Why changing the curriculum never works

Everyone’s talking about curriculum right now. In England, Ofsted has made it a priority under the new inspection regime. Reforms are proposed in Wales, and in Scotland the debate about Curriculum for Excellence rages on. But what people aren’t talking about is the fact that existing research suggests curriculum reform is likely doomed to failure. Alex Quigley explains why transforming the curriculum is such a risky business
29th November 2019, 12:05am
Why A Changing Curriculum Never Works


Why changing the curriculum never works


In schools across England, the “c” word now dominates. It dictates staff meetings, permeates senior leadership vision documents, underpins teacher training days and guides planning sessions. It has burrowed deep into the psyche of the nation’s teachers.

In Wales, schools are just at the beginning of this transformation. In Scotland, it has been like this for some time already.

And yet, despite all this talk about curriculum - prompted by an Ofsted focus on it in England, the proposed transformation of it in Wales and the long-held debates on Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland - one issue has remained stubbornly ignored. Namely: all the evidence suggests that our best efforts in pursuit of curriculum change will likely fail.

This may seem puzzling. It is nothing new for experienced teachers to be grappling with curriculum changes. Most teachers have worked their way through multiple iterations of qualification shifts and curriculum reboots. Curriculum development is a fundamental part of a teacher’s life the world over.

So you would think that, by now, we would be good at redesigning and implementing a curriculum. You could assume that we have learned from researching what works with curriculum development.

Well, you’d be wrong. When you explore the evidence on curriculum development in schools, you find a legion of problems that are highly likely to beset our current efforts.

Best laid plans

The renewed emphasis on curriculum in England, and the discussions that have already taken place in Scotland and are starting to emerge in Wales, have been warmly received by the majority of teachers and leaders. Given that “data drops” and other extraneous jobs have eaten into the time of already busy teachers for so long, it is understandable that conversations about curriculum offer a nourishing alternative.

In England, an Ofsted pivot towards curriculum has meant secondary school teachers have been encouraged to consider afresh the “powerful knowledge” that underpins their subject. Primary school teachers have equally been prompted to ask important questions about the place of “foundation subjects”, the primacy of reading in the curriculum and more.

In Scotland, there was little dissent in 2002 when a “national conversation” proposed a more rounded education through Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), in which broader achievements would be put on an equal footing with academic attainment. And in Wales, teachers are being urged to think more holistically about the outcomes aspired to for children - with a push for the formation of ethical, creative citizens at the forefront.

But we have known for many years that turning vision into reality is very difficult when it comes to curriculum change. Nearly 50 years ago, curriculum expert Lawrence Stenhouse wrote sagely that: “The central problem of curriculum study is the gap between our ideas and aspirations and our attempt to operationalise them.” [1]

Unfortunately, little has changed. Big ideas and lofty curriculum plans too often fall flat.

Lessons from history

The recent history of the Common Core curriculum in the US is a good example. Released back in 2010, the Common Core Standards were adopted by most US states (a relatively rare occurrence). The curriculum was conceived to bring a new rigour to maths and English teaching. Texts for reading in the US became more difficult, as “building knowledge through content-rich non-fiction was foregrounded” [2]. Mathematics was instilled with a new-found rigour.

Unfortunately, though, even five years later, US teachers had many misconceptions about both the content and teacher practices expected in English and maths [3]. Not only that, curriculum resources weren’t well aligned and didn’t support teachers to help pupils get to grips with the curriculum [4].

In another example of curriculum roll-out issues, an Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) trial assessed a popular US curriculum programme adapted and brought to England. The Word and World Reading Programme was developed by the Curriculum Centre. This organisation is rooted in the ideas of US academic E D Hirsch - an influential figure in steering existing contemporary notions of a “knowledge-rich” curriculum.

However, though the curriculum-focused EEF trial showed that teachers in England thought positively of the curriculum, their “subject knowledge did not appear to be sufficient” for some of the curriculum topics [5]. Similar to the launch of the Common Core, the implementation of a new, more challenging curriculum was, unsurprisingly, hard for most teachers.

Another EEF trial - this time on Mathematics Mastery - undertaken at scale in English secondary schools let teachers in many of the trial schools increase their collaboration and develop many new teaching strategies. Overall, the trial led to improvements in pupil outcomes - showing that curriculum change can work - but the study also underlined how much support, in terms of materials and training, was needed [6].

The Scottish curriculum reform gives even more insights. Professor Mark Priestley, a curriculum expert based at the University of Stirling, wrote in Tes that he found many aspects of Curriculum for Excellence (in use since 2010) “problematic”, including “the lack of attention to knowledge, its over-specification via the experiences and outcomes (Es and Os) and benchmarks, and the distorting effects of accountability”. He concluded: “There is certainly a case for a wholesale review of the curriculum, and this may come in time.”

There have been wider concerns over confusion about the aims of the curriculum. Keir Bloomer, convener of the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s education committee and someone heavily involved in the birth of Curriculum for Excellence, has admitted that no attempt was made to explain proposed changes to the broader community or to engage the teaching profession in “any serious exploration of the big ideas and how they might be put into practice”, and that this was, in his view, Scotland’s first big mistake. “In short, too much was taken for granted. As a result, Curriculum for Excellence has always been subject to a myriad of conflicting interpretations,” he said.

Indeed, among teachers, initial enthusiasm has waned: while the underlying principles retain much support, and some schools say it has liberated them to offer students a more bespoke programme of learning, CfE has been beset by claims of unnecessary bureaucracy, increased teacher workload and confusion about its aims. Scotland’s decline in the Programme for International Student Assessment has not helped CfE’s case.

None of the above is surprising. What the research on curriculum development shows is that curriculum change is really, really hard to do well. And it tells us that, even in the supported conditions of a well-structured, funded EEF trial, with experts on hand, the best-laid curriculum plans were still a struggle for teachers to implement.

Indeed, the more we scrutinise the challenge of curriculum development, the more failures we uncover. With this in mind, let’s consider these five reasons why curriculum developments fail, as indicated by the research.

1. A lack of shared teacher knowledge: Do you like your knowledge “rich”, “powerful”, “disciplinary” or “declarative”? An awkward truth attending all the talk about the importance of knowledge, schema theory and similar is that teachers don’t share the same language. A lack of a shared teacher language - founded upon our highly variable system of teacher training (with no shared curriculum for teacher learning, ironically) - means that what gets enacted by teachers is always likely to be variable. Even in the same staffroom, we can have a really diverse understanding of curriculum concepts, despite sharing the same school CPD.

2. A lack of teacher time: Perhaps no reason is more critical or more obvious. Teachers are starved of time to do their job well. International surveys carried out by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development - such as Talis 2018 - show that teachers in England are overworked. The average hours worked per week by OECD teachers, a mere 38.8, is dwarfed by our hulking 46.9 hours figure. We should ask: what are we stopping? What ample and sustained training programme will help teachers to collaborate and meet the challenge of curriculum change? If we don’t address this issue, curriculum efforts will collapse in the face of workload pressure.

3. Curriculum misalignment: If you consider a five-year curriculum - in primary or secondary school - with topics neatly aligned in their best possible sequence, you are describing an act tantamount to a roomful of teachers all trying to grapple with a vast mountain of Rubik’s cubes. Some topics and subject domains pose obvious sequences, whereas many don’t. We often pose ideals of curriculum connectedness, but it is tricky. Yes, it would be great to address history, religion and worldly knowledge in multiple secondary subjects that would align neatly with the teaching of a Shakespeare text in English literature, but it seldom happens.

4. Our pupils’ reading ability: An important factor that often goes unsaid when considerations of more rigorous curricula are proposed is that many pupils struggle to read and access said curriculum. In 2018, 25 per cent of pupils began secondary school without having reached the “expected standard” in their Year 6 Sats reading assessment. We can design a beautiful Ferrari of a curriculum, but if our pupils can’t read complex texts, then they don’t possess the car keys.

5. Enduring myths about ‘what Ofsted wants’: This one is England-specific. Full credit to Ofsted for trying very hard to dispel the many myths that have emerged and clung on to its work. But already, new myths have emerged with its new framework. As reports under the new framework become more widely known, a rush to curriculum changes will no doubt gather pace. The painstaking five-year finessing of a well-enacted curriculum will often turn into a two-term sprint.

In addition to these points, schools must consider more than simply what knowledge and in what order. There is a need to consider teaching practices such as homework and our assessment and reporting approaches, as well as our CPD and time for teachers. Curriculum design cannot be undertaken in isolation - it is integrated into almost all of our school practices. Importantly, then, it is a significant teacher development issue.

All this should give us pause for thought regarding our current curriculum ambitions. Clearly, it is a significant implementation challenge that requires critical support factors, including ample time, great training, tools and resources, and more.

So in light of the above, where does this leave curriculum reform in schools?

We need to properly analyse the pitfalls awaiting us. Focusing on imminent failure like this when it comes to considering curriculum development may invite feelings of despair, but it needn’t. Instead, we should respond with pragmatism and humility. If we can commit to careful implementation, we can increase our chance of success, or at the very least mitigate our failures.

Professor Dylan Wiliam has bemoaned the “lack of attention” given to the process of curriculum development. In his pamphlet “Principled Curriculum Assessment”, he rightly characterised the “ad hoc” nature of many curriculum changes. If we are to avoid repeating such failures, we need to consider the challenge of curriculum more fully.

Here is what we need to have in place, planned and ready, before we begin to make the changes to curriculum we seek.

  • Teacher training
    If we don’t attend to teacher knowledge and development, our grand plans will fail. Only a well-crafted professional development system and high-quality training and coaching can support teachers facing the steep curriculum challenge.
  • Implement a one-in, one-out policy
    A simple, but vital, truth is that we must also consider what we will stop doing. So, can we limit data drops and internal tracking, or written marking, and other time-consuming tasks for teachers? If we can thin out the bureaucratic burdens placed on our teachers, using meeting time and CPD days to concentrate on curriculum and lesson planning, we offer an opportunity for meaningful success. If we fail to do so, we are walking teachers straight into a workload crisis.
  • Evaluate the research on implementation
    Crucially, we need to be evidence-informed about effective implementation. I work with the Education Endowment Foundation’s Research Schools Network to support school leaders and teachers to tackle complex challenges like curriculum development. The EEF guidance report entitled Putting evidence to work: a school’s guide to implementation is a great primer. It helps to guide, in an evidence-informed way, the notoriously difficult task of prioritising our efforts and doing fewer things better. School leaders can still attend to curriculum theories - like Michael Young’s notion of “powerful knowledge” - along with the evidence from cognitive science, such as spacing, retrieval practice, etc. However, such insights need to be translated into meaningful and manageable actions in every classroom. The “how” matters as much as the “what”.

Beyond these three points, there is the obvious concern regarding the pace of change. Successful curriculum change is neither easy nor quick. Schools considering Ofsted’s new framework may feel the need to adopt a speed of change that means mistakes are likely to be made. Focusing on these three must-haves we need to tackle right now will offer us a chance of success.

But even if we do all this, will all be well? We can avoid a curriculum catastrophe, but history shows us we should still expect to face failure. Given this chastening truth, let’s learn our lessons from the research and commit to a quiet, sustained curriculum change that every teacher can manage.

Alex Quigley is the national content manager at the Education Endowment Foundation. He has been a teacher and school leader for 15 years, going on to write books for teachers, including Closing the Vocabulary Gap

From the theory to the practice and what other schools around the UK are doing - get the latest insight, analysis, research and opinion on this hugely important foundation of education in How to build a curriculum - a Tes guide. Get your copy for £6.99 at tes.com/store/curriculum

This article originally appeared in the 29 November 2019 issue

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