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Curriculum coherence facilitates school development

Jenni Sullanmaa Kirsi Pyhältö Janne Pietarinen Tiina Soini

The ways in which local educational stakeholders interpret and understand curriculum reform is crucial to its effects on everyday school practice (see for exampleSpillane, Reiser & Reimer, 2002). For instance, perceptions of fragmentation in curriculum and lack of clarity in relation to its goals have been identified as barriers to school development. Previous research has suggested that coherence within and between policy, curriculum and instruction is important for school development (see for exaample Honig & Hatch, 2004; Newmann, Smith, Allensworth, & Bryk, 2001). Curriculum coherence refers to the connectedness, integration and continuity within the curriculum. However, there is a gap in research on the perceptions of curriculum coherence among educational stakeholders, particularly in the context of large-scale curriculum reform.

Perceived curriculum coherence among district-level stakeholders (such as municipal administrators and educational practitioners who are involved in local curriculum development) is particularly important in the Finnish curriculum reform process. These stakeholders play a central role in interpreting, integrating and transforming the general goals of the national core curriculum into district-level curricula. Local curricula are constructed within the framework of the national core curriculum by the education providers – that is, municipalities and districts – while taking into account contextual factors such as local needs and resources (Vitikka, Krokfors, & Rikabi, 2016). The current core curriculum for Finnish basic education was confirmed in 2014. It aims to promote collaborative classroom practices, student autonomy and integration across school subjects.

‘We explored the coherence of the Finnish national core curriculum document as perceived by the educational stakeholders involved in district-level curriculum development.’

In our recent study (Sullanmaa, Pyhältö, Pietarinen, & Soini, 2019), we explored the coherence of the national core curriculum document as perceived by the educational stakeholders involved in district-level curriculum development. The aim of the study was to advance the understanding of curriculum coherence by examining the components of perceived curriculum coherence, introducing a survey instrument for measuring it, and thereby shedding light on the relation between perceived curriculum coherence and expected impact on schools of the reform process in terms of supporting active and continuous school development. The participants were 550 district-level stakeholders involved in local curriculum working groups around Finland.

The results showed that perceived curriculum coherence consists of three complementary elements.

  1. Consistency of the intended direction refers to the core curriculum providing a consistent and functional direction for the school by, for example, clarifying the mission of the teacher and the school, and condensing the most important goals of the school.
  2. Integrative approach to teaching and learning is characterised by harmonising teaching practices, such as facilitating the development of engaging teaching methods and assessment that supports learning.
  3. Alignment between objectives, content and assessments includes acknowledging the pupils’ age range and the continuity within subjects, as well as coherence between objectives, content, teaching methods and assessments.

Moreover, the results showed that the overall perceived curriculum coherence was connected to the district-level stakeholders’ expectations of the reform’s impact on the school level, in terms of the extent to which the reform work was perceived to direct the development towards problems faced in the everyday life of schools, and to commit teachers to school development work. Thus, to promote positive beliefs about the effects of the reform work on further school-level development, effort should be invested in facilitating the construction of a coherent understanding of the curriculum document by local educational stakeholders.

The study adds to the research on curriculum reform by showing that curriculum coherence is a central determinant of whether reform takes root at the school level. Moreover, it introduces an instrument for measuring perceived curriculum coherence within the context of large-scale curriculum reform that could be used as a tool to promote and steer curriculum development work at different levels of the educational system.

This blog post is based on the article ‘Curriculum coherence as perceived by district-level stakeholders in large-scale national curriculum reform in Finland’, by Jenni Sullanmaa, Kirsi Pyhältö, Janne Pietarinen & Tiina Soini

It is newly published in the Curriculum Journal, and is free-to-view for a limited period, courtesy of the journal’s publisher, Routledge.


Honig, M. I. & Hatch, T. C. (2004). Crafting coherence: How schools strategically manage multiple, external demands. Educational Researcher, 33(8), 16–30.

Newmann, F. M., Smith, B., Allensworth, E., & Bryk, A. S. (2001). Instructional program coherence: What it is and why should it guide school improvement policy. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 23(4), 297–321.

Spillane, J. P., Reiser, B. J., & Reimer, T. (2002). Policy implementation and cognition: Reframing and refocusing implementation research. Review of Educational Research, 72(3), 387–431.

Sullanmaa, J., Pyhältö, K., Pietarinen, J., & Soini, T. (2019). Curriculum coherence as perceived by district-level stakeholders in large-scale curriculum reform. The Curriculum Journal. Advance online publication.

Vitikka, E., Krokfors, L., & Rikabi, L. (2016). The Finnish national core curriculum. In Niemi, H., Toom, A., & Kallioniemi, A. (Eds.), Miracle of education: The principles and practices of teaching and learning in Finnish schools (2nd ed.) (pp. 83–90). Rotterdam: SensePublishers.