This Education Review Office (ERO) report is one of a series of reports on teaching strategies that work. It features strategies and approaches that we observed in 40 primary schools selected from across New Zealand. These schools came from a database of 129 schools, all with rolls of 200 or more, in which the proportion of students in the upper primary years (Years 5 to 8) achieving at or above the expected standard had increased. In each case, achievement levels were also above average for the decile.

We asked leaders in each school what they saw as the reasons for their school's positive achievement trajectory and then investigated the teaching strategies that had been implemented, and the outcomes.

This report shares some of the strategies and approaches used by schools that had focused on improving achievement through rich curriculum inquiries. It also shares some of the simple strategies used in classrooms where the inquiries had positively contributed to raising achievement in literacy and/or mathematics.

Why ERO focused on curriculum design

ERO's findings from the past decade indicate that more is required to increase teachers and leaders appreciation of the permissive nature and intent of The New Zealand Curriculum1 and to implement responsive curricula in their schools. New Zealand prides itself on its child centred approach to learning, yet school practice is not consistently matching this rhetoric.

Some schools' innovative approaches to designing their curriculum help children engage with the knowledge, values and competencies to equip them well to enjoy future success. However, in other schools, children seldom have the opportunity to enjoy a curriculum that encompasses all the principles, competencies and learning areas.

The New Zealand Curriculum includes the following:

>   the Vision explains what we want for our young people to become confident, connected, actively, involved lifelong learners

>   the Principles relate to how the curriculum is formalised in a school and explain what is important and desirable in a school's curriculum

>   the Values outline the deeply held beliefs that are encouraged, modelled and explored as part of the everyday curriculum

>   the Key Competencies determine five competencies people use to live, learn, work and contribute as active members of their communities

>   the eight Learning Areas combine to provide students with a broad, general education that lays the foundation for later specialisation.

The principal function of The New Zealand Curriculum2 is to "set the direction for student learning and to provide guidance for schools as they design and review their own [local] curriculum.” In acknowledging that context matters, the intent of The New Zealand Curriculum is that schools develop local curricula for their students that are challenging, engaging and relevant. Each school is expected to design a bespoke school curriculum that takes account of the vision, values, key competencies, learning areas and principles of The New Zealand Curriculum, while also focusing on the school's own local priorities and values, and the strengths, needs and interests of their students.

While a school's curriculum framework is intended to provide information about the requirements and boundaries of students' learning, teachers have latitude to interpret and adapt the curriculum in light of what they know about the students in their own class and school.

Including aspects that have particular significance for school communities in the local curriculum should ensure that learning has meaning for students and is supported by their families and the wider community.

ERO's School Evaluation Indicators: Effective Practice for Improvement and Learner Success outline how teachers are expected to use the curriculum to benefit students.

The curriculum is enabling and future focused and is intended to promote self efficacy. This requires a learner centred approach, where teachers choose contexts and design learning opportunities in discussion with their students, and support them to work collaboratively on challenges and problems set in real world contexts.

A responsive curriculum incorporates connections to students' lives, prior understandings and out of school experiences. It draws on and adds to parent, whanau and community of pools of knowledge. Student identities, languages and cultures are represented in materials used in the enacted curriculum. Cultural and linguistic diversity are viewed as strengths to be nurtured.

Through our national evaluation programme ERO has found that children experience widely divergent opportunities to learn within and across schools:

>   There is some confusion around the different intent and role of the principles, values and even the key competencies of The New Zealand Curriculum in improving outcomes for all students. Rather than using the principles as a starting point for curriculum design, they have often been something that has been grafted on to the curriculum retrospectively, if they have been considered at all.

>   In schools where curriculum principles are most evident and teaching as inquiry is well supported at the school level, leaders play an active role in supporting teachers' work in the classroom. Effective leaders bring clarity to teachers' thinking and practice. Specifically, they initiate discussion about aspects of The New Zealand Curriculum. They also develop systems that promote coherence and uniformity, such as planning formats and guidelines for undertaking inquiry. Above all, leaders promote a culture characterised by high expectations for student achievement, shared aspirations to improve teaching, and a desire to work collaboratively.

>   As schools develop their curriculum they should take into account the cultures, interests and potential of all their students. Many primary and secondary schools do not adequately draw upon contexts and themes relevant to diverse learners. While references to diverse students might appear in the overarching statements of a school's curriculum, classroom planning and practice frequently misses opportunities to reflect the culture, knowledge and understanding of these learners and their families.

>   Many teachers are not making use of valuable information about students' cultural backgrounds to plan programmes that celebrate and further extend students' understanding of their own and others' rich and diverse cultural backgrounds.

>   For students whose strengths and passions lie in science, social studies, technology, health and physical education or the arts, there can be long periods of time when these learning areas are not part of their curriculum. Some important aspects of learning are neglected and curriculum often lacks depth across these learning areas.

>   For example, our study of the teaching of science in Years 5-8 found that teachers tended to subsume science into other learning areas, meaning students had few opportunities to experience science as a pure discipline. Teachers missed opportunities to meaningfully promote literacy and mathematics learning through the science programme. Schools' approaches lacked attention to both the science curriculum knowledge strands, and the overarching nature of the science strand, meaning students' learning was neither balanced nor comprehensive.

>   An impediment to good science programmes was teachers' limited subject/ content knowledge, and knowledge of the most effective teaching practices for fostering science learning. Typically, science programmes lacked depth, coherency, and the necessary focus on interactive and experiential learning that leads to deep understanding and engagement.

When children's diverse cultures are not recognised or parts of the curriculum are neglected in a school's curriculum, children are less likely to develop the values, knowledge and competencies that will enable them to live full and satisfying lives.

Ministry of Education. (1993). The New Zealand Curriculum. Wellington, New Zealand: Learning Media Limited, 7

2  Ministry of Education. (1993). The New Zealand Curriculum. Wellington, New Zealand: Learning Media Limited, 6.