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Curriculum innovation: Investigating the intricacies between the roles and responsibilities of policy makers, teachers and leaders

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REBEKAH GEAR, LECTURER IN PRIMARY EDUCATION, NOTTINGHAM TRENT UNIVERSITY, UK
REBECCA HURLEY, PRINCIPAL AND CURRICULUM STRATEGIC LEAD, DIVERSE ACADEMIES TRUST, UK
PROFESSOR MICK WATERS, EDUCATION ADVISOR AND AUTHOR, UK; PREVIOUS DIRECTOR OF CURRICULUM, QUALIFICATIONS AND CURRICULUM AUTHORITY, UK

Curriculum innovation provides the tools to enable the needs of individual school communities to be met, supporting practice in being both adaptive and reactive (Carl, 2009). However, innovation is not something that only happens inside classrooms and schools. This article explores the ways in which innovation is situated within the wider education system, and provides suggestions as to how to overcome some of the challenges that sector-wide collaborations can bring. It will draw on the notions of problem-solving and appreciative inquiry (Cooperrider and Srivastva, 1987), as well as the role of strong collegial relationships in overcoming such challenges.

In schools, we unite in seeking the best methodology for teaching: the most effective, efficient approaches to help our students to make progress. Increasingly, educators grapple with that seemingly unsolvable conundrum of finding the fool-proof method: a research-informed formula or blueprint for best practice. Groß Ophoff et al. (2023) recently provided a strong evidence basis that explored the impact of these research-informed activities and the impact that they have on school and student outcomes.

However, since 1988, the government has increasingly centralised schooling, and the professional development of teachers is being drawn into that agenda. While the development of teaching school hubs and national platforms for professional learning is beneficial, we should beware the risk of reduced creativity and autonomy in engaging in research-informed practice. If teachers only experience a selected programme ‘provider’ in helping them to become effective ‘deliverers’ around a common framework, innovation might become restricted or limited. Instead, a common framework should be seen as a trellis upon which teachers can grow and spread expertise, rather than as a cage in which it might be constrained. After all, as Kirk (2011) has argued, teaching is both a craft and a profession.

A challenge for the teaching profession has always been to exercise professional caution and engage in innovation that is not only research-informed but also disciplined. Just two years ago this manifested itself as the ‘forgetting curve’ of Ebbinghaus, which for a period preoccupied many educators’ minds. However, we have since moved forward, and now the current expectation is that educators will use various innovative approaches that are informed by, and capture the implications of, cognitive science theories.

How educators and school leaders are encouraged to research, practise and innovate is important. Whatever the intention, a centralised framework risks becoming a cage of compliance, especially when accompanied by a powerful accountability regime. The antidote might lie in the world of business psychology and the work of Cooperrider and Srivastva (1987), who illustrated an approach that has the perfect mix of putting right mistakes and meeting challenges that have arisen (problem-solving) on the one hand and, on the other, finding good, innovative practice that could be spread and developed further (appreciative inquiry).

Both of Cooperrider and Srivastva’s principles are vital in the context of supporting innovative practice and, in particular, curriculum innovation. Problem-solving is especially important, as it allows educators to locate a need or identify a problem, analyse causes and consider solutions. From here, a plan may be devised for a way forward that is well resourced with necessary skills, always checking on progress against the intended solution. However, perhaps more vital is appreciative inquiry, which involves appreciating the best of ‘what is’ and envisioning what ‘might be’. Through this, a dialogue takes us forward to seek new and research-informed knowledge, theories and innovative practices, which support determining ‘what should be’ in order to meet the vision of ‘what will or could be’.

Clearly, in terms of appreciative inquiry, the first step requires an accurate assessment of what is working well, and this is where supporting a culture of reflective practice can have a major impact. Strengths are identified, with the ambition to make it even better. What the next improvement will look like encourages the beginnings of research or innovation. This is essentially a process that ‘creates energy’. There needs to be a balance between centralised approaches and the practitioner’s need to feel a sense of professional autonomy.

Cooperrider and Srivastva (1987) argue that successful organisations use three parts appreciative inquiry for every part problem-solving. When considering what this looks like for initial teacher trainees (ITT), in our initial teacher education (ITE) institutions, Nunn (2017) advocated a need for such outlooks to support an understanding of both the psychological and sociological factors that impact the learning of students. Innovation needs to be approached holistically, linking carefully to practice and the knowledge of the wider school community of professional placement practices. It could be argued that this sort of appreciative inquiry feeds in to supporting our future teachers in developing their own articulation for curriculum innovation, which is then individually situated and beneficial to the setting in which they are teaching.

This leads us to consider the nature of the content within our ITE programmes, and the need to make space to encourage ITTs to both develop practice and innovate it. We risk ITTs operating merely as technicians, if our ITE programmes do not support them to understand the principles that underpin disciplined innovative practices. This will ultimately foster their understanding of the education system in which they are being trained, supporting them to become qualified and adept in making professional and autonomous judgements in terms of curriculum innovation (Orchard and Winch, 2015).

There must be interwoven into our ITE programmes opportunities for exploratory experiences to innovate and deploy a repertoire of strategies. This is fuelled by both the foundational knowledge and critical reflections of existing academic discourse, but further complemented by the supervision of expert colleagues and mentoring. 

Alongside problem-solving and appreciative inquiry, relationships too are fundamental in supporting innovative practice, and at the heart of this is effective leadership at school level. In education, leaders shoulder the responsibility for the education of hundreds of students and represent the reputation of schools within communities. Furthermore, leadership has become a major characteristic underpinning outstanding schools, heralded as being driven by both personal quality and passion, with West-Burnham (2012) coining leaders as ‘role models’ (p. 5). But the high-stakes accountability and standardised system in which we operate can be seen to be anything but conducive to leaders feeling able to cultivate the freedom and autonomy to innovate in their schools.

Innovation is the tool that brings the curriculum to life inside classrooms (Sull, 2015). This is fuelled by every interaction and incidental teaching opportunity throughout a student’s time in school, reminding us why those educators who are situated nearest to the learner have the most impact (Leithwood et al., 2006). Experienced educators know that curriculum innovation is not about taking unrestrained and unstructured actions (Sull, 2015). Through a collaborative approach to building our curriculum, leaders can ensure that all educators, from their early career onwards, have ownership of the mission of the school and an interest in its effectiveness. This assists educators in gaining a solid understanding of the significant facets of the curriculum and consequently unites them in accepting accountability for its impact.

To successfully get to the point of curriculum innovation, we believe that it is necessary to invest in building trusted relationships between school leaders and educators, so that there is both confidence in autonomy and an established culture of psychological safety in which to ask for support. It prevents what Morrison (2013) argues is the reality of curriculum: how implementation or change often unfolds as ‘top-down and with very little input from most stakeholders’ (p. 421). Leaders have to be relentless in their communication about their core aims and purpose, and empower their educators to develop and share expertise, mentoring and coaching each other (Carl, 2009). With these clear parameters in place, educators become free to innovate, and leaders become instructional, keeping practice on-piste and watching the magic happen.

Little (1981) observed that you know you are in a good school because it is a place where educators engage in talk about teaching; observe each other; plan, organise and evaluate their teaching together; and learn from each other. We might require the infrastructure of frameworks courtesy of policymakers. But we should ensure that it is educators, at all stages of their professional development, who believe that they can influence it through innovation. There is certainly a need for more research into the impact of research-informed innovative approaches and disciplines. And we know that there continue to be limitations, including a lack of institutional support, such as access to research and time, and sometimes even simply trust (Gaussel et al., 2021). It has recently been indicated that schools with a higher average value of trust among colleagues conduct more organisational and research-informed activities, which have been demonstrated to have a positive impact on school and pupil outcomes (Groß Ophoff et al., 2023). Ultimately, to serve effective curriculum innovation, we must not only notice where innovation is empowered and restricted, but also engage in processes such as problem-solving, appreciative inquiry and development of trusting relationships, so that everyone can profit.

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