- How do teachers decide which topics to teach?
- How many hours each week do teachers spend finding and developing resources to use in your lessons?
- Should teachers have access to a ready-made bank of high-quality instructional materials?
- How do teachers rate the quality of curriculum resources and instructional materials they use in their teaching?
Answering these questions – and more – lie at the heart of a new project The Education Hub is undertaking into curriculum design and teaching resources in New Zealand schools.
International research suggests curriculum matters, and that using high quality evidence can positively and significantly improve student learning (see for example here and here). These findings aren’t particularly surprising given the science of learning research, which has demonstrated that both what we know and how much we know influence how effectively we are able to learn new information, and that the ways in which new content is structured and presented, together with opportunities to revisit it in new ways and forms, impacts learning. However, despite this evidence, little is known about how New Zealand schools are approaching curriculum design.
The largely content free nature of the New Zealand Curriculum means that each individual school (or in some cases individual teachers) have considerable autonomy over what they teach and how they teach it. It requires individual teachers to be expert curriculum designers. This is problematic, because designing a coherent curriculum is an incredibly complex undertaking, requiring considerable knowledge and expertise as well as considerable time. It is unsurprising, therefore, that in our 2020 survey, teachers rated ‘designing coherent curriculum that is interesting and challenging, and that develops student content knowledge and skill’ as the second greatest problem of practice that they face in their practice.
It is not just curriculum design, but also how the curriculum is implemented at a lesson or task level that matters. In keeping with Professor Richard Elmore’s work into the instructional core, which suggests that ‘task predicts performance’, New Zealand-based research has found that students at different schools (or at times students with different teachers at the same school) experience radically different opportunities to learn (see for example Wilson et al, 2016 and Rubie-Davies, 2014). This also is born out in our own research, which found that teachers rated ‘designing rich tasks that promote deeper learning for all students’ as the fifth (of 14) greatest problem of practice that they experience at their school.
Our interest, however, does not just stem from a concern for student learning and outcomes. It also reflects questions this topic raises for teachers, their workload, and priorities – that is questions of efficiency and efficacy. Back in 2016, US-based Robert Pondiscio wrote an article entitled, ‘How we make teaching too hard for mere mortals’. The premise of his argument was that, alongside a myriad of other tasks and expectations, we require teachers to be expert pedagogues and instructional designers, who must design each lesson, create many of their own teaching materials, and ensure that they meet the needs of all learners. This is not only hugely inefficient, contributing to increasing teacher workloads and decreasing morale, but it also leaves room for huge variability in the quality of teaching materials, and as a result variability in what and how much children learn.
There’s scope in New Zealand to do much more work around curriculum resourcing, providing support at the level of both the curriculum design and curriculum implementation. And while it is indeed possible that the current curriculum refresh may do some work in these areas, I would argue that it is still important that we know more about what currently is happening in New Zealand schools. And for that reason, we are undertaking a survey of teachers to capture how curriculum design decisions are being made and the nature of instructional materials and teaching resources that teachers are using in their practice.
We are keen to get insights from as many teachers as possible, so encourage teachers to not only participate in the survey but also share it around their networks and colleagues.