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The nested systems of local curriculum innovation
Linnaeus University, Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of Education. (Studies in Curriculum, Teaching and Evaluation (SITE))
Linnaeus University, Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of Education. (Studies in Curriculum, Teaching and Evaluation (SITE))ORCID iD: 0000-0003-4243-2496
2016 (English)In: ECER 2016, Leading Education: The Distinct Contributions of Educational Research and Researchers, Dublin, 22-26 August, 2016, 2016Conference paper, Abstract (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

In school systems around the world there is an increasing focus on students' academic achievement and performance and higher demands for school decision makers to gradually improve school results. In this respect Sweden is no exception. The last years you find a number of different national policy initiatives in line with these transnational policy trends: a new curriculum for the compulsory school (Lgr11) and the upper secondary school (Gy11), a new school law (SFS 2010:800), a reform for career services for teachers with the introduction of “first-teachers” in 2013 and the establishment of new authorities like the School Inspectorate in 2008. In turn, all these reforms have resulted in intensive school improvement work in Swedish municipalities.

Curriculum innovation is a dynamic research field. During the last decades important empirical findings have emerged as well as theoretical models explaining and supporting successful school development and school leadership (cf Fullan, 2001; Hargreaves & Fullan, 2012; Hallinger, 2011). Recent research has also pointed out how strategies and aspects of different actors and levels in the school system interact. A current discussion concerns how school reforms and improvement efforts are used to increase student achievement, with special regard to significance and potential of the local and regional leading and management. Another question is how school improvements solutions on a more general basis is possible to roll out when research also argues for the need of versatile and context-specific school improvement efforts (Hopkins, Stringfield, Harris, Stoll & Mackay 2014).

The aim with this paper is twofold. Firstly, the paper wants to contribute to and develop a deepened theoretical understanding of local school curriculum innovation. The local curriculum context is defined as an “open nested school system” with different sub-systems, e.g. the classroom, teacher work-units, school leadership teams, the local school authority etc. (Resnick, 2010). Although these systems are internally related, the curriculum actors in each system stand on its own logic and conditions (i.e. loosely coupled). Therefore you will find different arguments, perceptions and notions in the sub-systems and that they are nested in context-specific ways (Resnick 2010). Our primary hypothesis is that centrally initiated curriculum changes and improvement initiatives are unlikely to be successful, unless these actively engages all the sub-systems and re-couples the nested systems of the curriculum (Adolfsson & Håkansson, 2015).

Secondly, the empirical aim is to explore how different curriculum actors in a medium-sized Swedish municipality understand their functions, interact and respond to central aspects in local curriculum work. By looking into and explaining relationships between the sub-systems – the local school authority, principals and teachers – important features and factors for organising robust school improvement processes can be identified. Of particular interest is the introduction of first-teachers in 2013. First-teachers are a new function in Swedish public and independent schools, engaged in school improvement and thus curriculum actors. Previous research has shown that first-teachers might strengthen the idea of distributed leadership in schools, but at the same time also challenge, to some extent, existing leadership relations and authority – primarily that of the principal (Alvunger, 2015). However, we know – so far – little of how this might impact the school organization and relationships between the sub-systems in school improvement. Our aim is guided by the following research questions:

-        How do the curriculum actors understand and describe their functions in relation to each other in local curriculum work?

-        What are perceived as primary challenges and needs among the curriculum actors? What strategies do they suggest and use to deal with these challenges and needs?

-        How can the local curriculum work be explained and understood from the perspective of nested school systems?

Methods and material (400)

The study draws on material from two recently finished “ongoing evaluation” projects conducted in a medium-sized municipality (65,000 inhabitants) in the southeastern part of Sweden. As a way to support schools’ improvement work, researchers in the first project have studied processes and outcomes of nine schools’ development work over three years by collecting and analysing data from different levels of the local school system. The second project focused and analysed the implementation of the national reform for career services for teachers. Together the projects have resulted in a rich empirical material from various contexts in the local school organisation that enable a thorough analysis of the school improvement work on different levels (i.e.in different sub-systems).

This paper is based on a “mixed-method” design (Cresswell, 2010). Along with Cresswell and Clark (2007) we argue that such a methodological research design is a way of preserving the complexity and deepening the perspective of the research questions being addressed while at the same time it is possible to obtain different but complementary data on the same phenomenon. In line with the theoretical points of departure and the general aim to elucidate patterns of actors’ understanding, interaction and responses on general aspects of improvement work, following methods and empirical data have been used: i) a content analysis of central policy documents ii) questionnaires and iii) semi-structured focus group interviews.

As a first step central documents regarding the local school organisation, policy and vision, leading and management structure, evaluations, school improvement strategies were analysed. The purpose was to conduct a contextual analysis and to create a map of the organisation, central strategies and content of the improvement work in the municipality.

During the project three different teacher surveys were conducted (n=250; n=160; n=157). In these online questionnaires teacher’s perceptions of central dimensions of the local improvement work was investigated. Another important purpose was to explore teachers’ notions of patterns of changes as a result of the improvement work.    

Finally, as a way to deepen the understanding of the improvement work in the municipality semi-structured focus group interviews with representatives from the local school authority (8 interviews), principals (12 interviews), and first-teachers (14 interviews) were carried out. The main focus in these interviews was the experiences and notions of the schools’ improvement work.

Expected outcomes/Results (300)

The results of the study clearly show that the local school organisation consists of different nested sub-systems. Both similarities and differences in how the curriculum actors interact and respond to central aspects in curriculum work can be identified. There is a common view that the work should be based on teaching practices and collegial learning, where the themes “classroom leadership” and “language and concept development” have been agreed upon collegially (bottom-up). However, the sub-systems argue for different strategies and disagree on how to work with these themes. The development unit on local authority level has decided that specific resources and interventions are to be directed for peer observation and feed-back sessions between teachers (top-down). This limits the possibilities for principals to respond to the requests from the teachers who favour pedagogical dialogues for exchanging experiences and developing teaching. All in all, this presents challenges for the school improvement work. In this respect first-teachers as a new sub-system may create conditions for better communication between other sub-systems (e.g. subject teacher teams, work-units, principals) because they operate on different levels. However, there are almost no collaborative arenas or networks for communication within the first-teacher system. Furthermore, the introduction of first-teachers seem to present challenges for the principals who must improve their internal communication as a sub-system in order to be educational leaders and to on-ward engage first-teachers and teachers in school improvement work. The results support our hypothesis that centrally initiated curriculum innovation initiatives are unlikely to be successful, unless these actively engages all the sub-systems and re-couples the nested systems of the curriculum.

References

Adolfsson, C-H & Håkansson, J (2015). Building School Improvement Capacity and Learning Capital – A Swedish Case Study. Contribution to the ECER-conference in Budapest, September 2015.

Alvunger, D. (2015.) Towards New Forms of Educational Leadership? – The Local Implementation of Förstelärare in Swedish Schools. Special issue: Educational Leadership in Transition. Nordic Journal of Studies in Educational Policy, 2015, 1: 30103, http://dx.doi.org/10.3402/nstep.v1.30103

Creswell J, & Plano Clark, V. (2007), Designing and conducting mixed methods, SAGE Publications, London.

Cresswell, J.W. (2010). Mapping the developing landscape of mixed methods research. I Abbas Tashakkori & Charles Teddlie, red: Sage Handbook of Mixed Methods in Social & Behavioral Research, s 45-68. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications

Fullan, Michael (2001). The new meaning of educational change. 3. ed. New York: Teachers College Press

Fullan, M. (2006). Turnaround leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hallinger, Philip (2011). Leadership for Learning: Lessons from 40 Years of Empirical Research. Journal of Educational Administration, v. 49 n. 2 p. 125-142.

Hargreaves, Andy & Fullan, Michael (2012). Professional capital: transforming teaching in every school. New York: Routledge.

Hopkins, D., Stringfield, S., Harris, A., Stoll, L. & Mackay, T (2014). School and system improvement: a narrative state-of-the-art review, School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 25:2, 257-281.

Resnick, Lauren B. (2010). Nested System for the Thinking Curriculum. Educational Researcher, vol. 39 No. 3  183-197.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
2016.
National Category
Pedagogy
Research subject
Pedagogics and Educational Sciences
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:lnu:diva-58751OAI: oai:DiVA.org:lnu-58751DiVA: diva2:1052565
Conference
ECER 2016, European Conference on Educational Research, Dublin, 22-26 August, 2016
Available from: 2016-12-07 Created: 2016-12-07 Last updated: 2016-12-15Bibliographically approved

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