“Curriculum development must rest on teacher development” 

Lawrence Stenhouse, ‘An Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development’

Paying attention to the careful, skilled development of your curriculum is essential business for every school. Though it has always been in view for teachers and school leaders, there is no doubt the focus has become more acute for schools since OFSTED’s new inspection framework. For many school leaders and teachers, it is a welcome, intellectually nourishing focus for school improvement. That said, it is really, really hard to do well!

Now, I don’t want to appear like some curriculum development Cassandra, but I think it is helpful to consider how and why curriculum development may run aground before we sink all of our efforts into it. Teacher workload, along with our pupils’ outcomes, may even depend upon it. 

My scepticism is rooted in decades of curriculum development defeats (see my TES article here). Not only has curriculum development proven a near-insurmountable challenge in England, Scotland and the US, at pretty much every school phase, I have also had my own taste of bitter curriculum development failures. I have written about what was a beautifully ‘knowledge-rich’ KS3 English curriculum in 2013. I soon found out what Lawrence Stenhouse wrote about back in the 70s: there is no “teacher-proof curricula”. A curriculum plan (our ‘intent’ in more recent parlance`) will only go as far as the professional development in place to support its implementation. 

I learned from my particular ‘knowledge-rich KS3’ curriculum struggle that teacher knowledge, teacher habits and teacher beliefs, all need tending to (a lot) for any curriculum development to succeed. Crucially though, due to really variable ITT, followed by even more disparate and variable in-school training for developing teachers, that self-same teacher knowledge and practice will likely prove highly variable and hard to plan for and lead (ironically, there is no curricula for teacher learning).

Given this challenge then, as much as we should ask questions about the substantive knowledge, sequence and schema of what is taught, we should ask at the same time, how are teachers aided with substantial professional development, coaching and follow on support to assimilate and enact these tricky habit changes?

The complex challenge of teacher development

As schools grapple with curriculum sequencing, whilst ensuring teachers have the requisite subject knowledge to plan and bring new curriculum innovations to life in the classroom, we should also get to grips with what type of teacher development may be necessary. 

Offering teachers time for ongoing curriculum development is an obvious starting point. It is a necessary prerequisite, but it is insufficient in and of itself. A chastening truth is that even high quality subject-specific CPD may not be enough. In the US, maths teachers were given ample time and coaching on maths focused materials. And yet, despite between 68 and 110 hours of professional development being given over to teachers, the impact was negligible. 

So, what are the ‘active ingredients’ of teacher professional development necessary to support curriculum development that may succeed? Time is a given. A subject specific emphasis would appear to be valuable (just how much, how specific, and how it relates to changing teacher habits, is still up for grabs). Teacher-facing tools will also matter. 

Another curriculum seer, William Popham, stated back in 1969: “The education reformer who eloquently urges classroom teachers to change their practices may receive the accolades of the educational community, but the educational reformer who provides a set of useable curriculum materials for the teacher is more likely to modify what goes on in the classroom.”

I would guess that unless teachers are supported with a batch of useable new curriculum resources, little of our curriculum changes will be enacted or really sustained. This includes assessments that are neatly aligned with whole-school data demands. Not only that, many of these resources will need to be developed (and adapted) together with teachers to ensure a greater understanding. Coaching, inquiry and peer collaborative planning will likely be necessary if we are to nurture a sustained habit change. 

A handy short-cut is to consider all of our curriculum changes through the lens of a harried full-time teacher who is snatching at hard-earned windows of time in the corners of their full timetable. It rightly grounds our ambitions in the messiness of the real classrooms of tired, hustling teachers. 

If we don’t face head-on the significant challenge of teacher development, then our exciting curriculum debates and plans will come to nought. 

Slowly, quietly, the majority of teachers in schools will close their classroom door and slip back into doing it as they always have done. Our best intent will simply wilt in the white-hot crucible of the classroom.