Curriculum leadership: setting direction and purpose

December 22, 2017
By Jane Macleod, STF Senior Manager, Research & Records

Curriculum has been in the news lately and the other day, when having a conversation about curriculum, a colleague interjected with a thoughtful query, “I wonder if we are all working from the same definition of curriculum.” As it turns out, some of us believed curriculum to be content or the “what” of classroom practice as opposed to the “how” (instruction). Others held a broader interpretation in that curriculum referred to the integration of programs and instruction, which are connected to the needs of the students, the community and society. Although both views are grounded in research, the latter understanding will frame the discussion below.

Regardless of a singular definition, the successful integration of curriculum, instruction, assessment and evaluation to support student learning and understanding is a fundamental goal for teachers today and, without question, an area where principals’ active leadership is critical. 

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

“–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.

“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if only you walk long enough.”

 – Alice in Wonderland

The above quote is often used to frame vision setting; however, it can be equally applicable to curriculum leadership. The reality is that curriculum delivery is, for the most part, dependent on teacher professional judgement. STF Policy 2.10 (Teaching and Learning) sets out teachers’ beliefs around curriculum integrity and classroom instruction, and supports the importance of professional autonomy and expertise when making decisions around the curriculum. Therefore, principals’ actions and influence must engage teachers to ensure they are fully supported in meeting students’ needs.

Despite the hectic pace confronted by principals today, time and energy ensuring that staff members understand the connection of a curricula’s purpose within the context of the school’s vision and direction for student success and achievement is necessary.

The authors of The Principal’s Guide to Curriculum Leadership (2011) suggest that Stephen Covey’s (1988) notion of putting first things first is applicable when referring to principal curriculum leadership. Covey’s time management quadrant enables principals to distinguish and prioritize issues that are both important and urgent. Education research routinely asserts that no issue is as important to student success as principal curriculum leadership.

Recent research provides a number of practical tips for principals leading curriculum implementation work.

  • Be well versed with the philosophy and outcomes of the Saskatchewan curricula so that you can balance student needs with provincial mandates. The Ministry document, Understanding Outcomes, is an excellent resource and can easily be found online.
  • Get to know the strengths of your students, your teachers and your community.
  • Work with the curriculum team to establish instructional priorities and revisit them regularly.
  • Communicate high expectations that are appropriate, positive and realistic.
  • Hold frequent and open dialogue about what constitutes meaningful learning in your school community.
  • Invite and encourage innovation, change and growth for curriculum development.
  • Access and utilize credible curriculum resources such as journals, books, websites, consultants and colleagues.

In her study of educational reform, Linda McNeil (2000) argues that principals have a responsibility to lead curriculum development and implementation in their schools. McNeil suggests that today’s environment of policy mandates and standardization erodes high expectations. The result is that curriculum is reduced to “that which is tested” as opposed to a process that engages students with their learning. She challenges principals and teacher teams to actively promote responsive and responsible curriculum initiatives. 

Providing ongoing curriculum leadership in schools today can be a time-consuming and a multi-faceted process. More often than not, principals are confronted with a number of challenging issues such as student versus content orientation, essential knowledge and skills versus abstract thinking, homogeneous versus heterogeneous grouping, and finally, traditional or common sense versus progressive approaches. Again, the research is clear – successful curriculum leadership does not happen in a vacuum.

“Never underestimate the value of the principals’ involvement and interaction with the curricular process,” (Sorenson, Goldsmith, Méndez and Maxwell, 2011). At some point, successful curriculum leadership involves all members of the school community and can mean difficult discussions and, on occasion, disagreement. When principals open the territory for meaningful discussion, exploration and reflection about curriculum excellence for student learning and engagement, the results can lead to what Quentin Fiore and Marshall McLuhan (2005) believe to be a greater sense of professional satisfaction and collective success.