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 7: Theme E: Changing pedagogy

A clear theme of the second round of fieldwork was that the pedagogical advice provided as a new feature of NZC lies at the heart of the changes that need to be made. After the enthusiasm of their early explorations of the front end of the document, staff in early adopter schools increasingly turned to explorations of changes in pedagogy as a key means by which they could achieve the vision for their students they had so thoughtfully laid out. One primary school principal described this as living "the curriculum in practice rather than the curriculum on paper".

Given the centrality of pedagogical change to the ongoing implementation of NZC, this section includes an expanded discussion of examples of ways teachers can be supported to review and revise their practice, and illustrates the types of changes they are seeking to make.

Principals' thinking about NZC involves thinking about pedagogy

Experienced principals in this study had the confidence to focus sharply on pedagogy as an important part of the implementation process. As with other aspects of implementation, effective school leaders were very strategic about the means they used to encourage pedagogical change. Different leaders adopted very different approaches, according to the perceived needs of their staff and the specificities of their school context.

Example One:
One principal anticipated that traditional teaching views could generate resistance to the changes he sought, so he relied on the power of positive examples and results. In this school, volunteer teachers led the way. Teachers are highly likely to say they get their best ideas from their peers and effective principals exploit that confidence while building shared practice.

Example Two:
A teacher audit was carried out early in the implementation process in one struggling school. Teachers were given very direct feedback about areas of their professional practice that needed to change. While many found this hard to deal with at first, the level of support provided to them to learn and change meant that those who stayed came to embrace the challenges and now enjoy being learners themselves.

Example Three:
An experienced principal, whom we followed to a second school during the course of this study, also began implementation in her new school by focusing on pedagogy but her reasons were very different. In this high-decile "successful" school, she saw pedagogy as a potentially engaging entry point to implementation for a staff who might not otherwise be motivated to make changes to their existing, seemingly already effective, practice. She designed a democratic process to share and streamline the many different pedagogical strategies in use, eventually arriving at a manageable core of highly valued strategies, for which all staff developed a common language they could share with students.

Example Four:
An experienced principal in a small primary school chose to focus on pedagogy after the school had collaboratively reviewed the school vision and begun unpacking the meaning of the key competencies for them and their students. The principal considered that what happened in the classroom between teachers and students lay at the heart of the implementation process. Her sequential focus allowed her to build on from previous processes to develop staff confidence and staff and community understanding of the intent of the curriculum. It was her experience that parents and the community needed to understand and support changes in pedagogy, assessment and reporting for any change to have optimal impact.

Teaching and teacher practice are pivotal in implementation

Several schools in the study have put considerable energy into developing shared ways of thinking and talking about the act of learning per se.

Example One:
In one school, the focus on pedagogy has led to the development of a shared idea of "learning minutes". This idea, mentioned by all the teachers we interviewed, is used to urge students to concentrate on their learning in the moment, making the most of the opportunities with which they are being presented.

Example Two:
In another school, the catch-phrase is "leading me to lead my learning" and the focus is on intentionality and striving to set and meet personal learning goals.

Example Three:
One high-decile primary school has developed the idea of a "toolbox" of learning strategies. It is based on a synthesis of ideas from their ongoing explorations of inquiry learning, formative assessment and key competencies. The toolbox provides a shared language of learning across the school and students are encouraged to use this in the playground and outside of school as well as in class.

A stronger emphasis on integrated and/or inquiry learning

In Round Two many of the primary teachers provided extended descriptions of the inquiry learning units they had designed and implemented. Usually the inquiry topics were a school-wide focus. They often incorporated an explicit focus on one or more key competency.

Example One:
For a recent inquiry, primary students were able to choose from a selection of topics, each supported by a different teacher. Students observed that each teacher had a different approach, and they liked being able to choose a topic based on their interests as well as the teaching style they preferred. Students considered being able to manage their time gave them more chance to "go deeper", rather than just doing "on the top learning". They also commented that working with different peers assisted them to "gain self-confidence".

Example Two:
In 2008, one primary school trialled the use of a year-long school-wide theme, "Sustainability", and developed three related inquiry units. Staff thought the year-long theme resulted in deeper learning for students, but did not find planning around the same theme very motivating. Junior teachers also found inquiry approaches needed to be adapted with younger students. For these reasons, in 2009 the school is shifting to a semester system with two inquiries based on a school-wide theme of "Diversity". Teachers considered this model would give them more flexibility to follow their passions as well as vary the length of the inquiry depending on students' needs and interests.

Example Three:
A secondary school has experimented with an integrated approach to the curriculum over the past two years. This began with an experimental whole-school integrated curriculum unit at the end of the 2007 school year. The school evaluated this experience and ran a modified repeat of the experience in 2008. In 2007, all classes worked on the same integrated unit. In 2008, classes negotiated a topic from five options offered by staff. The curriculum co-ordinator reported that "teachers were a lot more receptive this time around and had a lot more to contribute". All three of the learning area groups with whom we interacted provided examples of ways in which experimentation with integration is now taking hold more widely across the curriculum.

Teaching as inquiry

As already noted, the idea of teaching as inquiry has been most strongly adopted in those schools where it is clearly aligned with the idea of action research and staff are expected to, and supported to, inquire into their own practice. This can happen in quite different ways as the following contrasting examples show:

Example One:
One new senior secondary school has timetabled a regular slot for teachers to think together and share their ongoing professional inquiries every week. They are free to move around the various discussion groups and are encouraged to work as cross-curricular learning groups.

Example Two:
In a quite different model, one primary school has adapted the idea of action research to develop a process of whole-school inquiry. Staff contribute to the current research question during collaborative conversations that take place in scheduled meeting times.

One primary principal commented that action research has in-built expectations of ownership and accountability. Unlike professional development workshops where teachers listen to good ideas, which they may or may not follow up, teaching as inquiry is more likely to lead to actual changes in practice.

Aligning NZC and initiatives that include an inquiry component

As already noted, in many schools unpacking the NZC has led to/happened in parallel with a professional learning focus on teaching and learning through professional development contracts such as ICT professional development, literacy, numeracy and AtoL. A number of the case study schools are now drawing active links between greater use of formative assessment and the perceivedNZC message that learning should become more "student-centred". In schools where a deeper understanding of the key competencies has been fostered by ongoing exploration of their potential, a strong link has also been made between formative assessment and the key competency managing self. Prior experience with an inquiry focus, fostered through membership of an ICT professional development contract, has leveraged teacher exploration of this aspect, as illustrated in the following example:

Example One:
In one "early adopter" primary school, staff took managing self as a school-wide focus for a whole year. As part of their explorations they created templates to show how students' abilities in goal setting, planning, taking action, reflecting and effective questioning might be expected to develop over time. This allowed them to develop a shared language for talking about these learning skills with students, and also a common understanding of what making progress in developing them might be expected to look like. They used these templates for formative assessment and reported achievement to parents using the descriptors rather than the levels.

The use of student achievement data

Some schools are making use of student data to focus and inform discussion about teaching approaches. In all the case study schools there seemed to be a move towards a greater focus on formative assessment.div class="index-content">

Example One:
In one primary school with a focus on formative assessment (sharing learning intentions, feedback and feedforward) staff used National Education Monitoring Project (NEMP) tasks in writing and oral language to carry out a school-wide moderation of their teaching and learning practices.

Example Two:
In one primary school the analysis of student data had identified spelling and the strategy stages in numeracy as a cause for concern. Staff had worked to refine and develop the school classroom programmes in these two areas through a process similar to that of action research. Teachers had talked in groups about what they wanted to achieve and how they might do this as part of a broader focus on effective pedagogy. Teachers had collected and analysed student data. The principal had videoed individual teacher classroom practice and each teacher had reflected on the video of their practice. Teaching and learning programmes had been revised on the basis of this work.

Challenges, tensions and solutions

Changing pedagogical practices to enact the curriculum requires support and time

After the initial stages of implementation, schools must turn their focus to translating their vision into practice. This may not be as immediately rewarding as the preceding exploration of big ideas and the general nature of change. Nevertheless teachers were deepening their understandings and practices through a process of trialling, analysis and refinement. A common thread in the school stories is coming to the realisation that implementation is unlikely to be unproblematic and linear—it takes time and requires ongoing change.

The many interpretations of "inquiry"

As already noted, in both fieldwork rounds there was some ambiguity in teacher talk around the differences between inquiry learning and teaching as an inquiry process.

What is the meaning of high expectations?

High expectations is a curriculum principle in the NZC. It was cited as part of general vision development by one leadership team but notwithstanding a commitment at this level, the curriculum leader of a low-decile primary school reflected on the challenge leaders face when some staff are not yet convinced that they personally can make a difference for their students, and where they remain unconvinced that the initiatives associated with the curriculum implementation are worth the hard work involved for them personally. Such teachers appear to be in the minority but this was by no means the only school where their presence was identified as an issue.

What does this look like when it is working well?

A common strategy for developing understandings of desired shifts in pedagogy is to get teachers to think about themselves as learners so that they can reflect on their practice and ways it might need to change. For example, a curriculum leader might teach something in a way that models good practice with the staff acting as the "class", after which they collectively unpack their experience as learners, and draw implications for their challenges when in the more usual teacher role. This strategy is seen as an effective way of having staff think about the impact of key competencies on teaching and learning for example.

In the first report for this project we commented that secondary teachers valued the opportunities the implementation of NZC presented for learning conversations in cross-curricular groupings (Hipkins et al., 2009). In cross-curricular groups the conversation tended to focus more on learning and pedagogy rather than the subject. Secondary school teachers reaffirmed the value of these conversations in Round Two.

Sustained exploration of any one aspect of pedagogy can lead to quite profound shifts in understanding. For example, in some primary schools where inquiry learning was adopted early in the implementation journey (Hipkins et al., 2009) there has been a move away from the prescriptive models that were first introduced. Typically a refined understanding of the intent and scope of the learning teachers are attempting to foster has led to simpler inquiry models, underpinned by a collective sense of the range of ways any one stage might be evidenced in practice. That is, teachers' shared and personal pedagogical content knowledge has grown over time and as a consequence of the sustained professional learning conversations about this aspect of practice.

Similar comments can be made about the adoption of a focus on key competencies, particularly in relation to the vexed question of whether they should be assessed. Early stage explorations have frequently resulted in the creation of generic rubrics to be used for assessment purposes and for developing a shared language to be used when fostering key competency development in the classroom. In itself this collaborative process constitutes a valuable learning opportunity for staff but if they sustain the inquiry focus as the rubrics are enacted, their limitations soon become apparent. Deepening understanding of the key competencies eventually leads to rubrics being discarded. For example, in one primary school where key competencies, inquiry learning and formative assessment have all been aligned in ongoing explorations, staff came to realise the important role played by the context in demonstrations of competency. The generic rubrics they first developed were then seen to be meaningless and were discarded. This poses an interesting question about whether the learning process can be "short-cut" for later adopter schools. Does every professional learning group need to go through the process of making their own mistakes, or is it possible to lead a staff team more quickly around the known pitfalls that lie in wait? This is a question that those with expertise in supporting teachers' professional learning might want to take up and debate.

Some schools have adjusted their appraisal process to focus on the expectation of ongoing teacher exploration of their own classroom practice. This strengthens and informs teacher focus on pedagogy, especially where appraisers have the necessary knowledge and skills to support teachers to identify personal next learning steps.

Deliberate alignment between curriculum implementation practices and other wider school initiatives is another feature of ongoing implementation. For example, several primary schools in the same learning cluster have recently adopted restorative justice practices to deal with incidents both in class and in the playground. Teachers in this school have created links between these practices and the key competencies relating to others and managing self.

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