Curriculum and teaching innovation.


Ben Williamson and Sarah Payton, Futurelab


The audience

This handbook is intended to provide guidance for educators interested in exploring the potential of personalisation to transform curriculum design and teaching practices. It is aimed primarily at educational leaders involved in curriculum and teaching innovation. This includes headteachers of primary and secondary schools, curriculum managers responding to recent changes to the National Curriculum, classroom teachers responsible for developing new practices, and local authorities. It should also be relevant to teacher training agencies and departments, and to trainees preparing to enter the teaching workforce. It responds to some recent educational policies (for example, the new Key Stage 3 National Curriculum introduced in 2008), and anticipates others (reform of the Key Stage 4 National Curriculum and the recommendations of the Rose Review of the primary curriculum), and relates to the conclusions of a House of Commons inquiry into the National Curriculum produced in 2009.

The handbook is not a step-by-step guide to ‘doing’ innovation in school, nor a set of classroom resources. It should be used for schools to devise aims and objectives for curriculum and teaching innovations, and to inform the decision-making process during long-term curriculum planning. It can be read and used by all educators interested in educational change, and it aims to draw together key considerations from a range of curriculum and teaching initiatives from across the UK[1]. It is hoped that as more and more schools begin to innovate with their curriculum, and to innovate with teaching and learning, that a rich body of evidence and case studies will emerge that can be shared in an ethos of collaborative collegiality. It is hoped this handbook can contribute to the momentum for exciting, challenging and transformational change in schools.

Why curriculum innovation?

What’s a curriculum for?

A school curriculum is intended to provide children and young people with the knowledge and skills required to lead successful lives. Today, there is growing concern that the taught curriculum needs to be reconsidered and redesigned. This is reflected in a House of Commons inquiry into the National Curriculum which has concluded that it is too prescribed, incoherently arranged, and overloaded with content.

The use of the word ‘innovation’ in discussions about the school curriculum and classroom teaching practice has become widespread. It is the keyword in much policymaking across all public services. ‘Personalisation’, too, has become an organising concept for the curriculum[2].

What is a curriculum for at this time? It comprises a challenging selection of subjects that help children and young people understand the world. It highlights skills necessary for learning throughout life, as well as for work, and for one’s personal development and well-being. But a curriculum is also political. Decisions about ‘what’s in’ and ‘what’s out’ change from time to time depending on political needs and aspirations. A curriculum fundamentally establishes a vision of the kind of society we want in the future, and the kind of people we want in it: it decides what the ‘good life’ is for individuals and for society as a whole. As such, it’s not always possible for everyone to agree on what a curriculum should be. It could be said that the most significant curriculum innovation in recent English history was the establishment of the National Curriculum in 1988, a political decision that still sustains understandable debate and argument today[3].

This handbook is intended to clarify what is meant by ‘curriculum innovation’ and ‘innovation in teaching and learning’ at a time when that National Curriculum is under reform, and schools are being told to be more locally creative and innovative. It is about school change in terms of what is taught, and how it is taught. Simply put, we view the school curriculum as a site for exciting new and innovative classroom approaches. The handbook shows why this may be needed, and outlines what it might mean in practice.

What’s happening to the curriculum?

There are already some shifts underway in current educational thinking and policymaking which will contribute to innovations in the curriculum and teaching practice.

The introduction of the new National Curriculum for secondary schools (phased from 2008-2011) has brought school leaders and classroom teachers more opportunities to design a curriculum that is relevant and appropriate to the needs of the children in their care. Streamlined in content and reorganised around the three aims of enabling all children to become successful learners, confident individuals and responsible citizens, the new National Curriculum has the potential to rejuvenate subjects, to enhance interdisciplinarity, and to create meaningful and sustainable connections with the ‘real world’ that children experience outside school. Likewise, new 14-19 diplomas are intended to link academic and vocational knowledge and skills more coherently.

In addition, the Rose Review of the Primary Curriculum has indicated a heightened need for cross-curricular connections at Key Stages 1 and 2 in order for children to make links across subjects and apply knowledge and skills learnt from one area in another. It has also put more emphasis on finding constructive ways of accommodating all 13 of the primary subject areas in the limited time available. In other words, the Rose Review too is seeking innovative solutions to persisting curricular and classroom challenges.

Realising what is on offer in these policies and a range of current initiatives, however, is going to require an increased level of curricular innovation in the classroom, in school leadership, and in the decision-making of local authorities.

At a time when secondary schools are being redesigned and reconstructed through the Building Schools for the Future programme and primaries are approaching their own rebuilding schemes, it is essential that school leaders and teachers are involved in redesigning the educational experience of students too[4]. What happens in classrooms produces the architecture for any school of the future. Bricks and mortar cannot transform education.

When we refer to ‘curriculum innovation’ we are referring to the ways in which many factors may contribute to transformations in classroom activity. This handbook focuses on the ways in which schools can become centres of curricular innovation by responding to changing policies, engaging with research evidence, and participating in emerging and developing programmes of work. Curriculum innovation is what happens in schools when policy, research and practice are seen as a triangular framework for reconsidering and renewing curriculum design and related classroom practices.

The central argument throughout is that the design of the curriculum and the routines of the classroom are completely synergistic. To innovate in the arrangement and composition of the curriculum implies an innovation in practice.

The handbook also explores questions about what it means to be a teacher at a time when the curriculum is up for change, and about what is meant by ‘childhood’ when children’s lives are more and more diverse. These are important considerations if curriculum innovation is a process involving both teachers and children, as we argue it should be. They are important considerations, too, for defining the aims of any educational innovation when the influences on the work of schools are proliferating to include businesses, pressure groups, think-tanks, charities, and third sector organisations[5].

Although curriculum innovation can originate in and belong to schools, as this handbook will show, it now involves many other diverse parties and interests too. As such, curriculum innovation may take many forms, informed by many different factors and special interests.

Aims and outline of this handbook

It is our aim to supply a critical but practical overview of the drivers and factors influencing curricular innovation. We look at the most recent policy shifts, and identify how these situate the work of schools in larger debates about equipping British people for changing economic circumstances and conditions. The development of ‘world class skills’, twinned with the contemporary focus on ICT, and on heightening employability for a competitive economy, are all parts of the modern educational policy discourse: ways of thinking, writing, and talking about the status and role of education as we look to the immediate future. We examine how the policies scripted as part of the rubric of these changing times correlate with ideas about curricular innovation.

In subsequent sections we then explore the major research drivers for curricular innovation. Particular attention is given to the emergence of concepts such as ‘personalisation’ and ‘personalised learning’, ‘media literacy’, ‘student voice’ and ‘active participation’. These concepts imply a shift in how childhood is perceived and written about in education. The idea of the schoolchild as a passive recipient of school knowledge is increasingly being rejected in favour of a view of children as socially active and participative, democratically bringing existing knowledge and ideas into the classroom that are worthy of consideration in the curriculum. This view, though becoming more and more popular, is far from a dominant framework in schools. We aim to consider its potential impact, and throughout a series of case studies and examples concentrate our attention on examples of research and practice that have put children’s new needs and entitlements at the heart of the educational experience. What does it mean for schools and for classroom practice if they are democratised to permit students to make more decisions about the content, processes and outcomes of their learning? We ask what might make a ‘good teacher’ in this context.

Analysing the relevant policy and research side by side allows us to derive some common principles and frameworks for curricular innovation. Throughout, we identify existing examples and case studies of curricular innovations. We have no intention of evaluating or assessing the effectiveness of these initiatives; we are more absorbed by their common features, and by how they relay educational policy and research theory to actual classroom practice.

It should be noted that we have not attempted to replicate other recent work on education reform and school change. A report by the Institute of Public Policy Research (ippr), for example, provides detailed policy recommendations for educational reforms that are outside the scope of this document[6]. A comprehensive literature review of the research on school change commissioned by Creative Partnerships provides a systematic examination of the evidence, which, as the boxed text below shows, reminds us that any kind of educational change is challenging, messy, and slow[7].

With these challenges in mind, our intention is to provide an accessible handbook that can guide school teachers and school leaders in their thinking about the curriculum and classroom practice.

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