them together in this kind of way or with this set of philosophies and mindsets that really allowed it to stick. And that’s what the curricular approach is. It’s a systematic approach with a philosophy and a set of mindsets to help get us there.

Dustin Ramsdell:
I guess, for me, and if this is sort of incorrect point of view on it, but it feels like it’s trying to bridge that gap from theory to practice. Some of the building blocks of that, like you said, it’s like these are theories or ideas and things that do feel very core to the student affairs practitioner role. But yes, some Residence Life teams and stuff historically maybe do just have their team mission and then they just do a lot of things and they’re not making a very explicit, tangible, reinforced connection and building out maybe the implications of whatever their mission or goal or vision and any of those sort of things that can, I think sometimes feel static or disconnected from the day-to-day work.
You mentioned that the Institute for the Curricular Approach, ICA, is a very prominent advocate, this gathering and place where folks are coming together to talk about this and everything, that’s been going on for 17 years. But I guess as you understand it, and you’ve been in the mix with this, like you said for a long time, what’s the history of this approach, how maybe it developed over that span of time to at least give us something to get our arms around?

Paul Brown:
Well, you have in your past where the birthplace of the curricular approach started, which of course is University of Delaware. And a lot’s been learned since that point in time. The very first institute on the curricular approach was literally, I think it was on the University of Delaware campus and was like 30 or 40 people that got into a room, and it was Kathleen Cur and Jim Tweedy there that said, “Hey, we’re experimenting with this thing. We don’t know what it is. We think it’s got legs. We think this makes sense.” And shared it with that group in the room. And those folks got excited and said, “Oh, you’re right. This makes sense. Let’s figure this out.” Really at those very early stages, it was people with a core set of ideas, stumbling around to try to figure out what works. And as someone who served on the faculty for 11 years now, this is going to be my 11th coming up, I’ve seen the evolution of it. Where people struggle with things, we figured out ways that make you approach that better or differently.
And a lot of the objections at the very beginning are people that said, “I don’t buy into this,” or “I don’t believe into this.” Really made it stronger over time. One of the things that we used to hear a lot that we really don’t hear as much anymore is hearing the word curriculum makes someone think rigid, makes someone think that, “Oh, it’s going to be structured in this bad way.” But when you think about the best teachers you’ve had, there can be great teachers who make boring content, exciting; and bad teachers that make exciting content, boring. Pedagogy comes into this, right? So you can create a curriculum that is very rigid and not forgiving. I would not suggest you do that, but you can do that. There can be bad curriculums. There can be curriculums that don’t account for the diversity of students and their experiences and don’t have that kind of flexibility.
That’s actually something you should avoid. But it does mean that you start thinking really intentionally about this because under old program models, it’s this, “Oh, we’ll do this. It’s a one-off, and hopefully the students learn these things,” and it’s not connecting to anything else they’re experiencing or things like that. And a curricular approach says, “No, we should really try to integrate this into a full experience. So that one thing leads into another, leads into another.” That’s the concept of sequencing or scaffolding learning. That, to me, is the magic of a curriculum, is the sequencing and scaffolding.
You can create learning goals and outcomes. You can continue what you’re doing and just attach those to learning goals and outcomes. But if you’re not sequencing and scaffolding, that’s really, for me, the magic that comes into a curricular approach. And to do that requires theory and knowledge and educational design and all those kinds of things that it’s not uncommon that you hear from someone that works at a school that’s transitioned to this approach is like, “Oh, now I understand where my master’s degree actually fits into this.” There was a post in a Facebook group, I think it was the Residence Life Facebook group just this week that said, “How many people really think that you need a master’s degree to be a hall director?”
And I think that question was really trying to bait people and to be like, “No, you don’t.” But it depends on what the role is and how it’s defined in an institution. I’ve absolutely worked at places where that master’s degree has come in handy, and I use it every day. And I know there’s also positions where it’s literally running a hall, the operations logistic, and you don’t need that. You probably don’t need that master’s degree. So it really does play into, if we always said, this is what the field should be, well then let’s do the things that actually prove that that’s what we’re trying to do. And that’s, I think, an evolution to over time is that recognition that, “Hey, wait a minute, we always required this master’s degree. Why are we really requiring it if the work doesn’t actually align with what is required for this?” And I think a curricular approach says, “Actually, yes, if you’re doing this, that’s going to be useful.”

Dustin Ramsdell:
Before we move on too far, go blue hands, folks who are watching the video, I have a collection of things behind me in a [inaudible 00:09:09].

Paul Brown:
This could just be a commercial for University of Delaware. How about that?

Dustin Ramsdell:
Yes, I have UD, the mascot, bobble head on my desk here too. But yes, it sounds like, I guess from the timing of it, they were probably work shopping it there while I was an RA. And I remember as I was going into grad school in early professional years, Kathleen Ker was getting awards and stuff like that, and it’s all clicking where it’s like, “Yes, if you’re one of these people that was helping with the genesis and the, maybe, prototyping and testing of the idea…” Because it’s just one of those paradigm shift moments of resonating with a lot of people, like you said, wanting to earnestly honor the training and credentialing of master’s degrees, and why is that important?
How are we utilizing them and providing a very clear way to bridge that gap and everything? And it does seem like it is something where there’s people in a room come up with the idea and it is going to take some time to really, like you said, have people even scrutinize and poke holes in it and get it to a place where it’s like, we’ve really been considerate and intentional about creating the playbook that can then be molded or shaped to each institution type or how the residential community, what that structure looks like and everything.
So that’s really exciting because I think it’s definitely a shame any of those people who are in those positions, in those moments where it’s like, “Why did I even get my master?” Because it’s all just bureaucratic, administrative, all that. And that is stuff that you can learn about and all that. But I think there are some programs where they lean so heavily into theory mostly or exclusively. And if it feels like, “Oh, I have to try to exert extra effort to try to bring this in,” versus it being just fundamental from day one like, “This is the way we do things and why,” that’s going to be a very just cultural norm versus something that we kind have to try to pivot and remind ourselves of or something.
So that it’s really cool. And I guess with some of that history, and I think you’re getting to this current moment that we’ve definitely passed over a point, I guess, of awareness or acceptance at least, of just like, this is a way that you can run a residential life, residential education program and everything. What is your perspective, I guess, on the current state of this approach at this moment? Do you feel like the core of it has changed a lot over time, even with maybe the scrutiny or more people adding to the discourse? Where are we at now?

Paul Brown:
I think one of the places people go wrong, so to speak, with the curricular approach is they focus on the nuts and bolts pieces too much, meaning the writing of learning goals and setting outcomes and putting together rubrics. It’s important, it’s the foundational piece of your curriculum, but that is actually the easiest part of the whole thing. Writing those and those nuts and bolts, that can be very easily taught. The harder thing is the cultural change, the organizational change, you mentioned paradigm, it’s a different way of thinking and wrapping your brain around that. I mentioned that I served as a faculty member now for 11 years, and I would say my thinking on it has evolved significantly over the course of those 11 years. My appreciation for it, areas of depth I wanted to go into was more…
One of the things that philosophies and mindsets that always accompany the idea of the curricular approach is that this isn’t an add-on. It’s a different way of thinking. And I think one of the themes that we see now, on this podcast, on our blog, we’ve had a number of people talking about, “What’s the future of the RA role? How should we structure a hall director role?” Our staff are working too many hours for what they should be, for what they’re paid, and our students have changed, and the demands of mental health concerns that students have changed, and all these things have changed, but our positions haven’t. And one of the things about the curricular approach is if you can be more focused in your work and focus on the things that are most important, that have the highest impact, that can move the needle on the most, some of this other stuff you can let go of.
And so I think a curricular approach, to me really, fits in with a lot of the current talk about restructuring our positions. That’s always been part of the curricular approach is, “Oh, now I need to rethink this. If they’re going to be doing this, why am I having the hall directors count keys? Is that really what a master’s degree requires? I’d rather use their time on this learning experience and move that counting of keys to maybe someone that’s better suited to that or doesn’t have the credentials that I need for this other thing.” And I think that’s increasingly intertwined with where the curricular approach is going, is that rethink, it’s very much related into my mind. I cannot disconnect them from each other.

Dustin Ramsdell:
I think that is something where it’s being able to leverage this model to do those kind of things, it feels really impactful. And that is maybe just the next wave of paradigm shift, is, one, just generally the entire team culture, but those are very functional pieces that will better serve all these people coming into the future that are being array as being hall of directors and everything else. And because, one, they’re being empowered and equipped with the learning outcomes and everything and the way that they do their job, but then if it’s literally like we’re changing the job description, we’re changing how many people we think we need, then it’s just keeps amplifying those multipliers to it, I feel like. I think you’re alluding to advice and things of places where people get tripped up. Is there anything else that you can think of, of advice for people that are, maybe they already have, implemented it, they’re thinking about implementing it, just anything that feels top of mind, I guess, before we look towards the future with this approach and what’s on the horizon?

Paul Brown:
Yes. Well, you mentioned the word empower, which struck me because this is very much something that I think of when I think of the curricular approach is it’s intended, and I think at its best, it empowers people at all levels to own their work and to do things and to make decisions. So it’s bringing that empowerment to the whole team, creating a learning organization, as you will. A lot of the dissertations that have been written on this, especially in the recent past, have focused on this organizational change piece. And I mentioned the Residence Life Facebook group. You see it all the time. You see it also in the expatriates of Student Affairs Group, people that have left the field, that there is a dissatisfaction with the way a lot of the organizations that these people have worked at run.
And Empowerment is really a key part of that. And a learning organization, if effective is much more flat in the way that it talks about things. It recognizes that expertise comes from a lot of different areas within the organization. And I think that’s another key piece that, especially if people are going down this path, you need to be ready to go down that path as well. It’s not, “Oh, we go to the institute, we realize other earning goals and outcomes. Great. Now we never need to go again. We’re done.” It’s a journey. Frequently when I talk with schools, I make classroom analogies because it makes so much more sense and it’s accessible to the people.
When I’ve taught graduate classes at Boston College, at Merrimack College, the first time you teach a course, it’s not good. It might be okay, hopefully you’re decent enough, but you know you’re like, “Oh, I designed this poorly.” Or, “This took up way more time than I thought it did.” Or, “We went through this way faster.” Or, “We highlighted things that I would rather have highlighted different stuff.” And then you do all this work, especially the first time you teach a course, it takes a lot of effort. The second time, not as much effort.
You already have your syllabus, you know what your readings are, so you can focus on enhancing it or moving things around or making it better. And you’re constantly doing that throughout your entire teaching career. This is the same thing. It’s not a one and done. And so when I try to give advice to people is it requires a sustained commitment. And if you’re not ready to make that commitment, or if your organization is not set up to be able to do this, you need to focus on that first as well. A common refrain, I don’t know who to attribute it to, is a curriculum won’t fix a broken organization. If the organization’s broken, you need to fix that organization first before it’s ready to take on these higher order kinds of tasks.

Dustin Ramsdell:
That’s all really good advice because I think the idea of how’s it going to stick, what’s the sustainability of people actually implementing this? And even just how you’re framing it and everything, even what you’re saying of that it is something that should not be viewed or presented as restrictive. It is empowering. It is going to be impactful, something that helps students just have better experiences because there’s just a cohesion. Because my brain, when you’re giving some explanations too, it reframes how a Residence Life program, it can integrate into all the other educational opportunities and learning moments and things that are happening. It’s not as if even the Residence Life would be walled off without an approach like this.
I’m trying to think of the right metaphor, but little modules or other things to plug into where it’s like, “What we’re doing has these learning outcomes, which very much connect and align with other student affairs and student life and student engagement outcomes,” or any of these sort of things. It’s just like you’re upgrading the model so that it has all these sort of places that other things can plug in because you know that we’re developing a career education or mental health, better habits for those sort of things.

Paul Brown:
And that’s the thing. I don’t know if you’re intending it, but you’re setting me up perfectly to say that in the institute’s past, it started as the Residential Curriculum Institute. It was Residence Life, people that got together and did this. And I forget exactly when we made the name change. I want to say it was around year 10, it changed to the Institute on the Curricular Approach because what a lot of people found is this philosophy, this mindset, this isn’t just a Residence Life thing, it’s an approach.
And so an entire division of student affairs could use it. There’s nothing unique or special about Residence Life in this regard as it relates to. And so that was part of that history of, it started with Residence Life roots, which is why you’ll still see a lot of content that relates to Residence Life, you see that talked about most in those circles. But it’s evolved into basically a student affairs curriculum because there’s nothing special about it. Says it’s uniquely Residence Life alone. And I think that’s the other area. If you look at where is the curricular approach now, it’s figuring out what does that look like more at a divisional level.
A good chunk of that’s been worked out, I think. But I think there’s still ways to go of how can you deepen that? How does that look? How can you increase intentionality with that? Especially when you’re talking about a large diverse organization that maybe has traditionally worked in silos. The complexity level just jumps when you start looking at it at a divisional level and trying to look at that as a student experience.

Dustin Ramsdell:
And that definitely seems like where I can imagine this going, where, like you said, the history is one part of it, and then just typically Residence Life teams are bigger. So they might be the big drivers of a lot of this change, but moving forward, it might be obviously a really good role model for their peers at that campus to just take inspiration from what they’re doing and connect into it and everything. So I guess any other sort of ideas of where you see this going in the future?

Paul Brown:
Sure. Yes. One thing that’s been present, especially in the institute is ACPA has its strategic imperative on racial justice and decolonization. And we’ve tried to put more of an emphasis on that in the institute; in terms of when you are writing your goals and outcomes, when you’re enacting this curriculum, are you using that type of lens in the way that you construct it, in the way that the practices that are built into it. Education can be liberatory. I could go into all the critical theory and all those other kinds of things. It can be done in that way and, in my opinion, should be done in that way. I think another layer of where this goes is how can we deepen that kind of work and that kind of commitment in the way that we put together our curricula.
I think another one is it’s very germane to talk about design thinking, backwards design, concepts like that. We had Aaron Long here on the podcast talking about that, which made me nerd out because it’s so much more related. It’s so related to this idea of let’s test things out. Let’s prototype them. Let’s see what’s working, what’s not. Let’s have some standards to figure that kind of thing out. Let’s figure out what we want to do, then let’s design it. Not let’s figure out what we want to do and then backfill it with learning goals and outcomes. And so I think there’s a lot to be said for pushes into that kind of design type thinking, into the way that we approach our work, which I think also is more exciting, is more interesting. Doesn’t make me use my master’s degree if we’re talking about things like that.
And I think also as technology has progressed, that’s also helped us out too. Like I mentioned, counting keys earlier, there are some ways to automate some of these previous tasks that we used to do, that then free us up with more space to do that kind of educational work that a master’s degree would help with. So are we leveraging those tech tools to get there? I work for a company that happens to make software that can help with those kinds of things. That is actually a big draw for a lot of people that use our software, is it can automate some of those tasks that don’t need to be spent a lot of time on while also opening up opportunities for you to make better understanding of your data more quickly and do so in a way that helps you actually advance your curricular goals.
So there’s a whole basket of things. And I think one of the beauties of the institute and the approach is that different people bring their different lenses over time and say, “Hey, wait a minute, what about this? And let’s see how this fits in.” And it’s almost this constellation of good thinking around a number of different topics that has propelled this forward. And where we are now versus where we were when we started is really getting into the deeper organizational level work and thought and philosophy and how do we approach this, which is 100% germane to everything that came out of the pandemic. And people saying, “Whoa, our old models don’t work anymore. They are just not set up for this. We need a radical change.” And I feel like that just dovetails so perfectly with what the curricular approach has been attempting to do and is now at a maturity level that people can actually talk about those things.

Dustin Ramsdell:
That’s really powerful. I think just seeing that, it almost feels like, from what you’re saying, where it’s been going on for nearly two decades, but we’re just getting started. The idea that there’s so much more, again, that awareness and really strong foundation proofs of concept and a lot of different people getting in the mix. And then just really clear identified areas for growth and evolution, and then just seeing what you’re getting at because it would either be digital tools, how they play in, how they free us from the mundane to be able to focus on this, and/or I guess, how can digital tools help to enable us achieving these learning outcomes and things like that.
That’s going to just increasingly, I think, be part of the mix. Where at the beginning it was just like, how can we create something that helps bring this sort of curricular approach to Residence Life? And now it’s expanding beyond that and just so much more bringing just this to more people, to more different facets or just different ways of doing it and everything. So a bright future. Definitely excited to see it. And as we wrap up, I feel like this is an episode where we’ve covered a lot here, but there’s going to be so many great resources I’m sure that folks can check out to continue to dig deep on it. So what would you recommend folks check out?

Paul Brown:
Yes, absolutely. One thing you mentioned, something that also triggered something for me is I have to give credit to all the past faculty of the institute. More than a few times while I was talking here, I said, “I can’t remember who said this, or I don’t know who to attribute it to.” It was really very much a learning community that guided this process. And we worked, all the faculty that have come and gone, but there’s a few core people that have been around for a long time. We’re such a great learning community that sometimes people will pick up on good things that other people say, and over time we say, “Oh, who should I give credit to for this?” And we can’t figure it out because we’re like, “I don’t know. We all say it now, but it clearly came from someone I don’t know.”
And we constantly revise and enhance it without knowing who to give credit to. So I want to give blanket credit to all those faculty in the past, because a lot of the things that I’ve shared, I wouldn’t say were uniquely mine, but something that is an evolved thinking from a group of folks. But certainly if you want to delve deeper on this, there are some very practical and good things out there is the book, Curricular Approach To Student Affairs, which you can find on Amazon and any other bookseller of choice. That’s the only formally published in-depth work that’s out there. There are a constellation of other things.
So if you go to, that actually redirects to a website that I maintain where I try to keep track of anything that I find related to this topic. So blog posts that I’ve written, blog posts that other people have written, links to dissertations. There are some journal articles out there, there’s videos. This podcast is going to end up on that page for sure. What are examples from other institutions that I can find? So that, it’s my comprehensive lit review, if you will, of all things related to this. And that’s a great place to start. The other thing that I’ll mention, stuff that won’t show up on there are some of the pieces that are mindset stuff, the other thinking we talk about.
So delve deep into design thinking. You can look at the past episode of Res Ed Chat here, but that is just the tip of the iceberg about the stuff that you could go into there. That’s a whole body of research. A book that continuously shows up in the institute is Greg McKeown’s Essentialism. And so that book will show up pretty frequently because it’s about trying to figure out what is most essential and focusing on that and letting go of things that distract you from that mission. So that will show up. In terms of the racial justice and decolonization, again, whole other set of research. ACPA has done a lot with their strategic imperative, including reading lists and things like that.
So I’d actually say, go look at ACPA’s strategic imperative. And from there they’ve even created additional documents and links out to stuff that’ll help you down that path. And I think the final thing is look at some of that business literature as well. Sometimes I struggle with business books that give advice because I’m like, “You’re saying the same thing 100 times in 100 pages, and this could have been a pamphlet.” But it does have you think in a different mindset. And a lot of that kind of work also dovetails with this because they’re trying to make organizations more effective and things like that. And so I think that’s another great place. If that resonates with you, that can be a great place to go.

Dustin Ramsdell:
I guess just because I think just the healthy, diverse diet of books and stuff, if you’re trying to build a reading list or anything, I have found business books when they’re addressing the organizational change elements and stuff that you’re talking about, they, I think, are probably most effective there versus just you had an idea that you stretched and just basically doing a biography of yourself and something of…

Paul Brown:
I love reading business books because I was like, I can breeze through this book really fast. I’m not a fast reader, but if there’s a business book, I’m like, “Yes, yes, yes. Got it, got it, got it. Yes, got it.”

Dustin Ramsdell:
It’s probably going to be shorter and then way less dense and it’s just super breezy, beach or heat or something, which feels weird. But think there’s so much that depending on whether you’re just starting out with it or waist deep in your journey of just immersing yourself. It’s just the idea of, you might be like, “Man, we’re really struggling with the cultural part.” Or, “It doesn’t feel like it’s being as equitable or accessible.” Or those sort of things. It’s just great that you were just given a tip of the hat over to all these different kind of aspects that are going to help make this curricular approach as impactful and effective as it possibly can be. It’s all important.

Paul Brown:
It’s a team. It’s a learning organization as a team, and some people are going to be more jazzed and excited about different aspects of it or have greater depth of knowledge. And if you can create a team that has that diverse interest, they’re all going to bring that to the table. We all need to be committed to the main goal, but different people are interested in different aspects of it, so how can we all collectively bring that together? And that’s really what it is.

Dustin Ramsdell:
Really great stuff and really appreciate you sharing all these great resources, giving some of your time and sharing all you did about the history and the future and the present state of the curricular approach. So we’ll have ways to connect with all those resources and with you in the show notes and description in this episode as usual. But always great chatting with you, Paul. Appreciate your time.

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