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The New Zealand Curriculum and preservice teacher education: Public document, private perceptions

Miles Barker

Miles Barker analyses the development of The New Zealand Curriculum from the point of view of preservice teacher education. He presents 20 challenges that he believes the new curriculum poses for teacher educators.

The New Zealand Curriculum and
preservice teacher education: Public
document, private perceptions

Miles Barker


The development of The New Zealand Curriculum from 2000 to 2007, including the initial review that gave rise to the curriculum stocktake, the development of the draft curriculum, and the production of the final curriculum, are reviewed and analysed from the standpoint of preservice teacher education. Particular attention is paid to the way the initial goal of creating a less-crowded curriculum was augmented as certain elements (vision, principles, key competencies, future-focused themes, values) came to assume increasing prominence in a process of “complexification”. Twenty challenging questions for teacher education in the future (its purposes, structure, culture, and ways of operating) emerge, and are reviewed in the context of New Zealand’s Graduating Teacher Standards.


American educator Lee Shulman’s visions now permeate everyday discourses about teaching (Palmer, 2001, p. 261). He is especially renown for his seven-part catalogue of teachers’ knowledges, which prominently includes “curriculum knowledge, with particular grasp of the materials and programmes that serve as ‘tools of the trade’ for teachers” (Shulman, 1987, p. 8). Curriculum, of course, does not necessarily pertain to a national document (McGee, 1997, pp. 9–14), but the implementation of The New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007) presents a clear challenge for our colleges, faculties, and schools of education. In fact, in the spirit of Shulman, a required standard for our graduating teachers (New Zealand Teachers’ Council, 2007, p. 1) includes “having knowledge of the relevant curriculum documents of Aotearoa”.

Preparatory groundwork for The New Zealand Curriculum began in 2000 with a curriculum review, which culminated in the publication of a research-based stocktake report in 2002 (McGee, 2008, p. 76). Over the next three years the existing New Zealand curriculum framework (Ministry of Education, 1993c) was reworked; groups reassessed each curriculum learning area; and special projects, working in parallel, investigated aspects such as principles, values, skills, and competencies, links between sectors, and designing school curriculum. The New Zealand Curriculum was released in November 2007.

In this article I take the liberty of briefly reviewing some of my private perceptions over the period of the development of The New Zealand Curriculum, during which time I was involved in the science education and environmental education curriculum areas, values, and key competencies. As a preservice teacher educator, I document the emerging issues as I saw them, and I gather these together to pose 20 questions, grouped under the generic sections of The New Zealand Curriculum (vision, principles, values, key competencies, etc.) that are already engaging—or soon will engage—the attention of preservice teacher educators. Finally, the range and scope of the 20 questions are cast against the requirements of the Graduating Teacher Standards.

2000–02: The New Zealand curriculum review

This two-year review period initiated the process that culminated in the publication of The New Zealand Curriculum in 2007. My initial response was one of ambivalence about the targeted publication date, 2007. Time is a two-edged sword in educational change processes: allow too little time and outcomes may be hasty and under researched; allow too much time and a lack of urgency may result in the time scale for change being engulfed by the momentum of faster moving societal and technological changes. Therefore, on the one hand I found the possibility of widespread, research-based consultation laudable, but on the other hand I noted the huge time interval from 2007 back to the late 1980s, the period that had given rise to the diverse philosophies that underpinned the early parts of the existing curriculum framework (Ministry of Education, 1993c), the maths curriculum (Ministry of Education, 1992), and the science curriculum (Ministry of Education, 1993a). Bell, Jones, and Carr (1995, p. 38), in writing about the science curriculum, had noted what they saw as the unresolved “tensions and differences between the views of science educationalists and the views of advocates of the free market”; and Neyland (1995) had characterised the tensions in the mathematics curriculum in terms of learning theory: between “social constructivism” and “neo-behaviourism”. So, could the time interval between the existing curriculum and its replacement make for a philosophical reconciliation, in tune with contemporary society, and produce a coherent document for teacher educators and beginning teachers to work with successfully?

2002: Curriculum Stocktake Report

This report (Ministry of Education, 2002) was the culmination of the two years of review. Many of its 43 recommendations held out considerable promise, but at least four gave rise to significant issues, especially for the cultural positioning of teacher education and the ways in which it might be worked out in terms of institutional structure and the advocacy of appropriate new pedagogical practices:

•&;&;“260 ‘Te Anga Marautanga o Aotearoa’2 should be modified and mandated.” But, I wondered, will the revision processes for Te Anga Marautanga (Ministry of Education, 1993b) follow the usual pattern (Barker, 1999) and lag behind the generation of the English-language document? In fact events were to follow this course: it is now intended that Te Marautanga o Aotearoa will be published in 2008 (McGee, 2008, p. 77).

•&;&;“282 The eight level and strand structures are useful for organising and clarifying expectations of learning.” Clearly, levels and strands were again to be treated as a given in the new curriculum, but I recalled the teacher who had reminded me: “We don’t live in levels, we live in whānau”, and the participant at a hui who ruefully enquired whether or not knowledge could actually be “carved along the joints, like a crayfish” (Barker, 1999).

•&;&;“284 The essential learning area Language and Languages should be two separate learning areas—English and Languages.” That struck me as commendable, but if a specific number of learning areas were again prescribed (now eight, not seven like last time), what would happen when a substantial new area of enterprise (like environmental education) burgeons in human consciousness, demanding curriculum treatment?

•&;&;“301 High quality professional development and materials should be developed for teachers.” But the realist in me wondered whether the budget and the administrative determination might exist in 2007 to actually make this happen, both in the preservice and in-service arenas.

2002–06: The development of The New Zealand Curriculum—Draft for Consultation 2006

During this period I was invited to contribute to working parties on the values, competencies, and science curriculum areas. Early on, in the science area, I noticed that the task was rapidly channelled towards a single purpose; namely, a focus on stocktake recommendation 282 (“the number of strands and objectives specified at each level should be reviewed”), and a reduction in the number of achievement objectives was emerging as its major goal. Although I had sympathy for those submissions to the Curriculum Stocktake Report expressing concern about the perceived “overcrowding” of the existing curriculum, and that “there were too many achievement objectives and teachers did not always understand them” (McGee, 2008, p. 76), my personal concern was: Would a curriculum, the devising of which has a goal of simplification, adequately reflect a future world undoubtedly to be characterised by “supercomplexity” (Barnett, 2004)?

My construing of the direction the task was taking at that time resonated with a comment recently made by my colleague at the University of Waikato, Paul Keown:

The Ministry’s initial quite single-minded focus in Learning Area working parties on reduction in the number of achievement objectives was gradually subsumed as other stakeholders brought their concerns to bear on the process (personal communication).

Four of these subsequent developments were:

•&;&;the enrichment of “skills” (recommendation 276) into “competencies” (see below), which was evident from 2004 onwards

•&;&;a reconceptualisation of “values” (273) in our education system—Paul Keown’s own working party was responsible for this development, which has had an impact on the learning areas

•&;&;developing approaches to assessment, including NCEA (292), that are more supportive of (or less antagonistic to) the wider intentions of this new curriculum

•&;&;the maintaining of the six future-focused curriculum themes (278) as a presence in the new curriculum. Around 2004/2005 these appeared to me to be in danger of disappearing altogether, but lobbyists for environmental education (who were especially keen on the notion of “sustainability”), and others, ensured they persisted. The draft (Ministry of Education, 2006, p. 26) contained five such themes, and The New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 39) contains four “future-focused issues”.

All these developments, enriching and widening our concept of curriculum, seemed to me to be helpful pointers towards a teacher education that might be less technicist and more humane, sophisticated, and accommodating of an Aotearoa of the future.

2007: The promulgation of The New Zealand Curriculum: Twenty challenges for teacher educators

In this section I shall attempt (in alpine guide fashion) to draw together the strands I observed during the seven years prior to the publication of The New Zealand Curriculum in November 2007 and to open up the challenges—both personal and institutional—that, I believe, it poses for teacher educators. I follow in sequence the major sections of The New Zealand Curriculum and place greater emphasis on the generic aspects (vision, etc.) and much less on the specifics of the curriculum content of each learning area.

Vision (page 8)

It is important to understand that these vision statements are a definition of the desired characteristics of learners; namely, that learners become confident, connected, actively involved lifelong learners. Our challenge is:

1.&;&;How do we ensure that, even in the minutiae of their lesson planning, our beginning teachers are encouraging learners, consciously or unconsciously, to focus on fundamental life choices?

John Holt’s question “What do I do Monday?” (Holt, 1970) sums up the central question that becoming teachers rightly ask of themselves, but no less significant are those questions that we would want to encourage learners to be asking of themselves: What kind of person do I want to be? and What kind of world do I want to live in? These are learners’ questions that, in their quasipsychological and spiritual nature (and, yes, their visionary nature) beginning teachers have traditionally been little encouraged to focus on.

Principles (page 9)

In contrast, these concern school curriculum decision making. (There were significant changes to the 2006 draft to ensure that in the 2007 final document the vision and the principles statements clearly had separate purposes.) The eight principles comprise: high expectations, Treaty of Waitangi, cultural diversity, inclusion, learning to learn, community engagement, coherence, and future focus. It should be noted that the presence of the principles exemplifies two major uses of the word “curriculum”: it can mean “a public document”, i.e., the New Zealand curriculum itself; but, de-reified, it can also mean, as in the way it is used in The New Zealand Curriculum, page 9, a school’s “plan for learning” and its implementation (McGee, 1997, pp. 10–15). It could be argued that our beginning teachers have very little direct opportunity to engage with school planning and decision making. Even if this is true, a challenge question for us is:

2.&;&;How will our beginning teachers be able to respond, at the end of a period of professional practice, when they ask themselves how far their lesson planning has been guided by these eight principles?

Values (page 10)

It is important to be clear that this section is not primarily about criticising the morals of others, nor (and here is the most dangerous misconception) about espousing certain normative virtues. Values, according to the Curriculum, “are deeply held beliefs about what is important or desirable” (Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 10). We need to ask ourselves:

3.&;&;Whose responsibility is it to ensure that our beginning teachers understand that “values education” does not consist of exhorting children to adopt and manifest certain given virtues, and that it is a sophisticated critical exercise in enquiry, negotiation, and reflection?

4.&;&;How do we ensure that our teachers apprehend that all learning areas (most definitely including mathematics, science, and technology) are values-drenched, and that our teachers can identify which particular values each learning area might contribute especially strongly to our lives?

Key competencies (page 12)

We teacher educators need to be secure, in ourselves, about the definition of “competencies”, adopted by Brewerton (2004) from the Defining and Selecting Key Competencies (DeSeCo) Project, which has been adopted by The New Zealand Curriculum. In particular, we need to understand that “competencies” subsume “knowledge”. Challenges for us include:

5.&;&;Who ensures that our beginning teachers apprehend that “competencies” are “more complex than skills” (The New Zealand Curriculum, p. 12)?

6.&;&;How do our curriculum lecturers reconcile the five competencies with the capabilities that are to be developed in individual learning areas? For example, in science education, how do we avoid giving the impression that doing mature school science is fundamentally about “thinking” processes, peripherally supported by a cluster of juvenile socialising prerequisites like “relating to others”?

7.&;&;How, or at what order of specificity, should competencies be assessed?

The notion that the development of competencies may be expressed in terms of four “dimensions of strength” (Carr, 2006) rather than levels may be a helpful way forward for teachers.

Official languages (page 14)

Issues of language range far wider than the choice of the medium of instruction. Language presents a host of challenges for us because it infuses everything from our bureaucratic structures to our deepest theorising about learning.

8.&;&;How might we accommodate the three official languages (English, te reo Māori, New Zealand Sign Language) in colleges, faculties, and schools of education?

9.&;&;How far do we apprehend that language is the tip of a cultural iceberg, and how far does this spill over into our understanding, espousal, and advocacy of sociocultural approaches to classroom practice?

Learning areas (page 16)

In the light of the previous curriculum documents, the learning areas of The New Zealand Curriculum are probably the aspect most familiar to us. However, a pervasive and continuing challenge remains.

10.&;How does The New Zealand Curriculum influence our ongoing personal and professional views about what, and how much, curriculum content should be prescribed?

People’s views about the level of prescription often appear to be underpinned by their views about what learning actually is. For example, Macfie (2008, p. 20) quotes an opinion offered about The New Zealand Curriculum: “Nowhere in this document is it stipulated whether or when kids will learn, say, the periodic table, or Pythagoras’s theorem, or the difference between a haiku and a sonnet.”

Is “learning the periodic table” here a coded, or even unconscious, statement about memorising sections of it, given that Level 6 Science (Material World) actually requires that students will “link atomic structure to the organisation of the periodic table”? There are challenges here for us teacher educators.

11.&;Are the revised achievement objectives any more amenable to our appreciating the interconnectedness of knowledge?

Perhaps there are promising signs, epistemologically speaking. Level 7, Science (Living World), comprises four sections: life processes, ecology, evolution, ecology, and evolution. This requirement to pursue ecology and evolution, both separately and in conjunction, is accelerated in Level 8, Science (Living World), which comprises only one section: life processes, ecology, and evolution. Maybe reducing the number of achievement objectives, if treated in a sophisticated way, can enhance notions of the interconnectedness of knowledge, rather than making for mere simplification. Another challenge for us may be:

12.&;Are there any epistemological imperatives here for the way we structure the course offerings in our colleges, faculties, and schools of education?

Especially because there are now eight learning areas rather than seven (see above), talk of “restructuring” raises another very specific question:

13.&;Should our primary and secondary preservice teacher-education courses be segmented and labelled according to the titles of the learning areas?

Effective pedagogy (page 34)

There was no corresponding heading in the 1993 framework; indeed, until recently the term “pedagogy” has not been commonly used in New Zealand. Although it is often employed as a synonym for “teaching”, pedagogy can be thought of as “a method of teaching interpreted in its widest sense” (Winch & Gingell, 1999, p. 170), “including values, aims and epistemological considerations” (Bell, 2003, p. 3). Given that teacher development needs to take account of both academic and market-place perspectives, four possible challenges for us to ponder are:

14.&;How far does this material on pedagogy legitimise what we are already doing in teacher education?

15.&;How limiting or liberating is this material for us?

16.&;Are beginning teachers able to relate this material to what they are taught about theories of learning (e.g., “making connections to prior learning” and constructivism)?

17.&;Are we able to relate the ideas about e-learning (p. 25) to sociocultural learning theories?

The Education Act and the curriculum (page 43)

The presence of this material (which did not appear in the 2006 draft) is to be applauded because it gives us a grand opportunity to explore our notions of curriculum in general. Novel and frank, it highlights the part the National Education Guidelines and the National Administrative Guidelines (the so-called NEGS and NAGS) play in generating curriculum at the interface between education, politics, and school governance. But how might we accommodate this?

18.&;Where in our teacher-education programmes do we, or should we, adequately discuss the bureaucratic and political processes by which the school curriculum is created and modified?

The importance of private perceptions

In this article I have been bold enough, as a long-time teacher, to share my private perceptions of a public document, The New Zealand Curriculum, as it begins to have an impact on preservice teacher education. I have done this without apology because I believe that forming personal perceptions is at the heart of this matter. If we are to produce graduates with rich and creative perceptions of this curriculum, with perceptions that go far beyond a bookish and technicist approach, then I believe we need to seek serious and satisfying answers to the following two questions:

19.&;How do we ensure that this public document does not have an unduly homogenising effect on our cohorts of beginning teachers?

20.&;How do we ensure that each of our graduates has a sophisticated, critical, personal take on this particular curriculum and on the notion of curriculum in general?

My 20 questions and New Zealand’s Graduating Teacher Standards

How broadly and comprehensively do these 20 Curriculum-inspired questions interrogate our preservice enterprise? Do the questions constitute an uneven collection of mainly side issues, or do they mount a substantial, wide-ranging challenge to our colleges, faculties, and schools of education? If we take our Graduating Teacher Standards (New Zealand Teachers’ Council, 2007) as a comprehensive backdrop to this exercise, I would argue that The New Zealand Curriculum clearly has profound implications for every aspect of our preservice education. The seven standards are grouped under the following three headings.

•&;&;Professional knowledge: The three standards describe, respectively, teacher knowledge of what to teach, knowledge about learners, and understanding about contextual factors. Knowing what to teach includes an apprehension of the interconnectedness of content knowledge (question 11), the values-drenched nature of knowledge (4), relationships between competencies and knowledge (5), and the evolution of curriculum itself (18). Knowledge about learners includes theories about learning (16, 17) and the strategic selection of content (10), while understanding about contextual factors entails understanding the complexity of sociocultural influences (9).

•&;&;Professional practice: The two standards describe appropriate teacher planning and the use of evidence to promote learning. The messages for teacher planning are a clear challenge to our current practices (question 14) and an injunction to liberate (15) our thinking about the way competencies are developed in learning areas (6). Effective planning entails formulating appropriately high expectations of learners, even on a lifelong basis (1), including the appropriate use of Māori language (8). A new challenge in the use of evidence to promote learning will be the assessing of competencies (7).

•&;&;Professional values and relationships: The two standards describe the development of positive relationships with learners and members of the community, and being a committed member of the profession. Positive relationships include the capacity to work effectively with colleagues in order to effect learning in schools in a way that follows clearly stated principles (question 2) and that takes account of differing values and beliefs (3). In preservice education it also includes the collegiality that will be demanded as we review how well our course offerings match with the view of knowledge proposed in The New Zealand Curriculum (12, 13). Being a committed member of the profession entails (Standard 7c) being “able to articulate and justify an emerging personal professional philosophy of teaching and learning” (19, 20).

It is this challenge—the importance of developing our private perceptions towards this public document—which has been the core of my argument in this paper. Brent Davis’s (2004, p. 184) words could well describe what I believe might be the heartland of our relationship to The New Zealand Curriculum in teacher education: “Teaching and learning are not about convergence onto a predetermined truth but about divergence—about broadening what is knowable, doable and beable.”


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1&;&;This article is a modified version of a keynote address given at the professional development day The New Curriculum and Key Competencies, Faculty of Education, The University of Auckland, on 14 February 2008.

2&;&;The New Zealand curriculum framework.

The author

Miles Barker was formerly an Associate Professor in the Department of Mathematics, Science and Technology Education, School of Education, University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. He is now an honorary lecturer. His teaching and research interests include science education (action research; history and philosophy of science; science, language, and culture; biology education), and environmental education.