What makes and keeps a curriculum relevant?

I love New Zealand for many reasons. I love the land, the people, the coffee, and the positive attitude held by a small, new(ish) country punching well above its weight in the world. Education is an area where this nation of just four million kiwis leads the world. This is for a number of reasons but an important element is the approach our national curriculum takes in directing schools to be relevant to the needs of today.  So rather than discuss what curriculum should be, I write this post from the perspective of an educator who already works within a curriculum that is ready for the 21st-century and is already future focused.

Capabilities over content

Unlike many others, the New Zealand curriculum is focused on developing capabilities in young people rather than particular content & topics. It is a short document of just 40 pages that acts as a general framework and asks each school to develop it’s own “local curriculum’ that best meets the needs of it’s specific learners. It also encourages schools to involve the learners in negotiating curriculum based on their own needs and interests.

When designing and reviewing their curriculum, schools select achievement objectives from each area in response to the identified interests and learning needs of their students. (New Zealand Curriculum p.44)

Our curriculum is divided into two distinct parts. The first 20 pages cover our values, principles, and key competencies which they apply to all schools. The aim of our curriculum is to develop active, participating, and connected citizens and this is the primary concern before any traditional learning areas or subjects get a mention. Even when we start to discuss the traditional silos of things like mathematics, science, and English, we do it differently.

Subjects for building Citizens

We have great ideas around principles, values, and key competencies but its the learning area (subjects) statements that are fascinating because they all take a citizenship perspective. For example “In health and physical education, students learn about their own well-being, and that of others and society, in health-related and movement contexts.” and “In science, students explore how both the natural physical world and science itself work so that they can participate as critical, informed, and responsible citizens in a society in which science plays a significant role.” As you read these learning area statements you start to realise that the real concern is for developing dispositions within the learner and relate these within the subject and not the other way around. But our curriculum goes on to stipulate a very important expectation:

While the learning areas are presented as distinct, this should not limit the ways in which schools structure the learning experiences offered to students. All learning should make use of the natural connections that exist between learning areas and that link learning areas to the values and key competencies.

Although schools, especially high schools,  are still struggling to breakdown the silos, the curriculum supports and encourages them to make learning authentic, social and interdisciplinary. It then goes on to do much more though. It encourages schools to hand the ownership of learning to the students to design and control their day at school.

Students who manage themselves are enterprising, resourceful, reliable, and resilient. They establish personal goals, make plans, manage projects, and set high standards. They have strategies for meeting challenges. They know when to lead, when to follow, and when and how to act independently.

I have previously posted examples of New Zealand schools who have enacted this approach to learning extremely successfully (and there’s many more in my book). The primary purpose of a curriculum is to outline what we want from the next generation in terms of character, aspirations, and capabilities. This is the only way to ensure the we maintain the joy of learning and thus the interest in those topics and content.


Author: Richard Wells
Teaches grade 6 to 12
Deputy Principal in a New Zealand High School
Top 40 in edublog awards 2013
Top 12 Blogger – The Global Search for Education
Known for Educational Infographics (see Posters)
and an International keynote speaker.
Twitter :  @EduWells

This post is written as part of  The Global Search for Education: Our Top 12 Global Teacher Blogs: A series of questions that Cathy Rubin is asking several education bloggers. I’ll be sharing the link to her post that collects all of the responses. I’m excited to be part of this group of edu-bloggers.