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The Shape of Curriculum Change summary

A short discussion of key findings from the Curriculum Implementation Studies (CIES) project.

Why read this summary?

This short report discusses the overall shape of curriculum change as experienced by the schools we tracked over a period of several years as part of the Curriculum Implementation Exploratory Studies (CIES) project. Some interesting change dynamics appear over this longer time frame. We would not have found these dynamics if we had stopped at the end of the first round of CIES, at which point we had visited some “early adopter” schools twice in a period of 18 months or so.

By "early adopter" we mean schools that were known to have begun exploring and giving effect to the New Zealand Curriculum (NZC) as soon as the final (and in many cases the draft) version was available. Many schools did this of course and we could only work with a small number (19 schools in the first round and 10 in the second) because case studies are time and resource intensive. Most schools will now have followed similar change trajectories and you may find it interesting to compare what happened in the very early stages of NZC implementation in the case study schools with your own experiences. Key findings from the first round (Cowie et al., 2009) are reported in the Curriculum Implementation Exploratory Studies: Final Report.

In the second round of CIES (during 2010) we followed 10 schools and we also added a series of workshops that provided a space to hear from many more schools that were working with NZC in interesting ways. We revisited half of the initial early adopter schools and wrote summary cases that spanned a longer period than the three years of the actual study. It was clear to us during the first round that implementing NZC did not just begin overnight when the published document arrived. The schools in the study were already embarked on processes of self-review and change. NZC gave this journey a timely burst of new energy. In the second round, however, ongoing curriculum action was less obvious and dramatic, and we needed to think carefully about why this was the case. Addressing the nine specific research questions for the second round [Appendix] pointed us towards interesting longer-term dynamics of change in schools. In turn, these dynamics suggest some new questions and challenges that need our collective wisdom and effort if we are going to keep up the momentum of curriculum change for a new century.

The analysis reported here draws on a metaphor of growth and change that takes the shape of 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. Michael Fullan refers to its stages in Systems Thinkers in Action: Moving Beyond the Standards Plateau. We draw on his insights in this short report. In a report the authors tellingly named Dancing on a Shifting Carpet, other researchers have recently used the s-shaped curve to describe curriculum change in Australia.

Figure 1: Diagram of s-shaped growth curve

Thinking about the stages of growth during curriculum change we observed that most CIES schools had reached somewhere around point B — where change can be renewed, or some reversals could occur. Framing the curriculum change journey like this caused us to ask: What is needed to ensure that schools’ processes of enacting NZC stay broadly on the track of the dotted red line and enter new growth phases? However, before that question can be addressed, we need to backtrack and consider the types of action that have already occurred in the phases to date.

It seems to us that during the first round of CIES our case study schools were in the growth phase and during the second round they were mostly in the maturation phase. The following sections describe likely triggers, actions and dilemmas of change in these stages. Note that the processes described in what follows do not necessarily take place in a sequential manner. Schools can be working on different aspects of curriculum at the same time, and these may be at different stages of change. The process is complex, with the different aspects mutually informing and guiding each other.

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Published on: 23 May 2011