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

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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 2: Research Design

The New Zealand Curriculum (NZC) "sets the direction for learning for all students while at school" (Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 7). Rather than being prescriptive, each school is charged with interpreting and fleshing out its framework to best meet the identified learning needs of their student population, in consultation with their wider school community. The CIES project was designed with the intent of developing rich individual snapshots of the ways in which the participating schools went about giving effect to NZC, including descriptions of the specific contextual factors that supported and constrained their interpretation of the curriculum and the implementation strategies they used.

This report synthesises the findings from the individual case studies and identifies factors that support curriculum implementation in these early-adopter schools, with a view to supporting other schools in their journey.

The school sample

Schools invited to take part in the first year of the study were identified in consultation with the MOE. Three Principals' Professional Learning Group (PPLG) clusters were targeted because they had been convened specifically to explore the implementation of NZC. Two primary school clusters were chosen, each well established but in different geographic areas and community contexts: one North Island cluster of four schools; one South Island cluster also of four schools. A newly established cluster of intermediate school principals was also nominated and three of the four schools accepted the invitation to take part. The first-year sample was completed by inviting four different secondary schools in one geographic region to take part. Recruited following advice from local advisers and professional networks, all were reputed to be "early adopters" of NZC, but were going about implementation in quite different ways.

While such a small sample could never be considered representative of the diversity of New Zealand's schools, preliminary first-year findings pointed towards the desirability of expanding the sample in the second year to include some different school types. Accordingly, two area schools and three low-decile primary schools situated in larger urban areas joined the study in the second year.

Deep change takes time and it was quickly evident that schools would need more than one year to fully explore NZC and adopt the changes they determined to be appropriate. Before the project began, the intent had been to work with different schools in the second round, but the MOE agreed with the researchers' suggestion that the first-year schools continue in the study in the second year. All agreed to do so.

The fieldwork in the schools

The study comprised two rounds of data collection.

Round One
Round One was conducted in March-April 2008. The aim was to build a rich contextual picture of activity in the school relevant to the implementation of NZC (in the early adopter schools NZC fitted into an ongoing flow of school-based curriculum explorations rather than being the initial stimulus for change).

The research process was designed with the intent that individual school studies would incorporate multiple perspectives and provide evidence of the enacted changes. Each first-round visit included:

Document collection :  School documentation collected included: vision statements and other relevant whole-school documents; examples of shared planning formats; and professional learning materials generated for or during teacher-only learning sessions.

Interviews :  The principal and a sample of other curriculum leaders and teachers, all considered by the principal to be actively involved in curriculum implementation, were interviewed. Interviews were typically of 30 to 45 minutes' duration. Where possible the views of a member of the board of trustees (BOT) were also included. In one instance a researcher spoke to the Education Review Office (ERO) review team who were in the school at the same time. (In the second round some student focus group interviews were also carried out.)

School walk-through :  While there were few opportunities to observe in classrooms in the first round, researchers typically toured the school with the principal, particularly the primary schools where student work displayed on the walls can be viewed and discussed. Some photographs were taken. Classroom observations were carried out where possible in the second round.

The five schools added to the sample were visited late in 2008. The fieldwork in these schools followed the same format as that conducted in March–April in the initial schools.

Round Two
Round two for the initial schools was conducted in two phases. The University of Waikato team conducted their school visits in December 2008; New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER) conducted their visits early in 2009. Where practical, the same people were interviewed in Round Two, by the same research team. In some schools teachers who had been active in school implementation processes joined the study, as did one newly appointed principal. The principal who had moved on from this school also agreed to continue in the expanded study, to give a snapshot of what it might be like to begin again and lead a second school through the NZC change process.

The research approach

A common format for generating descriptions of curriculum thinking and planning at the individual school level was developed by a process of negotiation of the detail of all fieldwork instruments between the six members of the core research team. This was done to maintain consistency in fieldwork (conducted by different researchers at different school sites) and to allow for cross-case comparisons.

Interviews were semistructured and covered the following themes:

Individual and collective understanding of the revised curriculum vision, values and so on. Perceptions of the extent of the alignment between the revised curriculum and school own goals and values, practices (distinctive character).
Implementation processes and practices
The processes and practices (organisational systems and structures, artefacts, forms of leadership exercised and by whom, people involved—internal and external) the school has used to promote the development of a common/shared understanding of, vision for and practices of curriculum implementation. The evaluation component of the study focused on the usefulness and impact of these processes.
Evidence and reports of changes in school organisation (for example, timetable, school-wide assessment practices); teachers' ways of working together; school and individual teacher documentation for teaching and learning including schemes, lesson plans; curriculum and professional development resourcing; and student assessment and reporting processes.

Indicative interview schedules are included as appendices.

The team who visited each school (typically a pair of researchers) wrote up their case studies based around a broadly agreed structure and headings. (For each round the teams at Waikato and NZCER met on at least two occasions to discuss and share key findings from the individual cases, and to develop a set of themes common to the case studies under discussion.) Draft case studies were returned to schools at the completion of each round. Once approved by the school, they were collated for presentation to the MOE.

The cross-case analysis

The core team of three researchers from NZCER and three researchers from Waikato read the full dossier of individual case studies. While the themes that emerged from Round One informed the inquiry for Round Two, the researchers met to collectively renegotiate emergent themes across the full set of cases from both rounds. Their analysis was informed by team discussions and their reading of the literature on curriculum reform, curriculum implementation and 21st century/ transformative learning and schooling. Possible themes were identified and discussed, with the evidence supporting each theme being considered by the team.

The intent of this analysis was to distil common themes in schools' implementation journeys to date, and to identify context-specific affordances and constraints to giving effect to NZC. At the same time the team identified telling examples of curriculum interpretation and support that could be useful for other schools. Key findings were conveyed to MOE as soon as possible, so that they could inform ongoing policy and support decisions. Meetings of the NZC Advisory Group afforded an opportunity to triangulate emergent findings with the professional experiences of other group members and with the early insights from the more quantitative Monitoring Effective Curriculum Implementation (MECI) project that has been commissioned by the Ministry of Education.

Key findings

The following seven sections detail themes identified from a cross-case analysis of the 20 school case studies conducted in Round Two. They also draw on ideas and evidence from the Round One cases. At the final meeting, the research team agreed on a summary of the key points for each theme (the 'what does it look like when it is working well' portion at the end of each section).


  1. For a variety of reasons, this PPLG cluster, which began much later than the primary school clusters, never really "gelled". The intermediate schools could not be considered "early adopters" in the same way the initial eight primary schools were.

Where to find out more

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