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Curriculum, assessment and pedagogy: creating a space for thought and action

Ruth Dann Chris Hanley

The issues of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment are pivotal to shaping our educational system. These concepts have been constructed, reconstructed, deconstructed and contested over many decades. With the increasing, and arguably controlling, role of central government in shaping accountability in the form of particular quantitative school outcomes, notions of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment become distorted by the dominant discourse of performativity. Establishing who can shape these three crucial notions that underpin education – and ascertain the extent to which there is scope for mediation, transformation and purposeful contextualisation – is not only complex but controversial.

‘With central government shaping accountability in the form of particular quantitative school outcomes, notions of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment become distorted by the dominant discourse of performativity.’

Recent years have seen the emergence of an evidence-based approach within education in England, supported in the government white paper Educational excellence everywhere (2016), with further funding to continue the gathering of research evidence accumulated and disseminated by the Education Endowment Foundation. Priority is afforded to formations of evidence through random controlled trials that form part of particular types of research. These are aimed primarily at answering the question, ‘What works?’ – giving schools an evidence base from which they can select research to support school improvement with the ultimate goal of raising pupil outcomes scores. Curriculum, pedagogy and assessment have been consistently steered and moulded by particular types of research evidence, which are quantitatively measured through tests and examinations focused on particular knowledge outcomes. There may be a role for this type of evidence, as it can provide a starting point when trying to identify possible changes and alternative ideas. It is increasingly acknowledged that individual schools and colleges need to adapt research evidence to fit institutional priorities and contextual differences. Furthermore, across the four jurisdictions of BERA, notions of the curriculum, pedagogy and assessment vary, and aspirations and vision translate into different approaches in which policy and practice are being developed.

There is a wealth of credible and rigorous research in social sciences that looks at improvement and evidence in very different ways, but which is often overlooked. It also seeks to find out ‘what works’, but is far more nuanced in asking other questions which are supressed in reductionist models. Its findings may be less concise and less easy to grasp, and reveal in greater complexity the ways in which curriculum, pedagogy and assessment might be understood, interact, and translate into practice. A greater range of questions might be explored, in ways that yield a very different type of evidence. Such questions may seek to investigate interactions, relationships, contexts, cultures and meanings. They often do not culminate in simple statistical outcomes, yet they offer valuable understandings for theory, policy and practice.

BERA, in recognising that academic research does not always easily translate into issues for practice, has made considerable attempts to bring together academic researchers with practitioners so that the field of evidence can be explored in a range of ways, all of which can make a unique contribution to the future of education. The BERA Curriculum, Assessment and Pedagogy (CAP) special interest group (SIG) provides a space in which necessary discussions and (re)considerations can occur. The scale and scope for this SIG is large, and there are also other SIGs within BERA that visit similar territory from the perspective of different specialisms. As a BERA member you can join up to seven SIGs. Ruth Dann and Chris Hanley took over the SIG convenor roles during the last academic year, and this year are planning different ways of opening up the SIG so that a space for greater collaboration and discussion can be developed.

On 24 February 2018 we link with the British Curriculum Forum for a one-day event in Birmingham, ‘Researching the Curriculum in Schools and Colleges’. Here the focus is on how the curriculum can be researched, and what and who this may serve. It is designed to bring together researchers, practitioners, teachers and managers to consider new possibilities for understanding, structuring and teaching the curriculum.

On 23 June we are combining with the Alternative Education SIG for a day conference in London on how we train teachers in alternative ways, ‘Alternative ways of educating teachers to educate children differently: What do curriculum, assessment and pedagogy look like when ‘done differently’?’ How can we think differently about what we teach, how we teach, what pupils learn, and the purpose of education?

We hope that the BERA conference in Newcastle-upon-Tyne this September will include a range of interesting contributions on these topics that further spark and inform our thinking. We also hold our annual meeting of the Curriculum, Assessment and Pedagogy SIG within the BERA conference – you would be more than welcome, and we would value your contribution and involvement.