Greater Autonomy Over The Content Of The Curriculum

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The existence of some form of relationship between curriculum policy and teacher professionalism would appear to be an established assumption. This is evident in claims that curriculum reform is often regarded as a threat to teacher professionalism (Al-Hinei 2003; Apple 2009; Locke et al. 2005). Most notably, it is often claimed that the level of prescription in the English National Curriculum, along with the associated requirement to meet the prescribed outcomes, reflects a reduction of teacher autonomy in favour of accountability (Walsh 2006). It would seem, at this level then, possible to argue that a reduction in central prescription equates to an increase in teacher autonomy which in turn equates to an enhancement of teacher professionalism. To an extent this would seem to be an aim of recent curriculum reform in Scotland in the form of the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE). The first page of the first 'Building the Curriculum' document claims that 'teachers will have greater scope and space for professional decisions about what and how they should teach' (Scottish Executive 2006:1).

However, such a straightforward relationship between curriculum policy and teacher professionalism would, drawing on Evans (2008), be an over-simplification. Evans suggests that professionalism cannot be understood exclusively, through examining teachers' 'remit and responsibilities' (p.23), and rather we must consider the ways in which teachers themselves understand their professional responsibilities. To an extent this would seem to be recognised in Scotland's curriculum reform, in for example claims that the reform requires a 'culture change' (Scottish Government 2009a:5) and the emphasis on the need for professional development (Scottish Executive 2006:2). This suggests recognition that a change of teachers' remit and responsibilities alone may not have a significant impact upon professionalism. In this sense, the CfE may perhaps be regarded as representing, but also requiring, a change in our understanding of teacher professionalism.

In light of this, it becomes pertinent to consider precisely the nature of this implied change in understanding of teacher professionalism. This essay will explore particularly the implications of greater teacher autonomy in selecting the content of the curriculum. This entails considering: what is meant by teacher professionalism, issues that arise in relation to selecting curriculum content, and the impact of these issues on our conception of teacher professionalism.


In order to explore the impact of the CfE upon teacher professionalism it is necessary to have an understanding as to what exactly 'professionalism' means. This poses some difficulty as the term would appear to lack a clear definition, and seems to be understood quite differently by different people (Al-Hinei 2003:41; Evans 2008).

In a general sense however, it can perhaps be regarded as a description of the nature of the role and requirements of a member of a profession (Goodson 2003:126; Evans 2008:25). This of course begs the question as to what a 'profession' is. According to Carr (2000:22) the term 'profession' may be regarded as indicating a distinct 'class or category of occupation' consisting of jobs such as 'doctor' or 'lawyer', and sometimes 'teacher'.

It is in considering those features that distinguish a 'profession' from other occupations that the key issues associated with 'professionalism' come to the fore. Some regard the concept of 'profession' to be a socially constructed means of preserving power with a certain group of people by bestowing a special status upon certain occupations (described in Locke et al. 2005:558). Carr (2006:173) suggests it refers to those occupations that are essential in upholding civil society (health, justice and education). Others suggest that there are certain defining characteristics which mark out an occupation as fulfilling the criterion for 'profession' (Locke et al 2005:558; Christie 2003:845).

However, despite this diversity it would seem possible to identify certain recurrent themes in relation to those occupations classed as professions: they have some distinct knowledge base or expertise; they provide some form of service to society; and, as alluded to in the introduction, members of a profession have autonomy to make professional judgements (Carr 2000; Christie 2003; Goodson 2003; Locke et al. 2005).

Professionalism, then, may perhaps be regarded as describing: the requirements of a member of a profession in terms of their knowledge and expertise; their scope for autonomous decision making; and a definition of their role in its service to wider society. If we consider teacher professionalism directly, Menter et al. (2010:17), identify 'four models' of professionalism ('effective', 'reflective', 'enquiring' and 'transformative'), each of which conceives of the professional knowledge base and scope for teacher decision making differently. The 'transformative' model also defines the social role of teaching differently - as 'contributing to social change', rather than transmitting social norms (Menter et al. 2010:24).

Therefore, the relationship between curriculum policy and professionalism would seem to lie in the way in which the curriculum defines a teachers' role in terms of the knowledge that is required and the level of autonomy for professional decision making afforded by the curriculum. Whilst Evans (2008:27) argues that we cannot understand the true nature of teacher professionalism by reference to the policy that defines it, drawing on Locke et al (2005), it would certainly seem fair to suggest that the way in which a teachers' role is perceived officially does have affect teachers' views as to the nature of their roles and responsibilities.

As has been mentioned previously in relation to the English National Curriculum, the issue of teachers' autonomy and scope for making professional judgements would seem to be a particularly contentious issue. Menter et al (2010:22) suggest that a prescriptive curriculum, in which there is less scope for professional judgement, would seem to relate readily to a model of professionalism which emphasises 'technical accomplishment'. It would seem that reducing teachers' autonomy narrows the knowledge and expertise that is expected of a teacher. Goodson (2003) suggests that a focus on the technical aspects of teaching can lead to a view that teachers' expertise lies purely in the skills of day to day planning and behaviour management. Carr (2000:15) refers to this as 'restricted professionalism'.

Through examining the reasons for the existence of a curriculum which perhaps restricts teacher professionalism in this way we come to see the 'tension' that Locke et al (2005:564) point to as existing between teacher autonomy and accountability. Further, through understanding the perhaps unique accountability faced by the teaching profession (Carr 2003), we can begin to understand the issues involved in curriculum content selection.

Education, or rather schooling, is essentially concerned with 'the kind of society we want to be' (White 2004a:2) and as such in concerned not only with individual development but also the development of society. This is evident in the claim that the 'Curriculum for Excellence can play a significant role' in achieving the Scottish Governments aim 'to make Scotland smarter, safer and stronger, wealthier and fairer, greener and healthier' (Scottish Government 2008:3). It is from this notion of schooling as serving, and potentially shaping, society as a whole that it is suggested that schools and teachers are accountable in ways that other professions are not (Carr 2000:44). Further, teachers are also more accountable to parents and must accept the legitimacy of the views of 'non-professionals' in a way that lawyers or doctors do not (Carr 2003:64). As such, it is argued that there are some decisions in education that should not be made by the teacher as they are 'essentially political' (White 2004b:20). In attempting to ensure therefore that teachers are meeting the wants of both the state in terms of its desire for society - such as economic growth - teachers' space for professional judgement can become squeezed.

This leads us to consider more closely the nature of curriculum policy itself, and the role it plays in mediating between the desires of the state and teacher professional autonomy.


This requires an understanding as to what is meant by "curriculum" itself. As with 'professionalism', it would seem to be a term which is notoriously hard to define, with a multitude of potentially conflicting definitions (Dillon 2009). Generally it can be suggested that 'curriculum' does not refer to a list, or progression, of items to be taught. The curriculum addresses not only what is taught, but why and how teaching and learning takes place. As such, curricula reflect and promote beliefs about the aims and nature of education (Flinders & Thornton 2009:8). Different curricula reflect different epistemological and pedagogical beliefs - beliefs about the nature of knowledge and nature of learning and teaching - in, for example, their organisation of 'knowledge' (Carr 1988). For example those that emphasise the separation of knowledge into subjects, and those that favour integration of subject areas. However it should perhaps be noted that Carr (1988) argues that the epistemological and pedagogical bases of much curriculum policy is not entirely coherent. It should also be noted that the current discussion is centred on the concept of 'explicit' curriculum (Moore 2004:61) - an explicit statement of intended learning such as the CfE. However in considering a broader definition, curriculum is also used to refer to those experiences which lead to learning about, for example, social norms which are not explicitly planned for. This is termed the 'implicit' (Moore 2004:61) or 'hidden' (Anyon 2006) curriculum.

However, notwithstanding the range of approaches to understanding and creating curricula, curriculum design necessarily entails a selection of what is to be taught. Different curriculum models may differ in both when and by whom this process of selection takes place. As mentioned earlier, within a prescriptive, centralised, curriculum much of the selection is being made at a national level by policy makers.

If we consider the CfF itself in terms of those who are making the decisions, it is quite clear that the choice as to what to teach is not being place solely in the hands of the teachers. Priestley (2010:23) suggests that it reflects a trend in curriculum development in general, in which there is an attempt to draw on both 'top-down and bottom-up approaches to curriculum planning'.

A process of selection has already occurred at the national level. The aims of the curriculum have been set out in the form of the 'four capacities' - statements as to the type of person the curriculum seeks to develop (Learning and Teaching Scotland 2010). As mentioned earlier, the curriculum also aims to meet the Scottish Governments desire to create a 'wealthier' and 'healthier' Scotland (Scottish Government 2008:3).

Therefore teachers are making their decisions within a 'framework of national expectations' (Scottish Executive 2006:1). Decisions, perhaps ideological, have been made as to the 'skills' that are deemed important have been defined ('skills for learning, skills for life and skills for work' (Scottish Government 2009b)). The main areas of learning, perhaps reflecting epistemological beliefs, have also been decided in the form of the curriculum areas (such as Mathematics). At a more detailed level, the 'experiences and outcomes... describe the expectations for learning and progression for each of the eight curriculum areas' (Learning and Teaching Scotland 2010).

Even within this 'clear teachers do not have sole responsibility for curriculum content selection. In the pledge, 'all children and young people should experience personalisation and choice...' (Scottish Government 2008:17), there is an expectation that pupils will, to a certain extent, also be making decisions about curriculum content. Further, there is a strong emphasis upon collegiality, with teachers working together on curriculum development (Scottish Government 2009a). This essay does not have the scope to consider the critiques of the curricular decisions made at a national level (e.g. Royal Society of Edinburgh 2008). Whilst recognising that these criticisms may well have important implications for the role of the teacher, this essay will consider more generally the implications for teacher professionalism of autonomy to select content within a broad framework.

Through considering curriculum content selection, two key issues related to teacher professionalism will be raised. The first considers the effect of regarding content selection as a pedagogical skill or competence as Hansen (1998) appears to do. The second explores the implications of regarding a curriculum as a 'selection of culture' (Giroux 1980:228).

Content selection as pedagogical skill

As it would seem that the major 'political' decisions have been made in the curriculum in terms of its aims and general organisation of knowledge, it is possible to regard the teachers role as that of 'deciding what specific aims and what pupil experiences best suit the particular children' (White 2004b:20). In this sense the teacher is drawing on expertise as to how best move the child onto the next stage of development, in this case as defined by the CfE's experiences and outcomes.

This requirement to decide upon the specific aims, and selecting the content to enable the pupil to achieve those aims would certainly seem to point to a conception of a more enhanced professionalism than a more prescriptive curriculum. The nature of expected teacher professional knowledge and expertise would certainly seem to be regarded as more than organisational and day to day routine. Official documentation seems to suggest that teachers must, for example 'reflect on their practice' (Scottish Government 2009a:2) and have a range of expert knowledge in the form of 'content knowledge...general pedagogical knowledge....knowledge about how learners learn' (Scottish Government 2009a:4). This would seem to point to models such as the 'reflective teacher' (Moore 2004:4). Such a model regards teaching to involve more than practical knowledge and technical skill, rather it requires teachers to reflect on their practice perhaps drawing on their theoretical understanding with a view to improving and developing their teaching (Moore 2004).

Menter et al (2010:23) suggest that the requirement for teachers to be involved in curriculum development makes the concept of 'the enquiring teacher' a very relevant model. This model regards teachers' professional expertise in lying not only in the application of theoretical knowledge, but also in its generation through action research, again with the aim to improve their practice (Menter et al 2010:23).

These models would certainly seem to extend the concept of teacher professionalism beyond that of the perceived technicism of the 'competent' teacher. As such they may provide suitable models for teachers who are involved in the selection of curriculum content, placing an emphasis on teachers' pedagogical expertise.

However, if we turn to the second concept, an understanding of curriculum content as a 'selection of culture' (Giroux 1980:228), understanding teacher professionalism purely in terms of pedagogical expertise may begin to seem inadequate.

Curriculum content as a selection of culture

In order to consider the implications of regarding curriculum as a selection of culture it is necessary to determine exactly what this means.

Culture, in its broadest sense, may be regarded 'as a whole way of life', encompassing all aspects of society including the knowledge, skills and activities, such as sport and 'recreation', of that society (Entwistle 1977:111). As such, whatever is included in the curriculum is a selection from the vast array of knowledge, skills, attitudes and activities which make up 'culture'. We must consider then on what basis we choose what to include. If we regard education as being, in some way, involved with 'betterment', the aspects of culture we choose to include in a curriculum must be those which we regard as being conducive to the 'improvement of the individual or group' (Entwistle 1977:111).

As such, cultural selection clearly implies a process of evaluation, distinguishing between those things which we regard as 'desirable or undesirable' aspects of culture (Entwistle 1977:110). As White (2004a:3) argues that selection of content can only sensibly be carried out in relation to the aims of the curriculum, it would seem fair to suggest that concerns about the selection of culture could arise in relation to the overall aims of the curriculum and in relation to the criteria by which aspects of culture are deemed worthy of inclusion.

Concerns that rise in relation to the aims of the curriculum are perhaps best exemplified by the criticisms of a curriculum whose aim is, for example to increase employability skills. Those who regard knowledge acquisition as having value in its own right would regard such an instrumental approach to content selection as an impoverishment of education, limiting access to many forms of culture which may not have direct instrumental value (drawing on Carr et al. 2006:17). In this way then, we can see that the selection of content is in some way impacted upon by our beliefs about the purpose of education.

However, as has been discussed it the aims of the CfE have been decided at a national level, and as such perhaps in reality teachers have little role to play in selecting 'desirable' culture. To a certain extent this may be true, and points again to the 'tension' between accountability to the state, and teachers' beliefs and professional judgements as to what is best (Locke et al 2005).

Further, it would certainly seem fair to suggest that within the framework, teachers do have to make decisions as to what to teach in order to achieve the 'experiences and outcomes'. In this way they must make judgements as to what is worthwhile, what they regard as important or valuable knowledge or skills, or suitable literature. It is perhaps in relation to the evaluation as to the relative worth of aspects of culture that the most complex issues arise.

It is in considering the relationship between knowledge and power that cultural selection becomes problematic. This becomes evident when we draw on Bourdieu's (1986:106) concept of 'cultural capital'. Bourdieu (1986:106) suggests that different forms of 'culture' are invested with value which can be drawn on for monetary gain, or an increase in social status. If we consider this in terms of 'knowledge' as a form of culture, then acquisition of certain forms of knowledge by an individual can be utilised in generating income and increasing social status. For example, acquiring specific biological and medical knowledge can enable one to gain both the income and status conferred upon a doctor. However, it is not only the acquisition of the knowledge per se. which is valuable, but rather gaining institutional recognition - in the form of an academic qualification - of possessing a particular form of culture (Bourdieu 1986:110). In this sense, certain forms of knowledge, certain forms of culture, have greater value by virtue of being 'institutionalised' in the form of a qualification (Bourdieu 1986:109).

This would suggest therefore, that schools are involved in both the transfer of forms of culture which enable an individual to gain economic capital or social status, but also in some way define what forms of culture are of value. Such an assertion is supported by Giroux's (1980:228) argument that the culture that is selected to form the curriculum becomes 'legitimised' by the very fact of its inclusion in the curriculum. Further as Moore (2004:61) points out, in selecting what to include, there is also a decision as to what to exclude from the curriculum. Moore (2004) suggests that through such a process the relative value of different forms of culture are communicated to pupils, with those things that are excluded regarded as undesirable. Some suggest that the basis on which such selection is carried out is based on 'middle class' values as to what should be regarded as worthwhile (Reay 2006).

An interesting illustration of such a claim is provided in Moore's critique of portrayals in film of teachers who are regarded as 'saviours and non-conformists' (Moore 2004:58), such as 'Ms Johnson' in the film Dangerous Minds. He argues that whilst the approach they take to education may be extraordinary, the content of that education is not. Moore (2004:58) contends that the cultural selection made by these teachers represents middle class values and as such 'may be read as contributing to and confirming social and cultural biases' (p.58)

It is in this sense that Young (2006:734) argues that 'social interests are always involved in curriculum design': those with the power to select what is included in the curriculum have, to an extent, the power to legitimise certain forms of knowledge and certain practices. It is suggested that through this process of promoting and legitimising middle class values schools are implicated in entrenching inequalities of social class (Reay 2006).

Such a claim requires closer consideration if we are to understand the possible connection between cultural selection and social justice. One way in which it is suggested that this is the case is that individuals from a middle class background have greater access and exposure to the forms of knowledge that are regarded as valuable by schools (Reay 2006). In this way, Reay (2006) suggests, children from middle class backgrounds are at an advantage, able to draw on the cultural capital they already possess in order to perform well at schools, gaining institutionalised recognition through academic qualifications, and thus gain status in society.

This would seem to highlight a tension for those involved in selecting the content of a curriculum. On the one hand, it is suggested that if schools do not provide the 'high status cultural capital that academic and economic success requires' then children from working class backgrounds are potentially deprived of the ability to raise their social status (Anyon 2006:44). However in doing so, they are perhaps complicit in reproducing bias as to what is regarded as legitimate and valuable knowledge.

Further, Young (2006) suggests that it is not reasonable to regard cultural selection as purely a matter of imposing the values of an elitist group, and that there is a legitimacy in regarding some skills, aspects of knowledge, and activities as more valuable than others.

However, exactly how a teacher should decide what is worthwhile and what is not is not entirely clear. Perhaps it can be based upon the 'normative' (Entwistle 1977:111), social view as to what is worthwhile. However, this is problematic even if there is a clear consensus as to what is 'worthwhile'. As Carr (2003:72) argues, the most widespread beliefs are not necessarily the 'right' beliefs. Aside from raising the complex philosophical question as to what 'right' means, this raises the question as to the social role of teacher professionalism. Are they there to pass on the values that exit or should they be 'transformative', 'contributing to social change' (Menter et al 2010:24).

It is from these observations upon the relationship between cultural selection and values, and the potential link to issues of social justice, that it perhaps seems inadequate to understand teachers' professionalism purely in terms of practical skills or even in terms of professional judgements based upon pedagogical knowledge.

Rather it would seem to suggest, as many (e.g. Goodson 2003; Campbell 2003; Carr 2006) do, that as teaching is implicated in forming learners' world views and values, it is inherently concerned with ethical considerations. These authors suggest that it is these ethical concerns and judgements that teachers have to make, that marks teaching out as a profession.

Carr (2006:172) argues that whilst all occupations are in some way concerned with ethical issues, these generally play a 'regulative' role - they indicate standards for good practice. However he suggests that ethical considerations are 'constitutive' of teaching. This is perhaps more clear in Campbell's (2008:604) assertion that it is:

'...challenging to disentangle the ethics of teaching from the very process, practice and content of teaching…'

This would seem to suggest that the decisions and actions made by teachers involve judgements as to what is right and wrong not merely in a technical sense, but rather in a moral sense.

As it is suggested that ethical issues are inbuilt into the very nature of teaching, Campbell (2008:605) argues that 'ethical codes' are insufficient to address the issues faced by teachers. Rather she suggests that teachers requires an understanding by teachers of the complex moral issues they must address (Campbell 2008:605). Carr (2006:178) suggests that it is about teachers 'taking moral issues and questions seriously'. It should be noted that this does not suggest that teachers do not currently take moral and ethical considerations seriously; Campbell (2003:2) argues that many teachers are aware of the moral implications of their judgements.

However, Locke et al. (2005:570) do suggest that when teachers are subject to high levels of accountability it can lead teachers 'doing things right' rather than 'doing the right thing'.

Potentially, therefore, the CfE's focus on greater autonomy could provide greater flexibility for teachers to make the decisions they regard to be ethically sound. At the same time, by increasing teachers' scope for choosing what to teach the ethical nature of teacher judgement perhaps becomes even more prominent.

However, drawing upon the suggestion that the framing of teacher professionalism in policy is significant to practice, it would seem important that the ethical nature of professionalism is present in official discourse if teachers are to be afforded the time and space to seriously engage with these issues.

The CfE may well be regarded as affording teachers greater autonomy to make professional decisions as to what they teach. There also appears to be recognition (e.g. Scottish Government 2009a) of the importance of teachers' professional knowledge and expertise. However, in considering the issues involved in selecting curriculum content it seems fair to argue that the professional role of teachers cannot be framed purely in terms of pedagogical knowledge and expertise. Rather it would seem that any consideration of teacher professionalism must seriously consider the ethical dimension of teaching.