Curriculum dissemination:
A problematic issue in educational change

Clare McBeath
Curtin University of Technology

This article looks at 25 years of curriculum change theory and relates it to the changes occurring in the Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector under the national Training Reform Agenda. In particular, it defines the meaning and role of dissemination as a central but difficult strategy of the change process. The concepts of educational management (top-down) and teacher collaboration (bottom-up) in curriculum development are examined critically in relation to dissemination and diffusion and to the role of teacher meaning in the change process.

The training reform agenda and curriculum change theory

Current curriculum innovation in vocational education and training (VET) typically is technological, top-down, authority based and prescriptive. Within the training reform agenda, curriculum change is equated with 'reform', to use MacDonald's (1991) term, or 'mandate', to use Loucks and Lieberman's (1983). The content and the idea of curriculum change is often accepted readily by VET instructors in principle, coming as it does from industry-informed State or Federal Government directives and industry-based skills formation panels, but research has shown that "smooth and successful curriculum change is enormously difficult and time consuming" and that the current management-driven curriculum reform model is stressful, disruptive and inefficient. (McBeath, 1995).

The Technical and Further Education (TAFE) sector is the primary provider of VET in Australia and there is a growing belief that the move to competency and performance standards based curricula has created more problems than it is likely to solve. Curriculum problems identified by TAFE teachers include confusion between the meanings of 'curriculum' and 'syllabus outline' and the unfilled gap that exists between them; sudden and unsupported change occurring in the structure and level of courses; piecemeal and poor quality production of curriculum materials; uncertainty of what is required of teachers and the difficulties they face in long term planning; lack of informed leadership in the process of change; lack of a two way flow of information; and widespread uncertainty, cynicism and low morale (McBeath, 1993; 1995; 1997).

The TAFE sector sets its objectives as a provider of recruits for industry, and prescriptive curriculum reform fits with its self concept of 'entrepreneurialism' as it strives to please business and industry and reflect business and industry attitudes. It is a top-down, technological view which encourages a prescriptive and checklist-based response to curriculum change. Such a view of mandated educational change was described by Loucks and Lieberman over a decade ago as an overly simplistic one, based on a belief that administrators can "... decree it today, it will be implemented tomorrow with short intensive training, and we can hold people accountable for its outcomes at the end of the school year." They go on to state that "... the actual implementation of these ideas is far more time-consuming, costly, and energy depleting than policy makers usually anticipate" (Loucks & Lieberman, 1983, p.138). Loucks and Lieberman could have been describing dissemination of the training reform agenda into TAFE colleges when they described the technological process common in educational institutions in the USA at that time.

When educational improvement is viewed from this perspective, only the idea is critical, not the process. The curriculum change literature of the past 25 years has much to say about the process, the politics and the people. This vast body of knowledge, however, has been ignored by the instigators of VET curriculum reform and many of the most important issues are unrecognised in the various published guidelines and review statements.

The issues involved in changing educational institutions have been well researched and documented and have produced many insights which could have made the current VET curriculum process more successful and less stressful. The lessons from research, however have been disregarded in the VET reform movement, largely because of a single minded focus on a managerial, top-down approach. This paper discusses some of these issues and singles out dissemination specifically, for detailed examination as a central change strategy which has been neglected, or at best, misunderstood, in the VET change process. It explores the proposition that successful dissemination can only occur when instructors themselves are involved in and committed to the change process.

Dissemination as a central concept of curriculum change

In the 1960s and 1970s the terms dissemination and diffusion were used virtually interchangeably, and referred to the spread of new knowledge or new techniques to those who were to use them. The words and the concept came originally from the study of innovation in the fields of agriculture and medicine (Rudduck & Kelly, 1976, p.11). Diffusion, probably the more commonly understood word in the 1960s, was seen as "the spontaneous, unplanned spread of new ideas" (Rogers, l983), and it typically involved a two-way communication of information, effected by an exchange of ideas between individuals (Marsh, 1986, p.104). Dissemination soon came to mean planned information giving, and generally was interpreted as a top-down phenomenon. Kelly (1982) drew on House's (1974) social interaction theory to make the distinction clearer. Kelly stated that, with 'rural' or 'household' innovations, ideas are communicated by a kind of contagious diffusion brought about by personal contact between individuals. This is the way in which teachers interact when implementing educational innovation. This is diffusion. With 'urban' society, on the other hand, barriers created by social status are the most significant because they inhibit social interaction. This is 'entrepreneurial' innovation, which Kelly associated with top-down administration. This, he wrote, is dissemination, and carries with it all the problems of entrepreneurial social interaction (p.135).

Interest in dissemination sharpened in the 1970s, when it became evident that, in spite of massive investment of time, money and ideas poured into innovative curriculum development, very little significant change had occurred in educational institutions (Dynan, 1983; Fullan, 1972; Marsh, 1986). Although researchers by that time knew something of the nature of dissemination and diffusion, the process in the world of practical curriculum development had been ad hoc and limited in scope and duration, unsystematic or, at times, completely nonexistent (Dynan, 1983, p.62). The response was that, during the following decade, dissemination began to be seen as a specific marketing technique, with a narrow focus on tactics and strategies. The word dissemination was increasingly identified with this process, while diffusion became associated with the concept of a user-centred, un-managed process of information sharing.

As the management perspective on curriculum change practice strengthened, some writers on curriculum dissemination have attempted to define algorithms and checklists to steer the process. Researchers have defined 'factors' (Huberman & Miles, 1984) 'characteristics' (Miles, Saxl & Lieberman, l988; Loucks & Lieberman, 1983) 'determinants' (Fullan & Pomfret, 1977; Fullan, 1982; Fullan, 1992), 'interventions' (Print, 1993) and 'do's and dont's' (Fullan, 1991) for the successful planning and management of change. The management approach is indeed well researched, and includes many interactive and consultative features which have been overlooked in the current change movement in TAFE.

However, there are a number of writers who continued to stress the importance of diffusion in the change process. Rudduck (1980) warned that, by substituting a planned management perspective for that of user participation and ownership, we lost access to a theoretical framework which might have helped us to make better sense of the process of curriculum change. We lost something of the cultural perspective, the concept of transfer of meaning of the product to the user, by which the user could better understand and accept it. This aspect of the meaning of change for the teacher remains central to bringing about real educational change, and involves teacher collaboration and ownership, 'change agents' working intensively with teachers at their level of understanding and, above all, teachers accepting and believing that the specified change is good for them and for their students.

Thus, in defining dissemination, we need to retain the meanings of both a management-marketing perspective and a user-ownership perspective. In view of the current difficulties experienced by TAFE instructors in implementing change, we need to strive for a meaning which retains the culture of professional instructors at work in the classroom/workshop, as well as the leadership and management skills of the instigators to optimise the process. Elsewhere the writer has called on these two contradictory perspectives to define dissemination as the process of informing instructors about new or revised curriculum ideas, documents or materials, so that they understand and accept the innovation. (McBeath, 1993; 1995; 1997). It implies a two way interactive communication process, rarely experienced in the entrepreneurial mood of current VET reform.

The curriculum change management perspective

Throughout the literature on educational change runs a common theme of despondency about how difficult the process is. It would be arrogant of managers of curriculum change to expect otherwise. "It is easier to get a man on the moon" Cuban stated in 1992. "Changing schools is like moving a graveyard", wrote Rickover (1983). Kelly (1982) discussed the "traditional, technological, administrative, economic, ideological and social pressures", which complicate and confuse planning for curriculum development. "Findings from research in implementation are inconclusive and contradictory", wrote Loucks and Lieberman (1983), and "it is not yet known what should be done to successfully implement new curricula in different settings, under different conditions" (p.126). Curriculum change, wrote Paris (1989), "occurs in situations in which a certain amount of consonance and conflict will inevitably occur". Fullan (1991) described the process as "complex and dilemma ridden" (p.90). Snyder et al. (1992) drew on the previous 20 years of research to refute all assumptions that "the move from the drawing board to the ... classroom was unproblematic, that the innovation would be implemented or used more or less as planned, and that the actual use would eventually correspond to planned or intended use" (p.403). Few of the writers on curriculum change were totally pessimistic, however, and they variously urged planners and reformers to study the experiences of the past as a way to achieve improvement in the future.

The change process often is seen in three broad stages. The first, variously labelled initiation, mobilisation or adoption, consists of all the decisions and activities which occur before the change is put into place in the classroom. Implementation or initial use, the second stage, involves putting the curriculum idea or change into actual use in the classroom. The third stage, which different writers call continuation, incorporation, routinisation, or institutionalisation, refers to those processes and decisions which lead to the change either being 'built in' as an ongoing part of the learning environment, or rejected (Berman & McLaughlin, 1978; Fullan, 1991; Huberman & Miles, 1984).

Marsh (1992) contended that recognition should be given to a distinct preliminary stage, which he called the orientation and needs phase, and Fullan (1991) stressed that change should include a later stage, which he called the outcomes stage, to cover a longer term extension or continuation, including improved student learning and attitudes, new skills, attitudes or satisfaction on the part of teachers (p.48). With the addition of these extra two stages, the change process can be defined more clearly as consisting of five distinct stages. The importance of dissemination within these five defined stages is depicted graphically in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Figure 1 Stages of curriculum change and the importance of dissemination

Fullan (1991) stressed the broadness and inter-connectivity of any nominated stages in the change process. He stressed that it is not a linear process but one where numerous factors operate at each phase, feeding back and altering decisions made at previous stages. He saw educational change as a long term interactive process, in which any stage "may be in the works for years" (pp.48-49).

It is argued here that dissemination is a central change strategy bringing about communication and interaction between planners and implementers and should span most, if not all of these stages. Dissemination, as defined above, is seen as important in the needs or orientation stage, essential during initiation and implementation, and continuing as course monitoring and utilisation of feedback as the innovation becomes part of routine practice (Figure 1).

In 1977, Fullan and Pomfret devised a list of determinants affecting the level of success of implementation, which they had extracted from their analysis of 16 case studies in the USA. Although they did not discuss these in terms of dissemination, the word determinant implies a causal relationship between planned strategies and subsequent successful implementation. A researcher can only analyse dissemination in light of what happens, or doesn't happen, during implementation. In this sense, Fullan and Pomfret's 'determinants of implementation' can be interpreted as characteristics to be considered in the dissemination process. They organised the factors into four broad categories. Fullan continued to fine-tune these factors as further data were collected over the ensuing years, expanding and developing them in 1982, and simplifying and generalising them again in 1991 (see Figure 2).

Most of Fullan's determinants coincide with recognisable factors in the VET curriculum change process. Exceptions include the role of the Principal, who in TAFE colleges is an Administrator, and not necessarily involved in educational leadership. However, the characteristics of educational leadership according to Fullan's determinants, would have to be found in some other role in each college. For the characteristics of 'the Community' we would have to substitute 'local industry'. It is not the intention of this paper to discuss these factors in detail, but to indicate that weakness or lack of readiness in any one of them, in any college, or in any new course, will have repercussions on how effectively the change is being handled and on how teachers are coping with it. We might suspect that research into any one of these broad categories would bring to light frequent examples to indicate that many of these factors have not been considered carefully enough in the management of educational change.

Figure 2

Figure 2 Interactive factors affecting implementation
(Fullan, 1991, p.68)

The strongest influences on the current curriculum reform agenda are the external ones. The most obvious of these are advocacy from central administrators, new policy and funds and external change agents. These emanate from government and other agencies, according to Fullan's categorisation. Curriculum innovations in TAFE might have been initiated by lecturers, Study Area Leaders or local industry in the past, but now the push invariably comes from formal avenues of industry advice, both local and national. Behind these is the Australian National Training Authority and the Federal Government. Recurrent funding for mainstream TAFE training courses comes through the State Government to TAFE, while the Federal Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs offers special funding for labour market and job creation programs. These are the power groups which are the chief sources of pressure for the initiation of new programs in the TAFE system and the strongest influences on the nature and tone of innovation. In the current situation, however, the messages from government and industry often have been contradictory, whimsical and unclear. Further areas of weakness in the determinants of VET change are to be found in the characteristics of innovations (need, clarity, complexity, quality and practicality) and the characteristics of the training institutions, including local needs, quality of leadership (as distinct from managerialism) and the level of professionalism of the implementers. These factors play an important part in the process and, as significant determinants of success, obviously are not considered important by the planners.

Fullan's work influenced other researchers looking for lists of factors in change management, as the search for a successful formula continued. The Crandall et al. (1982) study identified the factors which affected dissemination and implementation of educational reform from a national study of 60 innovations in 165 schools in the USA.

Snyder et al. (1992) claimed that in the 1980s many of the prescriptions for curriculum change were based on the data generated from the Crandall, or DESSI (Dissemination Efforts Supporting School Improvement) study (p.210). They described the factors of the modified Research, Development and Diffusion (RD&D) model of the National Diffusion Network which were used to bring about change following adoption. It was seen that planning for successful innovation had to be in place as part of a well designed dissemination strategy before implementation began, including the mechanism for monitoring the program. Snyder et al. cite Parish and Aguila (1983) to describe four steps used by the National Diffusion Network to bring about change:

  1. the teacher learned the technology of the new program in a short workshop;
  2. teaching materials and other needed products for the program were provided;
  3. help was offered by the principal or external change agents when needed;
  4. administrative personnel or external change agents continually monitored the fidelity with which the program was being implemented (Snyder et al., 1992, p.409).

Snyder et al., referring to a report by Loucks (1983), stated that the characteristics of successful dissemination and implementation strategies included:

Miles, Saxl and Lieberman, in an article published in l988, looked at the skills which a change agent needs. A synthesis of their findings resulted in a list of 18 key skills for educational change agents, including general, personal, socio-emotional, task and educational content skills.

Kennedy (1985) and Kennedy, Williamson and Patterson (1986), in their study of two TAFE curriculum projects in Western Australia, reiterated Fullan's determinants, but particularly stressed the importance of the following three factors:

It is not difficult to observe that most of these factors defined in the literature have been missing from the training reform agenda. Due attention given to any of the techniques of inservice development, the use of credible change agents, the development of teaching resources, user ownership and properly developed feedback mechanisms, would have helped alleviate some of the distress suffered by TAFE instructors during the past three or four years of change.

However, even good lists of characteristics and models assume a rational sequence of events which possibly never occurs in real life. As an exercise in defining factors, it is representative of the technological perspective, and is reminiscent of the period of model building in the late 1960s. House (1979, p.3) criticised the RD&D (Research, Development and Diffusion) model, as an example of this perspective, as one requiring "massive planning, a division of labor, high development costs, and a passive consumer". He believed that these characteristics would rarely be present in most educational innovation. Fullan (1991) wrote that "no technical checklist ... can come close to matching the power of knowing the dynamics of social change. Dealing effectively with the implementation of educational change involved more than anything else a way of thinking a feel for the change process" (p.198).

More convincing, perhaps, is an approach to the change process involving the examination of the issues and problems found in dynamic, interactive, user-ownership situations. This approach gives a better sense of the reality of the culture and the meaning of change to those involved in it. It more clearly reflects the human face of coping with change.

Dissemination as teacher meaning

Significant interest in the role of the user as a collaborator and partner in curriculum change came mainly from the UK. Kelly (1982) referred to the Schools Council Curriculum Projects in the UK to distinguish between the centre-periphery approach of central development and planned dissemination and those which encourage initiatives from the user (p.133). The former was the model used in the early 1970s projects, but its inadequacies soon became apparent:

There is a wide gap between the ideas of a project held by its central planners and the realities of its implementation. ... It has proved impossible to get across to teachers the concept of the project, the theoretical considerations underlying it, in such a way as to ensure that these were reflected in its practice. And so a gap emerges between the ideals and the realities, a gap that in some cases is so wide as to negate the project entirely, at least in terms of the conception of it by its planners (p.133).

Later efforts to plan dissemination strategies carefully in advance as part of the Humanities Curriculum Project (Rudduck, 1973) brought to light further problems regarding teacher understanding and acceptance. In stressing that teachers needed to be won over to cooperate in the change effort, Kelly (1982) wrote that it is:

Kelly wrote that teachers and planners must be brought closer together in the dissemination process. He used MacDonald and Walker's (1976) term 'curriculum negotiation' to describe the process of teachers working with planners to interpret and elaborate curriculum ideas into educational terms.

Marsh and Huberman (1984) developed this concept. Using Rogers and Shoemaker's (1971) authority-driven innovation model, they reiterated that the five functions of dissemination defined by Rogers and Shoemaker were divided between superordinate and subordinate groups. Knowledge, persuasion and decision, they argued, are the functions of the dissemination administrators, while communication and action are the concern of the implementers. They contended that as many top-down authority driven projects have been successful as have teacher driven bottom-up approaches. Top-down projects, indeed, continue to be the norm. Drawing on data from the DESSI study (Dissemination Efforts Supporting School Improvement) (Crandall et al., 1983) and a 12-site field study by Huberman and Miles (1982), Marsh and Huberman (1984, pp.62-63) point out that in 'inside-in' and 'home-grown' projects the main decision makers were district level administrators (pp.62-63). They refined the data further to conclude that "we can have bottom-up levels within top-down administrations, or top-down levels within bottom-up administrations" (p.63).

"Curriculum dissemination is a complex and elusive term", wrote Marsh and Huberman (1984, p.53). They drew on the work of Haenn (1980), Rudduck (1980), and Rudduck and Kelly (1976) to propose an overview:

It can be restricted to mean the production and marketing of instructional materials or can be broadened to encompass the resource base (data, products and technical expertise), the linkage mechanisms binding client groups to resource bases, and the delivery arrangements, including administrative leadership and management, whereby such inputs feed into classroom use. Other analysts are more process oriented, focusing more on the knowledge-transfer process and the setting characteristics conducive to widespread use (pp.53-54).

Marsh and Huberman (1984) declared that they were looking at dissemination as a relatively prescriptive, top-down process, as this is the norm in Australia and the USA (p.60). They stated that, as the centralised and hierarchical model of dissemination can be expected to survive, it is the more important to delineate its core features (p.65). However, they recognised the importance of integrated power links between 'superordinate' and 'subordinate' groups and the need for teachers to find their own meaning.

It is very difficult for those outside educational institutions to improve the quality of provision within them (MacDonald, 1991) and the research emphasis in recent times has tended away from dissemination as a top-down approach to explore more collaborative arrangements. "Twenty five years ago," MacDonald stated, "we thought differently". Twenty five years ago we thought that telling people what to do was enough to bring about educational change:

We thought then that the combination of money and good ideas, invested in external agencies, would quickly and easily transform our schools in line with the post-war transformation of our economy and our social life. It was not to be. There are no easy solutions. ... It is the quality of the teachers themselves and the nature of their commitment to change that determines the quality of teaching and the quality of school improvement. Teachers are, on the whole, poor implementers of other people's ideas. ... Their understanding, their sense of responsibility, their commitment to the effective delivery of educational experience for their pupils, is significantly enhanced when they own the ideas and author the means by which ideas are translated into classroom practice (p.3).

Marris (1975) stressed that no-one can resolve a problem on behalf of another. He reiterated that,

when those who have power to manipulate changes act as if they have only to explain, and when their explanations are not at once accepted, [they] shrug off opposition as ignorance or prejudice, [then] they express a profound contempt for the meaning of lives other than their own (p.166).

Here then is the dilemma. Dissemination as a top-down, management tool or leadership strategy is alive and well, entrenched in the TAFE system in Australia, and strengthened by the new corporate functionalism of the current reform movement. Concurrently, instructors are resistant and unhappy, struggling with the meaning of change to themselves and their students and the implications it has on their lives.

A number of the writers on the issue of dissemination concluded on a similar note of duality. Some wrote specifically of the importance of a process that consciously brings initiator and teachers together in joint development. The general conclusion was that any model of effective dissemination must recognise the potential for a two-way process of initiation, decision making and support from administrators, on one hand, and awareness raising, joint ownership, collaboration and involvement from the users, on the other.

Dissemination literature refers to the central responsibility of the 'change agent' for presenting the innovation to the users in a way that assists them to understand and accept it, and that makes it easier to implement it in a way that gives it meaning for themselves and their pupils. In the TAFE sector, whether curriculum change is initiated at State or national level, some method must be used to let the lecturers in the colleges discover first, what is required of them and second, how they can share in the interpretation and development of the innovation and translate it into programming and classroom practice. Thus, the strategy also needs to include a place for diffusion, or unmanaged, spontaneous information sharing, before it can be successful.

The theories of change, and the nature of dissemination in particular, are far from fully developed. The amount written in the field testifies to its importance, and many significant factors have been defined. There exists a body of conventional wisdom (Fullan & Miles, 1992), but much of it consists of contradictory evidence, stereotypes, maxims and some propositions which are just wrong (Miles, 1993, pp.214-215). There is not a consistent definition or application of the curriculum dissemination process. American scholars approach it more in terms of management and educational leadership. Those in the United Kingdom tend to approach it as teacher meaning and action research, which also includes a strong student perspective.

It appears that a definition of dissemination requires both management and teacher perspectives. It needs to include the meanings of both dissemination and diffusion. It needs to fit comfortably into top-down, prescriptive, political and technological frameworks, and bottom-up, humanistic and user-centred environments. It needs to accommodate mandated reform and spontaneous and creative ideas, as well as finding a place for personal reflective interpretation of directives. It needs to concern industry, management, instructors and students. Dissemination should not have to fit into predetermined stages of curriculum change, but should exist as a central part of the change process, subsuming and being subsumed in all parts of the process.

Dissemination as the "process of informing instructors about new or revised curriculum ideas, so that they understand and accept the innovation" implies that they are informed (by management), that they understand it in their own terms (teacher meaning) and that they accept it as worthwhile to pass onto their students (students' needs). The definition also recognises that the question of how this is done, how new ideas and practices spread from their point of origin and gain widespread adoption, is central to all successful educational change.


The lessons for the VET reform agenda might appear obvious. There can be little doubt about the distress being created at all levels in our TAFE colleges, and especially to the instructors who are expected to implement the changes and make professional sense of the messages they are receiving.

Much has been written about the difficulties of curriculum change and nobody has claimed that it ever will become easy. As Sarason (1995) recently wrote, executive decisions to restructure educational institutions are usually no more than "a form of game playing, a charade, a rearrangement that gives the appearance that the nature of work will change." The reality is, he wrote, that top-down mandated change usually makes things worse. The question may well be asked if this current burst of curriculum reform is no more than a charade, or a set of paper exercises, whereby the players are doing no more than moving backwards and forwards to satisfy a faceless bureaucracy. Whatever real change might have occurred in a few years' time, will certainly not have been achieved with much credence or joy on the part of TAFE teachers.

If real change is to occur, more detailed knowledge is needed about what is going on within the colleges. More research is needed in the area of the curriculum change process and more experimental projects put into place to test alternative change strategies.

Using the concepts of coordinated top-down leadership and bottom-up user participation, it should be possible to provide lecturers with information, involvement and support to assist them to understand and accept innovation on their own terms. It should be possible to start removing as many of the known constraints as possible and to work as comfortably as possible within those which can not be removed. It should be possible to set up tactics to encourage teacher participation and ownership, to involve them in the study of their own practice, and to break down feelings of alienation and resistance. Concentration on these important elements as part of the training reform agenda would acknowledge the findings of curriculum change theory and research, and indicate that we are at last listening to the lessons of the last quarter century.


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Reference for this article: McBeath, C. (1997). Curriculum dissemination: A problematic issue in educational change. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Vocational Education Research, 5(2), 37-55.

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