Curriculum implementation exploratory studies 2

Publication Details

This is the final report from the Curriculum Implementation Exploratory Studies (CIES) project. It reports on ways in which innovative schools and teachers have been working to implement The New Zealand Curriculum across all three years of the project.

Author(s): Rosemary Hipkins, Bronwen Cowie, Sally Boyd, Paul Keown, and Clive McGee, University of Waikato. Report prepared for the Ministry of Education.

Date Published: May 2011

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Executive Summary

This is the final report for the research project Curriculum Implementation Exploratory Studies Phase 2 (CIES 2). Over two phases and three years the CIES project has developed an analytical account of the various ways in which innovative schools and individual teachers have been working to implement the revised New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007).

CIES 1 employed case studies as the main methodology (Cowie et al., 2009). CIES 2 continued the case studies with nine schools from CIES 1, and added a case study of a low-decile, rural, full primary school. CIES 2 also involved "mediated conversations" with two groups of school leaders (Auckland, Christchurch) and two groups of teachers (secondary in Auckland, primary in Wellington). For these conversations, participants came prepared to talk to three or four other participants and a researcher for around 15 minutes. They introduced and discussed an artefact generated through or representative of their curriculum implementation practice. Subsequent to these short sessions the MOE research questions were introduced and discussed. During CIES 2 we also reviewed existing research about community involvement to produce a short synthesis (Bull, n.d.). After conducting separate analyses of the case studies and the mediated conversations we merged the overall findings to produce this final synthesis. The report also takes account of key findings from CIES 1 (Cowie et al., 2009) to document the implementation of The New Zealand Curriculum across all three years of the project.

A summary of key findings for each research question

1. Changes made to engage students in learning

Across the many schools represented in CIES 2 there was wide recognition of the need to do more to engage students in learning—all students and not just those who have traditionally been easy to involve. Many schools saw the challenge of increasing engagement levels as a multifaceted endeavour requiring change on a number of fronts including: increasing student attendance at school; lifting achievement so that all students experience success; creating a sense that learning matters (often linked to so-called "student voice" initiatives); and a focus on the qualities of students' learning experiences (typically linked to an exploration of the Effective Pedagogy section of The New Zealand Curriculum).

The range of "student voice" initiatives included: the provision of student leadership opportunities; introduction of new processes for student consultation; the use of inquiry learning or other pedagogies that made space for aspects of students' wider lives to be included in learning; the provision of opportunities and support for student self-regulation and learning to learn; and the adoption of culturally responsive pedagogies.

Participants often commented anecdotally that they had seen lifts in student attendance and motivation, including for Māori students. However, schools are mindful that there can be a lag as children make up for lost time. Some teachers said it was "too soon" to expect lifts in achievement. There is some debate about whether schools need specific goals for their Māori students, differentiated from other school-wide goals. Interestingly, only one school leader described an initiative that could be described as meeting the challenge of allowing Māori students to succeed as Māori. There is a need for ongoing conversations about what rethinking meanings of achievement might entail. Such conversations are likely to raise interesting skill and capacity issues.

2. The benefits and challenges posed by community engagement

As with so many other aspects of curriculum implementation, in some schools The New Zealand Curriculum has acted to provide additional support and impetus for directions in which the school was already moving. The possibilities for community engagement that Bull (n.d.) identified within the data lie along a continuum from approaches and actions that essentially inform, to those that open up more participatory interactions between the school and its community. The New Zealand Curriculum-related activity has particularly focused on the first three of the purposes listed below, but there were examples of all of them across the schools:

  • informing parents about curriculum developments at the school
  • involving parents in a two-way exchange of information intended to better support students' learning
  • consulting parents about the vision, values and overall direction of the school's curriculum, and including their input in the processes used to shape relevant documents and school-wide practices
  • providing the community with the skills, information, authority and resources to work with the staff to make decisions about the curriculum and learning at the school.

Gaining active participation of parents is not easy and schools' well-intentioned efforts are not always rewarded with high participation levels. One challenge not mentioned by schools, but evident from the analysis, is that some schools may be hampered in certain aspects of community engagement by a lack of clarity about the purposes of such activity and what should ultimately be achieved. Clarifying the range of purposes for which the community might become more involved in building and enacting a local curriculum could be a productive next step to capitalise on these positive gains.

3. Iterative exploration of the key competencies

The key competencies are widely seen as an interesting "new" aspect of The New Zealand Curriculum and so have been a common entry point for many schools' exploration of the national curriculum. Once schools and teachers have moved past the need to understand the nature of the key competencies, their focus has typically turned to their use as a means to rethink practice. Generic explorations have typically been coupled with the idea of learning-to-learn, resulting in an emphasis on aspects of pedagogy such as fostering self-management strategies. As yet, it is less common to find discipline-specific changes to teaching and learning made in response to key competencies.

A powerful cycle of iterative learning takes place when schools connect ongoing exploration of the key competencies to earlier professional learning. One consequence of ongoing exploration might be a recognition that the key competencies can be developed throughout all aspects of school life, both inside and outside classroom programmes. Another change might be recognising that assessment and reporting practices need to change (i.e., not just teaching practices). Schools and teachers are also recognising that the focus on lifelong learning competencies applies to teachers as well as students. Despite this considerable progress, exploration of the key competencies is likely to continue to be a fruitful focus for professional learning for all the CIES schools. An area of next exploration is likely to be differences in opportunities for competency development offered by different subjects or different types of learning experiences.

4. The principles at work in the school curriculum

Teacher commentary suggests the principles are often embedded in other aspects of implementation rather than being foregrounded in curriculum decision making. The coherence of the front end of The New Zealand Curriculum ensures that they are being enacted, whether deliberately or via their alignment with other aspects of The New Zealand Curriculum and other professional learning and change initiatives. For example, the principle of high teacher expectations was clearly reflected in the attention being paid to student engagement and high expectations were also often communicated to the whole school community via each school's vision for learners.

Because The New Zealand Curriculum's vision, values, principles, key competencies and effective pedagogy sections are broadly coherent in their core "messages", an exploration of the principles offers a valid entry point to the curriculum, one that is of equal merit and potential value to that of a focus on the more common entry points of vision, key competencies or learning area(s). This diversity of entry points is likely to be of value for later adopter schools that might prefer to begin with a discussion on the way teachers decide what and how to include particular topics, ideas and activities in the curriculum.
 The future focus principle is arguably the one that has received least attention to date. This principle appears to be somewhat problematic in its conception through the potential limitation of listing topics rather than introducing a focus on futures thinking and/or school change. Another challenge for working with the principles is that they can be read in isolation or as an interconnected set. There would seem to be merit in considering them as a system.

5. How are we doing? Teaching as inquiry

The Effective Pedagogy pages of The New Zealand Curriculum have prompted a fresh look at teaching methods in the early adopter schools, both primary and secondary. It was clear to the leaders of these schools that a "transmission of information" model of teaching will no longer suffice. Whereas the New Zealand Curriculum model for teacher inquiry (Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 35) implies an individual inquiry process, most schools were using some version of the New Zealand Curriculum model as a tool to deprivatise practice via collective inquiry. School leaders and teachers in the early adopter schools tended to emphasise the "learning together" with the intent of collectively building practice at different levels of the school system.

A number of different teacher-as-inquirer models were evident across the case study schools, and each school could be using one or more of these approaches in combination:

  • an accountability approach where the focus was on "improving the numbers" in relation to specific aspects of student achievement
  • a structured group reflection approach where the focus was on exploring professional readings
  • an action research/Ariki-style approach with a focus on a particular aspect of practice, question or issue which leaders or teachers were exploring individually but with team input
  • a lesson study approach.

Over the three years of the CIES study there has been considerable work done on teaching as inquiry in the early adopter schools. Although the conflation of teaching as inquiry and inquiry learning is no longer prevalent, there is still a degree of confusion for some teachers.

The evidence from the schools and teachers involved in this study indicates that they are working hard, and successfully, on building a culture of openness, trust and collective responsibility so that data collected and analysed are used positively and constructively to improve the outcomes for all. They have, it would seem, avoided negative criticism and blaming individuals or groups.

6. Rethinking relationships between breadth and depth

Research participants, in both the workshops and the case studies, appreciated the freedom that The New Zealand Curriculum gave them to move away from a traditional "coverage" focus. However, there was some concern about how to balance breadth and depth, largely associated with meeting external accountability demands. Four possible models for addressing relationships between breadth and depth were discerned within the data:

  • traditional "coverage" thinking where the focus is on covering each learning area in a manner that is readily auditable
  • teacher planning that balances breadth and depth by holding them in tension
  • breadth and depth balanced through inquiry processes with a strong emphasis on making connections with students' out-of-school lives and experiences
  • a focus on connected knowing in which students learn in ways that broaden their awareness of the connectedness of ideas and actions in the world.

Leader and teacher comments suggest we need innovative examples to show students could learn in ways that are simultaneously deep and broad. The idea of "connected knowing" could be a useful start point for exploring this challenge. Learning that is deep and broad should support increased success in high-stakes assessments, which would have appeal for teachers. Such learning would also support students' learning for active participation in society, as is envisioned in The New Zealand Curriculum.

7. National Standards and The New Zealand Curriculum: A continuum of possibilities

In the early adopter schools in this study, working to strengthen the achievement of every student via evidence-based practice was widely understood to be central to The New Zealand Curriculum. For this reason these school leaders were not opposed to National Standards per se. However, they did have concerns about the manner of implementation of the standards initiative and some of the proposed detail. They did not want to be diverted from the vision and direction they had developed for their school (which incorporated The New Zealand Curriculum) so they were working to shape the standards initiative to retain their autonomy in working towards what was best for their students.

Concerns were expressed by case study secondary and primary school leaders and teachers about the potential of the standards to narrow the taught curriculum and to undermine the intent of The New Zealand Curriculum to be used to design a local curriculum to address students' differing learning strengths and needs. Other concerns revolved around the integration of evidence from multiple sources. Mindful of the challenges of their own school's New Zealand Curriculum journey, and of needing to work hard not to be diverted from this by the standards initiative, CIES study principals were worried about the diverting impact of National Standards on schools that have yet to reach this point on their New Zealand Curriculum implementation journey.

8. Accessing and using resources to help lift achievement in the secondary schools

When the question of resources was raised, a common first response was "What resources?" It appears teachers are often unaware of the source of materials they use. Tellingly, this question prompted some of the case study teachers and leaders to observe that The New Zealand Curriculum implementation was more applicable to Years 9 and 10, because the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) dominates the senior secondary years. When prompted to think of NCEA resources as potential curriculum resources, some teachers commented that the annotated student examples and moderators' reports were extremely useful.

Reconsidering this question we sought to explore why it might be that resources are not more visible in the light of all the data we had gathered during the project. We propose a model that suggests interrelationships between The New Zealand Curriculum (with its positioning of students as central to the curriculum) and other policy initiatives such as Ka Hikitia and the Pasifika Education Plan. The model establishes four areas of action: pedagogy as central to curriculum change; the importance of distributed leadership of change; the influence and role of assessment and reporting that forms and informs learning; and the need to change classroom and school cultures. Each of these areas of action has a mix of potentially available resources and ongoing resourcing implications. However, intended impacts will be realised only when individuals see ways to use resources to transform their intentions into action and when they are willing to invest the effort to do so.

9. Barriers versus enablers or enabling constraints

Rather than consider barriers and enablers as binary opposites it seems useful to identify factors that could act as enabling constraints. This notion, taken from complexity theory, focuses on the possibilities for action within the boundaries of the identified constraints. The analysis identified the following enabling constraints across the schools in the study:

  • distributed leadership and decentralised control/responsibility
  • evidence-based/data-informed individual and collective inquiry and action
  • implementation of change as a process of "iterative adaptation"
  • the use of symbolic artefacts as touchstones for change
  • a deliberate search for coherence across practices and initiatives to leverage implementation
  • bringing together resources to build capacity
  • a focus on the school community as a learning community
  • critical and constructive use of data
  • aligning assessment policies (National Standards and NCEA) with the intent of The New Zealand Curriculum.

Each of these factors operates to reposition potential barriers as opening up complex spaces of possible actions to give effect to The New Zealand Curriculum.

Addressing the overarching question

How does the school curriculum respond to the needs of the community and reflect the needs of its students? How is it enacted in the school?

The nearly 60 schools in the CIES 2 study were actively working to address the challenge of building a responsive curriculum. As "early adopters" many were in fact conscripting the curriculum into a learning journey which had begun well prior to its appearance. They understood the necessity of making changes in schooling and that doing so would require a collaborative learning effort. The New Zealand Curriculum provided a compelling focus for involving the school and wider community in this learning. The report documents the notable achievements of this process.

Looking across the three years of data collection in the case study schools it appears that the process of curriculum implementation has followed an s-shaped or sigmoid curve. This idea comes from ecology and has more recently been used in various branches of the social sciences, including education. This sigmoid model highlights growth as a series of spurts of change followed by plateaus which act as periods of consolidation and preparation for the next spurt. During the "plateau" time schools are amassing understandings needed to meet "adaptive challenges" that go beyond their current capacity or current way of operating (Fullan, 2004, p. 4).

A key challenge for schools and the education system as a whole is to transition to the next stage of development, where the intended reinvention of a "21st century" curriculum can be more fully realised on the foundation of the hard work schools have undertaken to date. The sigmoid model points to the need to avoid an alternative possible trajectory of losing momentum and falling back into old patterns. It also provides a reason for other "good" schools to undertake more extensive change, since the sigmoid curve change theory predicts complacent organisations typically do not perceive a need for change until they are well into the decline phase.

Indications are that ongoing adaptive curriculum change will need to be underpinned and informed by the development of greater transparency about:

  • the goals of education/schooling
  • what we envisage as student learning and achievement
  • learning challenges implicated in new ways of working
  • learning processes that inform new conversations such as learning to learn
  • knowledge and knowledge-building processes that underpin the various discipline areas
  • means and purposes for valuing of community and student funds of knowledge
  • strategic use of different leadership models.

These would appear to be the key areas for ongoing policy and resourcing to maintain the momentum of curriculum change achieved to date in the early adopter schools. Attention to these areas could also support later adopter schools to increase their efforts to give effect to The New Zealand Curriculum in ways that help them reinvent their curriculum for the 21st century.

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