Context, Complexity and Contestation in Curriculum Construction: Developing Social Studies in the New Zealand Curriculum
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In the 1990s, New Zealand's curriculum for the compulsory schooling sector was to undergo complete revision following the administrative reforms of the 1980s. The development of each new curriculum document followed a business model in which the Ministry of Education put the development process out for competitive tender. The successful bidders were to complete their tasks to strict Ministry guidelines and under the scrutiny of the Ministry's Curriculum Review Committee and the Minister's Policy Advisory Group. After the completion of a draft version, public consultation and school trials, a final curriculum document would be prepared and mandated as the legal curriculum requirements for New Zealand government-funded schools. The process that the fifth document, Social Studies in the New Zealand Curriculum, was to undergo proved to be elongated and controversial. As such, it provides a case study through which to examine, critique and theorise the nature of curriculum construction at a macro-level, in this case, at a national level. This study of the development of Social Studies in the New Zealand Curriculum illuminates three broad themes in curriculum construction - context, complexity and contestation. These themes arise from the literature and are reinforced by the study's findings. The study set out to: provide detailed description and analysis of an example of curriculum construction; use the selected case study to demonstrate the importance of the broader contexts within which curriculum construction occurs; problematise the notion of curriculum construction by highlighting the complexities in and around the process; articulate the contested nature of selecting and presenting curriculum contents; and provide insights into the personal and affective side of involvement in a macrolevel curriculum construction process. There are three main sources of data - the process itself, the products (three versions of Social Studies in the New Zealand Curriculum) and the people involved. A range of data gathering methods is used from primarily historical and ethnographic research within a qualitative framework. The main data gathering tools are archival research, document analysis and open-ended interviewing. As the data are mainly textual--either as original documents or created texts, as in interview transcripts-analytic strategies include content, thematic, semiotic and discourse analysis. Social constructionism (Burr, 1995) provides a unifying theoretical approach to frame the research design and analysis. In this dissertation, the background to the study, the findings and the discussion are interwoven and presented through three story strands - institutional, contextual and personal. The institutional strand aims to tell "what happened". The contextual strand aims to explain "why things happened as they did", "in what circumstances" and "why this might be important". The personal strand aims to give more prominence to the role of individuals in such a process, that is, "who was involved, how did individuals impact upon curriculum construction and how did the process impact upon them?" The layout of the dissertation also highlights the interwoven and complex nature of the ideas being explored. It is necessary to push the boundaries of a more traditional format to keep the notions of complexity and contestation to the fore. This manifests itself in the way that the chapter headings are based around the three story strands, the literature is integrated throughout the study and multi-layered stories and multiple interpretations are given. Within this framework, the usual features of a conventional research report - background, context, literature, theoretical underpinnings, methodological choices, findings and discussion - are still to be found but some liberty is taken to "open up the complications that [would] have been smoothed over" (Stronach & MacLure, 1997, p. 5) in more traditional dissertations. The findings are analysed and presented in a variety of ways - as a chronology and a set of critical incidents to outline the process, as textual and visual analysis to examine the products, and through personal stories to illuminate the experiences of the people involved. Theorising from the data is problematised by using a range of theoretical explanations before proffering a synthesised model of curriculum construction as a multidimensional process. The findings from this study form two clusters - those that relate to the specific case study (the development of Social Studies in the New Zealand Curriculum) and those that provide deeper understanding of the broader nature of curriculum construction. The two sets of findings also demonstrate the interrelated nature of the three data sources - the process, the products and the people. In relation to the specific case study, there is clear evidence of the acceptance of social studies as a curriculum area in New Zealand with its own identity and integrity. The study also documents the historical development of social studies as a curriculum area and provides a detailed account of the contested nature of the development of the current social studies curriculum statement Social Studies in the New Zealand Curriculum. The other finding, relating specifically to the New Zealand context but which should give heart to practitioners everywhere, is the resilience of committed educators when faced with opposing ideological forces determined to undermine their position. This is exemplified in this case study by the social studies community's ability to reclaim control over the contents of the curriculum despite strong opposition from the Business Roundtable and other neo-liberal and neo-conservative forces. What is also revealed is that in order to achieve an acceptable outcome, a curriculum construction process needs both consultation and critique. Social Studies in the New Zealand Curriculum is all the stronger as a product because of the depth of the surrounding debate and this, in turn, strengthened the credibility of both the curriculum area and its supporters. The findings that relate to broader notions of curriculum construction either confirm key themes from the literature, expand upon some that are less explicit or offer new insights. The three touchstones of this study - context, complexity and contestation - were constantly reinforced through the gathering and analysis of the data, and confirmed by the findings. That curriculum construction is subject to a range of contextual factors - historical, social, cultural, political, economic and/or educational; that the process is complex and multi-layered; that the process is highly political and contested; and that the process and products are influenced by powerful individuals and groups both inside and outside the process, are all strongly confirmed by, and even consolidated in, this study. Notions alluded to in the literature that find stronger expression in this study relate to the nature of contestation throughout the process of curriculum construction. A model using Bourdieu's notions of field, capital and habitus (after Bourdieu and Passeron, 1977) allows stronger articulation of features such as polarisation, factionalisation, the forging of alliances and the fluid status of participants. The data reveal the curriculum construction process in a constant state of flux and subject to much serendipity. The findings also strengthen the notion that the products of a curriculum construction process are not ends in themselves but reveal much about the nature of the contestation and, indeed, lay the groundwork for future contested interpretations. New insights that arise from this study include an articulation of the strategies, such as compromise, contingency and expediency, that participants use to achieve their ends. These are often at the expense of participants' underpinning principles or adherence to particular curriculum development models. Significant insights come from the in-depth investigation of the emotional side of curriculum construction. The data reveal that the struggle for control over curriculum contents is an emotionally-charged process; that participants in the process wrestle with the differences between their own personal platforms, their ideological influences, the groups they represent and the requirements of the task; that contestation occurs between those setting and those completing the task, especially in relationship to professional decision-making and intellectual ownership; and that no consideration is given to the emotional cost of involvement in such large-scale curriculum construction processes. In summary, context shapes the unique nature of curriculum construction processes and products. If an understanding of these factors is tempered with an awareness of the complex and multi-dimensional nature of curriculum construction this will strengthen the process and could lessen the negative effects of ideologically-motivated or emotionally-charged involvement in the process. Finally, as contestation in curriculum construction is unavoidable in such high-stakes processes, consultation and critique should be seen as opportunities (rather than threats), to enhance the credibility of the final product.
Thesis (PhD Doctorate)
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
School of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning
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