Curriculum reform in a post-Covid world; what should school leaders be thinking about?
Introduction to Curriculum Reform
It is safe to say that when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic, our lives changed immensely. The pandemic brought about abrupt changes, losses and challenges to many across the globe. Online platforms, new software, masks, social distancing were only few of the new characteristics of the educational setting. In the field of contemporary education, teacher educators went beyond the call of duty and took on completely different modes and pedagogical approaches to their practices, while also coaching their students on how to cope with their new school norm, whether this was online or onsite. Post-COVID we have been given time to reflect on central aspects of compulsory education and based on what we have experienced these past two years, now is the right time for deep re-evaluation of our curriculum aims in order to make it more meaningful, effective and to proactively contribute to whatever the future may bring.
The Theoretical Background of Curriculum Development
A well-crafted curriculum experience can provide classroom teachers, students, school leaders, and policy makers with a measurable plan and structure for delivering high-quality education. The school curriculum identifies learning outcomes and core competencies that students must demonstrate before advancing to the next level. It is built on goals and objectives and should aim to enhance skill reinforcement.
Bruner (1960) claimed that a good curriculum is a collection of repeated engagements done to embrace, improve and deepen students' skills, concepts, attitudes and values so as to extend their reach. He also argued that it is possible to provide progression in a process curriculum as well as in a product curriculum. Specifically, a balanced curriculum would plan for learning to take place through communities of practice. This would result to the use of group and pair work, which would be essential within the learning context, where interpersonal contact is common and networks of engagement are extensive. Others who have specialised in curriculum development have gone beyond thinking of the curriculum as a process or a school product. Particularly, Barnett, Parry, and Coate (2001) proposed a model of curriculum development that involves three domains:
1) Knowledge, a component which is comprised of discipline-specific subject matter;
2) Action, a component which includes the necessary skills of the discipline, and
Parker (2003) argues for the benefits of a transformational curriculum, suggesting that focus should be on the interaction of the three domains and that students should design their own interacting aspects of knowledge, action, and self. Such a curriculum, according to Parker, is likely to engage the student’s love of knowledge, and re-inspire teachers, would help develop a mature critical self, and incorporate the Barnett et al. (2001) value of dealing with complex paradigms, while also understanding how and why to invest oneself. This approach to an education programme and curriculum centres on self-direction and transformation.
It is important to specify here that a curriculum philosophy does not imply a pedagogy approach or model. Nonetheless, they vary as to the pre-assumptions of students capabilities and skills they will need to develop. Whether the focus is on an individual school or a National Curriculum of a country, models and structures need to be designed for specific purposes. The curriculum is not designed as an isolated signpost for a single school year. It has longitudinal effects so that students make progress from year to year. By following the curricula, educators can prepare their students for their journey the following year, and every year after, in a more logical and organised manner. This is known as sequencing, and should be adjusted so that students are introduced to concepts that build on and compliment each other.
Looking into Curriculum Reform
Curriculum reform has been considered a necessary measure in order to help schools respond to a fast-changing world. In recent years, the education community became even more concerned and many countries have engaged in curriculum reform as a way to equip children with the knowledge, skills and competences needed for the future. However, how to initiate such a reform in the most effective way remains somewhat challenging, especially in a time where there is instability due to the abrupt difficulties the pandemic has caused. A treadmill of quick fixes simply will not do. Outcomes of past reforms have created a missing step between the intention, and the realisation of the curriculum renewal, crystallising “the implementation gap”, a gap which prevents schools from implementing the elements required to make drastic, rather than incremental, changes. These cannot be done overnight; it is vital that various areas are covered, such as:
1) Problem identification and general needs assessment;
2) Needs assessment for targeted learners;
3) Goals and objectives;
6) Evaluation and feedback;
Working towards Educational Reform
Educators/Education Leaders can organise the curriculum according to three types of curriculum design:
- By applying a learning content-based approach that concentrates on the content to master by the end of a school year.
- By applying a learning objective-based approach revolves around behavioural objectives as learning is understood as a change in the behaviour of students. The aim here would be to develop differentiated instructional plans to be inclusive and empower students as they shape their learning experience.
- By applying a competency-based approach that illustrates global trends towards the development of competencies rather than rote learning. This would include learning through life situations and real world issues by teaching students how to look at a problem and formulate a solution.
It is important to keep in mind that a curriculum rarely follows one pure model. It may combine different approaches in its design according to the context and needs of the school/students. Therefore, to support the realisation of the school's vision for education, it is wise to select between different models and types of curriculum to match the vision.
Important steps need to be taken in order to reach the stage where reform can take place and become effective. These steps, as suggested in this article are:
- Schools/Policymakers need to prepare new curriculum guides and new key learning area curriculum guides based on the principles of the curriculum reform and the education experiences schools have had during the pandemic crises. It is vital that research is conducted in order to proceed with the development of these guidelines. The research must focus on issues such as, dialogic teaching practices, teacher training, subject content and the learning experience of students.
- Schools need to be encouraged to place more emphasis on enhancing students’ communication skills, critical thinking and creativity.
- Schools should take gradual steps to adapt to a new curriculum framework. If schools are ready and have input that can be used as guidance, they can start by developing a step-by-step school-based curricula.
- Building on the strengths and experiences developed, teacher education is necessary in order to update teaching approaches according to the new needs and demands of the curricula.
Each country has a different trajectory of reform, however, one may argue that there are similar patterns in several countries across the globe, such as the emphasis on well-being, learner agency, the ability to navigate an uncertain world. Post-Covid, there are a number of similarities in aims and objectives among different countries reflecting a broader complexity about curriculum reform, with particular concerns regarding the interplay of global and local influences. The curriculum reform cannot be considered an isolated national affair and would benefit by international trends, such as globalisation.
Therefore, curriculum implementation encompasses a wide range of areas beyond the traditional “teacher loyalty to the job” and prompt stakeholder engagement and contextual factors that are likely to affect the outcome of implementation.
Finally, reflection can play an important role in the process of building a successful curriculum. Moreover incorporating reflection in the curriculum can also help build students’ own reflective ability; a skill they can apply to their learning. When using reflection in order to reform an existing curriculum, one looks at the lessons learnt. This can be done by posing a number of questions, the answers to which can guide the curriculum developer make changes to the subject content and approach of the curriculum.
Therefore, it is necessary to re-evaluate goals and objectives depending on the age group, the resilience of the students, and whether or not the existing curriculum hones students' skills and talents. Additionally, reflecting on the lessons learnt can prompt sufficient modifications in assignments, standardised assessments and general teaching approaches to reinforce student learning.
Development of Teachers’ Practices within Curriculum Reform
Well-designed materials that provide efficient guidelines support the implementation of the reformed curriculum, as it can make the transition easier for practitioners by concentrating on students’ learning and eliminating the uncertainty of a new curriculum (Oates, 2014). The introduction of a new curriculum may bring about a range of challenges to teachers with regards to goals, subject demarcations, the subject content, the teaching approaches and the assessment arrangements.
In fact, the challenges could be so great that without professional development, the implementation of the new curriculum may be unsuccessful and demotivating for all those involved. A number of issues that need to be addressed in teachers' professional development could be time management, parental expectations, standardised assessment and examinations, and instructional materials. This will provide a chance for secondary teachers to develop the confidence to apply the new curriculum and, at the same time, feel empowered as educators.
For the curriculum to be successful, it needs to be whole, meaning that the subject content, concept, aims and objectives need to be well thought out, and the teachers need to be prepared to put it all into practice. This will happen if teachers are provided with support structures, monitoring and evaluation, and prompted to collaborate with their colleagues within the schools and other learning institutions. Such a process should be possible in any context and any country, and requires thoughtful planning by stakeholders.
Finally, classroom teachers should be given adequate tools, digital skills, space, time for teaching workshops and any other mechanisms necessary in order to construct the knowledge and meaning of the new reforms. This will facilitate the process and add to making the reform possible.
Final Thoughts on Reforming the Curriculum
Curriculum reforms are transversal policies, and without careful planning inefficiencies may occur and potential synergies will be lost. Therefore, it is critical to conduct careful evaluation of current curricula in order to select the correct model(s) and provide teachers with adequate professional development opportunities.
Planning curriculum implementation needs careful consideration regarding the key dimensions, as discussed above. Policy makers and stakeholders should consider actionable measures such as the clear attribution of responsibilities, dedicated resources/equipment, indicators to monitor progress, and an indicative timeline to guide teachers and parents. To be effective, all stakeholders need to be aware and understand what the curriculum implementation strategy is and what their roles are, as far as implementation is concerned. This will help produce and work through a curriculum that supports a transparent system which includes clear communication to all.
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Barnett, R., Parry, G., & Coate, K. (2001). Conceptualising Curriculum Change, Teaching in Higher Education, 6:4, 435-449, DOI: 10.1080/13562510120078009
Bruner, J. (1996). The process of education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Oates, T. (2014), Why textbooks count. A policy paper, University of Cambridge, https://www.cambridgeassessment.org.uk/Images/181744-why-textbooks-count-timoates.pdf
Parker, J.S. (2003). Reconceptualising the curriculum: from commodification to transformation. Teaching in Higher Education, 8, 529 - 543.