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 3: Theme A: Start somewhere

The curriculum did not arrive in a vacuum

The "early adopter" schools of the first round did not begin a process of curriculum change because a new national curriculum was developed. These schools had a record of ongoing curriculum development, albeit using exploration processes that varied from school to school. Consequently, the arrival of the 2006 draft curriculum simply prompted the leaders of these schools to investigate the new document and appraise its implications for their existing school programme. Some schools had experienced several years of pre-2006 curriculum reform because of the appointment of a new principal who saw the need to review the current school programme, with associated professional development and learning for teachers. Consequently, theNZCbecame part of an ongoing process of whole-school adjustment—a major change requiring a lot of work but not a whole new direction.

A few of the first round schools and most of the schools added to the study in the second year could not be described as "early adopters" in the same sense as those whose leaders were already critically exploring key aspects of school practice even before the draft NZC appeared. Reasons for this vary. Some of these schools had experienced more recent leadership changes. Indeed it was often the case that a new principal had been appointed with the explicit expectation that they would get curriculum change underway, and these leaders typically faced the exercise of building a professional learning culture amongst the staff either before or as part of the implementation processes. In one case the whole structure of the school was new, a consequence of the amalgamation of the town's former schools into one area school. Here a school culture had to be built "from scratch" but the principal, already an experienced school leader, intentionally addressed this challenge in ways that he knew would subsequently prove to be compatible with directions signalled in NZC. He made the strategic decision not to formally introduce NZC until some key foundational changes had been put in place. While he was personally aware of the alignments, he chose reasons for changing schooling in the 21st century as potentially the most effective entry point for engaging a hard-pressed staff who were dealing with many simultaneous changes. Comments made by the staff suggest this was indeed a highly effective entry point that helped "make a lot of sense" of the curriculum directions.

Schools have many starting points, and many pathways

Across the sample schools generally, there was a view by leaders that the implementation of the new curriculum should be carried out as an urgent, but gradual, process that avoided doing too much at once, thus risking getting ahead of teachers' need to understand the curriculum document and its import for their own teaching. To this end, it was common for schools to link changes to major previous developments such as inquiry learning and teaching, formative assessment and planning with other schools.

In spite of the differing starting points and processes, certain similarities were also noted. Almost all the schools began their changes with a focus on the "front half" of the 2006 draft and/or the 2007 NZC. A common approach was to review the vision for the school and provide concentrated professional learning sessions such as teacher-only days with a focus on promoting teachers' understanding of the front half of NZC. The processes used varied, and this focus could be on the revised aims and principles, the values or the key competencies. Against this strong trend, one school principal considered it would be more productive for teachers to begin by discussing the implications of the revised essence and learning area statements. This focus provided a pathway to curriculum implementation for this school.

At the time they were visited, one or two of the case study schools had not overtly begun "implementation" at all, yet this did not mean that the overall direction in which they were headed was incompatible with the goals and expectations of NZC. Recognising congruencies in these cases could be an important step in fostering readiness for implementation. For example, in one very diverse low-decile primary school the existing ethos of the school seemed to already "live" the intent of NZC. Drawing the attention of the new and inexperienced leadership team to these congruencies was an empowering outcome of their involvement in the research. In another intermediate school, where social challenges threatened to overwhelm the staff at times, the recognition that the existing literacy professional learning programme was aligned with the intent of NZC was an important step in enabling staff to begin to address implementation.

One of the case study schools was new—due to open the year following the interviews. In preparation for their first students, the principal, teachers and BOT had developed a school vision which had proved compatible with many of the principles contained within the NZC. Having articulated their vision, the BOT entered into a consultation process with the foundation staff and community to establish "what the community really held dear". The new curriculum has provided the impetus for a radical new approach to the design of learning programmes and the school's timetable. The foundational weekly timetable includes two 100-minute periods in each of five specialist subjects, two tutorials (one of 100 minutes and one of 50 minutes' duration), an entire day during which students work on impact projects, and a 50-minute slot for community development.

What does this look like when it is working well?

Implementation starts by taking account of the existing school context

Effective leaders read their school's readiness and capacity for change. They are aware of factors that are likely to influence the process, and take these into account when determining the implementation starting point. Getting started may include developing other capacities and addressing other issues prior to and/or alongside focusing on the NZC.

Implementation makes links to the known

Teachers found linking the ideas in the curriculum to some form of existing practice or other recent professional learning helpful. The nature of this starting link varied between schools. Common examples were inquiry learning (typically linked to ICT professional development) and formative assessment (typically linked to AtoL, literacy learning or numeracy professional development).

Start slowly

Schools recommended small steps that were bedded in and then built on. It is important that teachers do not feel overwhelmed by multiple concurrent changes.

Start by exploring new aspects

Most schools began by exploring what they saw as the main changes in focus such as the key competencies, values and vision statement. This was engaging for most staff and helped them focus on the bigger curriculum picture.


  1. Assess to Learn

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