The challenges of curriculum change

June 3, 2013 Kent den Heyer

“I just wanted to know what I needed to know: I didn’t want to have to think about it.”

So spoke an excellent BEd student in a class I once taught. The student was describing her success as a high school student and responding to my question about what we could learn about teaching by re-examining our successful K–12 careers. When pressed about what we might glean from her statement, she responded: “If we have students think all day, when will we get anything done!” Indeed. In Alberta, such a comment suggests that more than a change in program is required in order to achieve governmental initiatives to promote the three Es: engaged learning, ethical citizenship and entrepreneurship.

This student’s comments contrast what some people learn with the aspirational declarations of official mission statements and the government’s programs of study. This is especially relevant in light of recent Alberta Education initiatives to organize curriculum and assessment around the 1980s fashion for skills or competencies as it is framed currently (Davis 2000). I’ll set aside commenting on the promised shift to competencies and focus on what we know about initiatives for programmatic school change. With regard to my student’s comments, I’ll also address the importance of curriculum theory when thinking about what constitutes “change” in school knowledge and knowing.

What if curriculum (of a certain kind) doesn’t matter?

Recently, I reviewed a section of a scholarly handbook detailing international research on curriculum design and change (den Heyer 2009a). I’ll highlight some of the conclusions reached by the international research. A consistent finding was that formal curricula have little discernible effect on changing classroom practices. More distressing was the research that concluded that formal curriculum design has never had much to do with classroom practices. Negotiations over formal curricula seem to turn, rather, on social group conflicts over the curriculum as a social imaginary:

Each group believes that its form of discourse and its world is the reality of the project [of curriculum design] and that the “means and ends named by [their] symbols [and symbol making] are what the symbolic action is about.” (Haft and Hopmann, cited in Westbury 2008, 57)

I was surprised that this would still be the case more than 100 years after John Dewey also noted official curricula’s lack of practical import:

It is, however, sufficiently obvious that, while the reformer took possession of the field of theory and enthusiasm and preaching, the conservative, so far as concerns the course of study, was holding his own pretty obstinately in the region of practice. … And, by the time [the progressives’] ideals and theories had been translated over into their working equivalents in the curriculum, the difference between them and what he and conservatives really wished and practice became the simple difference of tweedle dum from tweedle dee. (Dewey 2001, 388)

I will return to Dewey’s point later.

Contemporary curriculum reformers, detailed in the research, often fail because they thought “curriculum making was an educational project—that is, an activity and process directed at the improvement or enhancement of schooling” (Westbury 2008, 52). Such an assumption indicates that these reformers “do not ... understand curricula, curriculum making, and curriculum policy making realistically” (p. 52). And about what are these negotiations realistically concerned? Apple (2008) writes that “ultimately, the standards became a form of symbolic politics, signaling that something was being done but having little transformative potential” (p. 28):

[Curriculum making] is a mechanism, or tool, deployed to manage the political, professional, and public fields around schooling, more often than not designed to mute rather than amplify calls for educational reform and change. (Westbury 2008, 61)

Despite these findings, it’s important to emphasize that programs of study do matter, just not necessarily for classroom practice. For example, the Alberta program of social studies has opened up conversations about the challenges and opportunities in its call for teachers to engage in multiple perspectives that include Aboriginal and francophone orientations to Canadian history and contemporary social issues. My guess is that these conversations would not occur unless mandated in official print. The question remains, however: What hinders attempts at programmatic change? Let me offer a response to this question.

Agency fracture, system confusion, political tourism and policy amnesia

Agency fracture refers to a disconnection between espoused policy and policy enactment. One form is system confusion, which emerges in educational bureaucracies (and teacher education programs) when people are hired to renovate subject-specific curriculum policy and professional development. Others are hired for their expertise in research, while the job description for others requires meeting more politically influenced directives from assistant deputies to ministers responsible for the portfolio. As disparate messages emerge, “ideological debates [are] shunted down the system for resolution at school level” (Harris and Burns 2011, 249). Research finds that the response at the school level is most often given contradictory directives for status quo practices to continue.

Fracture also results from the many quandos involved in policy debate (Hodgson and Spours 2006). Quandos are quasi-autonomous nongovernmental agencies that have entered debates about curriculum policy in international reforms to further open state education as a private market:

The education quasi-market comprises a range of changes … the introduction of new private providers; the encouragement of parents to see themselves as consumers of public services and the use of powerful national steering mechanisms [TIMMS and PISA] as a form of accountability and to retain political leverage in what could have become a much more devolved system. (p. 682)

As quandos (for example, publishing companies) gain access to ministerial offices, local insights tend to be crowded out.

The absence of teaching professionals and their representatives when directives are dreamed up and formulated contributes to agency fracture through policy amnesia and political tourism. Just like those visiting an all-inclusive package resort, political tourists easily ignore (or think quaint) complex local language and practice. Communication gets distorted when they attempt to “reform the locals” according to logic that may work in one but not in another milieu (for example, free markets). A related condition afflicting those who desire to be such transformative agents of change is policy amnesia:

We would contend that this condition is caused by a short political cycle, dominated by the politics of general elections; by the rapid turnover of ministerial teams, political advisers and civil servants, which prevents the building of “policy memory.” Policy amnesia is compounded by a lack of trust in the education profession with its “grounded” memory of what has worked in particular contexts. (Hodgson and Spours 2006, 684)

As noted above, official curriculum design and change suffers from a host of ailments: symbolic politics without engaging in open and politically difficult discussions with diverse locals to define what needs improvement (class sizes, teaching loads and content and assessment issues) and agency fracture. There is, however, another relevant consideration, noted previously by Dewey, concerning the differing understandings of knowledge and knowing held by the reformer and the conservative. This is especially relevant today, when Alberta’s youth have worldwide access to expertise and to influences and knowledge that many educators do not even know exist.

Curriculum-as-thing versus curriculum-as-encounter

In 2006, I arrived in Alberta to continue my career in teacher education. I attended Alberta Teachers’ Association specialist council conferences and witnessed the challenges facing many teachers trying to understand what they were being asked to do in the new program of social studies. Where were the supporting textbooks? What can change if the provincial achievement tests and diploma exams do not? What is an Aboriginal perspective?[i] As I noted elsewhere (den Heyer 2009b), the struggle was between dominant understandings of curriculum-as-thing (body of facts, skills, attitudes, or attributes to deliver to the student body) and curriculum-as-encounter (ways our shared sense-making is itself a historical legacy that requires explicit study), which the new program seemed more oriented toward. Let me outline this distinction.

As thing, curriculum is a practical concern about how best to convey the formal program of studies, what techniques assist in this acquisition and ways to measure student acquisition. The tendency is “to see education as a matter of production, rather than formation” (Whitson 2008, 132; italics added). Across the grades, including teacher education, classrooms are essentially “places to practice techniques without regard to the complexities of the student’s life” (Britzman et al. 1997, 16). Teachers call upon student experience but more as illustrative examples rather than the actual object of inquiry.

Curriculum as a program to produce intended consequences, however, cannot be adequately enacted absent of the “larger curriculum of [students’ and teachers’] lives beyond the school” (Whitson 2008, 132). Less concerned with a formal document, curriculum-as-encounter is an inquiry into the knowledge that students possess but have not had adequate opportunity in schools to re-cognize.

Let me relate this distinction between curriculum-as-thing and curriculum-as-encounterto a subject I have experience teaching in high schools and teacher education programs—history and social studies (see Table 1).

Table 1: Curriculum-as-thing versus curriculum-as-encounter



Understanding of history/social studies

A body of information or dispositions and/or critical-thinking skills to be conveyed by a teacher to students who sit in front of the teacher.

Content and thinking skills help students investigate the ways in which their thoughts and beliefs do not belong to them alone and the ways that interpretations, beliefs and ways of knowing influence social concerns.

Questions guiding curricular planning

Where do I go for the stuff; how do I organize it; has somebody already done this; what are the best ways of teaching this in the classroom?

In what ways do I arrange curriculum to allow us to investigate our own sense-making about a particular concern or issue and the ways it does not belong to us alone? Given the myriad of ways to interpret anything, how might we better articulate what is good to support in relation to pressing issues of concern? About what ought we to be concerned and think more deeply about?

Sense of time and purpose

The future in terms of students’ grades, scholarships and passing the course while acquiring “necessary” content and competencies.

A “now” created between teacher and student through arranging inquiry into the knowledge we possess, and to learn from, rather than about, knowledge. Or, learning in the time of and for now, not justified in terms of something later.

For those who understand curriculum-as-thing, the job of teachers is “to deliver somebody else’s mail” (Pinar 2004, 210). Teachers are conduits or conductors whose primary job is to pass on the thing to students and to successfully drive the course into the provincial testing station. Some teachers think of education this way; it saves them from emotional risk or making a commitment to deep and implicative learning. Given time constraints, we give less attention to the already existing abilities of students to distinguish between official rhetoric and curriculum, and certain aspects of their social and economic lives that rhetoric tries to hide.

In contrast to students who lack the thing, curriculum-as-encounter evolves through equality: teachers and students possess equal ability for recollection. Each needs the other to exercise sovereignty as they think through the way things are, so as to distinguish the present’s personal and social outcome.


At the heart of the curricular matter lie our theories of knowledge and knowing and their relationship to meaning. Any attempts at transformative change will have to wrestle with (as Dewey notes) the stubbornly conservative understanding of school knowledge. In this view, if we aren’t careful with respect to the curriculum redesign promised in Inspiring Action on Education (Alberta Education 2010), teachers will present students with information and competencies as if all were similarly shaped ice cubes—education’s version of trickle-down.

Regardless of changing rhetorical fashions to justify the thing, education’s most pressing problems remain stubbornly in place:

On the side of the machinery of school-work, I mention first the number of children in a room. This runs in the graded schools of our country anywhere from 35–60. . . . Under such circumstances, how do we have the face to continue to speak at all of the complete development of the individual as the supreme end of educational effort? (Dewey 2001, 394)


Alberta Education. 2010. Inspiring Action on Education. Edmonton, Alta.: Alberta Education. Also available at (accessed May 7, 2013).

Apple, M. W. 2008. “Curriculum Planning: Content, Form, and the Politics of Accountability.” In The SAGE Handbook of Curriculum and Instruction, ed. F. M. Connelly, 25–43. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage.

Britzman, D., D. Dippo, D. Searle and A. Pitt. 1997. “Toward an Academic Framework for Thinking About Teacher Education.” Teaching Education 9,no.1: 15–26.

Davis, B. 2000. Skills Mania: Snake Oil in Our Schools? Toronto: Between the Lines Publishers.

den Heyer, K. 2009a. “What If Curriculum (of a Certain Kind) Doesn’t Matter?” Curriculum Inquiry 39, no. 1: 27–40.

———. 2009b. “Sticky Points: Teacher Educators Re-Examine Their Practice in Light of a New Alberta Social Studies Program and Its Inclusion of Aboriginal Perspectives.” Teaching Education 20, no. 4: 343–55.

den Heyer, K., and L. Abbott. 2011. “Reverberating Echoes: Challenging Teacher Candidates to Tell and Learn from Entwined Narrations of Canadian History.” Curriculum Inquiry 41, no. 5: 610–35.

Dewey, J. 2001. “The Educational Situation: As Concerns the Elementary School.” Journal of Curriculum Studies 33, no. 4: 387–403. (Original work published 1902.)

Harris, R., and K. Burns. 2011. “Curriculum Theory, Curriculum Policy and the Problem of Ill‐Disciplined Thinking.” Journal of Education Policy 26, no. 2: 245–61.

Hodgson, A., and K. Spours. 2006. “An Analytical Framework for Policy Engagement: The Contested Case of 14–19 Reform in England.” Journal of Education Policy 21, no. 6: 679–96.

Pinar, W. F. 2004. What Is Curriculum Theory? Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum.

Westbury, I. 2008. “Making Curricula: Why Do States Make Curricula and How?” In The SAGE Handbook of Curriculum and Instruction, ed. F. M. Connelly, 45–65. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage.

Whitson, T. 2008. “Decomposing Curriculum vs. Curriculum-as-Text.” Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy 5, no.1: 111–37.


1 For more on the challenges of multiple perspectives of diverse communities in teacher education, see den Heyer and Abbott (2011).


Kent den Heyer is an associate professor in the Faculty of Education, University of Alberta.

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