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 6: Theme D: The processes of change

This theme focuses on the "how" of the strategic changes being achieved in the case study schools.

School-wide professional learning related to NZC

According to NZC:

Curriculum design and review is a continuous cyclic process. It involves making decisions about how to give effect to the national curriculum in ways that best address the particular needs, interests, and circumstances of the school's students and community. (Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 37)

In all the case study schools, principals were setting in place cyclic professional learning processes along the lines described in this statement. The aim was to assist the whole school to develop a deep understanding of the new curriculum so that they could move forward in a unified direction. As already noted, many schools had already been engaged in ongoing review prior to the arrival of NZC, and had processes in place for staff to work collaboratively to explore new ideas or practices. Unpacking of NZC tended to be incorporated into these existing processes. Other schools developed new forums or processes to explore NZC.

At many schools, staff professional learning was a high priority, and over time school leaders had been changing the way professional learning sessions were organised. They variously:

  • refocused longer staff meetings so that they were centred around professional discussions rather than administration
  • set aside regular time for professional learning after school
  • refocused existing teams such as syndicates, or created new teams.

These spaces were all used for staff discussions about NZC, as were the teacher-only days allocated for this purpose.

At most schools, the leadership team was developing an ongoing in-house programme of professional learning relating to the curriculum. Some of the content was explicitly related to NZC, and some was about pedagogies and practices that were already in development at the school and which staff considered to be aligned with the intent of NZC. When developing exploration processes, the leadership team used their knowledge about managing change in their unique setting, and understandings they gained from other school leaders at local cluster sessions. Personal professional learning and resources such as the Teacher Professional Learning and Development: Best Evidence Synthesis (Timperley, Wilson, Barrar, & Fung, 2007) were also used.

Some school leaders designed their own activities to develop content understandings. They also used ideas from MOE sessions about NZC and the implementation pack, and resources such as background papers on the key competencies (see, for example, Hipkins, 2006) or information about 21st century learning. During the regular sessions, principals and the leadership team facilitated activities that would give teachers time to debate and consider the implications of the new curriculum and develop a shared sense of its intent, and a shared vision for a way forward for their school. They also used these in-house processes to explore the newer aspects of the curriculum in more depth, such as the key competencies and values. The ultimate aim was for teachers to "own" the new directions being pursued and have a clear understanding of how the school could work together to achieve this.

Although much of this work was done in-house, many schools also drew on input from expert advisers. At a number of schools, key presenters or advisers were invited to share their ideas with staff, and sometimes the parent community, about why there was a need for change.

In general, the initial work of exploring NZC was done as a whole staff, especially at primary, intermediate and area schools. The processes used were not one-off but were iterative and therefore enabled staff to revisit areas and build understandings over time. One common approach was for staff to develop ideas together which were then summarised by the leadership team, after which staff added feedback.

Most of the primary schools in this study spent some time exploring how the curriculum fitted with the thinking underpinning their existing school vision and charter. Some updated these documents, others developed a new vision to reflect NZC. Although much of this work was done by staff, most schools also consulted with the BOT, and sought parent and student input. A number of schools in the primary sector incorporated the language from NZC into school vision statements, which often took the form of visual metaphors about learning. This was one way of "branding" the school and sending a clear message to the community about the important values, ideas and practices at the school. Many teachers and students referred to these images when describing key practices at their school.

Once school leaders gained a sense that a shared understanding of the school's response to NZC was emerging, they started to hand over responsibility to staff so that they could explore what the school vision might look like at syndicate, department or classroom level. School leaders gave teachers license to experiment in the classroom and teachers saw this as a validation of their professional judgement. Some schools developed teams which were tasked with developing different aspects of school practice, and these teams reported back to other staff and gained feedback. Other schools encouraged their lead teachers to trial new practices and ideas which were also shared with the whole staff.

In combination, the overall effect of these changes was to strengthen the professional learning culture at the schools and cement the idea of an "improvement infrastructure" at the whole-school level. This infrastructure then enabled staff to work together for ongoing developments. A number of school leaders reported that these processes were now well embedded in their school culture. They considered there would be no "end point" to their process of implementing the curriculum; rather, they were engaged in a process of continual improvement of school practices and deepening of their understanding of NZC.

Processes for inquiring into classroom practice

As well as developing a vision for student learning at the whole-school level, many schools focused on continuous improvement around NZC at the classroom level. NZC offers a cyclical model of teaching as inquiry, stating that:

Effective pedagogy requires that teachers inquire into the impact of their teaching on their students. (Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 35)

Over the two years of the fieldwork, the use of models of "teacher as inquirer" was starting to become more common in schools. At some schools these processes were more deprivatised than suggested in NZC, with teachers gaining feedback from the leadership team, their peers or professional development advisers. Teachers visited each other's classrooms to observe and share what was happening there. This proved to be a valuable aspect in fostering a professional learning community. At these schools, teachers were using a range of "reflective practitioner" models to trial ideas related to NZC. Many of the approaches schools were using had their origins in recent professional development contracts:

  • literacy professional development which required teachers to design and improve a programme for a target student group
  • the ICT professional development professional learning communities which required teachers to report back to their peers
  • school-developed action research processes used modelling, observation and feedback
  • some schools were also starting to use the Ariki "quality learning circles" model with teachers.

Challenges, tensions and solutions

Managing the diversity of teacher views

Although most schools were working to develop a shared understanding about the intent of NZC and how their school would respond, there are some inherent tensions in trying to reach consensus. Questions being asked included: "What does a shared understanding really look like in practice?" "Is this understanding really agreed on by all staff?" "How do we cater for diversity in views?" Many school leaders noted that teachers were at different places in terms of their understanding, or use, of new school approaches, but they said this was to be expected.

As they attempted to manage a change process at their school, a few principals had difficulty taking staff with them, and at a couple of schools the leadership team had a different view from other staff as to the extent of shared understanding about NZC. In general, most principals had experienced some tensions in trying to manage change at their school and described times when they had to go back to the drawing board and use their networks to assist them to rethink approaches.

Confusion around "teaching as inquiry"

Understanding teaching as an inquiry process was one area of NZC that appeared to be causing confusion. Some staff interpreted this to be referring to the inquiry learning approaches they were already using with students. As the term "teacher as inquirer" started to be more commonly used, this misunderstanding was addressed. At other schools, this confusion was still evident. This suggests that the sector could benefit from clearer messages about this aspect of NZC.

Deep change takes time

School leaders considered there was a need to be realistic about the time necessary for change. Some noted there needed to be an ongoing commitment by the MOE to funding teacher-only days. School leaders found these days to be a valuable resource and most also set aside extra time for ongoing exploration of NZC. They considered implementing the curriculum would be a long process that required ongoing support, resources and access to advisers. A few staff commented that their, or other, schools had focused mostly on the "big picture" underpinning the curriculum, and they were now unclear about how to translate this into real change in the classroom. In exploring what NZC meant for the learning areas, many were looking for more concrete support such as models and exemplars that showed how to weave together the "front" and "back" sections of the NZC.

What do these processes look like when they are working well?

Most schools used teacher-only days and set up extra in-house staff professional learning sessions to support staff to engage with the ideas in NZC. These sessions were ongoing to enable staff to build a shared view over time. The learning processes used were iterative and adaptive and allowed for ongoing refinement and improvement. The processes were also inclusive. In many cases, teachers, the BOT and students were involved. In some cases, all adult members of the school team, including caretakers and administration staff, were involved. This programme of professional learning sessions was common in the primary and the area schools we visited. These iterative processes were less firmly embedded in the intermediate and secondary sectors. For secondary school leaders, putting in place structures that allowed staff to work across departments was a relatively new undertaking, but one that showed considerable potential.

Effective professional learning processes supported teachers to work collaboratively, using approaches such as brainstorming and small-group work that assisted them to develop a shared understanding of the intent of NZC. The processes built trust, but also allowed for diversity as leaders recognised that not everyone would be at the same point of readiness. At their best, the processes created the conditions for transformative learning; that is, teachers were able to challenge and debate assumptions and come to new understandings. Processes that worked well deliberately drew on a diversity of views. Discussion groups crossed traditional boundaries with leaders encouraging groupings of staff who might not normally work together; for example, teachers from different departments in secondary schools. Similarly, school leaders drew on the understandings gained from sharing between schools and sourced further resources, expert advisers or professional development when necessary.

School leaders gave staff time to understand the big picture before they were asked to apply to their own syndicate, department or classroom. This allowed for both a collective view as well as teacher autonomy. They gave teachers license to experiment, and time to reflect and share their practice with others. The content of professional learning sessions assisted teachers to see the need for change (for example, by providing access to external providers or ideas about 21st century learning). Activities built on prior learning and explored how the curriculum linked with existing school practices such as a focus on inquiry learning or self-managing behaviours. Sessions focused on the school's big picture. Teachers were encouraged to consider what was important about learning at their school and what NZC meant for their school community (for example, by debating questions such as: What skills and knowledge do we want a school leaver to have? Does this fit with who we are at this school?) Activities encouraged staff to review existing school documents such as the school charter, vision or planning overviews to ascertain their alignment with NZC. Activities also focused on unpacking the newer areas of the curriculum such as the key competencies and values, and those focused on pedagogies were aligned with self-managing behaviours, formative assessment and inquiry or integrated curriculum approaches.

Effective processes for inquiring into classroom practice were based on knowledge about good practice or evidence gathered by teachers. These processes enabled teachers to use their professional judgement to experiment within a trusting environment, which supported ongoing refinement and improvement of practice. The teachers were able to make changes to pedagogy or curriculum planning, get feedback on these changes and observe each other. In this way, conditions for transformative learning were potentially created—that is, teachers were able to challenge themselves and debate assumptions, and work through any dissonance they experienced. The nature of actual changes to pedagogy is outlined in the next theme.

Where to find out more

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