Why schools need a whole-school approach to curriculum planning
by Jordana Hunter, Amy Haywood
What we teach in school classrooms every day matters — it can set students up for life. But if we don’t deliberately build students’ background knowledge over years of learning, then we limit their options.
Consider a Year 12 biology student who wants to study science at university. They might be asked an exam question about how two geographically isolated and different species of octopus can have the same ancestor. The knowledge they’ve learnt over years is crucial to being able to answer this question. They will need to have learnt about how specific adaptations give organisms a survival advantage (year 5), the definition of species and classification of living things (year 7), genetic mutations (year 10) and that geographic isolation prevents gene flow and causes speciation (years 11 and 12).
This same knowledge will be vital for their tertiary studies too if they continue to study Biology.
But building this type of knowledge doesn’t just happen — it needs a coordinated, whole-school approach to curriculum planning.
This approach takes the lottery out of learning because it guarantees all students receive common, high-quality teaching that helps them build knowledge and skills through their school years.
Yet, Australian schools rarely work this way.
Teachers are under pressure
Grattan Institute recently surveyed more than 7,000 teachers and school leaders across the country on teacher workload and curriculum planning. The survey results provide a unique and worrying window into the pressures on teachers when it comes to curriculum planning.
Almost 40 per cent of teachers said their school does not have a detailed whole-school curriculum plan, which sequences learning across year levels.
Only 15 per cent of teachers say they have access to a common bank of high-quality curriculum materials for all their classes. As a result, they often plan alone, increasing the odds that lessons are hastily cobbled together because a teacher simply — and understandably — runs out of time.
Even when teachers do have the time to focus on lesson planning, half of teachers report feeling as though they are “reinventing the wheel”.
Not only does this waste a lot of teacher time, but it also means students are taught a highly varied curriculum.
It doesn’t have to be this way
The new Grattan Guide for principals, How to implement a whole-school curriculum approach, sets out practical steps school leaders can take to establish an effective whole-school curriculum approach and profiles five case-study schools that have made this a reality.
Aveley Secondary College, a new government secondary school in outer-metropolitan Perth, is one of these schools. With rapidly growing enrolments and a high proportion of early career teachers, the principal’s top priorities were to implement a whole-school teaching approach and shared, sequenced curriculum materials to drive consistent, high-quality teaching.
Heads of subjects have been key to implementing this vision — they have developed detailed learning sequences across year levels and overseen the development of classroom materials.
In Science, for instance, knowledge and skills are mapped from junior general science subjects up to specialised senior subjects such as biology and chemistry. Student booklets, assessment tasks and detailed lesson-by-lesson PowerPoints are all saved in a common drive, and responsibility for refining these materials is allocated to different team members.
Even when teachers are busy, they know they have materials to rely on.
As one department head said, “In a typical school, if teacher workload is high, lessons don’t get planned. Here, if workload gets too high, worst-case scenario is we deliver the planned lesson the same as last year.”
Teachers see the benefit of this approach. “Every teacher is doing the same thing. Whether you’re in another class or my class, you’re learning the same thing at the same time. There’s no lottery,” one teacher said.
A school-wide culture of professional trust is necessary
With this strong school-wide approach, the school’s leaders articulate the vision and set the tone, but individual teachers also need to buy into the vision and be willing to share their work.
To build this culture, Aveley Secondary College invested heavily in teacher induction, professional learning and implementation support. The head-of-department role is supported by a deputy head and team leaders in every year level. Teachers meet in subject teams each week to analyse student assessment data and further refine materials. Teachers are allocated an instructional coach who helps them to design shared lesson materials and gives feedback on their implementation in the classroom.
The benefits for students are clear. “We have fewer kids that are not reaching success. We’re catching more kids. They have so many more chances to succeed,” one teacher said.
School leadership is vital, but governments can help too
Many schools and teachers face immense challenges implementing a whole-school curriculum approach on their own.
Grattan Institute’s accompanying report for policy makers, Ending the lesson lottery: How to improve curriculum planning in schools, calls on governments to support schools in three key ways.
First, by providing all schools and teachers with ready access to high-quality, comprehensive curriculum materials that they can adapt and use. These materials should be well-sequenced and detailed, covering the lesson plans, teaching materials, workbooks and assessments needed to teach each subject. And these materials should be quality-assured by a new independent review body, so teachers can be confident the materials are road-tested and ready for the classroom.
Second, governments should invest in strengthening subject-specific curriculum expertise and reinforcing the importance of whole-school planning and collaboration between teachers.
Third, governments — and Catholic and independent school sector leaders — should also beef up their monitoring and school review processes to give whole-school curriculum planning the central focus it requires. Curriculum planning is often treated as a “tick and flick” item in school reviews, which sends the wrong message to principals and teachers. Rigorous reviews of curriculum planning in all schools should occur at least every four years, to track curriculum implementation on the ground and target more support to the schools that need it.
This sort of transformational change in schools won’t be easy, but it will be worth it for our students.
With action from governments and principals, we can end the lesson lottery.
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