Curriculum implementation exploratory studies: Final Report

Publication Details

This final report provides an overview of the findings from the Curriculum Implementation Exploratory Studies (CIES) project.

Author(s): Bronwen Cowie, Rosemary Hipkins, Sally Boyd, Ally Bull, Paul Keown, Clive McGee, with Beverley Cooper, Jenny Ferrier-Kerr, Anne Hume, Anne McKim, Judy Moreland, Michele Morrison, Rachel Bolstad, Lorraine Spiller, Merilyn Taylor, and Russell Yates, New Zealand Council for Educational Research, The University of Waikato. Report prepared for the Ministry of Education.

Date Published: October 2009

Please consider the environment before printing the contents of this report.

This report is available as a download (please refer to the 'Downloads' inset box).  To view the individual chapters please refer to the 'Sections' inset box.  For links to related publications/ information that may be of interest please refer to the 'Where to Find Out More' inset box.

Section 10: Where to from here?

Table 1 on the next two pages re-presents the detail of the key themes from Section 3 in a different and more succinct format: It removes the duplication that was inevitable where the same idea or issue was teased out from different perspectives, as in the previous seven sections, and focuses on the bare bones of the analysis.

  • Column One is a very brief summary of key learnings from the research.
  • Column Two summarises the issues and tensions associated with each key finding.
  • Column Three draws from the examples of effective practice we documented to suggest short-term ideas for addressing the tensions and issues raised.

The key findings support work elsewhere that suggests change takes time and involves a process of iterative adaptation and innovation at multiple levels. Schools and teachers, individually and collectively, need to appreciate the deep meaning and practical implications of the NZC and to appreciate and exploit the enablers and constraints in their specific school and community context. Where schools recognised the alignment between the intent of NZC and their previous work on their school vision, together with the focus of any professional development contracts in which they had been engaged, they were able to leverage the knowledge already gained to support their work with curriculum implementation. These schools were able to draw and continue to build on their internal capacity and resilience to cope with uncertainty and complexity and to generate and evaluate pathways for implementation.

These successful schools could be seen as having developed or strengthened their improvement infrastructure as they went about implementing NZC. Engelbart (1992) proposed that organisations should aspire to creating three basic levels of infrastructure: a core capability infrastructure (this is, what is needed to enable people to do the core work of the organisation); an infrastructure that enables the improvement of core work; and an infrastructure that enables the ongoing improvement of the improvement processes. Engelbart asserts that the third level is ultimately the most important to organisational effectiveness because it involves "getting better at getting better" (Gonzales, 1998). In the case study schools, the second level of an improvement infrastructure accords with a focus on leadership, professional learning and a focus on aligning structures. The third level accords with the distribution of leadership, the development of a learning community, a focus on teacher as inquirer/reflective practitioner and student and community active engagement in the curriculum decision making.

Table 1: Moving forward from the CIES studies
Challenge/issue/tension Short-term solution
CIES Finding: It's important to just start somewhere (no one "right way to go about it)
Stability of staff.
Prioritising this within particular school context-balancing initiatives and imperatives.
Involve school leaders in forums where they share strategies and outcomes
Support them to see alignment and overlaps between different initiatives (e.g., AToL)-link change to the known
CIES Finding: Staff need to develop a shared understanding
Developing and sustaining shared understanding needs quality time for working together.
Staff turnover.
See process of professional learning
CIES Finding: Leadership is key
Fostering culture comfortable with change and ongoing professional learning, modelling personal learning.
Developing structures that support rather than work against change.
Balancing push and pull in managing people.
Issues of personal professional learning and support-burnout.
Strategic use of existing resources/interests/concerns.
Distributing leadership within the school.
Personal networking.Support from BOT.
Creating time to learn, reflect, customise new learning, generate new possibilities.
CIES Finding: Change is a complex, slow and iterative process requiring deep professional learning
Developing culture of professional learning across whole staff.
Fostering culture comfortable with change-accepting that won't necessarily get things right first time.
Developing and sustaining a shared understanding and vision for NZC implementation.
Reluctant/resistant teachers.
Staff turnover.
Distributing leadership to distribute ownership, build capacity and increase access to immediate/specific support.
Providing time for discussion and reflection-structures.
Building critical mass.
Not setting ideas/structures in concrete-being willing to revisit.
Aligning appraisal processes with improvement infrastructure.
CIES Finding: Changing pedagogy is central to giving effect to NZC
Developing deep understanding of the meaning and implication of the NZC (key competencies, principles, school-based .curriculum design, links between key competencies and learning areas etc.).
Learning about, using and refining own understanding of teaching as inquiry, inquiry learning.
Generation and use of quality student data.
Developing community understanding of implications of NZC for pedagogy and student learning.
Support for culture of professional learning focused on learning about teaching and enhancing student learning.
Guided critical exploration of the meaning of learning and achievement within NZC frame.
Alignment of implementation with other professional development initiatives that focus on student learning and achievement.
Support for experimentation and risk taking.
Culture that focuses on learning from trial and error rather than on making mistakes.
BOT and community support for new initiatives.
CIES Finding: Structure can support or constrain change
Developing structures to provide for teacher professional learning time.
Developing structures that take advantage of NZC flexibility (e.g., timetables, leadership groups-staff and students, reporting practices etc.).
Providing forum for disseminating good ideas/examples.
Trial of new ideas across school leader community.
CIES Finding: Engaging the community is still a vexed issue
Engaging full range of community members.
Consultation as telling vs. seeking and using input of parents/whānau (not tokenistic).
Use of range of different sources of expertise to support students' learning.
Working with BOT/working with whole staff-clarification of purposes.
"Student voice" initiatives.
Trying a variety of approaches.
Linking consultation in with other events.
CIES Finding: Perceptions of mixed messages generate concern and work against change impetus
Concerns about being "on track" or "right" when reviewed by ERO.
Potential implications of other initiatives-NCEA, standards-are an emerging concern.
"We  already do that" (superficial readings of curriculum intent) but also  the reverse-not seeing connections between aspects of current practice  and NZC.
More particular guidance about scope of what counts as implementation by MOE.

Supporting ongoing complex change

The picture painted in this report is one of a profound series of inter-related changes, with many associated challenges for schools. Nevertheless, most of the case study schools are starting to have more of the characteristics of 21st century learning (e.g., processes that are iterative, acceptance that there is no clear end point to implementation, a focus on developing people's skills and competencies, ongoing change). Also important is the recognition that implementation will involve taking risks. The culture of the school needs to support these by focusing on exploration rather than outcomes alone. There is a need to balance accountability with complex emergence processes in which outcomes are not certain.

It is also important that leaders and teachers are supported so as not to feel overwhelmed by the process, especially in those schools that have been tardy in beginning their implementation journey. Drawing a distinction between complex and complicated change could be helpful for thinking about next support steps in the light of progress already made. Complicated systems typically come to be understood by analysing all their components and working out cause and effect relations between them. NZC has a range of new dimensions to consider, so school leaders who start out viewing implementation as complicated could easily feel overwhelmed. By contrast, complex systems are considered as wholes. When seeking to understand them, attention is given to the dynamic interactions and relationships between the parts and participants (Sumara & Davis, 1996). Given appropriately supportive conditions, thought and purpose emerge as a complex system adapts and self-organises. The principle of self-organisation allows that the implementation process cannot be time bound and that there is no one right way to proceed. From a complex-systems point of view, simply starting somewhere is sufficient provided that the school continues to engage with the various new dimensions over a period of time. The leaders of the early adopter schools seemed to know this intuitively. Later adopters may need to be supported to have confidence that such a dynamic and seemingly "loose" change process can work very powerfully.

Of course simply getting started does not guarantee that ensuing change will be adaptive in desirable ways. Davis (2004) says that the likelihood of effective learning emerging within any learning system can be maximised when there is sufficient diversity of ideas for joint exploration, but the exploration is also grounded in sufficient redundancy-that is, there exists sufficient common ground within which to meaningfully interact with the diversity of ideas presented. We found a high level of support for the intent and directions of the NZC across the case study schools. The curriculum broadly aligns with the priorities and goals schools have already been considering. This, potentially, provides the common ground ("redundancy") on which to build a platform of support for the later-starting schools, if these schools are encouraged to explore the links and synergies found by early adopter schools to be of greatest significance. The other side of the coin is that they need access to a diversity of ideas, so that they can select approaches that suit their contexts. Again, these are already available in a range of resources that leaders of early adopter schools have accessed and continue to use. However this very diversity itself presents a challenge where leaders are unsure if they will be sanctioned if they do not get the implementation process "right".

This suggests some more secure boundaries around the available diversity of ideas and approaches are needed. Indeed complex-systems thinking suggests that new learning needs to be framed within a structure of "liberating constraints" which provide enough organisation to orient participants' actions while allowing "sufficient openness for expression of the varieties of experience, ability and interest represented in any social grouping" (Davis, 2004, p.169). How might this rather abstract idea inform the MOE's work? One suggestion is that at least some of the wide range of school implementation experiences documented in places such as the Curriculum Online be turned into exemplars by the addition of succinct informed commentary that reassures later-starting schools and helps them to see how taking the highlighted approach might evolve over time to encompass aspects well beyond the starting point. The various school journeys documented in this project could allow us to write such predictive commentaries relatively quickly for other similar contexts, in consultation with the schools that own each story.

Moving the whole system forward

Another challenge for policy makers and schools is to explore how the known challenges outlined in this report and others yet to emerge, might play out in the longer term as schools continue the process of dynamic innovation and transformation. Which of these factors and which particular implementation practices will prove pivotal in the longer term in sustaining the momentum of change whilst at the same time deepening implementation? This question could be a focus for the recently announced next round of implementation exploratory studies.

Longer term it could also be helpful to consider a series of levels of action within an improvement infrastructure. Such an infrastructure involves two dimensions: the whole-system dimension within which specific actions are embedded; and the school/individual teacher dimension in which personal understanding and practices bring the curriculum to life in classrooms for students. School leaders were acting to drive implementation at a number of nested levels that collectively crossed these two dimensions: in the classroom (with active teacher and student involvement); across the staff and BOT of their school; and in their wider community. They were also clear that government policy and initiatives were influential and that mixed messages have the potential to undermine and weaken commitment and willingness to explore and experiment with the local solutions promoted in the curriculum.

There are multiple points at which curriculum policy and practice intersect and interact with other aspects of education. For example: assessment policy; governance and review policies; professional learning initiatives; support and advice provision; and resourcing, uptake and impact of new technologies. The recently introduced National Standards for Years 1–8 represent a significant new policy initiative that is also very likely to impact on implementation, in ways we cannot yet predict. Although the standards are not directly linked to NZC, it will be important that schools find ways to accommodate the two initiatives in their enacted curriculum, and that the relationship between them is correctly understood and addressed. The policies should ideally reinforce each other rather than competing. The same can be said of high-stakes standards-based NCEA assessment policy in the senior secondary school. Ways in which this accommodation could be achieved are outlined in recent policy advice to the MOE, Directions for Assessment in New Zealand (Absolum, Flockton, Hattie, Hipkins, & Reid, 2009). Appropriate research will be needed to monitor and understand the early impacts of the standards, so that adjustments and/or new support can be provided as necessary.

Where to find out more

Contact Us

Education Data Requests
If you have any questions about education data then please contact us at:
Email:      Requests EDK
Phone:    +64 4 463 8065