A fundamental question in education is, ‘What is most worth teaching and learning?’ A variation of this question can be directed from student to teacher: ‘Why should we learn this?’ Curriculum makers may find that answers to this query are self-evident, as they are often found in formal curriculum documents and guidelines. However, when looking at a new school reform in Norway, known as LK20, and how knowledge is framed, positioned and formulated in a concrete subject curriculum, it is not always easy to pin down or have a clear understanding of just what the students are expected to learn.
Our research (Sundby & Karseth, 2021) examines the political messages and the role of knowledge in Norway’s current curriculum reform initiative, implemented from 2020, for primary and secondary education. The backdrop of our study is the international scholarly debate about the place of knowledge in a competency-oriented curriculum (Young, 2008). One feature of a competency-oriented curriculum is a movement from specifying certain content towards more skill-focused and outcome-based curricula. The previous educational reform in Norway in 2006, known as ‘The Knowledge Promotion’, represented a shift from a content-oriented to a competency-oriented curriculum (Karseth & Sivesind, 2010). The new reform implemented from 2020 continues down this competency route.
Employing document analysis, we used a two-step approach to get insights into both the reform process (2015–2019) and the transition into a subject curriculum product (2020). First, we investigated four key Norwegian education policy documents behind the new reform: The School of the Future (NOU, 2015); White Paper 28 (Ministry of Education and Research, 2016); Core Curriculum (Ministry of Education and Research, 2017) and Guidelines for Development of Subject Curricula in LK20 and LK20S (Ministry of Education and Research, 2018). Second, we zoomed in on a concrete subject curriculum to examine how policy intentions were operationalised. The school subject we chose to examine was the Norwegian subject, which is the compulsory mother tongue subject (language and literature) in Norway.
Our analysis of the policy documents in the LK20-reform process reveals an attempt to strengthen the knowledge dimension in the school subjects. We find three reasons for this. First, the long-established existing school subjects maintained their position. According to Young (2014), when school subjects are the prominent basis of the curriculum design, this strengthens the framing of knowledge in schools. Second, the knowledge dimension is visible and emphasised in essential definitions, such as the definition of competence and core elements. Third, adding two new content components to the existing curricular framework, such as core elements and interdisciplinary topics, indicates an attempt to strengthen the knowledge orientation in the school subjects.
On the other hand, our analysis of the specific curriculum for the Norwegian language demonstrates that the actual product, a subject curriculum document, strengthens knowledge orientation only to a small degree. We find that adding new content components to the existing subject curriculum framework makes the curriculum design rather complex. All the different components are related and supplement each other. Taken together, they represent mixed messages about what to focus on. In addition, we find that the language used in the Norwegian subject curriculum is generic and open regarding explicit subject knowledge. For example, the phrase ‘subject-related’ is repeated in the subject curriculum, but it is not specified what ‘subject-related’ refers to. We also find that the subject curriculum framework more clearly prescribes skills, methods and strategies than the specialised knowledge content that is to be taught.
‘Our analysis of the specific curriculum for the Norwegian language demonstrates that the actual product, a subject curriculum document, strengthens knowledge orientation only to a small degree.’
Our study argues that it is possible, at least on the surface, to strengthen the content orientation in a competency-oriented curriculum model. The new subject curriculum in Norway includes two new content components in every school subject, such as core elements and interdisciplinary topics. However, our research shows that it is debatable whether this solution leads to a stronger knowledge orientation in the school subjects.
We conclude that in a competency-oriented model it is difficult to prescribe explicit subject content. This difficulty arises from the contrasting assumptions that underlie a content-oriented curriculum versus a competence-oriented curriculum. Each model demands different approaches to ‘the knowledge question’ concerning what the students need to learn and know. Hence, we question whether combining these two orientations in one curriculum is possible.
If the Norwegian subject ends up being, like Peer Gynt in Henrik Ibsen’s play, ‘nought but an onion – several layers without a core’ (Ibsen, 1867), it is an open question which ‘subject’ will be in focus for the teachers, what the main pedagogical route will be, and how teachers will re-contextualise this subject in their practice.
This blog is based on the article ‘“The knowledge question” in the Norwegian curriculum’ by Anniken Hotvedt Sundby and Berit Karseth, published in the Curriculum Journal on an open-access basis.
Ibsen, H. (1867). Peer Gynt. Et dramatisk dikt. Gyldendalske Boghandel.
Karseth, B., & Sivesind, K. (2010). Conceptualising curriculum knowledge within and beyond the national context. European Journal of Education, 45(1), 103–120. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1465-3435.2009.01418.x
Ministry of Education and Research. (2016). Fag – Fordypning – Forståelse [Subjects – In-depth learning – Understanding]. White Paper 28 to the Parliament (2015–2016).
Ministry of Education and Research. (2017). Core curriculum: Values and principles for primary and secondary education. https://www.udir.no/lk20/overordnet-del/?lang=eng
Ministry of Education and Research. (2018). Retningslinjer for utforming av nasjonale og samiske læreplaner for fag i LK20 og LK20S [Guidelines for development of subject curricula in LK20 and LK20S].
Ministry of Education and Research. (2020). Curriculum in Norwegian (NOR01-06). https://www.udir.no/lk20/nor01-06?lang=eng
Official Norwegian Reports [NOU]. (2015). The school of the future: Renewal of subjects and competences. NOU 2015:8. https://www.regjeringen.no/contentassets/da148fec8c4a4ab88daa8b677a700292/en-gb/pdfs/nou201520150008000engpdfs.pdf
Sundby, A. H., & Karseth, B. (2021). ‘The knowledge question’ in the Norwegian curriculum. Curriculum Journal. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1002/curj.139
Young, M. (2008). Bringing knowledge back in. Routledge.