Teacher beliefs and curriculum development

It has been a busy couple of months and the blog has not seen any input from me for some time. Time to remedy this! Since September, I have been involved in two writing projects – a forthcoming book on Curriculum for Excellence and a paper, drawing upon data from our Highland project and relating to teachers’ views about CfE (see http://tinyurl.com/cjnyfvx).  I have also been heavily involved in talking with teachers, both through CPD activities and through student placement visits. Both sets of activities have provided a big insight into the genuine difficulties schools experience in implementing CfE. Both have also reinforced my view that teacher beliefs – about learning, about students and about life in general –play a significant role in the form that the implementation of a new curriculum will take.

Many of the factors that shape the implementation of CfE are, of course, structural. These include local authority and HMI systems of accountability, internal hierarchical structures in schools and timetabling, etc. Such factors shape innovation by providing the conditions and the resources which both make the new curriculum possible, and render certain possibilities problematic. Structural issues are significant (see for example our paper on relationships – http://tinyurl.com/7h6eznt). Getting the structures right is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for schools seeking to implement CfE effectively. However, even if structures are propitious to innovation, implementation can be deeply affected by cultural issues. These include teacher beliefs.

In a conversation with a New Zealand academic earlier this year, I asked why there new curriculum appeared to be more deeply embedded in schools than was the case with CfE. I was told that, despite structural problems, this was largely because teachers in New Zealand welcomed the new curriculum as something that was largely congruent with their principles and beliefs about learning. Put simply, the constructivist philosophy underpinning the New Zealand curriculum had brought national policy into line with the constructivist beliefs of the majority of teachers, and as such it was widely viewed as an opportunity to develop schooling.

So what does the research suggest about Scotland? The first point is very positive. Teachers participating in two research projects (20 interviews and around 700 questionnaire responses in Highland, and 6 teachers in the Agency project) largely demonstrated that they welcomed the general principles and big ideas of CfE. The majority of interviewees welcomed CfE, and said that it tied in with their own ideas and beliefs about education. Teachers described the Four Capacities as ‘a strong hook’; ‘exceptionally important’; and ‘a brilliant idea’. CfE was seen as having the potential to ‘refresh’ teaching and to encourage teachers to reflect on their own practices. In our paper (see http://tinyurl.com/cjnyfvx) we term this first order engagement.

However, the picture is far less encouraging in respect of what we term second order engagement. Second order engagement relates to how CfE fits with teachers’ implicit theories of knowledge and learning, and whether there has been a thorough engagement with the underpinning ideas of the curriculum. There seem to be two aspects to this. The first is simply lack of time for teachers to meet to make sense of the new ideas presented by CfE; in my travels, I have come across few schools where such time has been freely available, and the result is often uncertainty about what CfE actually means – both in principle and practice. Second, and perhaps more fundamental, there are questions about whether the assumptions within CfE about learning and knowledge are congruent with teachers’ own implicit theories of learning and knowledge. CfE advocates a broadly constructivist view of learning, at least implicitly. Thus, there are notions that students learn best through active engagement and experience, and through dialogue with other learners. Our research suggests, conversely, that many teachers, particularly in secondary schools, harbour implicit transmissionist views of knowledge and learning, viewing it as delivery of content, whether or not organised into discrete subjects. The situation seems to be further muddied in some primary schools by practices which construe curriculum development as evidencing, assessing and reporting students’ achievement of outcomes. This is likely to be a continuation of 5-14 practices, and is clearly apparent in the use of the assessment categories developing, consolidating and secure which effectively create levels within levels, and which greatly add to the complexity of developing CfE.

Such tendencies appear to be exacerbated by teachers’ grounding in dominant discourses of education, framed by policy, and manifested through the use of policy-speak to conceptualise education issues. We were struck by many teachers’ recourse to the language of CfE to describe their practice. We are convinced that this is disabling to professional practice for a number of reasons; this discourse limits professional dialogue by narrowing the professional language with which teachers can analyse and enact policy in a critical manner; and it focuses primarily on technical processes rather than on substantive questions about the purposes of education. This latter point is especially serious as it means that classroom practice potentially becomes divorced from educational purposes. This is something that was empirically evident in our research; many of the teachers, despite being experienced and conscientious practitioners, seemed unable to articulate long term educational purposes for their practices, being primarily being focused on the here and now – especially keeping classes occupied and engaged.

So how do we address these issues? The methodology of collaborative professional enquiry offers one possible solution. By engaging teachers with educational research literature in a practice-focused manner, it addresses the issue of sense-making, and over time provides teachers with the professional and conceptual tools to develop practice that is fit for purpose. There are, of course, problematic issues. Professional Enquiry is time intensive and resource heavy. It requires commitment from teachers and schools leaders. And of course we run the risk that engaged, knowledgeable and active professional teachers may well reject CfE once they have engaged seriously with it. But maybe that is a good thing, so long as the decisions are made from a position of knowledge, engagement and teacher activism….