In recent years, as contributors to our edited book Reinventing the Curriculum (Priestley and Biesta 2013) illustrated, we have witnessed changing fashions in curriculum policy. A particular trend is an apparent reinstatement of the teacher as an active agent of change in developing the curriculum. And yet, as I hope my recent work has also shown (e.g. Priestley, Biesta & Robinson 2015), this construction of the teacher is inherently problematic for a number of reasons. First, teachers are a product in many ways of the systems within which and by means of which they work, and their professional language and professional practices are heavily shaped by their working environments. Second, teachers have had their work significantly circumscribed in recent years by heavy-duty curriculum regulation. This takes two main forms: input regulation, which is prescription of what is to be taught and how it should be taught (England’s 1990 National Curriculum is a good example of this sort of ‘teacher-proof curriculum’); and output regulation, which includes measurement of the outcomes of teachers work through inspections and league tables. The latter form of regulation is arguably more pernicious in its effects on teachers’ working practices, in that it has been shown to encourage performative cultures where, for example, schools become more concerned with fabricating an external image of efficiency and attainment than with developing educational practice. Third, teachers are often obliged to work in isolation, or at best in small groups within single schools. Such working can encourage an inward-looking approach to practice and discourage innovation, largely because teachers are deprived of access to relational and cognitive resources (e.g. ideas, support from colleagues in other schools, access to expertise and research findings).
In such an environment, it is hardly surprising that the aspirational aims of curricula such as Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), are hard to enact. In thinking about this issue, I am continually drawn to a metaphor inspired by the rather irritating and repetitive announcements that continually blare out when one travels by train – that is ‘mind the gap’. I note here the current popularity of this term in current discourses about achievement and social disadvantage, but I am talking here about a different kind of gap altogether. Some literature describes this gap as the one between policy and practice. This has been widely discussed, often in terms that place schools in deficit and teachers as the villains, confounding the best intentions of the worthy curriculum planners. I believe this view of curriculum development as fidelity between policy and practice is wholly misleading and extremely unhelpful. It also suggests that the notion of the teacher as an agent of change is really only about teachers implementing other people’s externally mandated change, rather than them being genuinely agentic in their work.
Instead we should be minding a different type of gap altogether. This is the gap between educational purpose and educational practice. Our teacher agency and curriculum research studies in Scotland suggests strongly that the connection between the two, even in the case of highly accomplished teachers, can be quite tenuous. We witnessed many examples of teachers working to short term goals (e.g. keeping classes occupied) or longer term goals which were more narrowly instrumental in nature (e.g. raising attainment, which can only ever be an imprecise proxy for a good education). Often purposes of education were conflated with methods, so that approaches such as cooperative learning, for instance, became the end of education planning rather than its means. Manifestly absent in many settings were longer term goals, such as a concern for equipping young people to live in a democracy as active and critically engaged citizens, with a concern and capacity to challenge deep underlying social inequalities and injustices.
I would argue that a root cause of this gap lies in the ways in which policy is framed at a national macro-level, and in its subsequent re-interpretation at the meso-level by bodies such as Education Scotland and local authorities. In the case of CfE, we have seen national policy framed as hundreds of learning outcomes, which can encourage narrow, reductionist approaches to developing practices, often typified by the audit of existing content against the outcomes, and a tick-the-box approach to implementing the curriculum. We have also seen a plethora of national and local guidance, as people (often removed from classrooms) have sought to interpret the curriculum for teachers. What has been lacking is a clearly articulated set of processes to allow professional practitioners to interpret and make sense of the curriculum for themselves, with suitable support (cognitive resources, critical friends etc.) to challenge the existing preconceptions that might lead to the new curriculum simply being interpreted through the lenses of existing practices. CfE was, after all heralded as being about transformational change, but how many schools can claim this has happened? I would further argue here that a more appropriate methodology for managing and promoting engagement with the new curriculum would have led to quite different results, leading to a closer articulation between the big ideas that should underpin educational practice and school-based practices themselves, and more critically engaged teachers who can become genuinely agents of change. In other words this would foster the development of curricular practices that are fit-for-purpose. In my next post, I will outline a project that has sought to do just this, with some interesting results.
More to follow in a few days…..
Priestley, M. & Biesta, GJJ (Eds.) (2013). Reinventing the Curriculum: New Trends in Curriculum Policy and Practice. London: Bloomsbury Academic
Priestley, M., Biesta, G.J.J. & Robinson, S. (2015). Teacher Agency: An Ecological Approach. London: Bloomsbury Academic.