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 4: Theme B: Understanding the curriculum and how to implement it

How schools understand the intent of NZC

The widespread support for the curriculum reported in Round One was sustained into Round Two and endorsed by the additional schools in the study.

In 2008 we reported that teachers in our early adopter schools generally believed that NZC gives prominence to the challenge of preparing learners for the 21st century and for becoming confident, connected lifelong learners, with values and a range of transferable skills that could be important for a knowledge economy (Hipkins, Cowie, Boyd, & McGee, 2009). School leaders from the additional case study schools shared this awareness that today's students face a future we cannot necessarily predict. They are aware that students need to achieve both more traditional knowledge outcomes and other types of outcomes related to being an ongoing learner and knowing how to use knowledge, not just "get" it. This is seen as a clear difference between earlier national curriculum documents and NZC, and is typically characterised as in the following comments:

Preparing kids to successfully enter a world that we do not know. (Curriculum leader, low-decile primary school)

By the end of Year 13 [we will develop] students who are resilient, resourceful, creative, responsible, contributing to society … who have an understanding of different cultures … (Primary teacher, area school)

Perceived freedom for school-based curriculum design

As in the first round of the research, teachers in the schools added to the study in the second year embraced the freedom, flexibility and permission they believed they had been given to design a curriculum to best meet the needs of their own student community and to put each student at the heart of their own learning:

The old curriculum was prescriptive, had activities, supplied ideas and you knew what it looked like. However it focused on content. The new curriculum focuses on the child. (Teacher, low-decile primary school)

A shift in focus from what to include how and why

In several schools, new thinking about the intent of the curriculum was characterised as moving the content focus from what to include the how and why of learning. In one area school this change was described as a "paradigm shift" in teachers' understanding and there was a related shift from teaching contexts to teaching for the development of big ideas and important concepts.

During the Round Two visit, several primary schools in one cluster described how they have begun to focus on the essence statements as they plan, rather than the detail of the achievement objectives. They plan in ways that align these "big ideas" with their vision so that, in the words of one principal, they "pull out the important bits for us".

A student-centred focus

A second, related, paradigm shift has led many schools and teachers to embrace greater student ownership of their learning. However, what this actually means can be interpreted in different ways:

  • As noted in the earlier report, many schools are making greater use of inquiry learning and independent research. This is further discussed in the pedagogy section that follows.
  • Some schools have adopted a more explicit focus on the teacher sharing learning intentions and encouraging personal goal setting, which is consistent with an assessment-for-learning focus. This appears to be particularly powerful where it is aligned with other professional learning; for example, via programmes to strengthen literacy or numeracy teaching. 
  • Some schools have encouraged greater student ownership by including students in consultation processes, and this is also further discussed shortly.

Challenges, tensions and solutions

Implementation is not a finite process

In the first round of the research there was a sense that schools were working to develop their understanding of the intent of NZC in the expectation that this process would reach some sort of conclusion, if not quickly. In the second round, school leaders said that as they moved to explore, for example, what constitutes effective pedagogy, they needed to go back and review their vision and goals because their understanding of the potential scope of these had evolved. Such insights had led to an acceptance that understanding and implementing the curriculum might involve an iterative adaptive process, in which deeper understanding of one aspect raised the need to probe more deeply into other aspects. The process was seen to be ongoing, and would definitely need to continue beyond the nominated year 2010.

Gaining and maintaining a shared understanding can be challenging

The perceived flexibility to best meet the needs of a school's own student community does come at a price. Given the drive for a shared understanding of the school's vision and ways of enacting it, staff turnover emerged as an issue for some schools. For example, one of the low-decile primary schools (new to the study in the second year) needed to work hard to build a stable staff community before they could even begin to think about curriculum implementation. With a new leader, and after a number of years of turmoil and instability, this conducive climate for change took several years of hard work to achieve. In the newly merged area school, staff turnover was such that only about five of the original teachers remained in the school several years later. In this case the newly appointed principal worked towards substantive changes in teacher practice, aligned to the intent of NZC, and his strongly communicated expectations and actions contributed to staff turnover in the early stages of implementation. Staff changes were also an issue in small primary schools, where the loss of even one or two staff could be significant in this regard.

Meshing the front and back ends is work in progress

During the second round of fieldwork, schools were still in the initial stages of exploring the linkages between the front and back end of the curriculum. Their explorations were building on from their perception of a shift in focus from what to include both why and how, as discussed above. Associated with this new focus, some teaches raised the challenge of how they might rationalise "content", given the need to make space for new types of curriculum goals such as the focus on learning to learn, or on development of the key competencies. The renewed emphasis on achieving national standards in literacy and numeracy (which happened after the fieldwork was completed) is likely to exacerbate the tensions that school leaders face when considering how to design a school curriculum that judiciously selects amongst the many achievement objectives across all eight learning areas. The nature and focus of the revised National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) achievement standards is also likely to be influential in shaping how secondary schools respond to this issue.

In 2008 we noted a concern that beginning teachers may not have enough existing curriculum knowledge to link NZC to the more detailed content of the curriculum documents that preceded it (Hipkins et. al, 2009). This concern was similarly expressed by some teachers in the second-round schools. They also requested greater guidance about the relative importance of different areas of content, preferably in the form of curriculum support documents.

Balancing responding to student interests with covering the curriculum

Curriculum design that is responsive to students' perceived needs creates tensions concerning whether or not curriculum coverage will be achieved when teachers respond to students' interests rather than following a fully thought-out plan. Some schools have addressed this concern by experimenting with retrospective planning. For example, in one primary school this process resulted in the realisation that the focus of the just-completed inquiries had mainly been in the social science area. To address this imbalance, they planned to introduce topics related to the technology and science learning areas in the next learning cycle.

Maintenance of coherent learning programmes can be a challenge

Teachers who said they valued increased flexibility to meet student needs nevertheless raised the question of the impact of such responsiveness on the coherence of students' learning experiences over the longer term, and subsequently on expected student understandings and outcomes. The realisation that different students/schools could experience a curriculum that differs considerably in its details is clearly challenging. Given the high mobility of New Zealand's students, there is also concern that differences between schools will be disruptive to making progress.

There was some indication that primary, intermediate and secondary schools were beginning to explore the issue of coherence across transitions from one level to the next. A secondary principal noted that although it had taken some time to establish a working relationship with contributing schools, the collaboration had confirmed the school is on a track that aligns with what is happening in the local primary schools. In one instance, all the schools in the town had come together to discuss student learning pathways from Years 1 to 13.

Provision of a coherent learning programme is one of the eight principles of NZC, although this link was not typically made during the fieldwork conversations. This is an area where ongoing discussion and support are likely to be needed.

What constitutes an acceptable implementation process?

A number of school leaders were concerned whether their understanding of the curriculum, and subsequently their actions to implement it, would be seen to be "right", for example, when ERO visited. Secondary leaders were also concerned about making appropriate interpretations in relation to changes in the NCEA subject frameworks and achievement standards.

These concerns raise the question of what constitutes an acceptable range of responses to, and interpretations of, NZC. Coupled with this, teachers in the Round Two interviews were querying what learning, achievement and making progress can look like across the levels, which in turn informs how they might generate and report evidence of this. Carefully developed and annotated exemplars of an acceptable range and variety of implementation approaches could help dispel these anxieties, but endorsing them as falling within an acceptable range would need to be balanced against the risk that they would then become a sort of de facto curriculum.

What does this look like when it is working well?

The process is working well when all the members of a school community have productive opportunities to explore the intent of NZC. Recognition that NZC is a tool to leverage change can be challenging but can also help schools move forward. For example, one principal noted that the curriculum document was a useful resource for changing "teacher and community mindsets". For him, the prominence given to these themes in a national framework bolstered his own authority to push for a fundamental rethinking of basic assumptions about the purposes of schooling and the nature of valued educational outcomes, and how these might be achieved.

When the process is working well, members of the school community share an appreciation that understanding the curriculum and its implementation is a nonlinear process with no end point. As they continue to explore the intent and implementation of the curriculum, they deepen their understanding and enhance previous implementation decisions and actions as they go. Put another way, schools adopt a constant improvement agenda. Ways leaders provided for this to happen are further discussed in subsequent themes.

Coherence and alignment are enhanced when clusters of schools within the same locality work together to discuss the intent of the curriculum and its implications for practice.

Where to find out more

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