EERA: From Design and Policy to Teaching Practice: the case of the
EUROPEAN EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH ASSOCIATION
From Design and Policy to Teaching Practice: the case of the Portuguese
National Geography Curriculum for Basic Education
Author(s):Felisbela Martins (presenting)
Conference:ECER 2014, The Past, the Present and the Future of Educational Research
Network:03. Curriculum Innovation
03 SES 07 A, Curricular Capacity Building
Room:B110 Sala de Aulas
Chair:Jan van den Akker
From Design and Policy to Teaching Practice: the case of the Portuguese National Geography
Curriculum for Basic Education
In the early 2000s, the ﬁeld of education in Portugal experienced signiﬁcant curriculum changes resulting from the work
developed by the Ministry of Education together with several sectors of the educational community. These changes were
based on the Process of Participated Reﬂection on the Curriculum which led to new ways in its conception, giving rise to the
National Curriculum for Basic Education (NCBE).
This Curriculum Reorganisation established a NCBE organised around general competences and speciﬁc competences for
each disciplinary area, presenting suggestions for their development, based on educational experiences to be accomplished
by the students. A curriculum had been designed at national level that could be reconceptualised at the local scale.
Now that political discourse has changed again and a national curriculum has been established at national level, understood
as a set of contents and aims, implemented on the basis of study plans, programmes, the knowledge, abilities and learning
goals that should be achieved in each year of schooling, we think it is essential to understand how the national curriculum
and the geography curriculum in particular, which was intended to be reconceptualised at the local level, was reinterpreted
in the practices of teachers.
In this study, we have applied the “policy cycle” approach developed by Stephen Ball. In analysing policy in general and
educational policy in particular, Stephen Ball defends a “policy cycle” approach as a contribution to understanding the way
in which they are produced, what is their purpose, and what are their eﬀects.
Rejecting the notion that policies are implemented, Ball proposes a continuous cycle consisting of three major contexts: the
context of inﬂuence, the context of text production, and the context of practice. He later expanded this cycle to the contexts
of results/eﬀects and the context of political strategy (Ball, 1994). Each of these contexts presents arenas, positions and
interest groups and each involves disputes and confrontations (Ball et al., 1992), quite apart from there being complex
relations amongst them which are not always apparent.
This approach has been used in diﬀerent circumstances to research and theorise policies, i.e., as Mainardes (2009)
mentions, it is a way of thinking about policy and about how policies are designed.
Taking this approach as a theoretical-methodological reference, we intend to understand how the National Curriculum and
that of Geography for Basic Education was designed and implemented, and how it has been (re)interpreted in the practices
of teachers, during the 2000s in Portugal. Ball’s “policy cycle” approach oﬀers an analytical framework to focus on the path
taken by curriculum policy, since its initial formulation to the practices developed in the school and classroom setting.
The goal is to deepen our insights into how the national and geography curricula were designed, took shape and how they
have translated into practice(s), based on this theoretical-methodological framework according to the ﬁrst three contexts of
the “policy cycle”. To this end, we have applied a number of research procedures which enabled us to give voice to several
stakeholders who played an active role in the development of Portuguese curriculum policy. We gave voice to politicians,
academics, curriculum authors and teachers.
Based on the assumption that it is in the context of inﬂuence that public policies arise and discourses are built, we analysed
the NCBE and the Geography Curriculum Guidelines (GCG), so as to identify their major guiding principles and the points of
convergence between guidelines issued by transnational and intergovernmental organisations and the measures taken by
the Portuguese government.
Thus, to examine the inﬂuences operated on the NC and the geography curriculum until the oﬃcial documents were
published, we conducted extensive documental research, on publications from international and trans-governmental bodies,
national legislation, and international papers on geographical education. We also conducted individual, semi-structured
interviews, comprising semi-open or ﬂexible questions, with public bodies directly involved in the process and that played
key roles in the curriculum review.
The next step in this approach, aimed at understanding how the documents produced in Portugal were interpreted in
practices, we gave voice to teachers. We interviewed teacher training supervisors with whom we worked and teachers. The
intention was to identify their practices and characterise what took place in school settings in terms of reinterpretation by
geography teachers of the curriculum as it was speciﬁed at national level. A collective interview was held with 7 geography
supervisors in the 2008/2009 academic year, and we asked the remaining 6 teachers to keep three class diaries
consecutively, on class planning, management and delivery, in a speciﬁc geography class. The diaries were written between
December 2009 and May 2010. The data and information obtained were organised and analysed, so as to extract meanings
related with the research. We then applied content analysis to these data. We read this corpus carefully, letting the verbal
expressions and terms sink in, such that they could shed light on the general meaning of key ideas. The next step consisted
in categorising them, based on the Vala’s (1986) concept of record units, which allowed us to simplify the material to be
analysed and improve the understanding of its meaning. The ideas were categorised according to open procedures (Esteves,
2006), i.e., we departed from empirical data to build a classiﬁcation that best adapted to the aims to be achieved.
By giving voice to the individuals who were involved in the design of the NCBE, we were able to understand that the political
discourse and Portuguese curriculum policy were inﬂuenced by projects developed by international agencies such as
UNESCO and the OECD, in terms of curriculum design and the role of the school. As for the GCG, they were designed in
accordance with the major principles of the NCBE. They were also conceived in such a way as to allow schools and teachers
to adapt the curriculum according to local realities and particularly to their students.
We interviewed teacher training supervisors. We were able to conclude that, for them, the oﬃcial, national documents were
issued out of nowhere.
Confronted with the change, and on the basis of their personal experience, they admitted that they knew very little or
nothing at all. For these supervisors, the Curriculum Reorganisation implied signiﬁcant changes in the organisation of school
work and, consequently, in the work of teachers.
Others, nevertheless, took the processes stipulated in the curriculum on board, since they could focus on the interpretative
aspects of the diﬀerent educational experiences and the school could adapt the curriculum at the local scale.
We also gave voice to the teachers and discovered that they had employed pedagogical modes of work predominantly
focused on developing strategies and resources to encourage student participation following a directional/technical
approach. But this was not unanimous, since some teachers had followed strategies and resources to encourage students to
seek emancipation and free enterprise.
That is, the National Curriculum in the early 21st century, in Portugal, seems to have been interpreted as a prescriptive
curriculum and was taught the same way at these teachers’ schools, even though it had provided the for the possibility of
being adapted at the local scale.
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Felisbela Martins (presenting)