Empirical research exploring what makes for an effective school curriculum is relatively scant. International research has found some evidence that those countries or provinces that deliver a content-rich curriculum which ensures that students acquire a broad general knowledge, achieve higher and more equitable student outcomes than countries with skills-based or more open curricula.[i] However, there is little definitive evidence about the content knowledge that should be included in a curriculum, the sequence in which that knowledge should be taught, at what age particular content, concepts or skills should be taught, or how knowledge from different world views and knowledge systems should be included in a curriculum.
In Aotearoa New Zealand, while we have evidence that students at different schools, and often students within the same school, are achieving very different educational outcomes, we currently know little about how the curricular decisions being made in those schools are influencing student learning. In fact, we know very little about how schools across the country are designing their curriculum, the content or skills they are teaching, or the level or standard they are expecting students to reach.
One of the factors complicating empirical research on curriculum is that such research must focus not only on curriculum design but also implementation. As Dylan Wiliam argues in his very good article Principled Curriculum Design “we cannot really talk about curriculum without talking about pedagogy”. [ii] This is because “the real curriculum”, that is the curriculum that is enacted in the classroom and experienced by students depends on more than what is written in a national curriculum policy or in a school’s annual and unit plans. It depends on the pedagogical decisions and content knowledge of the teacher. It depends on the students in the classroom. And it depends on the nature of the tasks used to teach each part of the curriculum. These three factors – the content, the teacher (and their knowledge), and the students – collectively form what Professor Richard Elmore has termed the instructional core.
Elmore contends that it is the tasks or activities that students do on a day-to-day basis at school that determine the nature (breadth, depth, challenge, and rigour) of their learning and that “increases in student learning occur only as a consequence of improvements in the level of content, teachers’ knowledge and skill and student engagement”.[iii] Therefore, to understand the impact of curriculum on students’ learning, it is necessary to examine the instructional core.
Next week, The Education Hub will be releasing a research report that provides insight into the processes that sit behind curriculum design and implementation in New Zealand schools as well as how teachers approach the development and use of instructional materials. While the report does not [attempt to] provide satisfactory answers to some of the big questions and debates currently swirling in New Zealand about the curriculum, it does raise questions about the quality of what is happening in schools around curriculum design and use of instructional materials and identifies issues that need to be investigated further if our aspiration as a country is an education system that is both excellent and equitable.
In doing so, the report is not attempting to suggest that there is one “right” way to approach curriculum design and implementation in schools. Rather, it considers whether foregrounding notions of quality (based on what the evidence tells us about the principles of effective curriculum design and what constitutes high quality instructional materials) might be a more helpful lens for exploring questions related to curriculum design and instructional materials in schools. It further considers whether such a focus on quality might still enable diversity and plurality while decreasing some of the variability in both opportunities and outcomes that affect our schooling system.
The report will be released on September 4th and we will be hosting an online panel discussion at 7.30pm on September 5th to discuss the key findings of the report. You can register for free on our website.
[i] Ravitch, D. & Cortese, A. (2009). Why we’re behind; What top nations teach their students but we don’t. The Education Digest, 75 (1), pp.35-38.
[ii] Wiliam, D. (2013). Principled curriculum design. SSAT (The Schools Network) Ltd.
[iii] Costante, K. (2010) Leading the instructional core; An interview with Richard Elmore. In Conversation. https://www.sgdsb.on.ca/upload/documents/blds–ic—leading-the-instructional-cor.pdf