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Curriculum making as relational practice: A qualitative ego-network approach

Sinem Hizli Alkan, University of Stirling

Teacher networks have been identified as an essential element for the improvement of education reforms and consequently have attracted increased interest from educational researchers (Daly, Moolenaar, Bolivar, & Burke, 2010). In curriculum research, however, there is still a need for a fine-grained analysis of how teachers’ social and professional interactions play a role in mediating the complexity of curriculum making practices. My recent article addresses this gap by offering a qualitative ego-network analysis of eight secondary school teachers in Scotland and Wales (see Hizli Alkan, 2020). Both Scotland and Wales have expectations of teachers being active curriculum makers, meaning that they take active roles in shaping curriculum decisions and activities at different sites (Priestley, Alvunger, Philippou, & Soini, 2021). Moreover, their networks are considered critical to leveraging the quality of large-scale curriculum reforms.

My article looks at structural (such as how dense the network is) and compositional features (for instance who is involved in the network with the same/different subject background) of the networks, as well as the content of teachers’ curriculum-related talks. Findings suggested that there are three underlying mechanisms to explain teachers’ curriculum-making practices through their networks.

1. Relational goods and evils

Relation goods and evils are the meanings or qualities that are generated through social interactions over time and are context dependent (Donati & Archer, 2015). Relational goods included high-quality interactions, multiple roles that the relations held (friend–colleague, for instance), and perceived reciprocal communications. These offered a strong potential for effective and sustainable curriculum-making practices, as perceived by individuals. Relational evils, on the other hand, obstructed curriculum making – such as negative sentiments attached to the relations, conflicting and inapplicable ideas in the network to the teachers’ practice, and cultural constraints. These relational qualities require further investigation as they may generate certain ways of mediating actions (see Hizli Alkan & Priestley [2019] on the role of reflexivity) and subsequently may enhance or hinder curriculum-making practices.

‘Relational evils… obstructed curriculum making – such as negative sentiments attached to the relations, conflicting and inapplicable ideas in the network to the teachers’ practice, and cultural constraints.’

2. National policy/practice and organisational context

The demands of curriculum reform together with policy and support mechanisms and how schools are formally organised into subject departments, shaped the structure, composition and dynamics of the networks. For example, subject boundaries and having limited time to collaborate with beyond-school ties has an impact on envisaging different possibilities in curriculum making and therefore a possibility to interrupt habitual actions. Findings concurred with recent work (Priestley et al., 2021) that meso sites (such as local curriculum support) seem to be key in offering curriculum support mechanisms, including sense-making activities, reconsideration of curriculum provision in schools, and secondment of teachers to curriculum-related roles.

3. Teacher agency

Teachers’ taking self-motivated curriculum roles, their educational discourses, attitudes and beliefs towards curriculum reform shaped the content of curriculum-making networks and how teachers strategically sought expertise in certain areas. Findings suggested that trusted environments where teachers’ innovative and research-informed practices are encouraged – with meso site support at different stages of curriculum making – are needed to seize the potential opportunities offered through the networks.

In sum, this research illuminates the relational aspect of curriculum making by offering detailed explanations of networks and teachers’ narratives. This is important at least for two reasons. First, teachers’ increased awareness of their networks may enable them to maximise existing opportunities or identify some potential relational evils or gaps in their professional repertoire to address. Second, meso site organisations (such as Regional Improvement Collaboratives[1] in Scotland) can offer targeted support mechanisms that are evidenced through network research. This will enhance the system capacity and develop shared sense-making mechanisms across the schools. Instead of empirical generalisation of the findings, this research attempts to offer theoretical generalisations through extensive explanations of the data, participants and contexts so that international readers can locate the findings of this research. Future research opportunities would involve a large-scale and longitudinal network research to generate more detailed accounts of teachers’ curriculum-making networks that would span across school sectors and subject backgrounds.


Footnote

[1] For more information see https://connect.scot/news/regional-improvement-collaboratives-what-are-they


This blog is based on the article ‘Curriculum making as relational practice: A qualitative ego‐network approach’ by Sinem Hizli Alkan, published in the Curriculum Journal. It has been made free-to-view to those without a subscription for a limited period, courtesy of our publisher, Wiley.


References

Daly, A. J., Moolenaar, N. M., Bolivar, J. M., & Burke, P. (2010). Relationships in reform: The role of teachers’ social networks. Journal of Educational Administration, 48(3), 359–391.

Donati, P., & Archer, M. S. (2015). The relational subject. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hizli Alkan, S., & Priestley, M. (2019). Teacher mediation of curriculum making: The role of reflexivity. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 51(5), 737–754. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220272.2019.1637943

Hizli Alkan, S. (2020). Curriculum making as relational practice: A qualitative ego‐network approach. Curriculum Journal. https://doi.org/10.1002/curj.98

Priestley, M., Alvunger, D., Philippou, S., & Soini, T. (Eds.) (2021). Curriculum making in Europe: Policy and practice within and across diverse contexts. Emerald.

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