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Guide to Curriculum Innovation: Cultivating Synergy

October 6, 2012

Bloom’s Modified Taxonomy (Schrock, 2012).

If you require comfortable, simplistic solutions, seek elsewhere.

Look further, too, if your heart’s desire is to settle, yearn backwards, or opt for status quo.  Synergy is not for the fainthearted. My Guide to Curriculum Innovation is crafted for leaders with Big Hairy Audacious Goals (Collins & Porras, 2000). If you are passionately undertaking a transformative paradigm shift, as opposed to managing educational reform, and if innovative curriculum is manna to your quest, then this guide is for you: Continue, Friend.

School leaders contemplating curriculum improvement anticipate more than best practice; unique school contexts demand design theories to build and sustain next practice (Hannon, 2007).  The complexity of this dynamic is paramount, and innovation is the key. Innovation can be defined as “denying existing conditions, or changing the existing order of things, or values or systems” (Hamson & Holder, 2002, p. 10). To operate within complexity as a lived experience, where change renders our collective future uncertain, proximity to chaos is likely to generate fear, refinements will, by necessity, be ongoing, and paths ahead defy prediction, thus an innovative orientation requires praxis. Your purpose becomes “path-breaking activity” (Brown, 2002, p. 5).

 Ralph Stacey Agreement & Certainty Matrix (Appelo, 2012).                                                                                                 

Central to an innovative orientation:

  • dispense with outmoded habits
  • set aside assumptions, and
  • learn from failure in order to cultivate synergy.

Balance is the key.


There can be no avoidance of current global changes causing seismic disruption in education (Godin, 2012; Senge et al, 2000; Zhao, 2009). From deeply held, but unproductive metaphors of factory-models, production lines and silos, we are undergoing a paradigm shift towards a new culture of learning where technological development enables networked continual practice (Jukes et al, 2010; Thomas & Seely Brown, 2011). One alternative for re-imagining school is embodied in the phrase learning gymnasium where all participants – teachers and students – can “be confident, capable, powerful learners for the rest of their lives” (Claxton, 2008, p. 127). A school’s orientation is inscribed in its philosophy and climate.  According to prevailing change leadership wisdom, where “reculturing is the name of the game” (Fullan, 2001, p. 5), innovations are “exciting opportunities to make learning intrinsically motivating… and [potentially] transform our schools from being economic and political liabilities to sources of solutions and strength” (Christensen et al, 2008, p. 230). Sustaining the paradigm shift required to navigate curriculum innovation is the leader’s moral purpose (Hannon, 2012).

What could innovative curriculum look like?

9 characteristics of 21st century learners (Heick, 2012).

Paradigm Shifting

Creative Commons image source 

Curriculum in the networked learning paradigm is severed from its Latin origins which signify “a racecourse” (Marsh, 2004). In an age of information abundance, and with the proliferation of disciplines, focusing on curriculum as content is pointless (Gardner, 2011); curiosity and risk taking are leveraged in a learner-centred environment to define purpose and meaning. Curriculum re-focuses around pedagogy – how learning is achieved.  It is likely that focus on content will continue to diminish while inquiry and project based learning proliferate (Kuhlthau, 2010); 21st century learning is therefore re-imagined as customised, flexible, personal and arising from adaptive curriculum (Horn, 2012). Another set of innovative curriculum directions has been identified as increasingly global, and encompassing multimodal literacies in order to enhance engagement through innate curiosity (Jacobs, 2010). Thus, innovative curriculum is perhaps best visualised as an evolving, transformative continuum:

Creative Commons image source 

The unstable nature of complexity opens space for ubiquitous learning that is truly personal, and lends itself to a process of guided inquiry. Examples are manifest in Khan Academy operating as an online facilitated network; also MOOCs (massive open online courses) enable learners to effectively disrupt the traditionally linear sequence of instruction (Robinson, 2011):

If paradigm shifting necessitates acquisition of teachers who are more comfortable with socially-networked modes of learning (Jacobs, 2011), I would contend that evolution is apparent in collaborative professional learning networks currently fomenting innovation. Leaders, then, are advised to immerse themselves in the facilitated network of change (Harris, 2012; Rainie & Wellman, 2012). Since self-reflection and self-improvement tools for teachers are available from AITSL, school systems will benefit from embracing connected learning practices which enable staff and students to mediate the innovation process together; we have at our disposal the means of transforming core terms of educational engagement with curriculum freed from associations of obedience and compliance (Godin, 2012). Moreover, from notions of learning as play, learning driven by passion, and learning focused through purpose, innovative curriculum can sustain innovators (Wagner, 2012).

If the Leaders Don’t Get It (McLeod, 2012).

To embed and sustain innovative curriculum, leaders will foster conditions in schools which best serve to build collaborative learning networks for learners; staff and students alike.

As previously mentioned, next practice is the goal of innovative orientation (Hannon, 2007); your prevailing school culture will serve as a springboard. In order to initiate, embed and sustain innovative curriculum, leaders will create a culture of trust by emphasising the importance of a responsive, evolving learning community (Leithwood et al., 2010; Siguaw et al., 2006). Equipped with Joyce & Showers’ skill training model (Kuhn, 2012a), and by optimising within a Zone of Feasible Innovation (Rogan, 2006), leaders will maximise transference of understanding through continually refining exposure to theory, demonstration, practice and feedback. Thus, peer coaching, and collaborative planning serve to integrate learning as a transformative process (Kuhn, 2012b).

Leading in complexity

Creative commons image source 


Leaders’ roles in the new paradigm are dynamic and challenging:

  • Determine capacity for change to embed and sustain professional learning networks within and across diverse school communities (Daly & Finnegan, 2009; Little, 2005);
  • Anticipate that engagement in reculturing can be risky, especially since “Trust and respect from colleagues is crucial” (Stoll et al., 2006, p. 239);
  • Win hearts and minds through connecting peers with purpose to build capacity (Fullan, 2008);
  • Harness authenticity, and embody vision by taking smart risks (Dyer et al., 2011);
  • Since no single method will suit all contexts, success or otherwise depends on flexibility and responsiveness of leadership to genuinely navigate the innovative practice (Fullan, 2001).
Successful leaders will therefore cultivate synergy.

Network: Presence of those who are absent (Rheingold, 2012).

Creative Commons image source & modification


Emerging professional learning networks have been found to yield a self-improving ecosystem (Hannon, 2012); evolving through joint practice development, connected social capital, collective moral purpose, iterative evaluation and challenge is the means by which effective leaders forge deep partnerships (Caple, 2012). The steadfast heart of curriculum innovation beats in praxis.  Resist entropy by orchestrating just-in-time system learning, and find flow within the exponential-change dynamic. Courage!

 Creative Commons image source 

Selected references

AITSL. (2012). Australian teacher performance and development framework.  Retrieved September 22, 2012 from Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership website:

Appelo, J. (2012). Complexiteit volgens. Retrieved October 6, 2012 from EenBlogjeOm website:

Boswell, S. (2012). Curriculum innovation. Retrieved October 6, 2012 from website:

Boswell, S. (2012). Innovative curriculum. Retrieved May 7, 2020 from Wakelet website:

Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly. Retrieved September 29, 2012 from Brene Brown, PhD website:

Brown, M. (2002). Working with complexity. The Ashridge Journal, Spring, 4 – 10. Retrieved September 22, 2012 from Ashridge Faculty Publications website:

Caple, K. (2012, August 27). #acer12 self-improving system=joint practice development+social capital+collective moral purpose+evaluation & challenge=deep partnerships. Retrieved August, 2012 from Twitter:

Chesbrough, H., Vanhaverbeke, W. & West, J. (2006). Open innovation: Researching a new paradigm. Oxford, UK: Oxford Publishing. Retrieved August 5, 2012 from Ebook library:

Christensen, C.M., Horn, M.B., & Johnson, C.W., (2008). Disrupting class; How disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns. New York: McGraw Hill.

Claxton, G. (2008). What’s the point of school? Rediscovering the heart of education. Oxford: One World.

Couros, A. (2006). Examining the open movement: Possibilities and implications for education. Retrieved from Scribd website:

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday Life. New York: Basic Books.

Collins, J.C., & Porras, J. (2000). Built to last: Successful habits of visionary companies. London: Random House.

Daly, A.J. & Finnigan, K.S. (2010). A bridge between worlds; Understanding network structure to understand change strategy. Journal of Educational Change, 11(2), 111-138. Retrieved August 26, 2012 from SpringerLINK.

Dyer, J., Gregerson, H.B., & Christensen, C.M. (2009). Spotlight on innovation: The innovator’s DNA. Harvard Business Review. 87 (12), 61 – 67. Retrieved September 22, 2012 from EBSCO host.

Fullan, M. (2001). Leading in a culture of change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Fullan, M. (2008).  The six secrets of change: What the best leaders do to help their organizations survive and thrive. San-Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Gardner, H.(2011). The unschooled mind; How children think and how schools should teach. New York: Basic Books. Retrieved August 18, 2012 from Ebook library:

Godin, S. (2012). Stop stealing dreams. Retrieved July 25, 2012 from Seth’s Blog website:

Hamson, N., & Holder, R. (2002).  Global innovation: Innovation 01.02. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Retrieved August 26, 2012 from Ebook library:

Hannon, V. (2007). ‘Next Practice’ in education: A disciplined approach to innovation. Retrieved August 11, 2012 from Innovation Unit website:

Hannon, V. (2012). Innovating a new future for learning: Finding our path. Retrieved September 8, 2012 from Australian Council for Educational Research website:

Harris, S. (2012). 6 powerful strategies for paradigm-shifting teacher PD. Retrieved August 19, 2012 from Connected Principals website:

Heick, T. (2012). 9 characteristics of 21st century learning. Retrieved September 19, 2012 from TeachThought website:

Horn, M. (2012). Podcast on Disrupting Class. Retrieved September 16, 2012 from Education Next website:

Jacobs, H.H. (2010). Curriculum 2: Essential education for a changing world. Alexandria: ASCD. Retrieved August 26, 2012, from Ebook Library:

Jacobs, H.H. (2011). TEDx NYED Talk. Retrieved September 2, 2012 from YouTube website:

Johnson, S. (2010). Where good ideas come from; the natural history of innovation. New York: Riverhead Books.

Jukes, I., McCain, T., & Crockett, L. (2010). Understanding the digital generation: Teaching and learning in the new digital Landscape. Canada: Corwin.

Kuhlthau, C.C. (2009). Guided inquiry: Learning in the 21st century. Retrieved September 23, 2012 from KZN Education Department website:

Kuhlthau, C.C. & Maniotes, L.K. (2010). Building guided inquiry teams for 21st-Century learners. School library media activities monthly, 26(5), 18 -21. Retrieved September 23, 2012 from EBSCO host.

Kuhn, J. (2012a).  Master of school leadership leading curriculum innovation. Retrieved August 4, 2012 from UWA master of school leadership LMS:

Kuhn, J. (2012b). Practical application of leading curriculum innovation. Retrieved September 8, 2012 from UWA master of school leadership LMS:

Leadbeater, C. (2008). We-Think: Mass innovation, not mass production. London: Profile Books.

Leadbeater, C. (2009).  On innovation. Retrieved September 7, 2012 from YouTube website:

Leithwood, K., Harris, A., & Strauss, T. (2010). Leading school turnaround: How successful leaders transform low-performing schools. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons. Retrieved August 26, 2012 from Ebook Library:

Little, J. (2005). Big change question professional learning and school-network ties: Prospects for school improvement. Journal of Educational Change, 6(3), 277–291. Retrieved from SpringerLINK.

Marsh, C. (2004). Key concepts for understanding curriculum. (3rd Edn.). London: Taylor & Francis Group.

Meadows, D. (2009). Thinking in systems a primer. London: Earthscan. Retrieved September 24, 2012 from EBSCO host.

McLeod, S. (2012). If the leaders don’t get it, it’s not going to happen. Retrieved September 20, 2012 from Pinterest website:

Rainie, L. & Wellman, B. (2012). Networked: The new social operating system. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Rheingold, H. (2012). Netsmart: How to thrive online. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Robinson, K. (2011).  Creativity, learning and the curriculum. Retrieved August 26, 2012 from YouTube website:

Rogan, J.M. (2006). How much curriculum change is appropriate? Defining a zone of feasible innovation. Science Education, Wiley Periodical Inc., 439 – 460.

Schrock, K. (2012). New Bloom’s image. Retrieved August 4, 2012 from Schrockguide website:

Senge, P., Cambron-McCabe, N., Lucas, T., Smith, B., Dutton, J., & Kleiner, A. (2000). Schools that learn: A fifth discipline fieldbook for educators, parents, and everyone who cares about education (pp. 33 – 42).USA: Doubleday.

Siguaw, J.A., Simpson, P.M., & Enz, C.A. (2006). Conceptualizing innovation orientation: A framework for study and integration of innovation research. The Journal of Product Innovation Management, 23, 556–574.

Stoll, L., Bolam, R., McMahon, A., Wallace, M., & Thomas, S. (2006). Professional learning communities: A review of literature. Journal of Educational Change, 7(4), 221–258.

Thomas, D. & Seely Brown, J. (2011). A new culture of learning; Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change. Lexington, Ky: Create Space.

Wagner, T. (2012). Creating innovators: The making of young people who will change the world. New York: Scribner.

Zhao, Y. (2009). Catching up or leading the way: American education in the age of globalization. Alexandria: ASCD. Retrieved August 15, 2012 from Ebook library:

3 Comments leave one →
  1. kmcg2375 permalink
    October 11, 2012 1:20 pm

    Thanks for this rich post – a lot of resources to mine and explore further here!
    I love the modified Bloom’s taxonomy image…will have to write a post soon that I can use it in 🙂

    As for that agreement and certainty matrix, I just followed a few links and I think I like the original better:
    There is less of a sense of hierarchy in the diagram – just illustrates domains, doesn’t indicate a progression. What do you think?

    • Sam Boswell permalink*
      October 11, 2012 3:04 pm

      Thanks for your response, Kelli.
      For some reason, the image I had in mind while trying desperately to capture a source for the Stacey model (I had one from PowerPoint ~ PL @ the Leadership Centre) remained elusive. So, yes, I did opt for plan B there!
      Not sure the Cynefin framework hits the mark either, though, since there’s no balancing act apparent in the middle (just ominous disorder!); synergy, I think, is a mediated dynamic.
      I found the experience of thinking this through very revealing. I also appreciate your shared reflection.


  1. vision for school #savmp | tolerance for ambiguity

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