Distance learning, with its ability to cross local, state and national boundaries, must be sensitive to research findings, cultural differences, and the ever-changing social, economic, and political environments. This paper is not limited to policy makers and politicians. It explains how each of us has a role in changing the processes and products of education and its ultimate importance to quality of life.
On Shifting Sands: Exploring the Curriculum
ASSESSMENT EVALUATION STRATEGIES
LEARNER PERFORMANCE AND ACHIEVEMENT
Maintaining balance between curriculum policy and assessment practices is a complex and daunting task. It is therefore, fitting to liken it to thermotaxis. What then is thermotaxis? It is a process by which warm-blooded organisms regulate their body heat and temperature. The notion of thermotaxis aligns well with the conceptual metaphor ‘On Shifting Sands’ as used in this paper. Weather conditions in the Kalahari change without notice, thus requiring explorers to acclimatise for survival. Failure to maintain thermotaxical balance could prove fatal. Likewise, institutions of learning cannot function optimally unless they have sound systems and function efficiently. They have to maintain a healthy balance between curriculum policy and assessment practices. Failure to strike a balance would render such institutions worthless and irrelevant to the socio-economic needs of the society.
Barnes et al., (2000: 645) argue that the principle of alignment should be viewed as:
a degree of congruence between the expectations of a school system for students’ performance and the various elements of the system’s assessment arrangements. A corollary of this principle might be that expectations and assessment should be aligned in a clear, efficient, and economical manner”.
Barnes et al, raise questions about systems functionality. Implicit in their argument is the need to have focus and mechanisms to attain the set goals or objectives. They argue that as a consequence of lack of (poor) planning, different and confusing curriculum mandates (messages) are often sent to various role-players about implementation strategies. Since there is no logic between curriculum mandates and operational framework, implementation becomes problematic. Similar views have been expressed by Fullan (1999: 66) who advocates for “a better alignment between curriculum, pedagogy and assessment at both system and school level”.
In their study Barnes et al (2000) provide some empirical evidence that falsifies the assumption that assessment is a neutral element in curriculum discourse. They demonstrated that on the contrary, assessment is a:
Powerful mechanism for social construction of competence…Investment in quality assessment offers school authorities a powerful, cost effective means to model exemplary practice, while meeting the evaluative obligations of public accountability.
Their research analysis further highlights the need to ascertain that curriculum content is credible and relevant. They caution that the dynamics of the alignment logic should not be delimited to establishing synergy between curriculum expectations, teaching strategies and assessment practices. They recommend that to circumvent public displeasure regarding alignment processes, alignment discourse should also focus on the system’s expectations and assessment strategies thereof. Webb (1997: 2) also cautions that “a careful alignment between expectations and assessment should be pursued to avoid ‘over assessing a few outcomes at the expense of ignoring others”.
According to Barnes et al, a careful alignment of curriculum expectations and assessment practices generates a strong causative impact on classroom pedagogy. On the contrary, poorly aligned curriculum expectations and assessment mandates tend to exert ‘coercive influence on classroom practices’. They caution that assessment mandates should not be used to restrict classroom practices, but rather reflect the range and scope of performance as articulated by the curriculum framework. This leads us to another critical question, namely, how is alignment measured? A review of literature on curriculum initiatives (Biggs, 2001; Shuell, 1986, Burns, 2001) confirms that the process can be achieved through the following strategies:
The process of aligning curriculum and assessment practices requires the existence of a quality assurance framework. A review of literature confirms that benchmarking is often used as measure of quality control both in academia and business sector (Loosemore, 1996 & Mawson, 1994). Mawson (1994) defines benchmarking as ‘a technique by which an organisation can compare its own methods, processes and practices and performances against other organisations’. Similarly, Losh (1994: 62) defines benchmarking as:
A systematic way of identifying the practices of successful enterprises and implementing them… Ultimately this is an inquiry process designed to identify what works and why? Once a successful practice is identified, it becomes a benchmark and serves as a reference point for establishing internal goals and objectives for increased performance.
Housley (1999) notes the following types of benchmarking:
It is not the intention of this paper to account for the many approaches to benchmarking. Nevertheless, a synopsis of both Process and Performance benchmarking will be given since they have some relevance to curriculum and assessment dichotomy discourse. Process benchmarking focuses largely on what makes systems functional and efficient. This includes gaining a better understanding about the functionality of both the organisational and management structures. Performance benchmarking, on the other hand, deals with the quality of system’s outputs. In a nutshell, it’s about the aggregation of the performance outputs as outlined by the system’s performance indicators.
Exponents of benchmarking (Housley, 1999; Loosemore, 1996; Mawson, 1994; Price, 1994) cite the following benefits of benchmarking:
Every approach has operational limitations. This also applies to the use of benchmarking in educational context. If not carefully planned and utilised benchmarking can lead to over bureaucratisation of educational practices. Despite such limitations, benchmarking can bring substantial changes and improvement in an organisation if used intelligently. In the words of Housley (1999: 79) “Benchmarking is not a ‘fad’, and can be a ‘fix’ if used to bring about improvement. But benchmarking will be seen as a fad, and an expensive one …if it is used to measure outputs”.
Fullan (1993: 84) reminds us “learning organizations are a part of a greater complexity that requires a holistic view to survive and develop”. An articulation firmly embedded in the conceptual metaphor used in this paper. Similar views have been articulated by Land and Jarman (1992: 30) who argue:
The reality of evolutionary success demonstrates that ‘fitness’ is not simply about ‘adopting to an environment’, but rather the continuing improvement in the capacity to grow and build ever more connections in more varied environments (we define growth and evolution as continuously making more extensive and increasingly complex connections inside the growing organism and with the varied outside environments).
The cumulative evidence gleaned from literature on school change and development ( Barnes et al 2000; Land and Jarman 1992; Fullan 1999 & Webb 1997) demonstrates that curriculum alignment processes should be underpinned by the provision and optimal utilisation of the following critical system’s structures:
Access to resources
Personal and social dynamics
Institutional context etc.
The leadership capacity of an institution is crucial towards achieving national standards and outcomes. It does so by ensuring that appropriate systems and processes exist to enhance the functionality of schools. The common view is that there is a link between strategic planning and institutional effectiveness. Through a carefully planned strategic framework, institutions can transform their profiles. Huggins (1980:4) defines a strategic plan as ‘the systematic process of setting…objectives and making the strategic decisions and developing the plans necessary to achieve these objectives’. According to Huggins (1980) strategic plans offer institutions an opportunity to map up contingency options to anticipate contextual challenges and plan accordingly to circumvent such eventualities. Like ‘Shifting Sands’ strategic plans have to be reviewed from time to time to ascertain their viability. Maintaining balance between institutional plans and their core business is another form of thermotaxis. Like the Kalahari explorers who rely on impeccable skills for survival, institutional plans too have to be well crafted and should reflect:
Vision and mission
Quality assurance policy
Capacity building policy
Research policy and
A better synergy between these components has the capacity to facilitate curriculum and assessment alignment processes within and across institutions. The processes alluded to above depend largely on access to resources, professional relationship among role-players and the overall capacity to manage change.
The success of institutions depends inter alia, on their capacity to grapple with change and related challenges. Institutional capacity building plays a crucial role towards transforming the profile of an institution. Institutional capacity building therefore, can be achieved through:
Visionary and transformative leadership
Comprehensive strategic plan
Plausible implementation strategies
Will to invest in capacity building endeavours.
In his foreword, Spady (1998:vii-viii) offers us a most compelling form of leadership that would equal the task, when he avers: (i) it should be leaders who initiate improvements in their milieu or organisation (ii) leaders that get results by enlisting the support of others and sticking to their goal, and they make something better and different. The resonance of Spady’s thesis is supported by Makgoba (1997:140). He proposes a paradigm shift in institutional leadership and praxis. He argues that such a shift would give leadership a new meaning and profile that “…must develop a new understanding of diversity that enables a real departure from the legacies of the past such as the dominant and recessive power relationships that are rampant in our institutions of higher learning”.
Literature on educational change and leadership confirms that skilled and knowledgeable leadership has the capacity to transform the way institutions function (Giroux, 1987; Harris, 1994; Nkomo, 1998; Schwahn & Spady, 1998). Lenin once retorted “do not try to resolve new challenges by old methods. Nothing will come of it”. Lenin’s retort remains truly relevant as institutions grapple with the 21st century challenges. Lenin’s words of wisdom are further vindicated by Gorbachev (1988) in his address to the CPSU Central Committee, Heads of the Mass Media, Ideological Institutions and Artistic Unions on: How to Restore the Image of Socialism through Democracy. He argues “The creative forces of society have been set into motion. Positive tendencies are appearing. This is exactly what changes life”. The culture of life in our institutions of learning must change to meet the ever-changing needs of learners. Institutions need to cogitate a plausible institutional “perestroika” that would unleash capacity building initiatives inherent within these institutions. Professionalism, solid scholarship and impeccable work ethos should be a plausible scaffold upon which institutional capacity building strategies are anchored.
According to Darling-Hammond and Bullmaster (1997: 1071):
Developing a capacity for understanding requires both the time for this kind of extended, in depth learning, and the skilful guidance of teachers who can scaffold key ideas, anticipate misconceptions or stereotypes, and create learning experiences that build on students own thinking and reflect the standards for inquiry in the discipline.
Undoubtedly, professional development plays a critical role to transform pedagogic credibility of institutions of learning. In order to teach effectively teachers need to have a better understanding of the disciplines they teach as well as the many different ways in which children learn (Darling-Hammond, 1990; McLaughlin & Talbert, 1993; Shulman, 1987). As McLaughlin and Talbert (1993: 2-3) argue:
Teaching for understanding … requires change not only in what is taught but also in how it is taught… Teaching for understanding requires teachers to have comprehensive and in-depth knowledge of the subject matter, competence in representation and manipulation of the knowledge in instructional activities, and skill in managing classroom processes in a way that enables active student learning.
The thrust of McLaughlin and Talbert’s thesis underscores the need for teachers to understand the dynamics of curriculum policy and assessment practices. They need to foster meaningful learning by designing appropriate learning tasks that engage learners to explore the frontiers of knowledge. Unfortunately, evidence gleaned from literature confirms the contrary (Darling-Hammond & Bullmaster, 1997;Fullan, 1993; Senge, 1990). For instance, classroom experiences reveal that the majority of teachers in developing nations struggle to establish synergy between classroom curriculum and assessment practices. This is a result of teachers’ lack of understanding and knowledge of curriculum design and development. As a consequence of this professional deficiency, there is no ‘fit’ between what teachers teach and assess. Teachers’ lack of appropriate and relevant skills in curriculum design and development is a major challenge that teacher education providers have to address urgently. According to Darling-Hammond and Bullmaster (1997: 1073):
…Teachers will need to be prepared to teach in the ways these new standards demands, with deeper understanding of their disciplines, of inter-disciplinary connections, and of inquiry-based learning. They will need skills for creating learning experiences that enable students to construct their own knowledge in powerful ways. In addition, teachers will need to understand and use a variety of more authentic and performance-based means for assessing students’ knowledge and understanding, as well as evaluating students’ approaches to learning.
Commenting on the invaluable role and expertise teachers bring to the classroom Shulman (1983:504) avers that:
The teacher remains the key. The literature on effective schools is meaningless, debates over educational policy are moot, if the primary agents of instruction are incapable of performing their functions well. No micro-computer will replace them, no television system will clone and distribute them, no scripted lessons will direct and control, no voucher system will bypass them.
What Shulman poses is both relevant and instructive as it raises questions about educational system’s efficiency and credibility in addressing teacher empowerment issues. According to Fullan (1993) society in general has failed to acknowledge complexity of the teaching profession. He also blames society for bashing teachers for poor education results without first creating conducive conditions that would make teaching and learning successful. He further argues that teacher educators and teachers have not been proactive enough to break the cycle of dysfunctional systems.
To break the cycle of dysfunctionality, Schlechty (1990: 22) argues:
Teacher education could, I believe, be much improved if those who sought entry could be brought to understand that learning to teach requires considerable investment of time and talent. Thus, it is in the interest of quality teacher education to create conditions in which talented individuals are willing to enter programs that require them to undergo a longer period of development than is commonly the case in present teacher education programs.
Radical changes in teacher empowerment programmes are required to translate Schlechty’s sentiments to reality. Schlechty’s thesis is reiterated by Lichtenstein et al (1992: 80) who argue that the nature of teacher education programmes should maximise on “the knowledge that empowers teachers to pursue their craft with confidence, enthusiasm, and authority”. Arising from Lichtenstein’s proposition is the need for teachers to display sound knowledge and understanding of the following critical aspects of a school system:
Knowledge of teaching profession
Understanding of education policy
Knowledge of learning programmes (disciplines)
Knowledge of teaching and learning strategies and
Understanding of assessment practices.
A display of both the knowledge and understanding of the above named aspects of the school system forms an important step towards understanding the dynamics of curriculum policy and assessment practices. Part of such an understanding is underpinned by the research capacity building opportunities within institutions of learning.
The upsurge of interest in research is a consequence of a plethora of factors, for instance, to promote the culture of accountability within institutions. Research is also used as a monitoring tool. This is as a consequence of the huge financial resources invested in educational initiatives. It is also an attempt to demystify public perceptions and distrust about research initiatives. It is also because of high expectations accorded to the science of research in education. Evidence gleaned from literature on research studies confirms that research plays a crucial role to provide pertinent data on the quality of educational systems and practices (Mwamwenda, 1994; Nyamapfene, 1999; Harris, 2000).
In 1999, the Gauteng Department of Education (GDE) hosted a conference on ‘Educator as Researcher’. One of the primary aims of the conference was “To move research agenda to the center of change process in education”. The long-term vision of the conference was to encourage dialogue about strategies institutions might use to facilitate educators’ transition to the world of research in order to become ‘critical scholars’. The reality is that institutions cannot microwave researchers. It is a process that requires time, training, commitment and resources. According to Nyamapfene (1999) doing research is an imperative requirement for those entrusted with the responsibility of academia. He concedes that research capacity at institutional level needs to increase to match academic challenges. He believes that those involved in research are active thinkers committed towards utilising the research logic to construct knowledge and add to the knowledge discourse. The need to strengthen institutional research capacity is supported by Noble (1989) and Mwamwenda (1994).
The role of teachers in research should be explored as a strategy to enhance their growth as classroom researchers. This is also critical so that they log into research databases to inform their practice. Attempts to encourage teachers to become ‘critical scholars’ and actively participate in research projects should be underpinned by:
Strong research leadership
Mentoring and research capacity building
Plausible development plan that clearly articulates institutional vision and research priorities
Effective organisation and management of resources to optimise research outputs.
The impact of research in educational transformation and curriculum reconfiguration is well documented. According to Mwamwenda (1994) research plays a crucial role in shaping educational systems. For instance, it helps institutions to redefine their core business within the ever-changing global context. He argues that decision-making in education should be a consequence of research outputs. He concedes that lack of research output would compromise the image of the institution both nationally and internationally. In this case, it would even compromise the policy systems of such a country. In addition, Wickham and Bailey (2000) believe that research further enhances:
Sharing and collaboration among stakeholders
Dialogue on various educational issues
Communication between teachers, learners and policy planners
Performance levels of teachers and learners
Teacher designed staff development initiatives
Developing priorities for school planning
Development to new forms of knowledge
The quality of research outs can be optimised by developing the culture of research within institutions of learning and relevant support systems. The strategy for achieving such a task is succinctly elaborated by Gaynor (1998: 70):
Pedagogical research must be strengthened to improve the quality of education. For example, in-service and action research should be carried out, and the research should be communicated to teachers in an effective manner. Schools must be allowed to have a direct input into the research process by, for example, becoming involved in research design and implementation.
A cumulative analysis of scholarship on research confirms the notion that if utilised intelligently, research can empower institutions with appropriate skills on curriculum and assessment alignment strategies. Through systematic research plans, institutions can align research outputs with tuition, thus ensuring a ‘thermotaxis’ between educational policies and classroom practices. This would further enhance the utility value of the research logic as an integral part of policy formulation and decision making strategy.
Curriculum policies are not cast in stone. They are a result of some ferocious dialogue and contestations among different stakeholders on the quality of envisaged educational systems. Curriculum deliberations too are a result of what Archer (1992) terms a decade of globalisation and its concomitant impact in institutional domains like science and technology, politics, economics and culture. Both Archer (1992) and Finegold et al (1993) view globalisation as ‘a multi-faceted process’ characterised by the principle of interconnectedness and flexible policy borrowing across countries. The adoption of educational policies and systems is a complex process that requires planning and access to resources to make systems functional. Educational systems are not cast on stone. They are a consequence of contestations and trade-offs between various role-players. South Africa is a typical example regarding the genesis of educational transformation.
For South Africa, 1994 signifies the end of apartheid legacy and beginning of an arduous struggle to attain educational transformation and curriculum reconfiguration. The challenge to attain the envisaged paradigm shift in policy and praxis is littered with a plethora of policy documentations for instance, the National Education Policy Investigation (NEPI) (1990); ANC Policy Framework (1994); the White Paper on Education and Training (WPET) (1995) and the NQF Curriculum Framework (1995). The cumulative impact of these policy documents reflects South Africa’s commitment to an integrated approach to education and training. Commenting on the impact of the WPET, Christie (1997:111) argues:
In responding to the need for change, the WPET brings together a set of proposals to restructure the relationship between education and training, to introduce greater flexibility of structures, to enhance mobility between learning contexts, and to build quality on ‘the scaffolding’ of a National Qualification Framework. Together, these proposals aim at a policy of ‘life-long learning’, which would widen access to education and training as well as link it to human resource development policies.
The cumulative wisdom alluded to above is succinctly elaborated by Nkomo (1998:137)
Education is a process by which we seek to achieve the maximum enlightenment possible. This is accompanied by emancipating the individual (through the promotion of the realisation that there exists within one the capacity to transform one’s circumstances) and by extension society, from ignorance, prejudice of all forms, parochialism, poverty and so forth.
The resonance of Nkomo’s thesis consolidates explicitly the cumulative rigour that curriculum and assessment synergy bears on educational systems and practices. It is essential therefore, to create conditions that would enhance alignment of educational systems.
The dictum ‘Keep your eyes on the shifting curriculum discourse’ seems to be an appropriate summation of the thesis of this paper. By being at the cutting edge of both the curriculum and assessment discourse, institutions of learning will be better equipped to interrogate the current educational policies and practices. It would further enhance the possibilities for institutions of learning to maximise their efforts in ensuring a better alignment between curriculum policy and assessment practices.
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Lebusa A. Monyooe
Tel: +27 12- 481 4230 Fax: +27 12 481 4005
Lebusa A. Monyooe is Manager for Economic Growth & International Competitiveness Focus Area Programme at the National Research Foundation. He was previously employed as Researcher Specialist in the Assessment Technology and Education Evaluation Directorate at the Human Sciences Research Council.
His research interests are curriculum design and development, policy development and management and assessment and evaluation.