You are here

Making school-driven innovations happen

Sally Boyd

What are the challenges for schools in creating effective change, and what are the factors that support its success?  This is a description of how four secondary schools and a school cluster implemented locally-designed curriculum innovations.

Journal issue: 

Making school-driven innovations happen

Sally Boyd

How do schools initiate and plan for change, and how do they sustain these initiatives? In the recent evaluation of the Curriculum Innovation Projects (CIPs) by the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (Boyd, Bolstad, Cameron, Ferral, Hipkins, McDowall & Waiti, 2005) we explored these questions to increase our insight into how the ecology of secondary schooling can be changed and what the processes are that support effective change.

During 2003–2004, we followed the staff and students at four schools and a school cluster as they used Ministry of Education funding to implement locally-designed initiatives to explore new ways of fostering students’ development of lifelong learning skills1 and attitudes, and to increase the relevance and authenticity of the learning contexts offered to students. Some schools designed a cross-curricula approach to address these challenges, while others developed initiatives within curriculum areas. Four schools implemented one initiative each and one instituted three. The seven initiatives were:

•&&Cross-curricula teams of Year 9 teachers who taught the same classes (for different subjects) attended facilitated meetings to develop shared teaching approaches to support students’ development of lifelong learning skills across the curriculum.

•&&Teachers in a social studies department expanded a learning programme that aimed to encourage Years 9 and 10 students to identify their preferred learning style, develop effective learning strategies, and become engaged in and responsible for their learning.

•&&Students in a Year 10 English class developed lifelong learning skills in the course of completing of an extended whole-class project to create an original piece of work.

•&&Students in a Year 9 science class engaged in science learning in authentic contexts through connections with the local community and context-based research investigations.

•&&Teachers in a technology department team taught a Year 11 course designed to foster students’ lifelong learning skills in the course of self-managing individual authentic technology projects that involved people in the community and in some cases spanned more than one area of technology.

•&&A partnership of senior science secondary teachers and university staff and students offered school students opportunities to develop a deeper interest in, and understanding of, the curriculum, and to make connections with the tertiary environment.

•&&A videoconferencing cluster was developed to give rural students more equitable access to educational opportunities by broadening the range of subjects they could choose from and giving them increased opportunities for curriculum enrichment.

From our analysis of the themes that emerged across schools and the school change literature, we developed a picture of the main factors that supported effective change in the schools.

These factors were:

•&&focused and strategic leaders;

•&&a clear vision;

•&&support for teachers to own the vision;

•&&a foundation of existing expertise, approaches and structures;

•&&a multifaceted plan for change;

•&&varied types of professional development; and

•&&school structures aligned to support change.

Focused and strategic leaders

It is widely recognised that leadership is central to developing, nurturing, and sustaining change (Fullan, 2005; Hargreaves & Fink, 2004; Harris, 2002). At the CIP schools, the support of the principal was essential for success, as was ongoing pedagogical leadership by staff who had the ability to influence school structures and resourcing. A strategic approach by principals to supporting the innovators at their school through the allocation of extra resources (beyond the additional Ministry of Education funding for the CIP programme) also assisted the initiatives. Sharing leadership roles by identifying and nurturing new leaders and lead teachers was another way in which the schools were able to sustain the initiatives over the longer term.

A clear vision

The leaders of the projects were aware that another characteristic that supports change is the existence of a common vision, with shared beliefs, understandings, and clear goals (Russell, 2003; Stoll & Fink, 1996). Developing an initial vision for both students and teachers that could be adopted or adapted by a team was crucial to the success of the CIPs. To support students to have successful learning experiences, the vision needed to be:

•&&aligned with wider school and educational goals;

•&&learner centred; and

•&&based on knowledge of good practice pedagogy and ways to increase curriculum authenticity.

Some of these aspects are explored in more detail later in this article.

Support for teachers to own the vision

The people who developed the initial vision were not necessarily the same as those who enacted it. Initially, some teachers who were not involved in the conceptualisation of the projects were unsure of the feasibility of the vision and were uneasy about their involvement. Most of the schools found they needed to develop systems that allowed teachers to debate the beliefs and practices underpinning the vision and adapt the form of the projects. By 2004, staff had time to contribute their experiences, debate their beliefs about learning, discuss their concerns, and adapt the vision, if necessary, to reflect their reality. Being able to contribute to the form of the projects increased staff ownership over these initiatives. The importance of processes that enable teachers to develop ownership of school goals has also been discussed in relation to other educational initiatives in New Zealand (Bartlett, 2005; Timperley & Robinson, 2000).

Building on existing expertise, approaches, and structures

Most of the CIPs built on existing school programmes, structures, and relationships. In most cases, the foundations for at least some of the aspects of the CIPs were already in place. The level to which schools were able to utilise existing knowledge, skills, and structures influenced the speed of change at each school. Schools also researched similar initiatives at other schools to assist them to learn from others’ experiences.

A multifaceted plan for change

Successful change is contingent upon a school’s ability to plan for and manage the change process (Harris, 2002). For the CIP schools, one factor that supported change was that the plan for change was multifaceted and considered three key elements:

•&&understandings about managing a change process;

•&&the alignment of curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment; and

•&&knowledge about good practice and ways to increase curriculum authenticity.

Schools varied as to how far each of these three elements was emphasised in their planning. It was clear that a combination of all three was most effective in supporting change.

Understandings about managing a change process

When building their plan for change, project leaders needed to consider the most effective processes and models to use. This necessitated a consideration of the technical aspects of planning, such as:

•&&allowing realistic time frames (the CIP schools needed at least two years to start embedding some aspects of the initiatives);

•&&allocating extra funding to seed initiatives; and

•&&designing the initiatives so that they became self-sustaining.

It was also vital to consider the need to allocate time, and to develop processes that supported teachers to change their practice. These included allocating extra funding for release time for teachers to meet and develop their ideas, offering varied types of professional development, and building flexibility and review mechanisms into the system to allow issues and concerns to be addressed.

The regular CIP hui during which staff from the schools, Ministry of Education staff, and researchers met to share their experiences and insights also gave opportunities to reflect on the processes and structures necessary to manage change.

The model of change involved teams of teachers and new collaborations

One characteristic associated with the ability to effect change is the nature of the model used—whether it is a school-wide initiative or a discrete “experiment” (Hill, 2001; Stoll & Fink, 1996). An ongoing whole-school or team approach to professional development is used widely in New Zealand schools because it has been shown to be more successful in the long term. This is the approach taken in Assess to Learn (AtoL) and numeracy contracts, the professional development in literacy described in Timperley (2003), and in the ICTPD clusters.

The approach taken by schools in developing the CIPs varied: some were whole-department initiatives, one involved cross-curricula teams, another involved small inter- and intra-school teams; a few were based around an individual class or teacher; and some had the potential to become whole-school initiatives. Some were voluntary for staff, while others were essentially compulsory.

Overall, the CIPs were built on the premise that strengthening teacher communities and developing new collaborations would improve students’ learning experiences. All the schools aimed to develop teacher learning communities. The power of these communities to support change and to create a culture of continuous improvement is becoming increasingly documented (Hargreaves, 2002; Harris, 2002; Louis, Marks & Kruse, 1996; Timperley, 2003).

The CIPs that involved whole departments, or more than one or two staff at one school, were more effective, for a number of reasons. The vision for each CIP was not vested in one person, and teachers were able to get departmental or school support to step outside the usual constraints of school structures such as timetabling. Being part of a community supported the breaking down of “silos” in faculties, specialist areas, or schools, gave teachers the feeling they were not alone, and provided them with support to reflect on and change their practice. A number of teachers who were developing their initiatives in isolation and did not have a community at their school (or even in their department) struggled to cope with all the demands placed on them. They had less access to ongoing professional conversations and other forms of in-house professional development. They also lacked avenues to influence the department or school practices that affected their work.

Although the CIPs that involved teams of teachers were more effective, these groups were not necessarily learning communities. Most were more akin to what Timperley and Parr (2004) call professional communities, in which members share ideas, work together, and provide mutual support. These groups become learning communities when teachers turn their focus to raising student achievement through analysing and discussing student performance or achievement data. A lack of models for recognising and assessing students’ development of lifelong learning skills prevented these groups from functioning as a learning community in the sense defined by Timperley and Parr. This issue is discussed further on in this article.

The development of new forms of external collaboration was also a crucial element of the CIPs. Some schools forged connections with people in the tertiary and business communities in order to increase the authenticity of the learning contexts offered to students and to support teacher practice. Where these connections had a clear purpose and were carefully managed, they were beneficial for both student and teacher learning. Making and maintaining connections with groups outside school, however, was time consuming, and was most successful when the connections were arranged by a facilitator who had time specifically set aside for this purpose, or when the connections built on existing relationships.

The alignment of curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment

A second aspect of the plan for change that was essential for a successful outcome was that it incorporated understandings about the interconnectedness of the school system—in particular, how changes in one area (such as curriculum) also affected pedagogy and assessment. Fullan (2005) considers that for change to be sustainable the whole system needs to change. The CIP schools used different strategies to effect change. Some started with pedagogical change, others with curriculum change, one with ICT (in the form of videoconferencing), and some with a combination of factors. For these schools, utilising curriculum, pedagogy, or a combination of approaches was effective as long as the plan allowed for the ways in which the school intended to make changes to the other areas, and how teachers would be supported to examine and change their practice in regard to all these areas. For example, at some schools curriculum coverage was reduced to give teachers more time to explore and use student-centred practices.

Change was monitored and assessments aligned with NCEA

The literature on school change is unequivocal in the message it gives about the necessity for change initiatives to include the monitoring of student outcomes (Sammons, Hillman, & Mortimore, 1995; Stoll & Fink, 1996; Timperley & Robinson, 2000). For schools, finding ways to celebrate student and teacher learning in relation to lifelong learning skills highlighted a tension that was difficult for teachers to resolve, and which influenced their ability to make changes to their practice. This tension concerned current assessment practices (such as practice examinations for the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) and NCEA assessments) that did not provide models for assessing lifelong learning skills.

In general, schools found that new models were needed. Staff who were able to use existing systems to gather data on the impact of the CIPs, or who had developed new systems to evaluate the impact of their approaches on student learning, felt more certain that they were “making a difference”. But both schools that had these systems, and those that did not, commented that teachers needed new models for reporting to students and parents on the full range of skills and attributes students were developing through their school experiences.

This research highlighted the need to align curriculum, practice, and assessment at the national level so that national assessment practices are aligned with current educational directions. Students and teachers, particularly those who were involved in the CIPs that required sustained learner-centred project work, commented on this lack of coherence. One example was from a class of Year 10 English students who were creating an original piece of work; a number of them were concerned that they were not learning “real” English for the NCEA. At other schools, students and teachers commented on the range and depth of the communication, problem-solving, planning, research, and time management skills students were developing, but which were not recognised in their formal qualifications. This situation contributes to the undervaluing of lifelong learning skills and a continuation of the traditional emphasis on subject-based content knowledge. The experiences of CIP teachers indicate the need for new models that give a clear picture of the lifelong learning attributes students require, outline the teaching practices that support the development of these attributes, and suggest methods that can be used to assess and report on these attributes.

Knowledge of good practice

To be successful, a plan for change also needs to be underpinned by knowledge about good practice in pedagogy and ways to increase curriculum authenticity. Although the schools took different approaches to creating environments that fostered students’ development of lifelong learning skills, for most this necessitated a shift from structured whole-class approaches towards the use of student-centred constructivist approaches. Russell (2003) notes that good practice pedagogies that support students to become lifelong learners are those that:

•&&strengthen both teacher-student relationships and the challenge of learning;

•&&are based on the concept of learning as the students’ construction of meaning;

•&&involve students in decision making about content, process, and assessment;

•&&use authentic tasks that require complex thought and allow for exploration;

•&&provide opportunities for students to develop social competencies; and

•&&cater to individual differences in interest, achievement, and learning styles.

Staff at the CIP schools were attempting to increase the use of at least some of the student-centred practices described above. A number of teachers were offering students increased autonomy over their learning by providing opportunities for students to engage in sustained work on learner-driven projects. Others were letting go of their role as an “expert” as they learnt, with students, from the input of community members and tertiary educators. Some were experimenting with approaches that enabled them to better tailor their teaching to individual needs, or were increasing their use of formative assessment practices. Staff developed their approaches from professional reading, attendance at conferences, past trials of similar initiatives, visits to other schools, and discussions with educational facilitators, mentors, and tertiary educators.

Varied types of professional development

Access to varied types of professional development supported teachers to make the shifts in practice described above. The main form of professional development to which teachers had access was the professional learning that occurred as they worked within their teams. Although these teams provided teachers with substantial support, shifting their practice towards student-centred approaches was an area of complexity for teachers. School leaders’ and teachers’ awareness of the need to make this shift increased over the course of 2003–2004, but in general the magnitude of the shift required, and the amount of support needed, were underestimated. By the end of 2004, lead teachers were emerging who had embedded a range of student-centred practices into their repertoire. Others needed more assistance. This underestimation of the time required and the complexities of shifting practice were also observed in the CIPs in areas that required extensive set-up and familiarity with ICT. Teachers’ experiences suggested that effective professional development programmes are required to assist staff to make longer-term changes to their practice, and that these programmes need to:

•&&be planned and targeted take into account both student and staff needs;

•&&be both school and individually driven;

•&&incorporate both in-house and externally provided professional learning opportunities;

•&&include team learning;

•&&be ongoing; and

•&&give concrete examples of how practice can be changed in relation to particular curriculum areas—for example, schools could provide this support by utilising the skills of lead teachers to develop in-house mentoring or observation programmes.

Other school structures aligned

The willingness to align school structures to support change is a key aspect of effective change (Hargreaves, Earl & Ryan, 1996; Russell, 2003), and this willingness supported the implementation of the CIPs. We have already discussed the need to align pedagogy, curriculum, assessment, and professional development focus. Another essential element was the provision of timetabling, resources, or buildings that fitted with the vision.

Operating outside the timetable

The CIPs required teachers and students to step outside classroom boundaries. Timetabling flexibility was a key element of this. Teachers had to create time for students to engage in sustained work, arrange to videoconference classes, or meet with employers or scientists. Most schools did not have this flexibility structured into their system and needed to create short-term solutions that made use of students’ lunchtimes, weekends, study periods, or class time in other subjects. Although workable solutions were found in the short term, different ones may be needed to support the sustainability of the projects in the longer term. By the end of 2004 some schools had developed creative solutions to work round timetable constraints. For example, to make the teachers of a technology department more available to support students as they completed individual technology projects across a range of technology areas, the Years 11–13 technology classes were timetabled at the same time, so that any Year 11–13 technology student could access any one of the teachers or the teacher’s workspace.

Resources and buildings

At all of the schools, access to buildings and equipment that suited the vision for each project was an essential part of the CIPs. This included up-to-date ICT facilities for both teachers and students, videoconference rooms, technology rooms, and rooms that suited a range of teaching purposes and provided space for students to work independently or in groups. In some cases, a lack of equipment, bandwidth, or adequately designed buildings was viewed as an impediment to the implementation of the projects.


The staff involved in the CIPs were not looking for recipes. Like other research into school change, this study showed there is no simple combination of factors that can produce effective change. Hargreaves, Earl, and Ryan (1996) describe change in the secondary school environment as a multifaceted endeavour that incorporates a “technical” process of proper design and planning, a “cultural” process in which effective relationships are built and collaborations undertaken, and also a “political” process that covers varied educational agendas. This study showed the value of locating change within teacher communities, and that an understanding of the multifaceted nature of change, effective pedagogy, and the need for adequate support and access to professional development were necessary to shift practice at the school level. This research also highlighted the need to align curriculum, practice, and assessment at the national level, to ensure that attempts to transform the ecology of schooling towards lifelong learning approaches are deliberate, planned for, and align with key structures such as the NCEA.

Further reading

See also the What’s In It For Schools series published by RoutledgeFalmer:

•&&School Improvement: What’s in it for schools?

•&&Building Learning Communities: What’s in it for schools?

•&&Leadership: What’s in it for schools?

•&&(It’s About Learning) and It’s About Time: What’s in it for schools?

•&&Consulting Pupils: What’s in it for schools?

•&&Self-evaluation: What’s in it for schools?

•&&Assessment: What’s in it for schools?


Bartlett, J. (2005). Developing independent learners. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

Boyd, S., Bolstad, R., Cameron, M., Ferral, H., Hipkins, R., McDowall, S., & Waiti, P. (2005). in press Planning and managing change: Messages from the Curriculum Innovation Projects. Final report to the Ministry of Education. Wellington: Ministry of Education.

Fullan, M. (2005). Leadership and sustainability. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Hargreaves, A. (2002). Teaching in the knowledge society. Paper presented at the online Vision 2020 Conference, Technology Colleges Trust. Retrieved from

Hargreaves, A., Earl, L., & Ryan, J. (1996). Schooling for change: Reinventing education for early adolescents. London: Falmer Press.

Hargreaves, A., & Fink, D. (2004). The seven principles of sustainable leadership. Educational Leadership, 61, 8–13.

Harris, A. (2002). School improvement: What’s in it for schools? London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Hill, P. (2001). Teaching and school effectiveness. Melbourne: Department of Education, Employment and Training, Victoria.

Louis, K., Marks, H., & Kruse, S. (1996). Teachers’ professional community in restructured schools. American Educational Research Journal, 33(4), 757–798.

Ministry of Education. (2002). Curriculum stocktake report. Wellington: Author.

Russell, V. (2003). Messages from MYRAD: Improving the middle years of schooling. A research and development monograph. Victoria: IARTV.

Sammons, P., Hillman, J., & Mortimore, P. (1995). Key characteristics of effective schools: A review of school effectiveness research. Report for OFSTED. London: Institute of Education/OFSTED.

Stoll, L., & Fink, D. (1996). Changing our schools: Linking school effectiveness and school improvement. Buckingham & Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Timperley, H. (2003). Shifting the focus: Achievement information for professional learning. A summary of the sustainability of professional development in literacy: Parts 1 and 2. Wellington: Ministry of Education.

Timperley, H., & Parr, J. (2004). Using evidence in teaching practice: Implications for professional learning. Auckland: Hodder Moa Beckett.

Timperley, H., & Robinson, V. (2000). Innovations and the persistence of old solutions. Journal of Educational Enquiry, 1(1), 54–72.


1&&&We used the Key Competencies described in the Curriculum Stocktake Report (Ministry of Education, 2002) as revised Essential Skills to provide us with a framework to explore lifelong learning skills.

Sally Boyd is a senior researcher at the New Zealand Council for Educational Research.