Overcoming barriers to effective curriculum change: A case study in dissemination practice

Clare McBeath
Curtin University of Technology

This paper describes research into the curriculum dissemination process in TAFE in WA. It defines the place of curriculum dissemination in the change process and focuses on the problems created for instructors when the process is ignored. The paper describes seven "tactics" used in a dissemination strategy and assesses their effectiveness.

Curriculum change in the research literature

In the mid 1960s, Miles (1964) suggested that it could take 50 years for new practices and new ideas to become widely established in education. Very little was known about the process of change, or how to accelerate it. Typically, curriculum innovation was seen as a smorgasbord of new ideas or new materials, from which teachers could select, and use in the classroom in the way they thought fit. We have moved a long way since then, but many of the early research issues remain problematic in the curriculum change process in the post compulsory sector.

Research into the issues of curriculum dissemination and implementation, and factors determining their success, found a focus with the work of Fullan and Pomfret (1977), who studied 16 case studies of attempted innovation in American schools and found that all of them had resulted in some degree of failure. For nearly two decades, researchers have continued to examine the phenomenon of educational change, discuss its characteristics and determinants, list the skills of the 'change agent' and suggest ways in which the process might be improved (Fullan, 1982, 1991, 1993; Miles & Huberman, 1982, 1984; Miles, 1993; Miles, Saxl & Lieberman, 1988; Olson, 1980; Rudduck, 1980, 1991; Sarason 1990; Snyder, et al. 1992; etc).

All of this research has a common theme, and that is that curriculum change is a complex and difficult process and requires careful planning, adequate time, funding and support and opportunities for teacher involvement. Much of the literature recognises the variability and liquidity of individual situations, and the difficulty of determining a single model to suit all. The complexity of the change process means that, as research seeks key concepts, it must also recognise the dynamics of each innovation as being uniquely different.

Smooth and successful curriculum change is enormously difficult and time consuming and cannot be accomplished without potential implementers becoming personally involved and accepting the change on their own terms and according to their own constructs of reality. While many systems currently mandate change from above, and will continue to do so, there is a need to find compromises which enable users to find their own meaning and ownership of new ideas. According to several writers, teacher ownership can exist side by side with central initiative and direction, and ownership can be achieved jointly by both teachers and central administration (Fullan 1991; Marsh & Huberman, 1984; Rudduck, 1991).

United Kingdom researchers (Kelly, 1982; MacDonald & Rudduck, 1971; MacDonald & Walker 1976; Rudduck, 1991; Stenhouse, 1975) long have stressed the importance of a strong teacher participation role in curriculum change and the need for involvement of teachers in the development and decision making process. However, ownership is fragile, very difficult to define or measure, and has many levels. The human face of collaborative teams working creatively on defining and filling their own needs can be whimsical and fraught with conflict and emotion. On the other hand, collaborative development often needs to be steered and coached, and sometimes top-down decisions need to be made on theoretical issues which are outside teachers' knowledge and experience. Also, teachers might need to be encouraged, or coached, to cooperate in change.

Curriculum change and the training reform agenda

It is hardly surprising, therefore, with the current industry driven Training Reform Agenda, occurring with ANTA directives and the Federal and State Government push towards institutional accountability, entrepreneurialism and corporatism, that the Technical and Further Education system (TAFE) throughout Australia is undergoing severe trauma. The amount of change required of TAFE lecturers in the current reform movement is without precedent, and the pain is being felt at the very heart of the TAFE system, in the classrooms and workshops, where lecturers and trainers are grappling simultaneously with structural and pedagogical reform and with the uncertainties of changing workplace conditions and management systems. The research literature on educational change during the past two decades has much to offer those involved in mandating change, but a closer examination of the process during the last few years suggests that this knowledge has not been utilised and the mistakes of the past are being repeated.

There is a belief among the bureaucrats of the Standards and Curriculum Council, State accreditation Boards and TAFE management that curriculum change merely needs to be mandated and it will happen. It is assumed that lecturers will understand the need for, and the intention of, the proposed changes and accept them uncritically and without difficulty. There appears to exist a widespread but mistaken belief that the National Modules, or the State accredited versions of them, are all that are needed for lecturers to begin teaching new subjects and courses, and teaching efficiently according to the intentions of the reformers (see Figure 1).

Background of the dissemination research project

This paper presents a case study of a curriculum change project in the TAFE sector in Western Australia. The research took place over a number of years, culminating in the application and analysis of a planned dissemination strategy within a new Horticulture Certificate course in the Department of Training in 1994.

Curriculum dissemination was defined, for the purpose of this study, as the process of informing teachers about new or revised curriculum ideas, documents or materials, so that they understand and accept the innovation. The definition used in this study does not come from the literature, but has been extrapolated from existing research and from the needs and requirements of the local TAFE scene. It was tailored to fit both top-down, prescriptive, political and technological frameworks, and bottom-up, humanistic and user-centred situations. It accommodated mandated reform alongside cultural and personal meaning and individual interpretation of lecturer and student needs. Dissemination in this sense can be planned, but not predetermined, and it should exist as a central characteristic of the change process.

Figure 1 Bureaucratic perspective on curriculum change

Figure 1

The early part of the research included semi-structured interviews conducted to discover what TAFE lecturers and administrators, involved in four curriculum innovations, understood by the curriculum dissemination process, and what they thought were its strengths and weaknesses.

The analysis of the interviews identified a number of negative and positive factors influencing the success of dissemination and implementation of curriculum innovation. Most of the lecturers and senior officers interviewed were unaware of the theories of curriculum change and their responses came directly from their personal experiences.

The interviews pointed to some successful communication and support strategies in place but, overall, the data indicated that not enough attention had been given to techniques needed for successful dissemination, and in particular to information giving, support, involvement of the lecturers, feedback and conflict resolution. Participants in three of the four projects expressed a high level of discontent and in some cases the criticism was extreme. The study indicated that little planning had gone into convincing the users that the curriculum materials were valid, or that lecturers had a right to a share of their ownership.

The findings from the semi-structured interviews provided data on which to formulate questions used in the next part of the study, a questionnaire survey of lecturers involved in innovation. The survey questionnaire was administered to a sample of TAFE lecturers involved in recent curriculum innovation. The survey questions allowed for the collection of data which were more focused on the specific factors of dissemination. It elicited a list of 23 factors considered essential or important to lecturers involved in innovation (see Table 1).

Table 1 Factors needed for curriculum innovation

Information on educational changes planned for course
Information on a major curriculum innovation about to begin in study area
Information on changes in content planned for the new course
Information on when the new course is planned to begin
Time off teaching given to develop teaching materials for the team
Staff development meetings with senior staff to give feedback
Staff development meetings to share and discuss data
Information on design decisions (shape and structure of the course)
Staff development meetings devoted to any new skills development
Opportunities to see and discuss other people's teaching materials

Some staff development meetings to include the members of the development team
Information on any revisions being planned in their subject
Participation in decision making about learning outcomes of the course
Staff development meeting with the curriculum team to give feedback
Information on who the Project leader is
Information on plans for new equipment and materials
The minutes of staff development meetings be made available to all implementers
Participation in feedback by collecting feedback from students
Participation in discussion of completed syllabus documents and giving input
Information on the curriculum team's plans for developing resources and teaching materials
Information (in writing) of all major decisions throughout development
Feedback on their own experiences and opinions about teaching the course
Staff development meetings be devoted to any new content (knowledge)

A number of open-ended questions included in the survey questionnaire evoked further valuable data, again confirming that there were serious problems in communication, support and lecturer involvement in the change process. The overall conclusion from this part of the study was that the majority of lecturers believed that the change had been necessary and that they were happy to be part of it, but that they had been given very little support and that the experience had been unnecessarily stressful. The survey also confirmed the hypothesis that no formal attention had been given to the dissemination process and that, where successful strategies had occurred, they were the result of the hard work and leadership skills of senior lecturers, or Study Area Leaders, working in collaborative development teams with their staff.

The survey questionnaire had been structured to 'educate' the respondents on dissemination issues, by way of the preferred situation questions, before eliciting their judgements on how successful they actually had been. The quantitative data elicited from the preferred and actual questions enabled the researcher to measure the degree of difference between the preferred and actual factors and to identify those which needed greater attention in the change process. It also enabled the researcher to sort out those which were essential or important from those considered to be merely useful, of limited use or not necessary in the dissemination process.

The factors which needed greater attention and those which the users considered essential or important for effective curriculum dissemination were put together with the constraints identified by Curriculum Services staff and the findings from the research literature, to devise a strategy, or a series of tactics, for curriculum dissemination. The strategy was put into effect in the field with a real TAFE project as the third and final stage of the research, and is described briefly below.

Methodology of the dissemination strategy

Figure 2 represents the trauma identified by the earlier research. This was the area targeted by the dissemination strategy. The strategy and tactics chosen were to serve four purposes. First, the strategy itself was to be analysed to ascertain its suitability as part of a centralised dissemination model, or a method which management could use to improve the process for future practice.

Figure 2 Trauma in TAFE dissemination process

Figure 2

Second, the strategy was to extend current practice from just being one of administrative or management concern, to one involving the users in the study of their own practice, overcoming the feelings of alienation and lack of support identified in the survey. Third, the strategy was to fulfil the lecturers' identified need for information, involvement and support in curriculum innovation, which had been identified from the pilot study and the questionnaire survey. Finally, teaching materials and resources were to be produced in a way which involved the lecturers, generating a sense of ownership, and avoiding the resentment and frustration testified to by the survey respondents.

One of the anticipated problems was the antipathy, or even hostility, expected from lecturers without a strong tradition or respect for reflection or teacher research. The tasks which they were asked to perform had to be kept brief and easily understood. The techniques used had to trigger the desired awareness level which would lead the lecturers to feel that they were participating in their own project on their own terms. The tasks had to be unthreatening. They had to include not only elements of staff development and skills upgrading, but also encourage lecturers to cope with the personal ambiguities of change, so that they would give their considered input into improving the innovation from the practitioners' point of view. Also, it was desirable that the tactics include more opportunities for talking than writing. They needed to include a rhetoric which lecturers would learn to apply to their reflection and reshape their thinking. As Popkewitz et al. (1982) observed, "all reform programmes feature rituals, ceremonies and particular language styles which create a feeling ... that things are getting better" (p.169). Finally, written records of staff development activities needed to be made and distributed to all staff involved in the innovation. This would allow those who could not be present at meetings the opportunity to keep themselves fully informed, as well as supplying a record and reference for those who were present.

Aims of the dissemination strategy

The dissemination strategy had three aims:

The Horticulture Study Area chosen for the study was small (50 lecturers) and widely scattered throughout the State. The researcher was to work with the Study Area Leader and the curriculum officer, providing knowledge of the theory of curriculum change and support for the dissemination plan. At curriculum development meetings, the researcher was to act as coach and adviser, interpreting the curriculum mandate and the expectations of the Department of Training, the Australian National Training Agenda and the ITCs, on one hand, and assisting lecturers to understand and accept the changes, on the other. The researcher was to be the 'coach', (Stenhouse, 1976) 'change agent' (Miles, Saxl & Lieberman, 1988) and mediator between management and the lecturers.

The tactics used in the dissemination strategy

Six tactics were planned initially to meet the aims of the dissemination strategy:

  1. Distribution of curriculum materials
    It was considered important to distribute the syllabus documents and other related materials directly to individuals who would be involved in teaching the new course, rather than expecting that these materials would reach them automatically through the system.

    The newly accredited syllabuses were distributed to those identified as most likely to be teaching the new course. These comprised 64% of the Study Area. The Assessment Package materials, developed at one of the meetings, were sent to the same people. A general Lecturers' Guide about the new course was sent to senior staff and those who were already teaching in the pilot program.

  2. Meetings
    These were conceived as a series of broad-based staff development meetings, which all lecturers involved in the new course would attend to familiarise themselves with the requirements of the innovation, define their own roles within it and jointly develop teaching materials. Travel and staff release time were to be funded.

    Four meetings eventuated, two project meetings and two Study Area workshops. 48% of the Study Area attended at least one of these meetings, and established an acceptable level of two way communication on the project. The two project meetings were poorly attended and did not establish a core of materials developers as had been planned.

  3. Newsletters
    This was seen as a way of keeping a record of discussions and consolidating decisions made at the meetings and of spreading information and ownership to anyone who could not attend. The Newsletters were envisaged also as a method of informing those who were not involved in the new course about what was going on in the project.

    There were eventually six Newsletters, designed for maximum impact and printed on coloured paper. They were distributed to 100% of the Study Area, and feedback suggested that they proved to be a surprisingly successful method of one way communication.

  4. The network
    The concept of shared responsibility and ownership were to be encouraged and developed by setting up a network of those involved in preparing for the new course. The network was envisaged as an extension to the face-to-face contact established at the meetings and a method of keeping lecturers in distant colleges in touch with the rest of the innovators. The vision of the 'network' consisted of all the innovating lecturers becoming excited about the new ideas, picking up the telephone and talking openly and generously with each other, exchanging and sharing ideas and reaching mutually acceptable decisions for implementing change. It was meant to achieve ongoing information giving and support.

    The effect of the Network concept was hard to gauge, and was probably only gathering momentum when the research came to an end. The Study Area Leader reported that a later meeting had discussed the strength of the network as an ongoing strategy and as a way of improving and consolidating what senior staff already believed was a well-established networking system through their regular study area meetings. The meeting expressed a desire that the network continue under the new autonomous college system, but that it be extended to reach out to 'grass roots level', that is, to all the lecturers in the study area.

  5. Questionnaires
    Two questionnaires were distributed to all potential users of the new course. The first was to explore lecturers' views about curriculum change, to raise their awareness of potential problems in implementing the new course and to assess their readiness to cope with these issues. The second questionnaire was meant to explore the depth and level of involvement of the lecturers in the change process. The questionnaires were seen also as a further method of two-way communication between the researcher and the lecturers.

    The response rate from the questionnaires was close to 50%. Approximately 25% of the respondents to both questionnaires were senior staff, and the strategy did not appear to have the desired affect of involving teaching staff as deeply as might have been desired. An unexpected problem was that the majority of respondents did not know whether they would be teaching the new course or not and found it difficult to feel any sense of ownership. The questionnaires, however, did produce some valuable data, and also served to establish two way communication between the researcher and about 30% of the Study Area.

  6. Materials development
    The most important deficiency in the curriculum change process which had been identified by the questionnaire survey was that lecturers had to develop teaching materials in isolation as they began teaching new courses. This tactic was to ensure joint development of well planned teaching materials, with every lecturer taking a share of the responsibility. Fair quality materials were to be produced before they began the new course and a mechanism put in place for monitoring and reviewing them for further development in future.

    The reality proved far from the ideal. The possibility of collaborative development was obviated almost from the beginning when so few people attended the project meetings. Lecturers who did not have time to attend meetings were not likely to have time for materials development. Eventually, the pilot lecturers made their teaching materials available for distribution throughout the Study Area. The funds which had not been used for travel and release time were distributed equally among the developers. It came to $200 each.

A seventh tactic eventually developed as part of the dissemination strategy and that was face-to-face contact with rural lecturers. The need for this as a separate tactic arose partly because of poor attendance at the meetings, and partly in response to a strong need expressed in the questionnaires for face to face contact and discussion. The need was identified relatively late in the project and lay largely outside the scope of the research. The Study Area Leader made two trips, visiting colleges north and south of Perth. He reiterated the "dissemination model" to the lecturers and encouraged them to take responsibility for their own 'networking'. Later the researcher accompanied the Study Area Leader to a workshop on the new course, attended by staff from four southern colleges and TAFE centres.

Evaluation of the dissemination strategy

The application of the strategy can be regarded as successful, if not complete. It provided information and support, although involvement did not occur to the extent that it was hoped. All the factors listed earlier were dealt with in some way, but not necessarily forcefully enough to have made a lasting impression on the implementers.

Face-to-face interaction occurred with almost 50% of the lecturers and ownership was established. The follow-up visits to rural centres increased this percentage. Sufficient funding was obtained to make basic materials development possible. A realistic time line was followed and information, support systems and teaching materials were in place well before implementation was due to begin. Leadership was provided and the vision of successful change promulgated. There was some evidence of raised staff morale, although there was not enough feedback to know if it was widespread. The majority of the horticultural staff were ready for the new course, and all were given ample opportunity to be ready if they had so chosen.

Tactics were used to encourage lecturer participation and ownership and to break down feelings of alienation and resistance. There wasn't much opportunity for lecturers formally to study their own practice and it is doubtful whether they would have had the time to give to formal reflection even if the strategy had been able to enforce it. However, reflection was encouraged in all the strategies used, and feedback indicated that much informal discussion and introspection on the meaning of change was occurring throughout the Study Area.

The level of involvement and participation of the lecturers and the 'reach' of the strategy is graphically represented in Figure 3.

Figure 3 Involvement of lecturers in preparing for innovation

Figure 3


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Please cite as: McBeath, C. (1995). Overcoming barriers to effective curriculum change: A case study in dissemination practice. In Post-compulsory education and training, (Vol 2). Brisbane, Centre for Skill Formation Research and Development, Griffith University. http://www.clare-mcbeath.id.au/pubs/bris95.html

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