Blog post Part of series: Re‐educating the nation? The development of a new curriculum for Wales
Tensions in current curriculum reform and the development of teachers’ professional autonomy
Current curriculum reform in Wales offers the chance for teachers to have greater freedom in developing pedagogical approaches that meet the needs of their pupils. The Successful Futures report (Donaldson, 2015) recommends that teachers should have greater autonomy in choosing how to deliver the curriculum. While broadly welcomed by teachers (see for example WISERD, 2019), genuine autonomy can be hard to achieve due, for example, to perceived workload and accountability. Our research explored the potential tensions between the drive to empower teachers and existing professional practices.
We considered why one school selected a commercial mindfulness package to contribute to the development of the ‘health and wellbeing’ area of experience (AoLE). We asked teachers about how this impacted on their perceptions of curriculum making and enactment. The teachers felt that off-the-peg materials were a useful addition to their pedagogy, and did not see them as being in conflict with their autonomy. Rather, the materials provided a useful scaffold during a time of uncertainty, and gave them confidence in teaching a new and unfamiliar aspect of the curriculum, enabling them to:
- make informed professional decisions about when and how to use key approaches
- apply these approaches flexibly across the curriculum
- explore ways to support pupil confidence, independence and motivation through reflection and professional dialogue with colleagues.
The teachers felt that using these materials still allowed them to exercise individual agency, making decisions and responding as needs arose. They felt that they didn’t have to ‘re-invent the wheel’, and were ‘able to adopt the scheme quickly to suit the needs of the pupils’.
Although this is a small-scale study, the findings extend our understanding of how these teachers responded to calls for curriculum reform, and allow us to offer two broad suggestions for others.
‘Curriculum reform at the school level should be focussed on evidence-based pedagogical practices suitable for the needs of the pupils and teachers in that particular context. Providing this through ‘off-the-peg’ schemes is not necessarily a tension.’
Firstly, curriculum reform at the school level should be focussed on evidence-based pedagogical practices suitable for the needs of the pupils and teachers in that particular context. Providing this through ‘off-the-peg’ schemes is not necessarily a tension, and indeed this may support the enactment of new school-level curriculum. In this study we found that once teachers had used the materials in an ‘off-the-peg’ manner, their confidence grew and they were able to use new approaches with increasing flexibility and ownership.
The second suggestion is to take time with curriculum development in a school to prevent teachers needing to work ‘on-the-hoof’ rather than in a considered manner. Curriculum implementation needs to be the focus of ongoing and periodic review (Wallace & Priestley, 2017). In this case study, teachers felt that ‘off-the-peg’ materials were a useful addition to their pedagogy, and that, because the whole school was invested in their use, they provided opportunity for professional dialogue around them. The teachers acknowledged that these materials were not a quic -fix to curriculum development, but served as a useful discussion point in an ongoing and reflective process. They felt that the materials provided ‘a useful lifeline in times of uncertainty’, and that,
‘what is important is that people become confident with change, rather than lose confidence. If one feels confident with change, then they will be able to deliver what is needed and be prepared.’
Finally, although this was a small-scale study, it made us wonder whether teachers in other schools are responding to the curricula reform in similar ways. If this is the case, the findings in this study suggest adopting a rigorous professional development model which could include the following.
- Provision of clear guidance to teachers about the reform model and their role in enacting the curriculum.
- Provision of practical support and scaffolding to develop new pedagogical approaches.
- Provision of time for teachers to discuss, reflect on and possibly adjust their mindset, pedagogy and beliefs about their pedagogy and the curriculum.
This blog is based on the article ‘Tensions in current curriculum reform and the development of teachers’ professional autonomy‘ by Sioned Hughes and Helen Lewis, published in a new special issue of the Curriculum Journal on ‘Re-educating the nation? The development of a new curriculum for Wales’, published in both English and Welsh.
Donaldson, G. (2015). Successful futures: Independent review of curriculum and assessment arrangements in Wales. Cardiff: Welsh Government. Retrieved from https://gov.wales/sites/default/files/publications/2018-03/successful-futures.pdf
Hughes, S. & Lewis, H. (2019). Tensions in current curriculum reform and the development of teachers’ professional autonomy. Curriculum Journal, 31(2). https://doi.org/10.1002/curj.25
Wallace, C. S. & Priestley, M. (2017). Secondary science teachers as curriculum makers: Mapping and designing Scotland’s new curriculum for excellence. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 54(3), 324–349.
Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research and Data [WISERD] (2019, July). Successful futures for all: Exploration of curriculum reform: Final report. Cardiff. Retrieved from https://wiserd.ac.uk/sites/default/files/documents/Dyfodol%20llwyddiannus%20i%20bawb%20-%20Successful%20Futures%20for%20all%20-%20web%20-%20ENG.pdf