It’s a common question teachers ask themselves: what exactly did my students learn in previous years?

I remember asking it often myself. Not as a criticism of the teachers that had taught my students before, but because I felt like I was flying blind.

As a secondary English teacher, I didn’t know how my students had previously been taught to structure essays, embed quotes into their sentences, or unpack and plan a response to an essay question.

I was confused, and my students were too. They’d been given lots of different – sometimes conflicting – advice over years of schooling. Some were used to writing TEEL paragraphs, others knew about TEAL paragraphs, and some had a different structure in mind all together.

While I did lots of curriculum planning with my colleagues teaching the same year level, what was missing was coordination across year levels and between subjects. Without this coordination, we couldn’t carefully sequence how we taught key knowledge and skills.

This meant that our teaching could be unnecessarily repetitive or leave our students with critical gaps in their learning.

Many teachers are planning this way. At Grattan Institute, we’ve done two recent surveys of more than 7,000 teachers and school leaders across Australia – and the results sound the alarm on the curriculum planning problem in schools.

Almost 40 per cent of teachers told us that their school does not have a detailed whole-school curriculum plan, which sequences learning across subjects and year levels. And almost half of teachers are planning alone, spending hours each week scouring the internet for lesson materials.

The upshot is that a lot of teacher time is wasted ‘reinventing the wheel’ in lesson planning, and students are taught a highly varied curriculum in class. This is not the fault of teachers – who are working hard in difficult circumstances – but is the result of a lack of coordination in schools.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Our research shows that some schools are instead taking a whole-school curriculum approach which guarantees that all students receive common, high-quality teaching that supports them to build knowledge and skills through their school years.

Teachers are benefitting too – high-quality curriculum materials improve their classroom instruction and give them more time to tailor instruction to their students’ needs.

Our new Grattan Guide for principals, How to implement a whole-school curriculum approachsets out practical steps school leaders can take to establish an effective whole-school approach. And it profiles five case study schools that have made this a reality.

Marsden Road Public School, a government primary school in south-west Sydney, is one of these schools. When the principal took the helm in 2016, her top priority was establishing and implementing a school-wide curriculum plan.

Previously, curriculum planning had been based on year levels and was, as one leader told us, ‘quite disjointed, with no school-wide understanding of how students progressed from Kinder to Year 6’.

Over several years, the principal gradually introduced a school-wide curriculum plan, called the ‘Core Program’. This includes a detailed learning sequence for each subject, accompanying pedagogical model, common assessment schedules, lessons plans, and shared classroom materials such as textbooks.

Now there is no guess work about what students are learning and when. Common classroom materials mean that all students in a year level learn the same phonics sequence, approaches to structuring an essay, and grammar rules, for example, and these build on what the students have been taught before.

The benefits for teachers are significant. As one teacher told us, ‘I finally know what someone should have done last year. You don’t have the gaps.’

Teachers in each year level plan together using the Core Program, creating shared classroom materials that they can then adapt for their classes. With all teachers using the same classroom materials, teacher workload is reduced – one teacher told us her workload had dropped by two thirds since she joined Marsden Road.

And because teachers share curriculum materials, they have a common foundation on which to discuss problems, learn from one another, and improve their classroom practice.

This can only happen because everything at the school is geared towards implementing the Core Program well. Each term, teams spend a day together coordinating planning based on the Core Program, and half a day creating or refining shared classroom materials.

Weekly whole-school professional learning sessions are driven by the Core Program, focusing on specific content (such as grammar rules) and pedagogical strategies (such as effective questioning techniques).

School leaders provide instructional coaching and monitor implementation. They frequently observe classes in action, review teachers’ Core Program documentation each term, moderate common student assessments and results, and ensure teacher performance reviews are aligned to the Core Program.

Change like this is hard work. But the payoff is enormous. Teachers at Marsden Road could see the benefits for their students, who were making great strides in their learning, and for themselves.

The lesson is clear: whole-school curriculum planning should be the norm, not the exception, in Australian schools.

While you’re here…

Grattan Institute is an independent not-for-profit think tank. We don’t take money from political parties or vested interests. Yet we believe in free access to information. All our research is available online, so that more people can benefit from our work.

Which is why we rely on donations from readers like you, so that we can continue our nation-changing research without fear or favour. Your support enables Grattan to improve the lives of all Australians.

Donate now.

Danielle Wood – CEO