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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