Deputy Chief Executive, NCCA
Former Director, NCCA
Education Officer, NCCA
Dr Derek Grant
The NCCA provides an overview of its five curriculum seminars supporting and promoting important stakeholder engagement in the review of the primary curriculum. The seminars drew on commissioned research, and this article presents the main themes arising from the discussions.
The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) is currently reviewing and redeveloping the curriculum for primary schools. In support of this work, five seminars were held between March 2018 and January 2019. The curriculum seminars were linked thematically to a commissioned series of research papers, which stimulated rich discussions and drew on the experiences and views of participants in a spirit of plurality. They brought together teachers, school leaders, and a wide range of stakeholders, giving them opportunities to consider key points emerging from the research commissioned to support the curriculum review (see list at end of article).
The curriculum seminars promoted dialogue and engagement on curriculum change in the primary school system, focusing on areas such as purpose and values, curriculum structure, knowledge and pedagogy, integration and alignment, assessment, learning, and teaching. A report of discussions at each seminar, and accompanying videos of the keynote presentations, are published on the Primary Developments section of the NCCA website at www.ncca.ie/primary.
This article identifies themes of a general nature that participants considered germane to the process and outcomes of the redevelopment.
The moral purpose of curriculum and the values enshrined in it was a theme revisited across the seminars. Largely it was felt that the social dimension of curriculum should be foregrounded and its values should be stated in clear, unambiguous language. Regarding outcomes for children, some participants identified inquiry-based learning as being important to promote the development of critical skills needed so that children acquire knowledge and develop understanding.
Children’s well-being was seen as a key dimension of the curriculum, giving children an awareness of their social responsibility as citizens of an increasingly fragile world. These sentiments lend support to the inclusion of broad learning outcomes that will help to shift the curriculum focus from content objectives more firmly in the direction of process and understanding.
A concern that surfaced in various ways across all of the seminars was the somewhat perplexing question of teacher agency, especially the challenge of finding just the right degree of agency. For example, teachers felt that changing the curriculum from detailed, prescriptive content objectives to broad learning outcomes would be attractive because of the autonomy it would offer, but they were wary of the added responsibility for content and pedagogy implied by such a change.
A concern that surfaced in various ways across all of the seminars was the somewhat perplexing question of teacher agency.
The desire for recognition of the professionalism and independence of teachers and schools was often tempered by concern that teachers need their choices to be supported by guidelines and exemplification. This concern has relevance for initial teacher education (ITE) and continuing professional development (CPD) during the implementation phase.
The seminars saw discussion of the context in which a redeveloped primary curriculum would be implemented. Participants argued that the physical spaces of classrooms were an expression of the values enshrined in the curriculum; for example, whether they were active spaces providing freedom for children and facilitating inquiry-based learning.
Participants welcomed opportunities to learn from the perspectives offered by research and the views of other stakeholders. They stressed the need to keep the consultation active and widespread throughout the development and implementation phases. In this regard they recognised the importance of NCCA’s ongoing engagement with primary, post-primary, and preschools through its established Schools Forum.
Participants at seminar 5 were much taken with the phased introduction of the new curriculum in Wales – available to schools in 2020, but without a requirement for implementation until 2022, giving schools time and space to develop their understanding of the curriculum style, content, and intent.
Regarding curriculum alignment and continuity, some participants argued that the system needed to do more to promote dialogue between the sectors, and to ensure greater alignment of qualifications and working conditions between early childhood practitioners and their counterparts in primary school. Dialogue of this kind was seen to be especially important in the context of high-quality transitions from early childhood settings to primary school.
Across the seminars the discussion on pedagogy was of particular relevance. It centred frequently on the link between pedagogy and children’s skills development, especially the kinds of critical skills needed to enable children to grow up safely in a complex, information-laden environment. Many participants argued that this is best done through a playful pedagogy that fosters inquiry-based learning.
The prevalence of concerns about pedagogy suggests that the NCCA needs to provide significant leadership in this area, perhaps in collaboration with the providers of teacher CPD.
Pedagogy was central to discussions about values and teacher agency in seminar 1. Seminar 3 raised the question of pedagogical continuity from preschool to primary and from junior to senior classes in primary school. The call in seminar 4 for examples of learning theory in practice underlined the need for shared understanding of pedagogy, especially of playful pedagogy. Seminar 5, with its focus on assessment, learning, and teaching, highlighted the importance of assessment as a key aspect of pedagogy, not an afterthought or add-on.
Some seminar participants felt there is a need to combat misunderstandings about the nature and value of play-based pedagogy, arguing that too often it is referred to in terms of unstructured playing sessions – as a kind of timeout from ‘real learning’. They felt that too often it is seen as appropriate only for younger children, to be left behind when the ‘real learning’ happens later on.
The prevalence of concerns about pedagogy in these consultation seminars suggests that the NCCA needs to provide significant leadership in this area, perhaps in collaboration with the providers of teacher CPD.
With particular relevance to the curriculum implementation phase, many participants stressed the importance of a system-wide response to change management. They were especially concerned with ‘readiness for implementation’, incorporating joined-up thinking in respect of:
Participants in the seminars were supportive of the direction being taken by the NCCA in its review and redevelopment of the primary curriculum. They stressed the importance of careful and collaborative management of the changes to come. The five seminars were seen as an important beginning in this regard, involving a wide cross-section of key stakeholders in a consultation that is set to continue.
The NCCA would like to thank everyone who attended the curriculum seminars and who contributed so richly to this phase of the work. The Council will publish the Draft Primary Curriculum Framework in late 2019 for an extensive public consultation in the first half of 2020.
Detailed reports from the curriculum seminars are published on the NCCA website at: www.ncca.ie/en/primary/primary-developments/curriculum-review-and-redevelopment
Seminar 1 (21 March 2018):
Seminar 2 (17 May 2018):
Seminar 3 (3 October 2018):
Seminar 4 (29 November 2018):
Seminar 5 (31 January 2019):
Research papers supporting the curriculum seminars:
‘A melange or a mosaic of theories? How theoretical perspectives on children’s learning and development can inform a responsive pedagogy in a redeveloped primary curriculum’ (Prof. Emer Ring, Dr Lisha O’Sullivan, Marie Ryan, and Patrick Burke, Mary Immaculate College)
‘Aligning assessment, learning and teaching in curricular reform and implementation’ (Dr Zita Lysaght, Dr Darina Scully, and Prof. Michael O’Leary, CARPE, Dublin City University; Dr Damian Murchan, Trinity College Dublin; and Dr Gerry Shiel, Educational Research Centre)
‘Audit of the content of early years and primary curricula in eight jurisdictions’ (Sharon O’Donnell, Information and Education Specialist)
‘Curriculum integration’ (Dr Karin Bacon, Marino Institute of Education)
‘Effective pedagogies for a redeveloped primary curriculum’ (Prof. Louis Volante, Brock University)
‘Literature review of the Introduction to the Primary School Curriculum (1999)’ (Dr Thomas Walsh, Maynooth University)
OECD Education Working Paper No. 193: ‘Curriculum alignment and progression between early childhood education and care and primary school’
‘Parents’ perspectives on review and redevelopment’ (National Council for Curriculum and Assessment)
‘Preschool to primary school transition initiative: Final report’ (National Council for Curriculum and Assessment)
‘Priorities and values of society in a redeveloped primary curriculum’ (Dr Jones Irwin, Dublin City University)
‘Research-informed analysis of 21st-century competencies in a redeveloped primary curriculum’ (Emeritus Prof. Carol McGuinness)
‘The place of knowledge in curricula: A research-informed analysis’ (Prof. Dominic Wyse and Dr Yana Manyukhina, UCL Institute of Education)
‘The transition to primary education: Insights from the Growing Up in Ireland study’ (Economic and Social Research Institute)
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