Mind the gap: curriculum development through Critical Collaborative Professional Enquiry (part one)

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.

Should we welcome Scotland’s National Improvement Framework?

The recent announcement that Scotland is to institute a system of national, standardised assessment in schools has aroused a wave of anger and anxiety amongst the teaching profession – and with good cause. The impact of high-stakes assessment – that is high-stakes primarily for schools and teachers – has been well-documented. For example, there is a wealth of evidence illustrating its negative effects in the No Child Left Behind policy in the USA (e.g. see: Berliner 2011; Dee and Jacob 2011; Hursh 2005; Nichols and Berliner 2007). Similarly, scholars have been highly critical of the impact of assessment policy introduced by successive governments in England (e.g. Alexander 2011; West 2010). In Australia, and with worrying implications for Curriculum for Excellence, the introduction of the NAPLAN assessment framework has seriously undermined the innovative Queensland New Basics curriculum, which had inspired the original development of CfE (e.g. see: Lingard and McGregor 2013; Thompson and Harbaugh 2013).

The National Improvement Framework draft document itself is a further cause for concern. The document makes a case for generating evidence to improve schooling, but is actually rather inconsistent in its own treatment of evidence. For example, the foreword by the First Minister talks confidently about ‘the successful implementation’ of the curriculum and about how CfE has ‘transformed the quality of children’s learning, and their confidence and motivation’ (p.1). At best, these are unevidenced claims in the absence of a systematic evaluation of CfE; at worst they are inaccurate, given that the rather limited existing research on CfE suggests a more mixed picture of partial implementation and often minimal and strategic changes to practice (e.g. see: Priestley and Minty 2013; Drew, Priestley and Michael, in press). There is a need for more  clarity in some of the key precepts of the Framework. For instance, is the purpose of the new standardised assessment formative, and in what ways? Or is it summative, and if so why? Or is the purpose of the data to be generated to evaluate the performance of schools. The Framework seems to suggest all three, and yet is not clear on how this will play out, or indeed about the various pitfalls in each.

It is in the usage of assessment data for evaluation of schools that the greatest pitfalls lie. The Framework lauds the freedom afforded to teachers by CfE, and yet its very existence might be said to threaten that freedom. Indeed, it is debateable that CfE has brought greater freedom to schools, as I have suggested elsewhere (e.g. see: Priestley 2014; Priestley, Biesta and Robinson 2015). The basic issue lies in the distinction between different forms of curriculum regulation. CfE can be claimed to afford greater autonomy because it has relaxed input regulation (i.e. the specification of content and methods). However, this needs to be balanced against output regulation (public accountability through, for example, the use of external inspections and evaluative use of assessment data). My view is that output regulation has eroded school autonomy in many countries more effectively than did any tightly prescribed curriculum. This is because such regulation leads schools to perform – to fabricate image to meet inspection demands, and to teach to the test. A consequence of this, as has been amply demonstrated in the research cited above, has been a narrowing of the curriculum and an erosion of what might be called educational decision-making, as schools develop highly performative cultures (in fact this trend is evident across a range of public services from hospitals to railways). Scotland already has high levels of output regulation, which in my view have impeded the full development of CfE. The new standardised assessment system may exacerbate this.

The above criticisms might suggest that I am wholeheartedly opposed to the new moves to generate system data to improve the educational outcomes of young people, especially those traditionally disadvantaged. In fact, I am not. For a start, I recognise the importance of addressing under-achievement and thus support the aims of the framework. Second, education systems need rigorous data, and arguably Scotland’s attempts to improve its schools have been hamstrung by a lack of such data, including robust research evidence on the enactment of CfE. Third, the introduction of a national system is simply recognising a de facto situation, given that 30 out of 32 Scottish local authorities are already using standardised assessment systems to track progress. It could be argued that by bringing this in-house, the government is introducing greater quality control and standardisation, with the potential to prevent poor and inappropriate use of data by local authorities.

However, the above ‘opportunities’ are subject to some major caveats. First, there needs to be more clarity about what sort of data is sought and how the data will be used – and importantly there needs to be clarity about how it will not be used. It is disingenuous to claim that Scotland does not have league tables, when local authorities use such data – and have done so for years – to compare schools. Second, the government needs to be more rigorous and less selective in how it uses research data. It would be good to see government documents explicitly citing sources, rather than making general statements such as ‘there is a strong body of evidence about the key factors of a successful education system’ (as it does in the Framework, p.3). It would be good to see a more active engagement by the government and its agencies with education scholars who have expertise in this area. And finally, it would be good to see a publicly funded research programme to generate data about the impact of this initiative as it unfolds (with the guarantee that policy will respond to such findings, rather than ignoring them if inconvenient).

NB. The official Stirling School of Education response to the Framework can be found at http://www.stir.ac.uk/education/school-responses/response-to-the-draft-national-improvement-framework-for-scottish-education/.

Alexander, R. (2011) Evidence, rhetoric and collateral damage: the problematic pursuit of ‘world class’ standards. Cambridge Journal of Education, 41 (3), pp. 265-286.
Berliner, D. (2011) Rational responses to high stakes testing: The case of curriculum narrowing and the harm that follows. Cambridge Journal of Education, 41 (3), pp. 287-302.
Dee, T.S. and Jacob, B. (2011) The impact of No Child Left Behind on student achievement. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 30 (3), pp. 418-446.
Drew, V., Priestley, M. and Michael, M. (in press) Curriculum Development Through Critical Collaborative Professional Enquiry. Journal of Professional capital and Culture.
Hursh, D. (2005) The growth of high‐stakes testing in the USA: accountability, markets and the decline in educational equality. British Educational Research Journal, 31 (5), pp. 605-622.
Lingard, B. and McGregor, G. (2013) High-Stakes Assessment and New Curricula: A Queensland Case of Competing Tensions in Curriculum Development1. In: M. Priestley and G. Biesta (eds.) Reinventing the curriculum: new trends in curriculum policy and practice. London: Bloomsbury Academic, pp. 207-228.
Nichols, S.L. and Berliner, D.C. (2007) Collateral damage: How high-stakes testing corrupts America’s schools. Harvard Education Press. Cambridge, MA.
Priestley, M. and Minty, S. (2013) Curriculum for Excellence: ‘A brilliant idea, but..’. Scottish Educational Review, 45 (1), 39-52.
Priestley, M. (2014) Curriculum regulation in Scotland: A wolf in sheep’s clothing is still a wolf. European Journal of Curriculum Studies, 1 (1), 61-68.
Priestley, M., Biesta, G.J.J. and Robinson, S. (2015) Teacher Agency: An Ecological Approach. London, Bloomsbury Academic.
Thompson, G. and Harbaugh, A.G. (2013) A preliminary analysis of teacher perceptions of the effects of NAPLAN on pedagogy and curriculum. The Australian Educational Researcher, 40 (3), pp. 299-314.
West, A. (2010) High stakes testing, accountability, incentives and consequences in English schools. Policy & Politics, 38 (1), pp. 23-39.