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Curriculum for Excellence: Scotland's Common Core

"Curriculum implementation is an ongoing, rather than a one-off activity. Development of new approaches needs to be cyclical, and accompanied by regular evaluation and reformulation of plans. We emphasise that implementation activity often raises as many questions as it addresses." (Priestley & Minty)

In the U.S. we have been inundated with educational "reform." Researchers, writers and bloggers like to refer to it as the Corporate Reform Movement. One of the biggest changes to our educational system has been the implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). There are educators who love it while some who don't like it much at all, which happens with change of this magnitude.

The U.S. is not the only country looking to reform its educational system and that can help us as we move forward. As we negotiate our way through this time we need to look to other countries that are implementing educational change so we do not have to reinvent the wheel. Through their successes and mistakes we can learn what may or may not work for teachers and students.

I often hear from educators internationally, and a few people from Scotland reached out to talk about Scottish efforts to reform their educational system. Kenneth Allen, a lecturer in business management in Scotland wrote to me about the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) which is Scotland's educational reform movement. Kenneth sent me a research study titled Developing Curriculum for Excellence by Dr Mark Priestley and Sarah Minty from the School of Education at the University of Stirling. The research study delved into teacher's perceptions about the massive educational reform.

Curriculum for Excellence
"It is radical in that it calls for a shift in classroom practices towards more pupil-centred approaches to education. This is accompanied by a renewed view of teachers as professional developers of the curriculum and agents of change, and a new emphasis on flexible, local planning" (Priestley and Minty).

Curriculum for Excellence is the biggest educational reform in Scotland. It is a reform that hopes to change teaching practices so students in Scotland are prepared for the 21st century. Anyone in the US, Canada, Australia or New Zealand are very familiar with the goal of helping all students gain 21st century skills. It seems as though the whole world is knee-deep in educational reform.

PD: How will CfE help the social and emotional growth of students?
KA: The new curriculum has, at its core, three areas that are identified as being the responsibility of all teachers regardless of their area of expertise, namely; Literacy across learning, numeracy across learning and health and well-being across learning. The latter responsibility details, as its purpose, the ability of children and young people to be able to:

  • make informed decisions in order to improve their mental, emotional, social and physical wellbeing

  • experience challenge and enjoyment

  • experience positive aspects of healthy living and activity for themselves

  • apply their mental, emotional, social and physical skills to pursue a healthy lifestyle

  • make a successful move to the next stage of education or work

  • establish a pattern of health and wellbeing which will be sustained into adult life, and which will help to promote the health and wellbeing of the next generation of Scottish children.

PD: What is your interest in the reform?
KA: I work in the 'senior phase' (post 16) of the education sector and therefore I have the responsibility to continue to build on the educational experiences that have been provided before me. This will enable the curriculum to be seamless and coherent and provide learners with clearly identifiable exit points to employment, further study etc.

I also sit on the General Teaching Council for Scotland (the teachers' regulatory body-you must be registered to teach) and, as such, have an interest in and a responsibility for, all learners in our education system. This responsibility extends also to the maintenance of teaching standards and professional competence and behaviour.

PD: As a researcher, what are the common themes you observe across countries with educational reform?
MP: In terms of new models of curriculum, a number of common themes are emerging:

  • A continued recourse to the use of outcomes-based specification (often set out as linear levels). This model seems to encourage an instrumental approach to enactment - i.e. ticking the boxes, making minimal changes where absolutely necessary. This model also lends itself to assessment driven learning.

  • A focus on the learner (what Biesta calls the 'learnification of education') - helpful up to a point, but often devoid of purpose (why are we learning?) and content (what are we learning?). In the latter case, educationalists such as Michael Young and Lyn Yates have critiqued what they see as a downgrading of knowledge.

  • A move towards seeing teachers as agents of change or professional developers of the curriculum. This is problematic for the reasons I outline below.

A key issue remains the implementation gap - between policy intention and enacted practice. It is good to see governments now attempting to free up teachers, writing policy that is more flexible and which allows for greater local interpretation. However, there is still some way to go on this front.

Modern curriculum policy will continue to be afflicted by an implementation gap for a number of reasons. Some of these lie in schools - the tendency for teachers to enact new policy in the light of existing beliefs and practices is well-documented. This is exacerbated by:

  • policy which is often vague and contradictory

  • a lack of time and space in schools to engage in sense-making activity around new ideas

  • accountability mechanisms which encourage a culture of performativity and render innovation risky

  • a widespread belief that the new policy is just good practice, and that by implication we are doing it already.

PD: What weighed in Scotland's decision to create a Curriculum for Excellence?
MP: This followed a national debate on education in 2003, which identified the need for a curriculum which better reflected the challenges of producing citizens and workers fit for the 21st century. There has also been in Scotland a concern that the existing curriculum, while well-suited for the top 40% of achievers, was less relevant to many other students.
This situation was highlighted by the 2007 OECD report on Scotland's education system.

PD: In your research what has been the biggest issue implementing CfE?
MP: A lack of time and space for sense-making is the major challenge to overcome. Many teachers seem to only partially understand the curriculum. There is a feeling in many quarters that teachers are doing it already, when they are clearly not. This tendency has been noted in New Zealand, a similar curriculum which while being more widely welcomed by teachers, is afflicted with similar problems of superficial implementation.

PD: What has been the biggest benefit to CfE?
MP: The shift over the last 10 years to more active forms of learning has been a welcome development. Scotland was formerly dominated by didactic and worksheet based approaches which put learners in rows and focused on individual learning.

However, there are caveats here:

  1. it is by no means certain that this is mainly due to CfE, or whether it was happening anyway; and

  2. alot of such activity has been framed in terms of implementing narrow techniques (e.g. the 5 *AifL formative assessment techniques), rather than being about developing systematic approaches to pedagogy that explicitly meet the curricular purposes outlined in CfE.

In terms of the latter issue, I worry that death by cooperative learning will replace death by a 1000 worksheets, and that there will remain a significant between curricular purpose and pedagogic practice...
*Assessment is for Learning - a large assessment project launched in 2002

In the End
Educational reform can be exciting, especially when we look outside the U.S. and see that many other countries are involved in the same process. Educators from around the world are actively trying to change the way they teach and the way students learn. Through conversations on Twitter and other social networking sites educators are sharing valuable information about the changes they are undergoing.

What doesn't help the process of making positive changes to education is when it is tied down by politics and corporate agencies. What does help the process is when it is tied to reliable and effective educational practices. Only time will tell whether CfE and CCSS will truly help change education for the better.

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