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Teachers and Teaching
Vital building blocks
Pat Kiddey details the process that one school went through to implement the Curriculum Framework, and what was learned along the way.
A number of significant curriculum initiatives have been implemented over the years. Each took time to understand and to implement—especially outcome approaches. I moved to a new middle school that was trialling outcomes before they were implemented across the system. Rather than cautiously dipping our collective toes at the edges, we dived into the full range of learning areas, while simultaneously trialling new reporting methods and whole-school portfolio assessment. There were times we felt we were drowning.
Outcome statements kept us on our toes. Initial versions were difficult to understand. Teams argued about nuances, some creating hybrid statements by rewording level descriptions into plain language. We grappled with the fact that some students were well into a level, while others were merely tapping at the edge. A great deal of energy went into explaining the move to outcomes; into unpacking their language and into explaining the new report formats (featuring levels) at parent nights, interviews, and in school newsletters.
At the district level, primary teachers felt overloaded—they were responsible for ensuring that 30 students demonstrated outcomes across all eight learning areas. Secondary teachers also felt overloaded—they were responsible for making sure that the 180 students they taught per day (and saw only twice a week) demonstrated all outcomes of their particular learning area. I observed various methods of adoption: some cautiously focusing on one learning area or one year group of students; others resisting, waiting to see how other schools fared. I wondered how many decades it would take with the tiny steps approach. Although we had often felt we were drowning at the trial school, by the end of the first year we could talk about the structure and content of outcomes across a range of learning areas, and we knew where we were heading.
The greatest benefit of outcomes was that they changed the focus from teaching to learning. The marked emphasis on developmental learning meant that it was more difficult to teach to the middle of the class, to set and mark an assignment, record the mark and then again teach to the middle. Delivering content is one thing—ensuring learning is another. We had to be sure that each student made progress with their learning.
The Curriculum Framework
The Curriculum Framework outlined principles of learning, teaching and assessment underpinned by values. It provided overarching and learning area outcomes that all students had to be given opportunities to achieve. Implementation difficulties resulted because all schools were introduced to the framework at the same time. Leaders had little time to absorb implications for their context ahead of their staff. Arguments proliferated. Were all overarching outcomes equally significant? Which ones were specific to the whole school? Which ones were specific to particular learning areas? If the emphasis was on outputs, what was happening with inputs? These issues were debated across districts and schools.
The Curriculum Framework, for all its wordiness, spelt out what mattered. It was a focus point for whole-school debate, a useful audit mechanism for mapping the quality of curriculum provided across the school, and a guide for identifying where more energy, time, and resources could be expended. The message was clear. Teachers were responsible for making sure that students were provided with opportunities to demonstrate the overarching and learning area outcomes. If what we were doing in the classroom wasn’t making a difference, we needed to make changes. The responsibility for students’ learning rested with us.
A huge issue in schools was making sure that everybody shared similar understandings about the distinguishing characteristics of different levels. We debated particular pieces of work, at length, identifying fine-grain differences that meant the difference between one level and another. Our heated discussions proved to be powerful professional learning—we called it social justice for kids. Attributing a level wasn’t something that could be done by analysing one piece of student work. We needed to look at a range of that student’s work before making professional judgements about levels. That meant seeking out evidence of accomplishment and keeping ongoing records to ensure accuracy. And of course, levelling was just one part of the equation—the most important question followed: if this is where the student is—what do I need to do next, to move him/her forwards? The responsibility was on us, to plan ways in which the student (or students) could make further progress towards the next level. We found ourselves reflecting more on what we were doing, asking questions such as: What did I teach well? How much did students learn? What do I need to do now?
At the school level, teams used planning time to confirm levelling decisions. Samples of work were collected, annotated and displayed, so that identifiable features of levels became clearer. At the district level these simple strategies proved useful when providing advice to schools. Over the passage of time collections of student work samples were sent to schools, making the levelling process easier. The professional learning program (Making Consistent Judgements) was also delivered across districts, providing opportunities to clarify issues at the whole district level.
So now we had several essential components at our fingertips. We had big picture goals and principles; assessment and monitoring tools, as well as professional learning courses and models of student work to help us determine levels. Something though, was still missing.
The missing link
Having no guidance about content had proved difficult in the trialling school when managing new graduates, relief teachers and those teaching unfamiliar subjects. While we had become adept at developing uncommon curriculum to achieve common outcomes, issues arose as students moved across teams and across year levels. It became clear that many were encountering the same content. We hadn’t been keeping our eye on the bigger picture and we weren’t working with other teams to determine what content students had already encountered. There was a danger that important concepts, skills and knowledge could be overlooked if we didn’t take stock of what was happening. This proved a wise decision. Team leaders spent two days auditing knowledge, skills and understandings currently covered, and mapping content to be covered as students moved across the school. The professional learning that came from these discussions was invaluable.
The new syllabuses will provide support that was missing at that time. They highlight content to be taught (inputs) in the various phases of schooling, and in all learning areas. Schools can use the scope and sequences to audit their whole-school curriculum. Learning areas can check content coverage within year levels. Experienced teachers can validate their practices, those needing guidance can use them as a support mechanism, and all teachers can continue to use their professional judgements about what they need to put in place to meet their students’ needs.
Syllabuses tell us what needs to be taught. They don’t, however, tell us how to teach content. That type of support is provided through resources that align with, or supplement, content outlined in syllabuses. Resources might comprise units of work, lesson plans, digital learning objects, video clips of best practice, and samples of student work. Online delivery means that we can link to appropriate items with one or two clicks of the finger. We have waited a long time for this.
The common, positive factor of implementing these initiatives was the opportunity to engage in professional dialogue with colleagues. We needed time to talk through our understandings, to plan ways forward, to experiment, and to come back to share experiences. We needed time to hear how colleagues in similar schools were faring; and time to determine the type of support that might be needed in the future. Progress would not have occurred without such interaction.
Teaching is a complex art. For some time we managed with some important pieces of the puzzle missing, but we now have the full contingent of support strategies available. We have big picture goals and principles for learning, teaching and assessment; syllabuses and resources that tell us what to teach and how to teach it; planning, assessment and monitoring tools; strategies to help us make consistent judgements and a myriad of professional learning opportunities related to pedagogy.
Each of these components is important in its own right, but far more powerful when enacted in conjunction with the other components. It now falls back on us, as teachers, to implement the full suite of components in ways that will make a difference to students.
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