Why variability matters when considering curriculum design and instructional materials

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Why variability matters when considering curriculum design and instructional materials

Today, The Education Hub releases a new report entitle Variable by/in design; The variable nature of curriculum design and instructional materials in Aotearoa New Zealand schools. National and international data has, for years, shown significant variability in achievement outcomes across ethnicity, socio-economic status, and increasingly gender. Further data has demonstrated substantial variability in the proportion of students achieving NCEA (particularly Levels 2 and 3) and University Entrance at different schools across New Zealand, while small scale studies have found variability in the depth and breadth of curriculum coverage in secondary schools.

This study contributes further data on variability. At a high level, it has shown the variability in how the curriculum is interpreted and implemented by teachers across the country, and variability in the selection and use of instructional materials. It has also unearthed subcurrents of variability, which sit beneath and underpin curriculum design and the use of instrutional materials:

  • Variability in teachers’ access to effective professional learning;
  • Variability in the factors shaping what content is taught and therefore what students are learning;
  • Variability in teachers’ understanding of the research evidence on the principles of effective curriculum design (or at least variability in how or whether these are implemented these in practice);
  • Variability in the resourcing available in schools and therefore teachers’ ability to access particular materials;
  • Variability in notions of quality and how teachers assess the quality of different resources and materials;
  • Variability between the approaches of primary and secondary teachers and the factors that influence their decision making and practice;
  • Variability in the practices and approaches of teachers who rate themselves as having greater curriculum expertise and those who have weaker expertise;
  • Variability in the curriculum design processes of teachers who engage in collectively planning and decision making and those that largely operate alone.

The issue, however, is not so much that different teachers and different schools are approaching curriculum design and instructional materials in different ways. It is that this variability in approach is coupled with significant variability in educational outcomes.

Tom Sherrington provides a useful lens for unpacking this. In his book The Learning Rainforest, he suggests that the education system should not be “trying to create carbon-copy children with identifical learning experiences. There is value in diversity”.[1] However, he adds a proviso to this: that all students are supported to build a strong core of knowledge and skills that will “help them engage in national and global cultural life at a level of their choosing (not the level defined by the limitation of their education), finding joy and inspiration along the way”. And it is here that strong curriculum design comes to the fore.

Currently, the curricular choices being made by teachers and schools are not universally providing equity of learning opportunities or equity of choices and outcomes for students in Aotearoa New Zealand. Such a statement, and the ensuing recommendations the report makes are not an attempt to severely limit localised curriculum approaches or to curtail plurality. Rather, it focuses on how to ensure high quality curriculum processes and practices are in place in all schools and in all classrooms across Aotearoa New Zealand.

Our report suggests that there are several immediate steps that should be taken to ensure this focus on quality.

  1. Teachers and school leaders need support to better understanding the principles of effective curriculum design and how these impact and might be applied both to individual subjects and across the curriculum. They also need support to know how to implement these principles within their local contexts
  2. Determine the curriculum non-negotiables (or core knowledge) and ensure that these are effectively taught to all students
  3. Understand the resourcing that is required to make curriculum design and delivery successful at a local level, and ensure that this resourcing is provided to all schools.
  4. Ensure all teachers have access to quality instructional materials that map onto the curriculum and provide rich learning opportunities for students, and build teachers’ knowledge of what makes high quality instructional materials and rigorous tasks.
  5. Develop an evaluation process, which enables better insight into how the curriculum is being implemented in schools and analysis of the impact this is having on a broad range of student outcomes.

In working through these recommendations it will be critical that ideology does not “win”. Discussions and decisions about both the national curriculum and its implementation and enactment in individual schools have profound implications for our rangatahi and for New Zealand as a whole. While I’m not certain there is one “right” answer to the curriculum questions and issues that are being raised, we have a duty to get this as right as possible. This will require people from different ideological positions, from different roles, and with varying knowledge-bases and expertise to come together in constructive dialogue. It will necessitate a broadening of perspectives and a commitment to not get stuck in old schemas or single bodies of research or evidence. It is not going to be an easy task. But, it will be crucial for Aotearoa New Zealand’s future.

[1] Sherrington, T. (2017). The Learning Rainforest; Great teaching in real classrooms. John Catt Educational Limited, p. 80.

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