03 SES 08 A, Curriculum Design and Coherence Making
In recent decades, curricula have held a central place in European and national education policy. Not least, the curricula have become targets for politicians’ ambitions to improve the goal attainment and results of education systems and schools. Internationally, a policy movement has emerged around standard- and result-focused curriculum constructions with the intention of driving the quality development of school activities and teaching towards accordance with available international and national outcome measures and quality indicators (Desimone, 2013; Honig & Hatch 2004; Sundberg & Wahlström, 2012). In this type of curriculum construction, emphasis is placed on clear knowledge requirements (‘standards’) that can be evaluated at individual, classroom, school and national levels. International agenda-setters, such as the OECD and the EU, have gained increased influence in national curriculum discourses on the structure, focus and content of curricula (Karseth & Sivesind, 2010). However, a number of research studies have indicated that standard-based curriculum constructions are designed according to a linear top-down model with centrally prescribed and specified knowledge requirements that are rarely applied locally in accordance with the intentions. A number of national, cultural/pedagogical and political traditions and systems, as well as local conditions, affect how the curricula are understood, interpreted and translated into different teaching practices that also accommodate tensions different knowledge views and ideologies (Bernstein, 2000; Buchman & Floden, 1992; Sundberg & Wahlström, 2012, 2018).
The idea of policy alignment has become a guiding principle for policymakers around the world in the last decades in order to overcome the gaps between policy and practice. If a new education policy (e.g., curriculum emphasis on the development of competencies) contradicts another newly introduced policy or an existing policy, the implementation of the new policy will encounter serious setbacks. In this paper, curriculum coherence, as an example of policy alignment, are examined and analysed while exploring the interplay between the intended and the locally enacted curriculum. Two general models and types of definitions are identified, theoretically discussed and empirically explored regarding how they are played out in different teaching practices. The first is a coordinative approach in which curriculum reforms are driven by formal standardisation. Curriculum coherence is foremost about linking learning materials, teacher preparation, monitoring and supervision, etc. to national curricula, which in turn, promotes some registers of teachers teaching repertoires. The second, in contrast, is related to how goals, content and knowledge requirements and assessment are consistent across the intended and the enacted curricula, that is, substantial consistency. Curriculum coherence concerns, from this perspective, how various institutionalized background ideas and assumptions about knowledge, learning and assessment are linked to the intended curricula.
In the paper, the two main approaches to curriculum coherence are explored and investigated with the Swedish standards-based curriculum reform as an example. The Swedish curriculum follows in several aspects the transnational and European policy trend focusing on uniform and specified standards and knowledge requirements in the curriculum in order to obtain measurable results, performance and performance indicators (Wahlström & Sundberg, 2018). The design also tries to achieve a strong linking of the various elements in the curriculum chain: selection of content, organisation and assessment. This means that the standards are clearly adapted to the grading criteria (Sundberg & Wahlström, 2012). The overall purpose of the paper is to conceptually and empirically investigate the concept of curriculum coherence, its potential explanatory values as well as potential pitfalls and shortcomings in empirical curriculum research. The guiding research question is: What versions and definitions of curriculum coherence are found in recent international curriculum research literature and how does it relate to different curriculum patterns in the locally enacted curriculum in schools and classrooms.
The completed study was based on empirical material from four case schools and is included within the framework of the research project, Exploring the Elusive Teaching Gap— Equity and Knowledge Segregation in Teaching Processes (Swedish Research Council, 2018‒2022). The selection of schools was based on variation in terms of high- and low-performing schools (5-year criteria based on average of merit values applied). The selection of case schools also included some variation regarding urban and rural areas with differences in socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds in the student composition (Wahlström, 2019). The empirical material consists of video observations of lessons, a total of 16 at each school spread over a school year (n = 64). The observations thus follow a class and the teaching of Swedish and natural science in Year 8. The data collection period was a school year so as to capture a longer series of lessons. The main unit of analysis consisted of various themes (cf. ‘curriculum tasks’), which represent a longer sequence of lessons that are combined with the same content theme. Within each theme, the lessons at the beginning, middle and end are analysed as different categories, as previous classroom research has shown that the communication pattern and student and teacher activities change depending on which phase of the task they are actually in (Wahlström & Sundberg, 2018). Based on the prescribed content of the curriculum/syllabus, teachers write themes and curriculum assignments that usually transcend individual subjects and extend over a specific period of time (e.g., electricity, heat in natural science, poetry, news, facts and fiction in Swedish). Teachers’ curriculum decisions regarding the planning, implementation and evaluation of these themes are important because they indicate the teachers’ curriculum agency in relation to various aspects of the curriculum framework, framework factors, professional experience, student needs, etc. In addition to video observations, ‘stimulated recall’ interviews with teachers and with focus groups of students were used, usually every other time after lessons were filmed (n = 37). The classroom studies have also been accompanied by data collection about each school, including curriculum documents such as guidelines, schedules, work plans, planning, tests, follow-ups, etc. at the school level (n = 35) and ended with an interview with the principals (n = 4) in order to follow up how a national curriculum is adopted and translated into classroom instruction at different local conditions.
Previous research has suggested that curriculum coherence in the implemented and taught curriculum can be an important aspect to study in order to understand differences in goal attainment in schools and achievements between schools and classes (Oates, 2010; Newman et al 2001; Sullanmaa et al 2019). The analyses show that three different analytical levels appear central in exploring curriculum coherence. First-order curriculum coherence is about teaching in the classroom. It means that the teaching connects classroom activities to the students’ lives and that teaching and evaluation correspond to the goals in an understandable way for teachers and students, that there is a real connection between the intended curriculum, overall goals, content, assessment and the teaching students encounter. Second-order curriculum coherence concerns the consistency between the local school’s goals and pedagogy and what happens in the classrooms. Research has shown the importance of the local enactment and understandings among professionals in translating the intended curricula into practical pedagogy and teaching practices (Tikkanen et. al., 2019). Curriculum coherence here means that the school’s pedagogical ideas (local curriculum) and classroom activities are connected in a deliberate way, that is, not only coordinated but also interpreted, discussed and implemented collectively and collegially. This means that it should be able to identify and trace the central ideas in various lesson plans, course plans, themes, tests and examinations, etc.; that is, that the school’s collective work with the curriculum has a real impact on teachers and their teaching. Finally, third-order curriculum coherence means that there is a coherence in the chain of decision-making from the practical teaching classroom context to school and principal levels to district and national levels setting conditions for the enactment of the curriculum. General conclusions on the results of the study are discussed and related to European and international curriculum research.
Bernstein, B. (2000). Pedagogy, symbolic control and identity: theory, research, critique. (Rev. ed.). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Buchmann, M., & Floden, R. E. (1992). Coherence, the Rebel Angel. Educational Researcher, 21(9), 6–9. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X021009004 Desimone, L. (2013). Teacher and administrator responses to standards-based reform. Teachers College Record, 115, 1–53. Honig, M. I., Hatch, T. C. (2004). Crafting coherence: How schools strategically manage multiple, external demands. Educational Researcher, 33(8), 16‒30. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X033008016 Karseth, B., & Sivesind, K. (2010), Conceptualising curriculum knowledge within and beyond the national context. European Journal of Education, 45, 103‒120. doi:10.1111/j.1465-3435.2009.01418.x Newmann, F. M., Smith, B., Allensworth, E., & Bryk, A. S. (2001). Instructional program coherence: What it is and why it should guide school improvement policy. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 23(4), 297‒321, https://doi.org/10.3102/01623737023004297 Oates, T. (2010). Could do better: Using international comparisons to refine the National Curriculum in England. Cambridge Assessment. University of Cambridge, Local Examinations Syndicate. Sullanmaa, J., Pyhältö, K., Pietarinen, J. & Soini, T. (2019). Curriculum coherence as perceived by district-level stakeholders in large-scale national curriculum reform in Finland, The Curriculum Journal, 30(3), 244‒263. doi:10.1080/09585176.2019.1607512 Sundberg, D. & Wahlström, N. (2012). Standards-based curricula in a denationalised conception of education—The case of Sweden. European Educational Research Journal, 11(3), 342‒356. https://doi.org/10.2304/eerj.2012.11.3.342 Tikkanen, L., Pyhältö, K., Pietarinen, J., & Soini, T. (2019). Lessons learnt from a large-scale curriculum reform: The strategies to enhance development work and reduce reform-related stress. Journal of Educational Change, 51(21), 543–567. doi: 10.1007/s10833-019-09363-1 Wahlström, N. & Sundberg, D. (eds.) (2018). Transnational curriculum standards and classroom practices: the new meaning of teaching. Taylor & Francis Ltd. Wahlström, N. (Ed.). (2019). Classroom research—Methodology, categories and coding. Linneaus University Press. diva2:1361576
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