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Theme five (archived)

Flexibility for school-based curriculum development

Building on a solid foundation

A vision for fostering lifelong learning

Enacting the vision in classrooms

Involving students in the process of change

The introductory letter to the revised curriculum makes it clear that giving effect to NZC involves a process of determining the learning needs of the school’s student population and devising a curriculum to meet those needs:

This curriculum gives schools the flexibility to actively involve students in what they learn, how it is taught, and how the learning is assessed, and it invites schools to embrace the challenge of designing relevant and meaningful learning programmes that will motivate and engage all students.

Maharey, 2007, p. 1

NZC is described as a framework that provides schools with the “scope, flexibility and authority” (p. 37) they need to design their own curriculum, which will in turn form the basis on which each teacher builds their specific learning programmes. Theme Five discusses aspects of NZC schools are taking into consideration as they embrace the flexibility to develop a curriculum for their students.

Building on a solid foundation

Prior to the arrival of the draft or revised version of NZC, many of the case study schools were already engaged in a cycle of on going review of curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment practices. Such reviews were intended to increase coherence between different aspects of school practice, providing a more focused “big picture” framing of teaching and learning in the school. International studies suggest that improving coherence between curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment is one way of improving student outcomes (Newmann et al., 2001; Queensland State Education, 2000) so this can be seen as an important aspect of school self-management. At schools where this type of activity had not been undertaken, it was noticeable that there did not appear to be a collective view of teaching and learning.

The need to strengthen this big picture framing was noted by all the recently appointed principals in this study (It is interesting that many of the case study schools, chosen by the MOE for "early adoption" activities of one sort or another, had relatively recently appointed principals). Many had been chosen by their board of trustees for their “forward thinking” approaches and leadership skills. These principals described how, on arriving at their new school, they had noticed a lack of coherence between programmes in different classrooms, and prescriptive curriculum overviews or assessment regimes that were not focused around learning.

In response each leader had instigated a review process to provide a forum where all staff could question given school practices and clarify what was important at their school and in their community.

Review processes typically evolved into, or took place alongside, re-visioning activities. While designed initially to address the issues of coherence that the reviews had thrown up, the arrival of NZC provided strong signals about the types of solutions that might be sought, and so the re-visioning came to be more closely aligned to implementation of NZC. In view of the questions already raised about the relationship between the big ideas at the front end of the curriculum and the detail of the learning areas at the back, it is noteworthy that review and re-visioning discussions were deliberately set up to take place in cross-school teams. This was a considered choice in all the secondary schools, intended to disrupt past patterns of isolated professional learning within separate curriculum areas. There may have been an unintended cost if this structuring of professional learning has impeded teachers from bringing their different knowledge strengths to their reflection on specific changes that could be made within different learning areas. Of course, awareness of this challenge would also allow it to be addressed during the ongoing implementation period.

A vision for fostering lifelong learning

In a number of schools the re-visioning activities drew on ideas about lifelong learning to provide a framework to review school practices.

At many schools, and in particular, those with new principals, a starting point for the review process was a “re-visioning” during which staff, the board of trustees, and the community worked together to revise the school charter and vision. Ideas from recent Professional Development were incorporated into this re-visioning process. As ideas such as the key competencies and values started to be discussed in the education sector, school leaders also incorporated these into the review process. For those schools that were not already engaged in reviewing practices, the arrival of the draft or revised curriculum documents tended to prompt a similar process.

As part of these processes, school leaders encouraged staff to: visualise what a lifelong learner could look like; consider attributes that lifelong learners would develop over time; and explore associated implications for designing learning experiences that could support students to develop these attributes. Key learning experiences and readings that supported these explorations included: ideas gained from early MOE seminars on the curriculum and the key competencies; Jane Gilbert’s (2005) book on learning in the 21st century; Ministry of Education, 2006 and David Hargreaves’ (2004) resources about personalised learning (PDF 3.4MB); and the “Delors report” (UNESCO, 1996). Once characteristics of lifelong learners had been determined, the school community worked together to develop their own description of these for inclusion in school charter and vision statements. Teachers and board of trustees members typically contributed to this work. In some schools, interested parents and students had input into the process.

Many schools also used a community consultation process to review existing school values or develop a set of school values that were related to the attributes they were trying to develop. At some schools, the focus on common school pedagogies, learner attributes, and a shared language for learning was enhanced by the development of a visual metaphor to represent the school’s vision and ways of working. Some of these visual metaphors included references to the key competencies and values of NZC. A redeveloped school vision and visual metaphor were widely perceived as useful tools to share key messages about the learner attributes the school was attempting to foster, and the core aspects of the teaching and learning programme at their school.

The promotion of the school vision can be seen as creating a “brand” that enables a school to display its uniqueness. However, the potential exists that this visual “branding” of schools could lead to competition between schools rather than collaboration. (But there did not appear to be evidence that this was the case at the schools in this study.)

Enacting the vision in classrooms

Most teachers considered that NZC gave them more space than previously to design programmes based on students’ needs and interests. When they were ready to apply ideas from NZC to their learning programmes, some primary and intermediate schools moved away from a syndicate structure to a structure where curriculum leaders planned collectively for whole-school approaches. However, getting a balance between a whole-school approach and previous, more fragmented, planning models could be difficult. Some intermediate school staff wanted to move back to a smaller group structure to increase what they saw as the potential for creativity in their planning.

Some schools or individual teachers had developed processes to incorporate students’ interests into the classroom programme, for example by negotiating inquiry topics. This could happen at the level of school-wide inquiry themes, but more commonly students helped shape the direction of inquiries undertaken in specific classes (or subjects in the case of secondary schools). At one secondary school, some teachers were experimenting with ideas such as providing junior students with curriculum learning intentions so that they could work in teams to design related units of work. At these schools, teachers described the learning experiences that resulted as highly memorable and engaging for students. However, some also raised concerns about managing the inquiry process so that it challenged students and was not driven by a narrow range of student interests.

Notwithstanding these examples, the use of these types of student-centred approaches to curriculum design did not appear to be common across all schools, or indeed between classes within a school. At some schools teachers tended to rely more on their own perceptions of student and community needs and interests to develop programmes. To do this staff drew on a range of sources of information which included topical events in the local community and environment, as well as their beliefs about students’ learning needs in relation to literacy and numeracy.

Some primary teachers reflected that NZC has changed how they plan and assess. Summative assessment is now used more sparingly and formative assessment used more often, with some teachers noting that a focus for future development would be assessment practices in relation to the key competencies.

Involving students in the process of change

As already indicated, the schools in this study varied as to whether, and how, they were involving students in decision making around curriculum, pedagogy, or classroom activities. Direct involvement of students in re-visioning activities, curriculum development processes, or indeed any other school-wide decision making, does not, as yet, appear to be a common practice.

At some schools, mostly those in the primary sector, student input into re-visioning and curriculum directions was initiated by the leadership team and was mostly occurring at a school-wide level. For example, a number of schools had developed ways of including student feedback into their redevelopment of the school charter and vision, or into the big ideas or themes around which the curriculum was structured. In some instances student input and language were used to develop posters describing the learner attributes the school planned to foster. These posters were created to be displayed in every classroom and were intended to ensure that the generic values and attributes developed became a living part of school practice.

At some schools students were involved in teams that helped make decisions about school policies and practices. In one primary school a student curriculum team, coached in interview techniques by the principal, conducted phone interviews with parents to ascertain their views on the skills and competencies needed by learners. Students from this team also added some features to the school’s visual metaphor, and explained the different aspects of this vision to parents at an information evening. (Community engagement in the implementation of NZC is further discussed in theme eight).

Published on: 15 Apr 2009