Curriculum for Excellence was widely welcomed on its inception in 2004. Teachers gave a thumbs-up to its avowed intention to declutter the curriculum and greatly reduce the spectre of assessment-driven learning. Academics welcomed its openness, and apparent [re]turn to trusting teachers as professional curriculum developers. Overseas, CfE was widely seen as a remarkable departure from the sorts of technicist, prescriptive curriculum that had blighted schools for nigh on two decades.
Today we seem to stand in a different place. My daily Twitter feed and media stories speak a very different story: widespread disillusionment, even amongst many of those teachers who have been steadfast supporters of CfE; a widespread view amongst secondary teachers that the introduction of new, CfE-ready qualifications has been botched; and many teachers complaining about an increase in bureaucracy associated largely with the demands of assessment (something acknowledged by the government – see http://tinyurl.com/jwlhrae) and a concomitant intensification of workload. So has it gone wrong? Are we, as one teacher put it on Twitter, stuck in “the next reincarnation [of] 5-14 – also heralded at the time, then dumped”? If so, then how has it gone wrong? And more important, how do we learn from the lessons of this curriculum when we address the next wave of national curriculum reform. This post deals with the first set of questions, focusing on the issues that have affected the smooth enactment of CfE. I will return to the second set of questions – how we address these issues – in a future post in the next week or two.
It is helpful here to attempt to disentangle the multi-layered complexity of curriculum development as CfE is translated from policy to practice. I will therefore make my comments according to three layers of curricular contextualisation: macro (i.e. issues relating to high level policy); meso (i.e. issues related to the [re]interpretation of such policy by government and local agencies; and micro (i.e. issues relating to the enactment of policy within schools). Of course space precludes a detailed analysis so the following consists of headlines only, with links to applicable literature where relevant.
In 2010, Walter Humes and I published a paper titled The Development of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence: amnesia and déjà vu (see http://hdl.handle.net/1893/2110). This article outlines, drawing up some classical curriculum theory, some major structural issues that have, I believe, led to some quite predictable outcomes in terms of how local authorities and schools have approached school-based curriculum development. Put briefly, our argument is that CfE sought to combine at least two quite different and largely incompatible curriculum models. On the one hand, the Four Capacities (the attributes and capabilities rather than the slogans) represent some comprehensive and entirely useful curricular aims, which might act as a starting point for a process curriculum approach, deriving content and methods according to fitness for purpose. I will say more about this approach in my follow-up post, as I believe that it offers considerable potential to fix the current problems of CfE. On the other hand, the decision to structure learning around outcomes, set out as linear levels, is indicative of a different curriculum model, and a quite different starting point for curriculum planning. I believe that there have been two important consequences of this fundamental tension in the CfE model:
- A lack of clear specification of curriculum development processes, starting with the overarching principles set out under the headings of the Four Capacities, has led in many schools to an audit approach to the curriculum. This in turn has led to an incremental and piecemeal approach to implementation in many schools, resulting in superficial, first order changes and, often, an intensification of workload as one initiative is piled on top of another (for an extended discussion of these issues see http://hdl.handle.net/1893/11356).
- Another direct corollary of the adoption of the outcomes model is the tendency of outcomes to be treated as assessment standards. BTC5 is replete with references to the E&Os as standards, for example: “In Curriculum for Excellence, the standards expected for progression are indicated within the experiences and outcomes at each level” (p13) and “…assessment tasks and activities provide learners with fair and valid opportunities to meet the standards.” (p36). BTC5 defines a standards as “something against which we measure performance” (p11). Given the sheer number of such standards, it is not surprising that assessment has come to dominate CfE in much the same way that it dominated 5-14.
The above issues play out in terms of the meso-level processes through which the high-level curricular documents are recontextualised as guidance for schools. I would argue that much of the guidance has not clearly articulated systematic processes for curriculum development, reflecting a lack of capacity for such development and a lack of grounding in applicable curriculum development literature. A further problem is the tendency for successive [re]interpretation of the big ideas of the curriculum over time, leading to practices that, in many cases, are at odds with the original intentions enshrined in the 2004 documents. Again assessment provides a telling example. The 2004 documentation referred extensively to the need for assessment to support the principles of the curriculum. As late as 2007, the cover paper for the draft E&Os stated that they were expressly not for assessment – they “are not designed as assessment criteria in their own right” (CfE overarching cover paper, 2007). And yet, by 2010 the language had shifted markedly, as illustrated by the extracts quoted from BTC5 above. Under such circumstances, it does not take a great deal of imagination to see how the current bureaucratic overload has developed, exacerbated by a continued emphasis in Scotland on accountability through output regulation (see http://hdl.handle.net/1893/17793).
An evaluation of the very similar New Zealand Curriculum Framework (see http://tinyurl.com/cqxmzuq) suggested that a major reason for the early success of the new curriculum lay in the fact that policy had shifted into line with the constructivist views about education held by many teachers. This is manifestly not the case in Scotland, where transmissionist views about education (in terms of both content and pedagogy) are more common, and arguably at odds with the implicit constructivist thrust of the curriculum (another issue here is that aspects of this constructivism have never been made explicit – e.g. see http://hdl.handle.net/1893/3605). Our Highland research suggested that many teachers welcomed the new curriculum in principle (we call this first order engagement), but that there had been far less second order engagement, relating to how CfE fits with teachers’ implicit theories of knowledge and learning and thorough understandings of the underpinning ideas of the curriculum (see http://hdl.handle.net/1893/11356 for an extended discussion of this issue). This lack of fit has been exacerbated by the lack of substantive sense-making opportunities for teachers, due largely to poor resourcing, and the lack of clear processes for engagement (as discussed above).
The above discussion might be read as a savage criticism of CfE. It should not be. I fundamentally endorse the general direction of the curriculum, even if I am critical of aspects of the implementation model. I wholeheartedly welcome many of the changes to Scottish schooling that have accompanied CfE. These include a move to more dialogic approaches to learning, including group work, and an increased tendency for teachers to have conversations about learning. There is much to commend CfE, and the conversation we should be having relates to how it might realise its potential. The key challenge lies in how we differently engage Scotland’s highly professional teaching workforce in an educational initiative that should be a major opportunity for all – teachers, young people and the population in general. I will expand on this issue in part two of this post.