New Zealand Curriculum Implementation - Are we there yet?

On Tuesday and Wednesday this week I had the utter privilege to be invited to participate in a Ministry of Education New Zealand Curriculum Think Tank. Two days, 25 positive, proactive agentic and action orientated curriculum leaders from across the country came together to consider how NZC implementation might be reinvigorated. Interestingly, I couldn't help but chuckle about how an article I wrote (as guest editor of English in Aotearoa) six years ago sort of captured the challenges we discussed.

English in Aotearoa Editorial – What new curriculum?

By Claire Amos

In August 2009 The Education Gazette spoke to New Zealand Curriculum project manager Chris Arcus, to find out what schools needed to know about the NZC at this stage. When asked where schools need to be by February 2010 his answer was this, “All schools need to do a couple of things – they need to design and implement a school curriculum and they need to teach using an evidence based inquiry cycle that informs what they do and monitors the impact of those decisions.” 

It is nearly a year on since that statement was made and many of us have been “implementing” the NZC for some time now. Whilst we might feel we have been very busy implementing, how well and how authentically we are doing so is hard to measure. 

In the junior school, implementation may have involved a review and maybe even a redesign of Junior English programmes. It may have included consideration and even integration of values and/or key competencies, for others it might simply have taken the form of adopting unit planner templates that incorporate the language of the NZC. Then along came the aligned Achievement Standards -
galloping on horse back over the educational horizon to rescue our senior school. Out with the old standards, in with new, and hey presto, the NZC will be magically implemented...or will it? Are our students even aware of any change, or are they asking – what new curriculum?

Okay, so this is an unfair and rash summary of our many and varied approaches to implementing the NZC. It does, however, raise some very genuine issues around approaches to implementation and in particular the differing approaches we tend to adopt when looking to integrate the NZC into the junior school versus the senior school. With national qualifications generally out of the picture in Year 9 and Year 10 it would seem we are more likely to take a “principled” approach to NZC implementation. It is almost as if the lack of formal national assessment frees us to focus on the “front end” of the NZC. Without NCEA in the picture we can allow principles, values and key competencies to come into focus and in some cases even form a structure or framework for our programme design. The implementation of the NZC in the junior school, it would seem, is more likely to be explicit, with the values and key competencies being highlighted in the classroom, being referred to by the students and in some cases even being assessed and reported on.

However when we hit Year 11 and NCEA comes trotting into view, an interesting thing happens. The “front end” of the NZC seems to diminish or in some cases even disappear from the picture altogether. Instead NCEA now provides the framework and structure for our programme design. Achievement Standards (or a combination there of) replace values and key competencies. Whilst this is a rather harsh generalisation, when it comes to senior programme design it is hard to argue the fact that assessment comes to the forefront and the principles of the NZC (values and competencies) seem to be thrust to the background or erased altogether. You may argue that the “front end” of the NZC is still implicit in your planning. But is it? Really?

Attitudes and approaches to NZC implementation could be seen as falling into four areas, or what I refer to as the quartiles of curriculum implementation. Consider any one course that you teach. Would you describe your approach to implementation as explicit or implicit? Have you focused on the “front end” or the “back end” of the NZC document? Have you considered all aspects of the NZC in both your junior and senior programmes? 



So what is the right approach? Is there even a “right” approach? I guess only time will tell.

But of course, things have changed. Or have they?

So seven years on from implementation, where are we?

Firstly, the document itself has stood the test of time. The NZC document remains a world leader in future-focused, creative, innovative and delightfully permissive curriculum design. It balances the what Jane Gilbert labelled as the Traditionalist (Knowledge) with the Progressivist (student centred), i.e. the stuff at the back (learning areas and achievement objectives) is offset by the brilliant stuff at the front (key competencies, principles, pedagogy etc). In many ways we have made excellent progress.

However my key concern after listening to a number of awesome educators who have coherently implemented the curriculum is, I believe, we have a situation. A major situation.

More precisely, IMO, we are have a gaping freakin' chasm.

On one hand we have many educators and schools who have indeed implemented the curriculum coherently. These leaders are what I would describe as truely ethical school leaders. School leaders driven by a moral purpose who have determined that they would address the whole curriculum, even when they may feel that the government really only demands them to deliver National Standards and/or NCEA Level Two results. Leaders such as my own, Maurie Abraham, leading a reimagining of the secondary experience at HPSS, Barbara Cavanagh exemplifying the power of Impact Projects at ASHS, Sheryll Ofner who helped Selwyn College become 'SELWISE', Sarah Martin of Stonefields School and Russell Burt leading into the future at Pt England School. This list goes on, each and every leader I have worked with other the last two days had "it" in spades. A desire to genuinely put the needs of the learner ahead of the seemingly overwhelming demand for data, data, data and results.

On the other hand, we have the rest. The schools and leaders who have stayed with 'traditionalist' approaches and have either addressed the 'progressivist' stuff through lip service...or not at all. These are the schools who are either so weighed down by the demands of meeting achievement targets, they can't see past them (these people need our support), or more infuriating we have the oft described "top schools" who meet the achievement targets with ease and seem to coast along resting on the laurels of a high decile rating, bulging school roll and top of leaderboard/Metro magazine placing. And the worst thing is, there seems be little challenging their *hands clasped behind head, feet up on the desk* position. Goddam people. That is bloody disappointing.

So what can we do?

Many ideas were discussed and shared over the last two days. Note - not everyone may view the situation quite as I do. People agreed on one thing though - our curriculum is kickass. Let's just ensure we make the most of it.

Many suggested the need to amplify and share the success stories.

School leaders were continuously seen as the solution...and the problem. Ethical, proactive leaders are doing it. Others are not. How do we address this?

There was discussion about the need to address Principal appointment processes - self-managing schools make their own appointments. This means Boards of Trustees (who we must remember are simply a group of interested parents) are entrusted to appoint their leaders. Do they understand what a future focused leader looks like? Or do they look to the past, to the leader that they looked up to in a different time, thereby perpetuating an industrial model of leadership? Do we need to ensure there is a mechanism that ensures an educational expert is involved?

Another issue raised was the lack of Principal support and development. Do we need an apprenticeship model or something ongoing that looks beyond the First-time Principals Programme? What happens after that?

What about Principal appraisal? Does there need to be something that is nationally managed to ensure a consistent standard and make it possible for intervention and support to be more effectively introduced? Forget the National Aspiring Principals Programme, maybe we need the National Appraisal of Principals Project instead?

Do we need more specific standards for Principals? Standards that clearly demonstrate the 'principles in practice' required to implement a coherent future-focused, localised curriculum in every school.

And what about a Curriculum Leaders Institute that recognise Master Educators, think the educational equivalent of a Master Builders guild. Giving a recognised status to those leading the way. 

One thing that everyone agreed on, was the need to (re)start a national conversation. The NZC, not National Standards, NCEA or decile ratings, the purpose of the curriculum needs to be at the heart of a robust national conversation. Are we there yet? If not, why not? And what are going to do to rectify the situation? Here's hoping, if nothing else, this excellent NZC think tank is the beginning of that...and much much more.

Thank you to the MoE for an excellent couple of days.

Comments

  1. Great post, would love to have been a fly on the wall at that meeting! You have captured exactly my feelings about the NZC. The empowering nature of the NZC for schools to adapt as they see fit for their context is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. I would love to see some recognition for those leaders who have truly embodied the future focused spirit. Look forward to seeing where this all leads.

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  2. Thanks Claire for sharing the insights and elements of this NZC think tank, it's so useful and inspiring to know and to hear about these events. I like that you have highlighted the needs in the leadership space and in relation to this the appointment process, with regard to the nature of the make up of a BOT being primarily parents whom may not necessarily have the insight into what is needed in a leader who has the skills and vision for futures thinking, nice. Thanks

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  3. Great post, and I wholeheartedly agree that NZC is all you say it is and that it is woefully ignored by many in senior secondary, maybe ignored is the wrong word, maybe there is a lack of understanding amongst teachers as to how they can make it fit with the demands of NCEA . I think that is partly because time poor, stress rich teachers can't see a way out of the assessment rut they have been hostage to for so long. They need time and modelling to help them shift thinking and redesign how they approach NCEA. Maybe online assessment, if it is thought through thoroughly and reimagined will be the catalyst for that. I think the other important factor, especially for those high decile, academically successful schools, is parental pressure to keep on churning out credit baggers, and a fear that the year they try something new will impact on that cohort of students' results and result in a backlash from parents. So how do we change the perceptions of parents and help them to understand what the purpose of education/ school is? How do we persuade universities that Scholarship and Excellence grades are not what makes a successful student. From yr 11 to 13 we are still being driven from the top down; yr 9 & 10 are being pushed from the amazing work being done in primary schools. So maybe as teachers in junior secondary start to see how learning can be re-imagined and an imperative from a changing assessment landscape shifts thinking, the change will come?

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  4. The competitive model of NCEA that pist teachers, schools and students against each other works to negate and undermine the cooperative, collegial and group work implicit and explicit in the NZC. The prophets and inspirational leaders you speak of are bacons to us in this benighted land of NCEA yet it takes more than the handful of prophets: sarah, amos and abraham to light up our skies down below. It's not just the principals, BOTs and NCEA zealots that you need to address with the fruits of your works but the whole system that rewards a zero sum, profit lead and resource poor system. NCEA is pushing down into Year 10 as much as Nat Stands is creeping up from below. We are losing teh NZC war down here and it will take clear mandated leadership from on High to turn the tide away from increasingly competitive practices, internecine rivalry and individual accomplishment at the expense of the tribe. Its a good fight, its the right time but it will take one hell of a struggle to turn around the five armies of ncea, nzqa, nat standards, moe and academe. Kia Kaha, be strong once more onto the beaches at HPSS, Stonefields and Point England.

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