Monthly Archives: February 2021

Curriculum makers and thinkers: the case for curriculum studies in teacher education

Author: Richard Pountney, SIG Lead

A presentation made as part of the BERA British Curriculum Forum event: Researching Curriculum Subjects: understanding how teachers plan, design, and lead the curriculum

Teachers’ planning and design of the curriculum often brings into question how teachers learn to do this important task and how they understand the purpose and their role in curriculum making. In this talk I discuss the role that teachers currently have in producing and enacting the curriculum, and the degree of autonomy they have and how this affects participation and engagement. The influence of initial teacher education and the proposed Early Career Framework (ECF) in England on how teachers approach this work is examined. The problem of the ‘pedagogical imperative’ is considered and the notion of teachers as curriculum thinkers is proposed as a way forward to provide teachers and schools with a principled approach to curriculum work. To advance this notion the case for curriculum studies as an integral element of teacher education is made.

[excerpts from the talk] I want to start with some observations on this being ‘a time for the curriculum’. First there is I think a re-emergence in curriculum thinking about the purpose of education. Second, there is a concurrent shift in what we understand as the quality of the curriculum, in which teachers have an important part to play as curriculum makers. This is evident in the new schools’ inspection framework and the emphasis on the importance of children developing a deep body of knowledge. So how do teachers produce the curriculum and to what extent does the mandated curriculum promote or hinder teachers’ participation in this?

Teachers as curriculum makers

The day-to-day work that teachers do is mainly in delivering the curriculum that is made by others, particularly early in a teacher’s career. Syllabuses are followed, and national curriculum adhered to and this is the default position for most teachers. Given the time pressures of busy schools, timetables, and classrooms, it is perhaps not surprising that teachers’ repertoires of curriculum production are limited to schemes of work and lesson plans. But we need to know more about these practices, how teachers enact the curriculum, what this entails, when it takes place.  The first statutory National Curriculum for England and Wales was introduced by the Education Reform Act in 1988. Welcomed by teachers initially, as the inclusive means to develop the curriculum, it has become perceived as state-control over content matter to be taught, and an associated, reduction of teachers’ agency in deciding what their pupils need.  The idea of the curriculum as process rather than product resonates with Stenhouse’s ideas on the curriculum: which he says is a function of knowledge … that does not determine behaviour but liberates it’. Teachers might also take heart from the statement that Ofsted inspectors will ‘judge schools that take radically different approaches to the curriculum fairly. They will assess a school’s curriculum favourably when leaders have built a curriculum with appropriate coverage, content, structure and sequencing and implemented it effectively.’

However, teachers main concern is with the delivery of the curriculum – the day job as they might see it. This involves interpreting national curricula, developing schemes of work, and making sets of, or individual, lesson plans and this is essentially an individual task, based on a repertoire that the teacher builds up over time.  The main activity in curriculum preparation is the selection, sequencing and pacing of subject content knowledge into forms suitable for teaching, such as schemes of work, topic plans and individual lesson plans. A recent US report shows that teachers spend 7-12 hours per week searching for and modifying materials. Teachers often equate the materials, or artefacts, they use to content, and these material realisations of curriculum work, as curriculum objects, are not all made by the teacher themselves.

Traditionally, especially in secondary education, teachers have used course ‘textbooks’, authored by subject specialist experts (often other teachers). Increasingly, however, teachers are becoming reliant on materials created by third-parties, including free resource banks of teaching materials, and more recently by paid-for subscription to academic publishers. This positions teachers as consumers as well as producers of education material, that they accommodate into their work. The quality control and coherence of these materials can vary, and this leads to the argument that this is better left to authorised producers of educational content.

National schemes are being commissioned for core subjects to be provided as ‘oven-ready’ to schools. Behind this is the DFE report on curriculum support resources in schools in 2018, suggesting that teachers commonly adapt resources to tailor content particularly for pupils with SEN or EAL, but less commonly tailor resources to provide challenge for higher ability pupils, especially at secondary level. While reducing the workload of busy teachers, there are negative outcomes in the outsourcing of the oven-ready curriculum, including the lack of local context, important for student engagement – it might also be seen a cynical political move to build the case for subject specialism in order that out-sourcing of the curriculum can take place and where the capacity and competence of teachers to deliver the curriculum is called into question.

Curriculum expertise

The argument that ‘good’ teachers are adaptive ones, suggests an expectation that ‘good’ teachers can knock up a good curriculum on the hoof. It assumes that teachers know the curriculum well enough – to have fluency in it and to be able to exercise judgement in what is appropriate and what works – and have the basics skills to select, sequence and pace. However, these basics are not easily acquired – for example knowing how long to spend on a curriculum topic, and critically, when to move on is an essential pacing skill developed over time. Left to chance these sequencing and pacing skills become predominantly in-the-moment, pedagogical decisions – they are focused on delivery – on what I have to teach the next day. Teachers also feel they have little control over the curriculum, and this contributes to a low sense of job satisfaction, with effects on teacher retention.

The importance of teachers’ subject knowledge is recognised in England in the DfE’s Early Career Framework (ECF), introduced to provide a professional development programme for early career teachers (ECTs) at the start of their careers. This provides an entitlement to two-year programme of professional development mapped to the Teachers Standards, designed to help early career teachers to develop their practice, knowledge, and working habits. The ECF asks teachers to articulate their understanding of how subject knowledge is developed over time and techniques they have used such as sequencing of content and assessing understanding. A key point here is that all subjects are structured by key ideas, concepts, or collection of ideas, including specific subject skills, that shape how the subject is understood and developed, and this is important at all phases of schooling. Notable, also, is the emphasis on ensuring pupils have relevant domain-specific knowledge, especially when being asked to think critically within a subject. This is often short-circuited by the need for expediency in busy classrooms. Again, the idea of the adaptive teacher arises, one whose secure subject knowledge can help pupils to build increasingly complex mental models.

Teachers as curriculum thinkers

It is not surprising that when planning schemes of work and lesson plans teachers are concerned with how they will teach, including how to motivate and engage pupils. However, the degree to which the teacher can individualise a lesson is limited, leading to a tendency towards generic learning-focused activities. Topic planning and systematic attention by the teacher to the topic’s proposition, tends therefore to be circumspect leading to weaker coherence between the concepts and content. While this pedagogical imperative is ever present it is the demands of teaching that dominate the here and now, or at least restrict foresight in planning to the near future, rather than  teachers lacking concentration on curriculum and its structure. I would also acknowledge an alternative view that teachers are exerting their autonomy when they focus primarily on how they teach over what they teach, as a sphere they have most influence over.

Noticeable here then is the notion of Pedagogy as proxy for curriculum (pedagogy trumps curriculum – As Dylan Williams articulates,  ‘… pedagogy is curriculum, because what matters is how things are taught, rather than what is taught”. This disregard is exacerbated by the current pluralism in pedagogy – that all flavours of pedagogy are OK as long as learning is taking place. There is a swing back against this arising from the EEF evaluation tools, that discredit some of the more arcane pedagogies and pedagogical strategies, whilst also possibly promoting an outcomes-based focus over teachers’ decision making, leading to an instrumental process.

The pedagogical imperative however is a pragmatic response rather than a principled one. It has a particular impact on teachers’ capacity and willingness to engage in curriculum making especially in curriculum subjects where the structure of conceptual knowledge is less clearly defined. For this we need the scholarship and language of the curriculum, and skills in leading the curriculum.

Curriculum leadership in schools is often associated with middle leaders as in history coordinator, or head of Science. While linked to subjects the emphasis is on management rather than idea of subject curation.  Nurturing subject knowledge, and its integrity, is key to helping learners’ to develop their own subject knowledge. Teachers, often, have to research and deepen their own knowledge, as a ‘trial and error’ process that runs the risk of missing students’ misconceptions. While Teachers as Learners is an important principle in any school this is especially challenged in induction, especially of newly or recently qualified colleagues.

The case for curriculum studies

So, what form of curriculum thinking do we need? Curriculum studies needs to be regarded as a distinctive field of practice in its own right, with its own topics and preoccupations and its own unique ways of theorising. Furthermore, curriculum thinking requires a kind of boundary crossing that makes possible (and thinkable) new forms of the curriculum including interdisciplinary ones, that takes account of the realities of schools and classrooms. Rethinking how we theorise the curriculum in order that we can reform practice leads to the questions we can ask about the curriculum. In teacher education these questions become critical in order that  trainees can subject the curriculum to the strongest critical scrutiny possible.

Here the professional identity of teachers can include curriculum maker, as active participants in creating the curriculum, rather than merely reproducing it. By shifting to being recontextualisers of the curriculum, teachers can actively engage with plans, designs, and the curriculum materials as systems of meaning that they assign to their work, rather than mere ‘content’ – where non-participation is an absence of meaning, and a reduction to their work as a performance. Finally, if teachers can resist, or overcome, the pedagogical imperative they will prevent a loss of meaning of what the curriculum is for, and how it can be different. Left unchecked teaching will continue to drift towards the pragmatic and the instrumental. A bold curriculum, therefore, is a principled one.

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‘Driving learners to abstraction’ – KERU turns 11

Author: Dr. Graham McPhail, University of Auckland, New Zealand (  @gjmcpauck)

A small group of academics at the bottom of the world in Aotearoa New Zealand have been beavering away for 11 years concerned with the idea of what knowledge counts in education. This issue of what knowledge should be taught in educational institutions has become a key research programme internationally among realist sociologists of education and the purpose of the Knowledge in Education Research Unit (KERU) is to ensure New Zealand’s involvement in this programme. Our aim is to provide research for policymakers and teachers in order to strengthen the argument for the place of disciplinary-derived knowledge in the curriculum. Our argument is that students from all socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds should have access to the type of knowledge that leads to success at school (e.g. McPhail & Rata, 2019). KERU is committed to improving educational results for Māori and Pacific students and children from low socio-economic communities.

We have been a productive unit with our leader Professor Elizabeth Rata and myself publishing regularly and widely (see here). Established in 2010, KERU is based in the School of Critical Studies, Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland but includes researchers from across the Faculty. Our theoretical approach is derived from Durkeimian and Bernsteinian traditions using realist methodological approaches (Lourie & Rata, 2017; McPhail & Lourie, 2017; Rata, 2014) . The focus is on types of knowledge in the curriculum and the connection between curriculum design and progressive pedagogies. In addition to promoting research-based educational interventions, KERU provides a vehicle for postgraduate students and contributes to research at the University of Auckland.

We have had a particularly fruitful collaboration exploring knowledge-based approaches to the curriculum and learning with Dr Richard Pountney, Principal Lecturer and Teaching Fellow at the Sheffield Institute of Education (SIOE), Sheffield Hallam University. Since 2015 the two universities have built a sound research collaboration through ongoing knowledge exchange activities. These include symposia by Richard Pountney (SIOE) in Auckland and by KERU’s Graham McPhail and Elizabeth Rata in Sheffield. The co-authored papers and co-research projects in United Kingdom and New Zealand schools have been generative (Pountney & McPhail, 2017, 2019) and have contributed to the model for teacher professional development (see below) which is being used with pre-service and practising teachers in New Zealand and in England by Di Swift at the Keele and North Staffordshire Teacher Education (KNSTE) unit.

Our most recent work has been centred on the Curriculum Design Coherence Model (CDC Model) and Richard Pountney’s humorous and pithy phrase ‘driving my students to abstraction’ (see blogpost Waving not Drowning)  sums up the essence of the Model. Abstraction lies at the heart of creative thinking and deep learning and so  is central to the model. We argue the development of abstract thought comes from using disciplinary-derived concepts, so concepts rather than content should be the starting point for curriculum design (download CDC Model Short Outline Feb 2021)

The CDC Model aims for deep learning by placing disciplinary-derived concepts (or subject concepts for short) at the center of the design process. Subject concepts are identified by ‘surfacing’ the epistemic structure of a lesson, topic, or learning programme. Sufficiently abstract subject concepts are powerful tools for learning because of their generalisability. The subject concepts also act as cohering mechanisms as conceptual and applied knowledge are brought together by being linked to subject content. The Model is designed as a series of four sequential Elements but the design process is iterative, a movement back and forth between (i) selecting and sequencing subject concepts, (ii) connecting subject concepts to content, (iii) connecting ‘knowledge-that’ (concepts and content) to ‘know-how-to’ (applied knowledge) and finally (iv) evaluating the knowledge-that and know-how-to. The essence of the lesson, topic, or programme is encapsulated in a proposition that claims what the nature of the relationship is between the topic and the key concepts (see my video Curriculum Design for Deep Learning)

We consider the model particularity important because of the context in which teachers work in New Zealand with a high degree of design autonomy. This is also an international challenge as curriculum specification worldwide has become more generic and less specific in nature.  The CDC model has been developed in response to the growing expectation that teachers will be capable of designing for the ‘deep learning’ demanded for future-focused or 21st C education. The focus of our 11th symposium at the end of last  year was on how the CDC Model can be applied to Initial Teacher Education. Watch this space for upcoming publications.

Emeritus Professor Michael Young was the inaugural visitor in 2010 and encouraged the formation of KERU. Since that time we have been visited by Professors Joe Muller, Leesa Wheelahan and Karl Maton, and Chris Corbel and Richard Pountney. Richard was to be with us again  in New Zealand but sadly due to the Covid pandemic we will be holding the 11th symposium without him as our international guest. We are certainly together in spirit as we work to deepen our knowledge of knowledge and share our findings internationally.


Lourie, M., & Rata, E. (2017). Using a realist research methodology in policy analysis. Education Philosophy and Theory, 149 (1), 17-30.

McPhail, G. (2020). Twenty-First Century Learning and the Case for More Knowledge About Knowledge. New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies. doi:10.1007/s40841-020-00172-

McPhail, G., & Lourie, M. (2017). Getting Real: Is Realism a Blind Spot in Research Methodology?. New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies, 52(2), 285-299. doi:10.1007/s40841-017-0087-y

McPhail, G., & Rata, E. (2019). The knowledge democracy connection and music education. Philosophy of Music Education Review, 27(2), 112-132. doi:10.2979/philmusieducrevi.27.2.02

Pountney, R., & McPhail, G. (2019). Crossing boundaries: Exploring the theory, practice and possibility of a ‘Future 3’ curriculum. British Educational Research Journal, 45(3), 483-501. doi:10.1002/berj.3508

Pountney, R., & McPhail, G. (2017). Researching the interdisciplinary curriculum: The need for ‘translation devices’. British Educational Research Journal, 43(6), 1068-1082. doi:10.1002/berj.3299

Rata, E. (2014). The Three Stages of Critical Policy Methodology: an example from curriculum analysis. Policy Futures in Education, 12(3), 347–358.

CDC Model Reading

McPhail, G. (2020). The search for deep learning: a curriculum coherence model. Journal of Curriculum Studies. doi:10.1080/00220272.2020.1748231

Rata, Elizabeth (2021) Context and Implications Document for: The curriculum design coherence model in the knowledge-rich school project, Review of Education,

Rata, Elizabeth (2021) The Curriculum Design Coherence Model in the Knowledge-Rich School Project, Review of Education,

Rata, E. (2019) Knowledge-rich teaching: A model of curriculum design coherence, British Educational Research Journal, 45(4), 681–697. https://doi:10.1002/berj.3520.

Rata, E. (under review). Virtual Conversations: Provocations for Aotearoa New Zealand 2020. New Zealand Annual Review of Education.

Rata, E., & McPhail, G. (2020). Teacher Professional Development, the Knowledge-Rich School Project and the Curriculum Design Coherence Model. In J. Fox, C. Alexander, & T. Aspland (Eds.), Teacher Education in Globalised Times: Local Responses in Action (pp. 311-329). Singapore: Springer. doi:10.1007/978-981-15-4124-7_17

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