Social networks and curriculum development

I have been enjoying the sunshine, scenery and seafood in Vancouver, while attending the AERA conference. This conference is massive, with over 15,000 delegates and a telephone directory instead of a programme. The highlight of the conference for me was Cynthia Coburn’s excellent keynote address (see for her work). I was pleased to find that her conclusions supported the work on relationships that is emerging from our current Teacher Agency and Curriculum Change project (ESRC – RES-000-22-4208 ) – see for the paper we gave at AERA.

Coburn suggests that the quality of teacher social networks is a highly important factor in developing curricular reform. She identifies 4 key themes, which should be of interest to schools seeking to meaningfully implement CfE.

  1. Social interaction is a major factor in shaping teachers’ responses to innovation. In particular, the ways in which teachers are able to draw upon social networks determine the ways in which they make sense of new ideas – whether they simply shoehorn new ideas into existing practices, or whether they genuinely engage with new ideas and potentially change existing practices.
  2. The nature of social interaction is shaped by leaders. Coburn provided persuasive empirical evidence to support the role of principals and other school leaders in articulating a clear vision for reform, and in establishing the spaces where sense making might take place through collegial dialogue.
  3. The nature and structure of interaction matters. This especially resonates with our research, which suggests that teachers in schools where there are established channels for horizontal communication (i.e. between faculties) exhibit enhanced levels of agency in their work. This contrasts sharply with schools where channels of communication tend to be mainly vertical (i.e. top-down), where teachers seem more likely to exhibit learned helplessness in the face of externally-driven reform. We also suggest (as did Coburn) that teachers with external relationships are likely to have greater access to resources (e.g. access to new ideas) than their colleagues who work entirely within one school.
  4. Social networks are shaped by external environments and policy. School districts in Coburn’s study were significant in providing resources (money and concepts), pointing teachers to other resources, legitimating collegial activity and providing forums for teachers to work with external people. I suggest also that local authorities in Scotland and national agencies should play a significant role in supporting networking (and this is developing), but that they should also consider the potential impact of policies in reducing such activity (e.g. the negative impact of accountability practices).

Scottish local authorities have taken great steps in the last year or two to develop formal teacher learning communities. And yet my suspicion is that we could be doing more to develop the sorts of informal teacher networks that help teachers to make sense of often complex and confusing new policy. This is about developing genuinely collegial cultures as well as new structures for collaborative working. It is fundamentally about understanding the conditions in which such networks get established, and the processes which make them become sustainable. Coburn’s seminal work is a great resource in this respect.


CfE in Highland Council

The media tsunami accompanying our CfE reserch was to be expected. The alarmist picture of CfE presented in some quarters has, as ever, some basis in  the research – but (and this is a big ‘but’) we have seen substantial exaggeration and the inevitable use of the research to pursue political advantage. Indeed there has been some correspondence about this in the media – see The example from the Daily Telegraph cited below appears to be another case in point.

For me, a frustrating aspect of this has been an implication reported in some quarters of the media that the issues in the report apply mainly to the local authority, the Highland Council. I do not believe this to be the case. As I pointed out in a previous post, Highland has been in many ways ahead of the game in developing CfE. The development project that accompanied this research was aptly titled ‘Building upon success’, and we chose to work with Highland because it offered innovative approaches to CfE which could be adopted usefully elsewhere. (note ‘this does not mean, as stated by the Daily Telegraph, that the situation is worse than suggested in the report  – headline: Report may downplay teachers’ worries over curriculum, says author‘. We absolutely refute such inferences, and have never stated anything like this.

Highland has a long tradition of developing active and participative pedagogy. It was at the forefront of AifL after 2002, moving quickly beyond the bog-standard tick-box approaches so common elsewhere (e.g.  AifL techniques). The council developed a purposes-led approach to AifL in particular and pedagogy in general, articulating four key principles – participation; engagement; dialogue; and thinking. This framework for learning, available at, has been widely praised

Highland has also innovated in terms of teacher professional learning and curriculum development. A FLaT project in 2007 developed exemplary approaches to teacher learning communities well before they were adopted in many local authorities (see for example I have been continually impressed with the very many innovative, skilled and dedicated teachers that I have encountered through my work in Highland.

Highland should be congratulated for participating in this much needed research – the point of which was to inform the future development of what most in educational circles agree is a necessary reform to update schooling in Scotland.

Scottish government reaction to CfE research

According to the BBC website, a government spokeswoman had the following to say about the research (which incidentally was conducted in tandem with a project funded by them).

“This research is based on information collected in the previous school year in a single council area and great strides have been made since then to ensure effective implementation and build the confidence of teachers.

“The relevant council, we understand, has already learnt from the findings of the research and has reviewed its implementation programme, building on the strengths identified in the report, and addressed areas where further work is required.” (source

I have two immediate reactions to this apparent dismissal of the research findings.

  1. The implication here (repeated elsewhere) that the research is out of date is interesting. Actually, the survey part of the data was collected in September 2011 (during this school year), so the assertion is factually incorrect. Furthermore, the general picture of CfE provided by this research is mirrored by more recent research activity – the EIS survey, and our ongoing project on teacher agency in a different local authority. And let’s not forget that this is what teachers seem to be saying universally – as anyone who regularly talks to them will know.
  2. A second implication is that this situation might only apply to the ‘single’ local authority. It does not, as is evidenced by the research cited above. Indeed, this council was chosen for the government-funded project because it was innovating in response to CfE in ways that were distinctive and in many ways ahead of the national picture.

A major goal of the project was to generate insights as to how curriculum development might be improved. These are laid out in the final two pages of our report. So let’s use these insights to look to the future, making CfE a curriculum that Scotland can be genuinely proud of.

Media coverage of research

Analysis of the media coverage of our CfE research is a fascinating (and at times frustrating) exercise. When releasing research into a controversial area like this, I am always nervous about the potential for it to be misrepresented, or used to pursue some pre-existing political agenda. In today’s media, some reports are fairly balanced, and have sought to report what was actually in the research . For example, The Herald has stuck to facts, and refreshingly acknowledged that CfE was a policy set up by the previous Labour administration – see By implication, this is therefore not the SNP’s curriculum.

It is worth noting here that CfE does has all party support, and therefore criticisms by Labour and the Conservatives reported in the Scotsman – see – lack some credibility. It is also difficult to see what these parties might do differently. Mike Russell has  done what they presumably would also have done, in terms of additional support and guidance. And let’s not forget that the SNP was responsible for rewriting the Building the Curriculum series so that they became more intelligible.

The Scotsman article is especially interesting. The article itself reports much of the substance of our research, and deserves some congratulations for getting complex detail right. In particular, I would endorse the article on its coverage of the very mixed picture of implementation – while some schools are entering into the spirit of CfE, many are following the letter of the law, and reform is less extensive than might have been envisaged. However, the headline – Failure at the heart of school reform – largely misrepresents what we had to say. At no stage did we talk about failure, and I reiterate here that reform such as CfE is a long game, requiring a substantial shift in the culture of schooling. Such reform does not take place over night.

But why take the media’s word for this? Read the report yourself – And make up your own mind. And especially focus on the latter part of the report, something which has been largely missed by the media. This comprises some suggestions as to how CfE might be implemented more effectively.

Curriculum for Excellence: new research

CfE is generally viewed as a landmark development in Scottish education which calls for a shift in classroom practices towards more pupil centred approaches to education.  This is accompanied by a renewed view of teachers as professional developers of the curriculum and agents of change, and a new emphasis on flexible, local planning. However, despite the far-reaching implications of this innovation, there has been little systematic research to date on the new curriculum. Today, we publish some research which partially fills this gap, primarily exploring teachers’ views of the new curriculum, and the nature and extent of implementation.

The research was conducted in tandem with a Scottish Government funded partnership project, established between a Scottish local authority and the University of Stirling. The project contributed to the development of CfE within the authority by providing explicit support for curriculum development to a number of different networks of practitioners. The research aimed to identify effective practices of curriculum implementation and teachers’ professional learning in the context of CfE. It also produced insights to inform sustainable, large-scale curriculum change and support for teachers’ professional learning. We anticipate that the findings will help to positively inform existing changes to the curriculum within Scotland.

The summary of the research findings are:

  • The majority of teachers welcomed in general the principles of CfE. However there was, in many cases, a lack of fit between the philosophy of the new curriculum at a more fundamental level and teachers’ views of knowledge and learning. In practice, this led to difficulties in implementing CfE. Related to this, many teachers found the guidance and terminology associated with CfE confusing and ‘vague’.
  • Many teachers said they were making progress in implementation, but this was accompanied by increases in workload, a lack of confidence and some anxiety about the directions taken within CfE. Progress in the implementation of CfE has been variable across and within schools. In general primary schools have made more progress than secondary schools.
  • Schools that have taken a long-term, big picture approach to implementing CfE have made progress. In some schools, implementation consisted of checking whether existing practice fits with the Experiences and Outcomes of CfE. In some cases this has led to strategic compliance with the new curriculum and fragmented, minimal changes to practice.
  • Many teachers also perceived mixed messages in policy relating to CfE. They pointed to tensions between the ‘big ideas’ of the curriculum and the finer detail of the Experiences and Outcomes. There were also tensions between the open ways of working advocated within CfE, and a continued emphasis on accountability driven by pressures to raise attainment. Such tensions further intensified the difficulties (and risks) experienced in implementing CfE.
  • There has been insufficient time allocated in many schools for the sorts of high-quality teacher dialogue required to make sense of what are complex and often novel concepts around teaching and learning. Where opportunities for such dialogue have been made available (for example through the authority’s specialist subject working groups), a greater clarity and sense of purpose has emerged about CfE, and implementation has been enhanced.

This research points to a number of implications both for school practices and for future curriculum policy in Scotland – nationally and within local authorities. It suggests that implementation has been less problematic where schools have been able to develop and articulate a clear vision for CfE.

A research report is available for download from the project website at: