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Rose Hipkins - The shape of curriculum change

Designing a local curriculum from a national framework

Rosemary Hipkins presented this session at the CORE Breakfast seminar in Dunedin, March 29 2011.

The session:

  • sketched the overall shape of curriculum change in CIES schools
  • described typical professional learning actions and decisions in these schools
  • outlined the early benefits of curriculum change in response to the NZC
  • signaled emergent challenges and possible future directions for ongoing change
  • suggested resources that could help achieve next steps towards building a 21st century curriculum in New Zealand schools.


Rose Hipkins – The shape of curriculum change

This is the report that I’m going to speak to this morning, it’s called The Shape of Curriculum Change. We were very fortunate really, because this is an exploratory study and not an evaluation, and that’s actually a really important difference. So we weren’t asked to find out what’s happening on average across New Zealand or make a judgment about how schools are going. We were asked to identify schools that were known to be doing interesting things, and to work with them to find out what they were doing, how they were understanding the curriculum, where they’d got up to.

So we had a small number of schools that we worked with across three years. Last year, we added this component of mediated conversations where we got – again, people who were known to be doing interesting things with the curriculum – together in a series of workshops. And what we did was we got people to talk to – in small groups – to their peers about what they’d been doing with the curriculum. So the ‘mediated’ piece of it is that the way we set the conversations up focused how people talked about them. Because if you’re talking to a researcher, you tend to tell them what you think they want to hear. But if you’re talking to your peers, you tell them things that will explain to them what you’re doing, as if they were going to do it too; so you hear some quite different things.

One of the things that I want to say about what happened in these earlier-adopter schools that we worked in was of course they didn’t start implementing the curriculum cold. NZC arrived, they open it, look at it, and say, “Oh, we’ve got to do something with this.” Because actually it arrived in a whole stream of work that was already happening, and so these were schools that had been actively taking part in whole school professional development of one sort or another, and many of the leaders of these schools had actually been involved in the co-construction process by which the curriculum was made. So it wasn’t a case that the curriculum persuaded them to do some things that they might not have thought about before, they were waiting for the curriculum to be allowed to do the things that they wanted to do. When you look at it, actually much of the policy from the time that David Lange first changed things and set up ‘Tomorrow’s Schools’, has actually kind of fitted quite nicely within this model of school self-management, and empowering schools to make good design decisions that let them do the sorts of things that we want them to do. We’re actually very lucky like that; there aren’t many other countries I don’t think, that have got this sort of coherence in their policy climate.

Here’s why I’ve called my talk The Shape of Curriculum Change. And basically what they say is, you have this little period where you’re ready and waiting for something to happen, and if you get the right stimulus then you can have a period of very, very rapid growth. And that is – you’ll recognise that what I was talking about before – the schools were here, they were just primed; they were ready and waiting. But according to this theory of change, the trick is knowing when you need a new set of impetus. Because if you don’t – if you think you’ve got there – and you get up here, by the time you realise you need a new impetus, you’re on the way down here. So the trick is actually knowing when you’re here, and you might need to go backwards a wee bit, with a bit of milling and turning before you can get yourself going onto the next upswing.

Let me show you how this shape applied to our schools. In the first two years that we were working in those schools, they were here, and things were happening very fast and lots and lots of changes were occurring. But you can see where they’re heading to, can’t you? And in the third year – and we would have missed this if we’d stopped at the end of two years – they were here. And I’m going to talk to you about what’s happening there. And actually – I was going to put it in, but I didn’t – I picked up some models that kind of talk about these as the ‘wilderness years’, you know, as if nothing’s happening. But actually as I’ll show you, an enormous amount of learning was still happening, but it was just different in its character.

So it’s a really interesting dynamic to work through. But let’s look first of all at the rapid upward slope of that first bit. So these were the things that we found that the curriculum had allowed to happen in the schools that we were working in. Pretty much all of them had worked on their vision, their values, their charter, and so on, and we found that almost all schools had made various touchstones of change: whether they were visuals, whether they were mottos, whether they were things that went on the classroom walls that personified the key competencies – there was quite a lot of that. In all sorts of ways, people tried to convey that in a simple form that people could refer to in their daily life at school. We found that very interesting, because when you read the literature, that making of touchstones like that is actually one way of developing a shared culture, and getting people working together. So intuitively, people had arrived at the process of doing that. It certainly energised the people in the schools. These were really dynamic, vibrant school communities where people were learning, and feeling that sense of achievement that goes with very rapidly getting something going and different. A lot of inquiry; teaching as inquiry here. Not necessarily like the model in the curriculum, actually more complex than that. But the beginnings of it were happening in these first two years, and actually we saw a lot of it in that consolidation phase. And this is an interesting one, you know, with the policies that we’ve got – Te Kotahitanga and Ka Hikitia, and now He Kākano, and so on – totally congruent with that focus in the curriculum that starts with the principles: the Treaty of Waitangi, the Inclusion principle, and High expectations, and so on. A lot of awareness of needing to work to lift the achievement of Māori students. And it isn’t actually just in the last year or so, it goes back, it’s been going on and gathering momentum. And with that, a focus on strengths-based approaches to learning, rather than deficit-based ones. We found that really interesting, because that’s quite a culture change I think, for schools. But all of those things were happening in the early-adopter schools, so they’re very much about the culture of the school changing.

Now this is an interesting thing that we found.  Pretty much all of those schools that we were working in, had developed, for their professional learning culture, which was very lively and alive, this sort of model of leadership.  It’s a few years now since I was a classroom teacher, but when I think about the schools that I worked in as a young teacher, they were definitely either like this, where the principal called the shots about everything and you jumped to the tune, or they were like this, in the early 70’s, the school just kind of drifted along, and people did their thing, and nothing much really happened in the way of professional learning. But what we found in all these school was the principal was still the overall leader (I guess we’d say that might be their position there) but the delegations that they had, made very strong learning nodes; and they were very, very strategic in the way they set those up. So sometimes they had members of the same team working together, other times they quite deliberately - one of these for instance, this might well be a group of faculty heads, if this is a secondary school, who come from different areas to each other but with a specific job to do, so that they get talking across the learning areas. And they were very strategic, they could always tell you what the reason for each of those clusters was and what they intended for them to achieve.


And so all that across the curriculum, talking and so on, was resulting in greater coherence in the curriculum, but also in professional learning initiatives. We found that it, the principals, with their senior leadership teams were being much more selective and saying, “How does this fit with our focus? Is this what we want to do right now?” And seeing how to make things actually fit into this stream of work.

This is a very, very strong one, and typically sort of sits in a nexus of the key competencies and the learning to learn principle. We’ve found that schools are putting those two things together really, really clearly, and so it’s common to see in classrooms, posters and things, saying ‘What does a good thinker look like?’ I mean, I can see limitations to these things as well as benefits, but a lot of development of a shared set of expectations for students, so that they didn’t go from one set to a conflicting set, and get confused about things.

One of the ideas that seems to have taken a lot of purchase here, is Guy Claxton’s idea of split-screen thinking. Guy’s been quite active through New Zealand, and a lot of schools seem to have picked up that model for developing their learning to learn conversations. Not surprisingly, the principals reported big increases in student engagement across these schools. In fact for some of the early-adopter schools that we worked with, the lack of student engagement was the impetus for them to get going in the first place. A couple of them were what you might call ‘crisis turn-around schools’, who freely and candidly admitted that they nowhere else to go except up. And so they started with a real focus on student engagement and getting students involved in their learning. In the big report, we actually pick out a whole layer of different ways to understand what that means.

This one is definitely still problematic. There are different reasons why you might involve parents in learning, and we found there’s still quite a lot of confusion around that, about what it is exactly that parents should be involved in doing and how they can be involved in the curriculum. At the high level – the level of vision and values – no problem with consulting them, but then the information tends to flow back into the school and the school professionals make the decisions. And schools are still struggling to get their parents involved, and to come and to do different things. No problem either with one-to-one learning. For some of the schools, big gains there with getting their parents to actually come in for a report and conversation – three-way conversations and things like that.  But it’s actually how you build a local curriculum, and involve the locals in building it. That’s an area where we found quite a lot of uncertainty about whether that’s a good thing, why it should be done, how it should be done, and so on.

So, all that activity in this phase here, took at least two years, and those of the schools that were ready for it. And one of our clear messages to the ministry at the end of those two years was, “This process will be ongoing.” These schools have made a fantastic start, but they would be the first to say that they’re not there yet. And in fact, the principals were saying to us, “Well, we don’t think we’ll ever be there now.” People have realised that this is not something that you can do and then stop. That once you start on this process of adjusting, you’ve got to keep going. And of course, that makes sense, because our schools actually have had a period, through the late part of the 90s where the world was changing very, very rapidly around us, and schools were changing not much at all. So of course at first, there was a rapid adjustment to make. But that change around us hasn’t stopped and so we can’t stop either.

So, we came to the third year of the study, and the schools were at this point here. And unless you were in there, working with them, talking about what they were learning, what they were doing, you could think that actually they’d come to a point where not so much was happening. Because the whole-school days weren’t happening; the big visible gestures like reworking the vision and the values were done; the touchstones were in place. People were supposedly using them in the classroom. But in actual fact, what we were finding, what we’d found at the end of the first study was that in the classroom itself, certain things had happened – we saw a lot more inquiry learning, for example, than we’d seen before – but if you said, for instance, if I asked a question like, “Now what difference have the key competencies made to the way you teach?” and name the subject, it would be very difficult for people to answer that question. So there was a level of change that was still waiting, and what we found was that people – We think that this will be this, this big upswing here; it hasn’t happened yet but people are getting ready for it. And a lot of exploring and talking and thinking was still going on, but it’s not so visible from outside until you talk to people about what’s happening. And this is something that’s predicted in the literature, you know. Actually this is a report of Michael Fullan’s – just a short one – that the Ministry have got on the website. So they obviously really like the way that Michael Fullan writes about this. He talks about the cyclic nature of it, and the fact that there are periodic plateaus. So where we described our early-adopter schools in the third year was being on the plateau, and a different sort of learning was happening. Now, I really like the way that James Gee talks about this. He’s also written a lovely little book called, ‘What children learn from playing video games’. And so here, he’s using that to talk about horizontal learning. He, himself, loves video games, because he’s interested in how the learning is structured into them. And so he’s talking here about when you’re on the plateau, or doing – he calls it horizontal learning – you’re at that stage like you are in a game, where you’ve moved up to the next level and you’re trying to figure it out, you’re trying to crack it. So this is what was happening in the schools in the third year.

And this, I think, is the nature of the design challenge that was going on – going right back to what we were talking about at the start. You know, it’s not new for me to use a slide like this; if you’ve seen me talk about the curriculum before, you might have seen me use this slide. I’ve altered it a wee bit, but I’ve had it for several years. The design problem that we’ve got with the curriculum, that we’ve got a ‘crack’ in this mucking around stage – horizontal learning stage – is that it’s document of two halves. They were written by different teams of people, and they don’t seamlessly articulate with each other. We have to give ourselves permission to acknowledge that and say, “Okay, it’s what we’ve got. We’ve got to figure out what to do with it.” So we’ve got this wonderful front half which, our research shows every clearly, everybody subscribes to. But then, the learning areas were revised as recommended in the curriculum stocktake, from the 1990s outcomes-based curriculum document. And these were done by teams of subject people. And those were done by, you know, the sort of high level team that the Ministry puts together, plus people in the Ministry itself of course, who led – Mary Chamberlain led this project really strongly.

How do we put these two bits together now? Well, people have been paying much more attention to the effective pedagogy section, and how you actually make some of these things happen here, through the way that you teach. But actually, that’s not enough either. I don’t know if you any of you have read – I’m just reading David Perkins’ latest book – and what talks about, he says, ultimately, you know, you can focus on the ‘how’, and the ‘why’, and so on, but it’s still about the ‘what’. You’ve still got to pick the right ‘what’ of your teaching, and he gives a range of different criteria in the book. But in one chapter – the chapter where he made that comment about the ‘what’ - he talks about the need for what kids learn to be enlightening, empowering, and to give them a greater sense of responsibility. Now, that’s a pretty powerful little tick list, isn’t it?

You could say that the essence statements at the front of each of those learning areas, point in those directions quite sharply, actually. But does this? By itself, the learning area detail doesn’t do that, does it? So here’s another translation job to be done. Somehow people have to put these two halves together, in a way that makes sure how we teach these reflects that. Not just as wishful thinking, but actually does it. And we’re still figuring out how to do that. I think that that’s the horizontal learning that’s happening; people have been playing with the pieces of that, looking at teaching as inquiry, asking some of these questions – particularly asking about the ‘how’ – but getting back into the ‘what’, onto its next trajectory. There’s very little guidance about there in the public domain, and I think that’s actually the bit that we need for the next upswing.

So, just to illustrate that - for a lot of you it’s no secret that I’ve got an interest in the key competencies, and for a wee while about six months ago, I thought, “Has this particular focus of interest run its course? Have I got as far as I’m going to get with this?” And suddenly, I find myself swimming in a deeper pool again, and I’m off again with a whole new range of questions, which is quite interesting. So where we started, and a lot of our early-adopter schools were here before the curriculum appeared, a lot of schools were here before the curriculum appeared, but some schools of course have said, “Oh well, we already do that,” and they’ve stayed right there. So using known thinking strategies, that’s just the tip of the iceberg – the little bit that was already visible before. As I said, the early-adopter schools have brought the key competencies down into here, and they’ve had a really explicit focus on acts of thinking, acts of learning. They’ve linked the key competencies really strongly to learning to learn. And so metacognition has become the aspect of thinking that’s been developed really strongly in here – or reflective thinking, if you want to call it that. But under the dotted line, there’s actually a whole lot more stuff that would let us translate the key competencies into the learning areas, so that they change the content of what is taught. But we need new types of pedagogical content knowledge to know how to do that.

So, for instance, earlier this morning I was talking to a teacher who’s here in the room who is a media studies teacher, and we were talking about this. Recognising how texts create meaning – not just convey meaning – but in the way that they are constructed, they actually create it. Now this is bread and butter for media studies teachers, but who else knows this stuff across the curriculum? This is things that we have to learn how to do ourselves, before we can help students do it. It’s very clear that to put the key competencies into the curriculum at this level down here, you need to know the nature of your subject, because you can’t talk about meaning-making in these things, unless you know how the subject itself makes meaning.

It’s clear when you read the literature – not so much about competencies – and people who are really thinking this way about them tend more to use the word ‘capabilities’. And if you look on the key competencies page in the curriculum, you know how there’s that little box and there’s the title and then there’s a couple of words there, well, I don’t know why I’d never paid attention to those words before, but I looked at them the other day and they say, ‘capabilities for learning and living.’ I thought, “How come I never noticed that before?” It’s not just about knowing, it’s about being and becoming. The key competencies focus attention on who you are and who you can be, which is what capabilities mean.

So this is where the learning’s going now; this is where it’s been. If we can crack this, this will be our next rapid upswing, I think. And it will really transform our curriculum. Here’s the challenge to do that, and I think it will probably be evident from what I’ve said already, to get beyond the plateau – actually on the plateau, when you’re doing that horizontal learning – you can solve your own problems yourself because across your networks of learning, you’ve got the knowledge that you need to do it. But I think that I’ve already signalled that actually to get onto that next upswing needs some outside knowledge. It needs some new knowledge to come in. Because schools don’t necessarily have the knowledge they need internally to do that.

So this was our message to the Ministry that actually we need some new sorts of resources here; some complex resources that show these things in a different way. And it’s interesting because the theory of change predicts that that will be the case. So this is not a criticism of anybody, this is just the way it is. But you can see what this theory says is, that actually to get onto the next upswing, as I said before, you have to recognise when you’re back here that you need some new input from outside, and that you won’t be able necessarily to do it by yourself. So the challenge is knowing when you’ve reached the limits of your internal resources and you need a perturbation from outside to kick you into the next layer.

This book talks about that, how that happened in an Australian school, Dancing on a Shifting Carpet. Here are some of the things that I think are the challenges that are going to get us into that next layer. The Ministry, in the second round of this project, they gave us ten questions to address – and I’m not just going to run through them all – but one of them is how our schools balance breadth and depth across the curriculum. And we played with this, and we thought, “Gee, we can write them half a page and actually we haven’t got anything to say beyond the totally obvious; things that they would know already.” Because the purpose of this project was to give them advice about where they should go to next and what they should do next. And then we started playing with the ‘both/and’ idea, and saying you know the problem is that this question poses breadth and depth as a zero-sum game: more of one is less of the other. And so we thought to ourselves, what would it look like; what would a curriculum look like if it was both broad and deep at the same time? And we played with this for about three hours, and came to this idea of what we call ‘connected knowing’. That actually you can take a slice of knowing and deepen it in the way that you would want it to be, but providing you keep its connections out to other things simultaneously, you can actually get something that’s both broad and deep. But obviously as a teacher you need to know quite a lot to be able to do that. And we were particularly thinking about how teachers could do that in the senior secondary school with the modular structure of the NCEA, because it’s more of a challenge for them arguably, than it is lower down in the school, where there aren’t the same constraints on doing that.

A similar challenge is knowing ways to work across the curriculum without actually in the process losing sight of the discipline itself. We think that that’s happening with quite a lot of inquiry learning that has questions across the curriculum. It’s very hard, actually to keep the different discipline specific aspects of inquiry inside, at the same time as you’re going across them. That’s one that we’ve got to crack.

This is a really big one. This is the big student voice dilemma here. How do you actually hand more responsibility for their learning to the students, and not take away from the teacher’s responsibility and what they know and bring to the learning? This is another one that we can no longer see as a zero-sum game, where more power to the student is less to the teacher. Because we never – like breadth and depth – we’re never going to actually get on to this next upswing of learning if we keep thinking like that. It has to be both student-centred and strongly teacher-directed. And obviously that means the teachers need to work differently than how they would work if they see having to give away, give students more authority as giving away their power.

And then there’s this idea of complex resources. I really like this idea. This comes from Michael Fullan’s latest book, just out last year, and what he says is, a resource is a resource over here, and a resource is a resource. And they are what they are, but if they’re coherent, and if they join together to make a web of resources that all point in the same direction, then you get some traction on change. And that’s what he means by complex resources.

Sorry, this is a very busy slide, but let me just explain it to you, because this is a complex resources view of support for the curriculum. Another one of the ministry’s questions that we felt at first we would have very little to say about, was which resources the school is finding most useful to use? And so, then we thought to ourselves, actually, there’s all these resources out there that potentially support the curriculum but they’re not seen in that light; they’re invisible in that light. How come? And they’re in the boxes – the grey boxes – in the corners. So if we take the curriculum itself and its key idea – both The New Zealand Curriculum and Te Marautanga – is identifying and acting on student strengths, and building a responsive local curriculum. Everybody understands that to be the purpose of the framework of the curriculum, yeah? I haven’t just said something controversial, have I? No, not at all. And so people understand very clearly that it’s about the pedagogy that you use; it’s how you teach and deliver it. It has this element of assessment and reporting that informs learning, because how can you be responsive to students’ learning needs if you’re not doing that? The changing school culture and classroom culture was the very first place that most people started with their vision and values; distributed leadership. All those things I’ve talked about, and when you actually look at the resources – the web of resources – that are around the curriculum, they’re not all there; there are definitely some gaps in the areas that I was talking about just before. But my goodness, there’s a lot of them.

So, there’s been all sorts of PD that actually links up pedagogy and assessment; AtoL for example, various NCEA initiatives, and the various assessment tools that are being developed over the last little while: asTTLe, the new PATs, and so on all sit up there.

There’s been a lot of work on making it easier for schools to get that data and use it. In terms of actually student learning, all the initiatives around culture and so on – Te Kotahitanga, the e-learning initiatives, the literacy and numeracy initiatives, to show people how to work with their data.

And then down here in joining leadership and culture: the middle management website, safe schools and all the initiatives like that – Capable – others that I haven’t put on here – this is not supposed to be a full list. All the principal support initiatives, the Ariki model for instance. He Kākano the most recent instantiation there. So there’s all these resources but none of them stand up with a flag on them saying, “This is to help you implement the curriculum.”

What you have to do, is to see them enmeshed in a web of ways to work together. There’s a couple of things that I think are really important. Up here, you’re not actually going to see these initiatives as having anything directly to do with the curriculum, unless you understand the importance of student voice and student agency. That’s that little piece that tends to be taken for granted, and that’s a piece that needs developing, I think, and needs some work around it and understanding around it. Similarly over here, joining up these initiatives that are student voice type initiatives, and the support for managing change in the school and so on, actually we need some new stuff about the pedagogical content knowledge that teachers need to take us out into that new layer. But you need to know that you need it; you need to know that what you know how to do already is not quite enough; that there’s going to be some new ways of thinking about pedagogical interactions.

Just to give one example – so hopefully I’m not being too obscure – relating different cultures to each other: the idea of third space, and I bring my expertise and you bring your expertise and together we build a new understanding. That’s one example, but how many... Well, I know that I was never, ever taught anything like that any way of working like that. Or the nature of the subject stuff, and how that changes the way that you interact and meaning making, and so on. There’s a lot of work to do there. I’ve signalled before too, how you use your extended community to learn together. One of the things that we’re finding in other work that I’m doing is that one of the things that can threaten curriculum change for schools that are working really hard on it, is when their parents don’t understand what they’re trying to do. And so how you actually get this conversation going, about how school needs to be different so that everybody understands it, is a challenge and a tricky issue.

And the critical and constructive use of data – that’s a more technical problem – but one not to be underestimated. That requires a lot more attention. So these are areas that need a lot of attention, to actually help us knit the resources that are there already into a complex web of resources wrapped around the curriculum.

In view of all of that, I think that what we need to do is to find ways to align high stakes assessment, and I know that the NCEA alignment project is underway. And I know that this will absolutely not be what secondary teachers want to hear, but I think that actually there’s more work to go there yet. It will start us on the track, but it won’t get us there – not this round.

Last word: that’s the very last sentence of our full report. This is a complex change process that we’re embarked on. You can start anywhere engaging with the curriculum, but it’s important to persist. And hopefully, it’s helpful to see in terms of the metaphor of the shape of change, exactly where your school is on its journey, because schools will be in different places at different times and that’s fine – so long as they keep going.


The PowerPoint, used by Rose during her session, is available as a PDF download:

PDF icon. Rose Hipkins breakfast PowerPoint (PDF, 6 MB)

Curriculum Implementation Exploratory Studies (CIES) project

The full CIES 2 research report (May, 2011) can be downloaded from Education Counts:

This final report from the CIES project reports on ways in which innovative schools and teachers have been working to implement The New Zealand Curriculum.

The Shape of Curriculum Change summary

This short discussion paper covers the key findings from the Curriculum Implementation Studies (CIES) project (Cowie, Hipkins, Keown, Boyd, 2011).



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    Published on: 22 May 2011