03 SES 09 A, Curriculum Reform and Evaluation
The curriculum reform currently taking place in Flanders has given rise to a variety of educational practices in junior high schools. In this project, researchers, teachers and learners use the method of photovoice to work collaboratively towards an evaluation, description and optimalization of more innovative educational practices.
The rather loose curriculum reform – starting 1st of September 2019 - insists on a more comprehensive educational system in junior high schools. Considering previous research, early tracking enhances the determinant of the context in which children grow up (such as family, home language) in their choice of study (Boone & Van Houtte, 2013; Goosen & Boone, 2017). In mixed groups, low-performing pupils benefit from working with high-performing learners because of peer effects and – however less – vice versa (Nicaise et al. 2014). This leads to two focal points: (a) differentiated instruction is systematically embedded into the curriculum, by offering remedial activities for low-performing learners as well as challenging activities for high-performing learners; (b) learners will be better prepared to choose a study subject at the age of 14, by offering opportunities to discover their qualities and interests, activities to enhance their self-management and their study choice making skills.
This educational reform has given rise to a rich variety of more innovative educational practices and organizational reforms within Flemish junior schools. Some schools have embedded flexible learning time in the lesson plans, in which learners work autonomously on different lesson subjects and on different levels. Other schools organize coaching moments, innovate their evaluation practices, invest in project based learning, or offer exploratory courses in which learners freely explore study domains in order to be better equipped to choose a study subject at the age of 14. Schools differ largely in the way they have innovated themselves to meet up to the demands of this educational reform. Within this context, school leaders, teachers as well as parents experience a need for an evaluation of this variety of practices.
In this research project, learners, teachers and researchers work together to evaluate this variety of practices. Hence, the research question of the project is: what constitutes successful junior high schools? The qualification ‘succesful’ is further specified as (a) meeting up to the required learning goals, (b) having a positive impact on learners’ and teachers’ wellbeing; (c) having a positive impact on learners’ academic self-concept and (d) offering a positive orientation towards the choice of a study subject at the age of 14.
In order to answer this research question, this collaborative research investigates the educational practices of five junior high schools. The participating schools were recruited on the efforts they make to reform their school system towards a more comprehensive approach: (1) they take arrangements to reduce the impact of social factors on school success; (2) they invest in the wellbeing of their pupils and teachers; (3) they work on the orientation and self-regulation of their learners and (4) they implement more process and student oriented methods of evaluation. This reform is often made tangible in the organization of the lesson table, embedded differentiation, flexible learning time, integration of courses and learning subjects and the deployment of project based learning.
A qualitative and quantitative analysis of the data collaboratively gathered within these five schools leads us to an evaluation of the most common educational practices resulting from the educational reform, a description of these educational practices within these pilot schools as well as tools (e.g. a selfscan and an inspirational website) that allow other junior high schools to innovate, evaluate or optimize their school organization and educational practices with regards to this educational reform.
This mixed-methods research project combines quantitative and qualitative research methods. In order to map whether learners achieve the prescribed learning goals (a), the five pilot schools conduct validated survey-tests, called ‘Parallel tests’, which situate the school towards the average performances of Flemish schools with a similar population (Janssen, 2017). To inquire whether learners develop wellbeing, (b) academic selfconcept (c), and a positive orientation towards a study subject choice (d), photovoice is used as a collaborative data collection method. Photovoice is a practice in which members of a community identify, represent and enhance certain processes by taking, sharing and discussing photos (Wang and Burris 1997). This critical dialogue in small inquiry groups delivers indepth insights into ongoing processes. By connecting images and words to events, the members of the community are enabled to prioritize their concerns and discuss their problems and solutions, which contributes to the empowerment and emancipation of the participants. (Hannes and Parylo 2014). Photovoice is also considered an emancipatory method, not only because it gives equal voice to participants that are less capable of expressing themselves verbally, but also because it involves learners and teachers as active agents for change, rather than objects or implementers of a policy (Koro-Ljungberg 2014). This is a shift from a researcher-centred construction to those of the participants (Savin-Baden and Major 2013). Learners (n=500) and teachers (n=70) in the five pilot schools were asked to express their opinion on the educational practices in their junior high school by taking or selecting a photograph. These pictures were then discussed in small focus group conversations. The transcriptions of these focus group talks were qualitatively analysed with the use of the programme QDA Miner, by means of a literature based code tree. The analysis of the data was further on conducted in three stages. Firstly, the data gathered in the five pilot schools resulted in five school reports with a detailed evaluation of the specific educational practices in these pilot schools. Secondly, these school reports form the basis for a collaborative trajectory within these schools. Teachers and researchers work collaboratively to further optimize the educational practices investigated. Thirdly, the data from the five school reports were compared in search for common tendencies in the evaluation of the educational practices, enabling the researchers to formulate a number of general conclusions with regards to the innovative practices linked to the ongoing educational reform.
This research project has now lead an evaluation of five educational practices associated with the educational reform: flexible learning time, exploratory courses, project based learning, alternative forms of evaluation and teacher design teams. The data show mainly positive correlations with the success criteria of learners’ wellbeing (b) and academic selfconcept (c). Learners (n=500) consider mainly the sense of freedom and autonomy as very positive. They perceive these educational practices as a means to improve certain metacognitive skills, in particular with regards to self-regulation. Learners also appreciate the possibility of working at different learning levels and consider exploratory courses as beneficial in the process of study choice. However, the data also reveal several threats. The data show that carefully planned infrastructure is essential in this context. Moreover, sufficient curriculum time should be dedicated to coaching sessions and reflection time in order for the innovative practices to be effective. The learners also express the need for more feedback. Furthermore, the data make clear that the success of the innovative practices seems to be dependent on the level in which their intended goals are sufficiently transparent to both learners and teachers. With regards to teachers (n=70) as well, the data show a correlation with positive wellbeing and academic selfconcept, particularly when the innovative practices are organized by teacher design teams with a high sense of autonomy. Also, support from school leaders is key here. On the other hand, the data show that innovation is associated with a heavy workload for teachers. Teachers particularly expressed the need for more support and transparency from government services with regards to curriculum reforms and express their concern about the velocity of innovations in education. Conclusions with regards to the success criterium of meeting up to the required learning goals (a) have yet to be formulated.
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