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The role of implementation quality in curriculum success

Written by: Jon Eaton
5 min read
Jon Eaton, Director, Kingsbridge Research School, Kingsbridge Community College, Education South West, UK

For a concept that should help to impose order, curriculum does not always do the best job. Look it up on Wikipedia, for example, and you will find it couched in all sorts of linguistic shrugs and hesitations: ‘broadly speaking’, ‘no generally agreed on definition’, ‘may also refer to’, ‘curriculum may incorporate’ and so on.

The tone becomes a little more assertive when we look at some of the ideology surrounding curriculum. The curriculum should aim to build powerful knowledge (e.g. Young and Muller, 2013) or be knowledge-rich (Sherrington, 2021). It should develop cultural literacy. It should highlight disciplinary knowledge. It is ‘distinct from pedagogy’ (DfE, 2019). On the other hand, ‘curriculum is pedagogy’ (Wiliam, 2013, p. 10).

The aim here is not to criticise. We should consider the primacy of knowledge. It is helpful to separate curriculum from pedagogy so that we can focus on, in Ofsted’s words (DfE, 2019), ‘the substance of what is taught’. And, without any contradiction, it is also the case that we cannot disentangle curriculum from pedagogy if we expect to see our best intentions translated to the classroom undiminished.

When we make decisions about pedagogy, we are assisted by a growing evidence base. We may not be dealing with absolute fact, but there is at least a helpful level of support. For example, in the foreword to the EEF’s recent ‘Teacher feedback to improve pupil learning’ guidance report (2021a), Professor Becky Francis states that ‘much of the research on feedback remains limited, but this guidance offers recommendations’ (p. 4). Even with the caution, this is extremely helpful for school leaders. It sets boundaries around the discourse and offers ‘best bets’.

But when we make decisions about curriculum, we find ourselves dealing with tremendous complexity. One curriculum paper tellingly represents it using a ‘spider’s web’ diagram in which we find, trapped like flies, assessment, teacher role, grouping, time, learning activities, content, aims and objectives, among other terms (van den Akker, 2010). If we agree with Dylan Wiliam that curriculum is pedagogy and that we will not see our best intentions enacted without attending to pedagogy, then to that list (or web) we can add feedback, literacy, alignment with cognitive science, professional development and so on. Encompassing so much, it is inevitably messier.

Despite this, we have to wade into the confusion if we want to emerge with a curriculum that we can articulate. To frame this in terms of the EEF’s (2021b) implementation guidance – because I really do think that curriculum is an implementation issue – we need to spend time in the ‘Explore’ phase. Practically, what does that mean?

It means spending time defining the problem that you want to solve, identifying evidence-informed solutions and ‘judg[ing] the feasibility of [their] implement[ation]’ (EEF, 2021b, p. 12). This way of working is the antithesis of the quick fix or magic bullet. It places value on the endeavour but also recognises the high cost of getting it wrong: the suboptimal learning, the waste of teacher time, the reputational damage to subsequent leadership initiatives – what the guidance report calls the school’s ‘implementation climate’ (p. 26).

Another part of the process is unpicking what we mean by evidence-informed solutions. For example, if the problem we have identified is that our curriculum does not sequence subject knowledge, but instead presents concepts haphazardly and in a way that places unhelpful demands on working memory, our evidence-informed solution might be to use curriculum structure to build schemas. But it is not enough to tell people that. Are we starting with a shared understanding of the term? (David Didau (2021) provides an accessible explanation in his blog ‘How to explain… schema’.) If we prescribe the use of concept maps to help build schemas, will teachers use them as intended? If our curriculum does not prescribe a particular method, what will happen then? In fact, do we even know how robust the evidence is?

A process that raises questions like these suggests that discussion and collaboration are essential. Meaningfully engaging with evidence requires ‘communication, collaboration and interactions through networks within and beyond the school’ (Godfrey, 2019, p. 209). In our trust, Education South West, we have a curriculum team composed of subject-level curriculum design leads, whose work is overseen by three directors of curriculum quality and innovation. In other words, it is structured to be a collaborative effort. This is what the EEF’s implementation guidance calls an implementation team, combining both ‘educational and implementation expertise’ (2021b, p. 11).

A key part of their work and of the implementation process itself is specifying the active ingredients of the approach – the non-negotiable principles and practices that are ostensibly responsible for its effects (though only monitoring and evaluation will reveal whether that is indeed the case). That might mean, for example, communicating exactly what we mean when we say we want teachers to use a particular learning strategy, such as retrieval practice. Do we say, ‘Use retrieval practice at the start of lessons’, which seems very open to interpretation, or do we say, ‘In this school, retrieval practice means that we use multiple choice questions, we test high-value knowledge with genuinely challenging questions, we include common misconceptions among the distractors and we provide immediate feedback when students opt for the misconceptions’? (Note that this is not intended to be a how-to for retrieval practice – and retrieval practice may not be appropriate for every subject or topic, but it is an example of how an implementation team might attempt to pin down and communicate the specifics of a strategy.)

The importance of considering process as well as practice is well exemplified in two of the EEF’s most recent publications. In addition to explaining what the evidence says about impact, the newly updated ‘Teaching and learning toolkit’ (2021c) contains guidance on how to implement each strategy in our own settings – something that we might easily overlook if we focus only on headline claims. The ‘Cognitive science approaches in the classroom: A review of the evidence’ report from the EEF (Perry et al., 2021) places an equally strong emphasis on implementation when exploring strategies that we can often simplify, misunderstand or, frankly, place too much confidence in.

Curriculum change is of course very much about the content, the ‘what’ of each subject discipline. But it is also about implementation, the way in which we structure a series of human interactions so that our intentions make it undiluted all the way to the classroom. An implementation team containing a diverse range of skills and knowledge, from expertise in implementation (the planning and professional development) to expertise in subject-specific knowledge and pedagogy, can help to make sure that these plans become a reality.

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