The Curriculum As Architecture

The U.S. Air Force Academy uses the graphic of a Greek temple to show how its courses support and connect to each other.

IN THE SUMMER of 2018, I became head of the department of management—dean of the business school—at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado. While I inherited an amazing department with a strong organizational culture, my first question was, What can I do to make it better?

I had previously noticed a lack of connectivity between our courses. Finance professors taught finance, strategy experts taught strategy, but there was little connective tissue between disciplines. I knew this problem wasn’t unique to my school. In a 2013 paper for the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, Richard H. Hersh and Richard P. Keeling noted, “The consequence of the working assumption that constructing coherence among individual courses and learning experiences is the student’s responsibility alone—along with not promoting and ensuring integrated learning— leaves too much learning to chance.”

I did not want to leave our students’ learning to chance. So I began my efforts to codify the management major as not just a collection of courses, but as a journey that our students take to prepare for leadership and management roles as commissioned officers in the U.S. Air Force.

The first step was to determine a framework that would showcase how our courses are linked together. Our team began to discuss different imagery we could use to represent the management journey. Was it a road trip, a bridge to knowledge, a treasure map, an archway, or a building? We ultimately settled on the imagery of a Greek temple, which we have named the Management Curriculum Architecture.

The Management Curriculum Architecture small

>Click to view larger graphic

A GRAPHIC REPRESENTATION

To explain our imagery, we have found that it makes the most sense when we start at the roof of the building—with the capstone—and demonstrate how all of the other elements of the program support it. Students choose one of three capstone options: a venturing course, in which they write business plans for a new product or service; a consulting course, in which they solve real-world problems for nonprofits; or a Capsim business simulation option, in which their results are compared with those of their peers at our school and at schools across the country.

These capstone courses allow students to put into action the lessons they have learned in the program—and those lessons are integrated in the keystone course students take in the semester prior to the capstone. We want faculty and students to understand how all the other pieces of the program fit together to support the keystone course—and how those pieces work together to help leaders effectively manage organizations.

Our architecture graphic (pictured above) shows that the base of the temple is made up of foundational courses such as managerial accounting and systems analysis. On top of this base are the pillars of management education: managerial finance, marketing analysis, project management, and production and operations management. In turn, these pillars support electives in topics such as advanced organizational theory, business ethics, power and influence, and supply chain management. These electives enhance students’ understanding of the more intricate aspects of management.

‘A CONCISE VISUAL’

Once we chose the Greek temple imagery to represent our Management Curriculum Architecture, we began to have content experts in each area present short overviews of their courses at monthly faculty meetings. They described the key concepts they cover, outlined the prerequisite skills students must have, demonstrated how their courses relate to other courses (particularly the keystone and capstone offerings), and explained how their courses connect to desired educational and institutional outcomes. After a few months, faculty gained an understanding of all the courses in our catalog. And because they now can see how their offerings fit into the overall program, they can make these connections explicit in their classrooms.

Our next step was to help students view their courses as part of a cohesive whole instead of a disconnected array of subjects that they need to master one semester at a time. Therefore, in the fall of 2019, we presented the Management Curriculum Architecture to the junior and senior classes as a visual representation of our management program.

We have started using the temple graphic at our Majors’ Night presentations and our annual Parents’ Weekend to help prospective students and their families understand how our program is constructed. The graphic gives us a concise visual representation of our courses and provides a jumping-off point for robust discussions of our program. The architecture analogy was also used in a recently accepted academic article and in a presentation I gave to my fellow deans at a faculty meeting where we provided program reviews to the academic leadership of our institution.

I have been most encouraged by the hallway conversations I overhear among faculty as they discuss how to teach certain subjects or convey particular ideas in ways that align with what other faculty members are doing in the classroom. These discussions, and the corresponding integration of coursework across the management major, leave me feeling very optimistic about the value of our management curriculum.

Hersch and Keeling warn against an educational system that “conveys to students and teachers alike that learning occurs best when students take individual courses and stack them up, like building blocks—as if learning grows by piling courses higher…[with] no mortar connecting these blocks.” By focusing on the architecture of our program, we will build a program of connected, integrated courses that will allow us to train managers and Air Force officers with the skills they will need for the future.

Scott G. Heyler is head of the department of management (dean of the business school) at the U.S. Air Force Academy near Colorado Springs, Colorado. Opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Air Force Academy, the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any other government agency.

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