Towards a new curriculum framework

John Elliott, NVG Aims, Curriculum and Assessment sub-group.

This paper by John Elliot is intended to be read alongside Eric Bolton’s paper A 21st Century National Curriculum Framework. Click here for Eric Bolton’s paper.


International comparisons of educational attainment, notably TIMMS and PISA, have shown that Asian countries – Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan – consistently do well on standardised measures of performance compared with the USA and the UK. The 1999 TIMMS video study of teaching in seven countries provided evidence that this might be explained by a ‘teaching gap’ (see Stigler and Hiebert, 1999), between countries where ‘teaching for conceptual understanding’ – engaging learners in intellectually challenging, carefully sequenced, and inter-related learning tasks – shaped classroom practice and those countries where teaching focused on the mechanical learning of large amounts of isolated factual information and procedural skills.

The TIMMS video study, according to Stigler and Hiebert, also enabled another teaching gap to be identified. In some countries there is a tendency for teaching to be designed and developed collaboratively by teachers at the school level while in others responsibility for teaching lies mainly with individual teachers. The former positively impacts on learning outcomes compared with the latter. It implies space for professional ‘communities of practice’ to operate in school time. National curricula that centrally prescribe programmes of study in great detail leave little space for teaching conceived as a collaborative professional activity. The latter presumes that national curriculum frameworks give teachers space for school-based curriculum development when it comes to working out the details of programmes of study.

The critical features outlined above are inter-related. ‘Teaching for understanding’ implies a form of teaching that is highly responsive to students’ existing beliefs and prejudices about the object of learning and their attitudes generally towards this type of subject-matter. Such is the variation in learners’ prejudices and attitudes that the difficulties they present for ‘teaching for understanding’ are best overcome by teachers working together at the local school level.

The 1988 National Curriculum

The major aspiration that underpinned the 1988 national curriculum in England and Wales, was to provide a guarantee of standards. This aspiration tended to command widespread agreement at the time. The problem lay in the assumption that such a guarantee could only be realised by a curriculum framework that:

a. Defined standards in terms of predefined, precise and measurable learning outcomes, thereby disconnecting ends from means in education.

b. Prescribed the content of the curriculum in great detail, thereby reducing the professional space for teachers to exercise judgement and agency in their schools and classrooms.

In these terms the national curriculum established the foundations of a target culture that forced teachers to teach to the tests, which is now widely condemned by both policy makers and education professionals alike.

A subject-based curriculum framework appeared at the time to be a guarantor of standards because it was seen to offer the possibility of specifying very precise and measurable outcomes, compared with a curriculum designed around complex objects of learning in the form of life-themes and human situations. With respect to complex objects of learning it is often more difficult to find resources for learning in a single subject domain, and to pre-specify and standardise learning outcomes. Excellent examples of complex objects of learning crying out for a more process oriented model of curriculum design are those of ‘climate change’, ‘sustainable development’, and ‘social identity and difference’ (see Sir Keith Ajegbo’s 2007 review of the Citizenship Curriculum).

A national curriculum framework designed to accommodate complex objects of learning calls for a process model of curriculum development in which ‘standards’ are specified as principles of procedure governing a worthwhile educational process in the classroom (see Stenhouse 1975 and James 2012). In this context the guarantee of standards lies in teachers’ research to improve the realisation of their pedagogical aims and principles in practice, and in opening the evidence they gather in the process to public scrutiny when called to account. In many Asian countries, such as Japan, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, this increasingly takes the form of Lesson Studies or what are called “Research Lessons”, which are publicly accessible (see Lewis, Perry and Friedkin 2009).
A new national curriculum framework: some criteria

Any new national curriculum framework should:

1. Create space for teachers to exercise their generative capabilities in the fields of curriculum development and pedagogy. This implies: that the idea of space for school-based curriculum development needs to be reinstated. Such an activity should involve teachers having responsibility within a framework of agreed curriculum aims and pedagogical principles for the design of detailed programmes of study and forms of teacher-based assessment.

2. Carefully distinguish whole-person development as an intrinsic aim of education from extrinsic economic and social goals. The 1988 national curriculum aspired to provide a broad and balanced curriculum for all in the form of a wide range of subjects, but in the end it was only those subjects that appeared to have high economic commodity value that were given priority and hived off into a heavily tested core curriculum. This distorted any aspiration to make whole-person development the major curriculum aim. Economic and social purposes should inform the design of a national curriculum framework but not distort its intrinsic, specifically educational aims.

3. Have educational aims and principles as its primary focus and not separate out a core curriculum from other educationally worthwhile content. The global economy is so dynamic and unpredictable that we can no longer exclude any subject or discipline as lacking economic commodity value, or high achievers in them as lacking in human capital for labour markets. There are national curriculum frameworks that adopt a ‘natural selection’ as opposed to a ‘social engineering’ stance on the relationship between education and the economy. From their point of view the major function of a national curriculum framework is not to predict which subject-matters have or do not have economic commodity value, and to shape the learning experiences of pupils accordingly. It is to support the development of a diversity of capabilities and talents in the nation’s children and let society select out at any given time which are most needed for the purposes of economic survival.

The Hong Kong national curriculum framework, Learning to Learn: Life-long Learning and Whole-person Development (2001), was originally formulated in the above terms. It is composed of three interconnected components (Key Learning Areas – Generic Skills – Values and Attitudes) and leaves space for teachers to engage in school-based curriculum development through action research.

4. Be designed and proposed by a multi-stakeholder Curriculum Advisory Council. We are currently witnessing a spate of curriculum initiatives driven more by ideological and party political considerations than educational ones. We need an effective mechanism for restraining excessive uses of political power for short term advantage. To this end responsibility for developing a national curriculum framework proposal, and overseeing arrangements for its implementation, should be devolved to a Standing Curriculum Council that is distanced from election-driven party politics that privilege ideology over evidence-based considerations in the policy-making process. This body would consist of the major stake-holders in the education field and be concerned with formulating evidence-based proposals for consideration by Ministers and Parliament. Although its role would be advisory and final decisions left to the latter its major function would be to ensure better continuity for curriculum policy-making over time than the current situation in which education professionals are disempowered by ever changing goal posts (see a similar recommendation from the New Vision Group to the 2008-2009 House of Commons Select Committee’s Review of the National Curriculum).
Ajegbo, Sir Keith (2007), Diversity and Citizenship Curriculum Review, Dept for Education (UK) Archive.

Department for Education and Manpower, Hong Kong (2001) Learning to Learn: Lifelong Learning and Whole-person Development.

James, M (2012), An Alternative to the Objectives Model : The Process Model for the Design and Development of the Curriculum, in Elliott, J and Norris, N (Eds) Curriculum, Pedagogy and Educational Research: The Work of Lawrence Stenhouse, London: Routledge.

Lewis, C , Perry, R and Friedkin, S (2009), Lesson Study as Action Research, in Noffke, S and Somekh, B (Eds.) The Sage Handbook of Educational Action Research, London:Sage.

Stenhouse, L (1975) An Introduction to Curriculum and Development, Heinemann Education.

Stigler, J. W and Hiebert, J (1999) The Teaching Gap, New York: Free Press.

JE. June 22nd 2012