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Leading curriculum change (archived)

If you and your school are in the early stages of unpacking The New Zealand Curriculum, you might like to hear what other leaders have said about their experiences. Each school has adopted its own distinct approach.

Leadership team meeting.

A principal's number one priority is to create an environment in which learning flourishes and all students achieve. The New Zealand Curriculum provides the direction and the framework for making this happen.

While responsibility for curriculum change can be shared (in larger schools, it needs to be), it is important that principals take the lead. Indeed, the best available evidence suggests that instructional leadership is the most effective kind of leadership that principals can offer, measured in terms of student outcomes. If, as principal, you consistently articulate a shared vision, align school energies to this vision, allocate resources, and promote and participate in teacher professional learning, your staff will develop a strong sense of direction and the confidence to make changes.

If you want change to happen in your school and you really want to make a difference with children's learning, the principal has to be strongly involved.

Principal, primary

This is a high priority for me as a principal. It's my responsibility to help teachers get their head around these ideas, to make sure they understand what the curriculum means and its impact on classroom teaching. My role as the professional leader is to provide the necessary opportunities for teacher reflection, learning and development.

Principal, primary

By consistently talking about The New Zealand Curriculum as an opportunity, you will encourage your staff to see it that way too.

We can make this curriculum ours. It is a journey and a process turning us into learners again. Very exciting.

Principal of secondary school, to staff

To drive curriculum change, you don't have to be an expert on everything. As other staff learn what The New Zealand Curriculum means to them as teachers, you will gain a deeper understanding of its implications for you as an educational leader. You can help your staff unpack and interpret the ideas. Establishing what these ideas mean in the context of your school and students needs to be a joint exercise. It will take time.

The principal is not afraid to admit she doesn't have all the answers. I find this encourages people to feed in... Valuing of parents and community is important. Listening as opposed to telling them 'this is the way it is'. This allows parents to recognise that the principal is a person. Relationships are important. I can see that the Māori community are responding well to this. The principal is exploring a variety of ways of approaching issues.

Board member, secondary school

Compared with the previous curriculum, The New Zealand Curriculum is very concise. It would be a mistake for a reader to think this means it is short on substance.

A lot of the key ideas are presented in just one paragraph in the curriculum. Teachers have to know with confidence what 'facilitating shared learning' or 'teaching as inquiry' looks like. They have to understand and practise the pedagogy that sits around it. That's why they need time. They are not just looking at what they are teaching but how and why.

Principal, primary

It would also be a mistake for a reader to think that nothing much is new. While some changes are easy to spot - for example, the introduction of the key competencies, others may be less obvious - for example, the call for some quite fundamental changes in the ways in which people think about teaching and learning.

I think the biggest challenge in all this is that traditionally teachers and educators, and the community, have seen education as something that is done to kids, and it hasn't always been interactive or co-constructed. But the education system can't go on like it used to because the kids don't want it. It no longer fits the needs of young people.

Principal, secondary

Major Emphases provides a guide to some of these changes. It has been designed to be used in professional development workshops to promote a deeper level of discussion and analysis and to encourage changes to practice.

The biggest challenge is the pedagogical shift. It does not involve tweaking existing stuff. We will never get kids engaged if we do this.

Principal, secondary

Schools have chosen quite different entry points into the curriculum. Those that have started with the vision, principles, values, or key competencies rather than the learning areas or achievement objectives have found that this has encouraged a whole-school, holistic approach to the document and its implementation. This has signalled to staff that the earlier sections, far from being marginally relevant, are the core of the new curriculum.


Many schools have made the vision statement their entry point. Some have revisited their own vision/mission/purpose statement and, after wide consultation, have come up with an entirely new statement that more accurately declares what they are passionate about. Others have carefully compared their own vision statements with the one in The New Zealand Curriculum, looking for similarities and differences. A vision that is widely owned and continually articulated at all levels is a powerful lever for change.

The vision is owned and articulated by all members of the school community and is an integral part of school life and procedures. 'Students are taking on the terminology and living the charter ... Kids have picked up that the school is about learning ...'

Researcher and teacher, secondary school

I know that staff are now really comfortable about being learners, developing resilience, and taking risks ... [They] are learning that they are more alike than different. They are finding that this learning is very relevant to them. I am seeing staff chivvy each other and I don't have to do this.

Principal, Secondary school

Key competencies

Other schools have made the key competencies their point of entry, either because they have recognised them as an important new feature of the curriculum or because they have already gone some way down the path of identifying the generic, enduring learning they want for their students.

The key competencies are such an important part of this curriculum and what we're trying to do for our students. You've got to have at least some idea of what you're looking for, a shared understanding of each competency and at least a starting point. We got there in the end. We have developed a continuum of student development in the competency 'relating to others', but it took a whole year. This year we are working on 'participating and contributing' using much the same approach.

Principal, primary


The inclusion of a specific section on pedagogy is another new feature of The New Zealand Curriculum, signalling that the how of teaching and learning is every bit as important as content. Some schools, identifying the potential of this section to be a catalyst for change, have chosen it as their entry point.

One primary school principal conducted one-on-one interviews with 36 children across the school to discover what they thought good learning looked like. She also asked the children to describe what skills lifelong learners needed. She described the results as a 'wake-up call' for staff:

The children said things like sitting up straight, listening to teachers, not disrupting learning - it was all about meeting the behavioural or compliance expectations of teachers. The teachers were going 'Oh my goodness, we think we're focusing on skills development and teaching skills for lifelong learning, but this is what they actually think ...'

Other professional learning

If your school is only just beginning to look at The New Zealand Curriculum in depth, the chances are that you have been heavily committed to other professional learning. If so, you may be further on the journey than you realise because all recent professional learning initiatives align in important ways with the intent of the curriculum. For example, with its emphasis on strategies, the Numeracy Project supports learning to learn; with its assessment focus, Assessment to learn (AtoL) links directly to the notion of teaching as inquiry; Te Kotahitanga supports effective pedagogy at all points, with particular emphasis on Māori enjoying education success as Māori (Ka Hikitia).

As they have begun to unpack The New Zealand Curriculum, principals and teachers have typically reached the conclusion that quite major change is required - and that this is going to take time.

It's a cultural change that is going to take time to embed. It takes a lot of dialogue and meetings to achieve some commonality of understanding.

Principal, Intermediate

It's about creating a professional learning community where people are talking about the learning of students as opposed to their behaviour. That's the hardest change for some people.

Principal, secondary

Responsibility for leading and supporting teachers, parents, and whānau through change on this scale needs to be shared with other leaders, including the wider senior management team, heads of department, faculties, or syndicates, and deans. Before they can lead, they themselves need a clear picture of the change required and the reasons for it. Once they have this, they can share responsibility for articulating the vision and engaging colleagues in constructive discussion - particularly those who don't understand what it's all about, who don't agree with it, or who think that it's 'pie in the sky'.

Act strategically

  1. Develop educationally focused partnerships with parents, whānau, and community.
  2. Assess where your school is now and where you want it to be.
  3. Determine what steps you need to take to get there.
  4. Prioritise. Where will you start? How can you take the pressure off elsewhere?
  5. Align. Link implementation to recent professional learning, school vision, goals.
  6. Resource. The experience of other schools suggests that time is the most important resource; next is appropriate expertise (internal, and external if necessary).
  7. Engage. Challenge unhelpful existing theories and "prevailing discourses". Provide evidence that the changes you are making are necessary.

Resources for school leaders

From the New Zealand Curriculum to the school curriculum

School curriculum design and review

Assessing key competencies: why would we? How could we?

Kiwi leadership for principals

Teacher professional learning and development best evidence synthesis iteration

I see the curriculum as really just the bones and what schools have to do is put the meat around them, the muscles and then get the heart pumping.

Principal, primary

Published on: 24 Jan 2009