A new study shows large variability in what teachers teach and when. Photo / 123RF
More than half of New Zealand teachers agree students learn different things depending on who they are taught by – even within the same school.
That is one of the findings of an Education Hub
survey of more than 500 teachers into the nature of curriculum design – in other words, what content a school decides to teach and how they deliver it.
Founder of the Education Hub Dr Nina Hood said her latest research report backed up the theory that the national curriculum has contributed to the decline in student achievement over the past 13 years.
“The open nature of the New Zealand Curriculum, which requires each school to individually determine what they teach, has resulted in children at different schools, and indeed often children at the same schools, receiving very different educational experiences,” she wrote in her report, Variable in/by design: The variable nature of curriculum design and instructional materials in Aotearoa New Zealand schools.
“Currently, schools are responsible for determining not only what they teach but also how they sequence the learning and the level of rigour or challenge of the tasks students undertake.”
The most concerning finding was that 27 per cent of teachers did not think their school considered curriculum design important, Hood told the Herald.
“Given that curriculum is such a fundamental aspect of schooling, that over a quarter of teachers would say that it’s not considered important, that really did concern me.”
The survey of teachers found just over 60 per cent taught the same curriculum as other teachers at their school and just over 50 per cent said they taught the same content as others in their school.
But, 58 per cent of teachers said students learned different things depending on who taught them, suggesting that in some schools – even when teachers teach the same content or curriculum – student learning differs, Hood said in the report.
“Currently, the curricular choices being made by teachers and schools are not universally providing equity of learning opportunities or equity of choices and outcomes for students.”
Those figures also suggest many teachers were being left to design their own curriculum and plan lessons alone, making it difficult to sequence and build on learning between year levels – another issue that concerned Hood.
Hood said she undertook the survey to find out how schools were implementing the NZ Curriculum and what consistency there was between and within schools.
“Anecdotally, most people have a pretty good understanding that schools, and even sometimes different teachers within the same school, are approaching curriculum in very different ways.
“But we didn’t have that data set to be able to actually say with any surety that was what was happening so the survey that we released was an attempt to try and understand how our schools are actually approaching curriculum design.”
The issue with variability in how the curriculum is designed and implemented came down to the variability in student outcomes and the significant disparities between different groups of students, Hood said.
“My issue arises because we have this huge variability in terms of student outcomes.
“International research is pretty clear that the curriculum contributes to what students learn and how students achieve and that having at least some degree of consistency in terms of what students are learning across their time at school on average leads to better outcomes and equitable outcomes as well.”
Hood said being able to localise aspects of the curriculum was appropriate but the curriculum needed to outline the “non-negotiables that all Kiwi children have a right to be engaging with and learning about when they are at school”.
It also found the issues within curriculum design in most secondary schools were perhaps less of an issue thanks to specialised teachers and curriculum design being done as a faculty.
Hood said much more attention needed to be given to exactly what should be focused on in primary schools and how that could be structured across the various year levels.
Mahurangi College is an example of a school that designs the curriculum at a faculty level and aims to sequence learning across years.
Principal Tony Giles said it created a lot of work for staff and he would like to see the New Zealand Curriculum be more prescriptive as to what should be taught and when.
“Ideally, you want a national curriculum which specifies in more detail the knowledge that, as a country, we think is important,” he said.
“There still needs to be scope for some localised curriculum but I think the pendulum probably needs to swing more to a New Zealand Curriculum which is more content-rich and knowledge-based to ensure there is greater coherence across the country – that there is less variability between schools.
“Over many years we’ve had a knowledge-light sort of curriculum which hasn’t really served students well.”
Giles said there was a huge difference in the amount of knowledge prescribed in different subjects.
“We see more knowledge, for example, in the New Zealand Histories curriculum but a complete absence in the science draft refresh and English is no better.
“There’s no reference there to metaphor or syntax or genre so that leads to huge variability. You’ll have some schools that are teaching Patricia Grace and Katherine Mansfield and other schools that may not be.”
He believed there needed to be more consistency so all students had the same knowledge that could be built on over time.
“If kids are just getting episodes, then that’s no more a curriculum than a pile of bricks is a house. It just doesn’t lead to students being able to progress in any sort of sensible manner.”
Giles also held concerns the refreshed curriculum would make little change in most subjects, based on the drafts that have been released.
“It lacks coherence, it lacks ambition, it lacks the understanding of over-time knowledge with students so that they can know more and do more and that’s critical in terms of closing the achievement gap.
“The curriculum should be a driver for equity and it’s not currently. I don’t think there’s much confidence that the refresh will make much difference for our least advantaged students.”
Hood’s report recommended core knowledge be identified and included in the curriculum in greater detail; ensure schools had the resources to design and deliver the content effectively; give all teachers access to high-quality instructional material; and develop a way to evaluate how the curriculum was being implemented and its impact on student outcomes.
Amy Wiggins is an Auckland-based reporter who covers education. She joined the Herald in 2017 and has worked as a journalist for 12 years.