Home > Community engagement > Engaging families and communities in curriculum debates

Engaging families and communities in curriculum debates

April 6th, 2009

In the last few years, in New Zealand and overseas, there has been a lot of discussion about how—if at all—public services (like education and health) should be provided in the 21st century. The 20th century model is, for a variety of theoretical and practical reasons, under pressure, and looking increasingly creaky. Ideas about what we want from our public services are changing, and we have the knowledge and/or technologies to provide better services to more people than was the case in the past. At the same time, however, there is a strong critique of universal, ‘one-size-fits-all’ systems, and concerns about affordability, accountability and so on.  We need new ways of thinking about our public services; a new public ‘settlement’ on how we as a community (everybody, that is) think they should work.

There’s now quite a large literature in this area (for a summary, see Parker & O’Leary, 2006). Drawing on more ‘deliberative’ conceptions of democracy, some analysts are arguing for more ‘joined-up’ forms of government, and for different, more dialogic relationships between the providers of public services and their clients/stakeholders.

In education’s case, this would mean different relationships between the Ministry of Education/schools and students/parents/the wider taxpaying community, in a context in which the basic ‘service’ is the curriculum.

This work is acknowledged in New Zealand’s most recent national curriculum document.  The New Zealand Curriculum sets out some ‘bottom line’ objectives to be achieved by all (arrived at via a wide consultation process), while at the same time allowing individual schools a great deal of freedom to interpret these for local needs. Schools are, however, required to consult with their local communities on how this should be done.  This could mean that schools just call meetings to explain to parents what they are doing and why they doing it (to inform them and get ‘buy-in’ so they will support their son/daughter’s learning in appropriate ways). Or, it could mean that schools ask parents and students what they think, that they collect these views, and take them into account in their planning. While these would be good things to do, it doesn’t seem very likely that either of these approaches will produce the deeper changes that are needed if we are to re-invent our schools for the 21st century.

Something new and different is needed.  What could this look like?  How might it differ from current ‘home-school partnership’ models?  To what extent are current school-home interactions really ‘partnerships’? Can these relationships be ‘partnerships’?  If so, what would the partners need to do—or think—differently to make this work?  And so on…

A group of us at NZCER have been thinking about these questions (and others) for a while now.  We’ve just started working with a small group of schools that are thinking about how they want to approach their ‘community consultation’ process.  We’re interested in hearing from schools and/or anyone else thinking about these issues, and in having a conversation about some of the ideas involved.
• How do these ideas link with—and support—other ideas about 21st century learning (e.g. some of the other ideas explored on this site).
• How might they work against them.
• What are some of the pitfalls of ‘community consultation’ processes?
• What do—or could—partnerships look like in this area?
• What really matters in this kind of situation?
What do you think?

Parker, S. & O’Leary, D. (2006). Re-imagining government: Putting people at the heart of New Zealand’s public sector. (Available at www.demos.co.uk).

Community engagement

  1. Ally
    | #1

    Hi Pat. You raise some really interesting questions about why families and communities should be involved in education. Recently I have interviewed several parents as part of a research project into family and community engagement in education. Most the parents I talked to were clear that they thought schools should be making the decisions about what to teach and how to teach it. They saw the teachers as professionals who should have the responsibility for such decisions. We don’t have to look very far though to see that our schools aren’t serving all our students well. Perhaps it is time for a community wide discussion about what schools are for, and what they should be doing. Having said this though I agree with you that what we need is informed debate. The question for me is how best to engage families and communities with 21st century education ideas so this informed debate can occur. Any suggestions?

  2. Pat Hargreaves
    | #2

    I’m really interested in this aspect of education. I think there are real questions that need to be asked about why we do the things we do in education.

    As an example, The point about the home/school partnership. Do schools simply “explain” to parents rather than involve them in decisions? Most likely in my opinion. Schools have pretty good systems for communicating stuff – newsletters, reports, parent evenings etc. In fact, we probably pride ourselves on these systems. But do they actually achieve a partnership?

    Does anyone here feel they have a partnership with their local council? Despite voting them in and getting regular updates in newspaper columns etc?

    But why would we want partnership anyway? Why consult over curriculum? Is it not best left to the professionals? Surely having no or little involvement or choice is better than uninformed involvment?

    I think it comes down to the idea of reward. Regardless of what we do, it generally involves some form of reward. Sergiovanni, (in something, I’d have to look it out) talks about intrinsic and extrinsic motivators which develops two seperate sets of traits in an individual.
    Extrinsic is straight forward. Do the work or get fired, get a detention and so forth. It has both negative and positive visible rewards. We need nothing other than those for compliance. However, removal of the extrinsic motivators also means removal of any personal need to continue with the behaviours.

    However, and as a reason for why a partnership is important, intrinisc motivators develop as a result of things like kinship, a belonging, a communally expected behaviour. As a result, regardless of external factors, the behaviour is likely to remain constant. This approach may be a key to engaging far more students. It is also unlikely to happen if we have an approach that bases itself more on extrinsic reward/discipline than developing a real partnership between the teacher, the student and the home. It is this covenantal triangle that is critical, in my opinion.

  3. | #3

    Hey Jane, I see we now have a FaCE blog category… but the acronym may be a little obscure for our readers? Maybe you can change the category to something like ¨Community engagement in education¨ or just ¨Community engagement¨? Hasta luego, R.

  4. Ally
    | #4

    I met a young woman today who is in her final year of pre-service teacher education. She was talking to me me very enthusiastically about a project she is involved in that is looking at 21st Century education and how schools might need to be different. She told me that she and some other students are looking at ways they can share what they have learnt about 21st century education with the wider community. This seems a really exciting idea to me. The NZ curriculum has a “future focus” and “community engagement” as two of the principles that are supposed to underpin what happens in school. How do we ensure the wider community has opportunities to engage with future focused ideas about schooling? Perhaps student teachers working with people in the community is one way forward. These students hopefully are having the opportunities to engage with these ideas themselves in their courses and working with the wider community might be a way of adding to their skill base. (Some teachers I have recently interviewed about community involvement in education have said they feel inadequately prepared to work closely with parents and others in the community.) Student teachers talking to others in the community would also be one way of engaging more people in discussions about how education for the 21st century might need to be different. Who else might be able to do this? It seems to me that expecting teachers to do everything is unrealistic.

  5. Josie
    | #5

    I also found the table (yours Jane?) in the theory space of Shifting Thinking useful. It contrasts “representative democracy”, “interest-based democracy”, and “deliberative democracy”. Here’s the URL.


  6. Jane
    | #6

    Hi Rachel.
    Here’s what I think it means – but I’m no political scientist!
    The word ‘deliberative’ refers to discussion, debate, deciding what to do – as in ‘to deliberate’ on something – it doesn’t mean deliberate as in ‘on purpose’.
    Deliberative democracy (as I understand it) means a form of democracy in which citizens are more involved in decision-making (e.g. about how their taxes get spent, how public services are provided etc) than perhaps they are in standard liberal (or ‘representative’) forms of democracy. This model tends to produce top-down, universal, one-size-fits-all systems, managed by bureaucracies, in which the public become passive, dependent ‘clients’ of education/health/social services, under the ‘tutelage’ of professionals who ‘know best’ what is good for them. This (advocates of deliberative forms of democracy argue) does not fit well with today’s diverse, more networked (but less stable) societies.

    Deliberative democracy is basically government by discussion/dialogue/debate between citizens, in ‘little polities’ – of which a school-parent community would be a good example – in a context in which government services are provided in a ‘joined-up’, project-based way, not via separate ‘departments’ that don’t necessarily talk to each other. It involves an emphasis on ‘voice’, dialogue and process – in structured and informed contexts.
    Its requires us to rethink some traditional ideas about what it means to be a citizen, and about the purpose(s) of government. It is of course (like anything else) not without its issues and problems. Some critics (for example) say it goes with cost-cutting, while others say it will just be yet another vehicle for ‘middle-class capture’. However, I think it’s an idea that’s worth exploring further…
    For a more expert discussion, see Gutmann, A. & Thompson, D. (2004). Why deliberative democracy? (Princeton University Press), or for a discussion on the policy implications, see Hajer, M. & Wagenaar, H. (eds.) (2003). Deliberative policy analysis. (Cambridge University Press). Alternatively, the reference cited in the blog post above (Re-imagining government) has some discussion of these ideas.

  7. | #7

    Hi Jane,
    These are some interesting questions! I was wondering whether you can explain in layperson’s terms what you meant by your comment about “drawing on more ‘deliberative’ conceptions of democracy”?

    What does a deliberative democracy look like? How is it different to whatever kind of democracy we’ve got today?

    Is the word “deliberative” meant to imply something about being “deliberate” (i.e. on purpose), or is it some other meaning?

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