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Asia Pacific Journal of Education

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Teachers' perceptions of the recent curriculum

reforms and their implementation: what can
we learn from the case of Korean elementary

Minjeong Park & Youl-Kwan Sung

To cite this article: Minjeong Park & Youl-Kwan Sung (2013) Teachers' perceptions of
the recent curriculum reforms and their implementation: what can we learn from the case
of Korean elementary teachers?, Asia Pacific Journal of Education, 33:1, 15-33, DOI:

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Published online: 15 Jan 2013.

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Asia Pacific Journal of Education, 2013
Vol. 33, No. 1, 15–33,

Teachers’ perceptions of the recent curriculum reforms and their

implementation: what can we learn from the case of Korean
elementary teachers?
Minjeong Parka* and Youl-Kwan Sungb
College of Education, Kyung-Hee University, Seoul, Republic of Korea; bGraduate School of
Education, Kyung-Hee University, Seoul, Republic of Korea;
(Received 3 April 2011; final version received 17 October 2011)

This study examines: 1) how Korean elementary school teachers perceive recent
curriculum reforms; 2) where their perceptions emanate from; and 3) what support
teachers need in order to implement curriculum reforms actively and effectively. This
study has shown that teachers generally harbour negative and unconstructive feelings
about curriculum reform. These feelings negatively impact their involvement in and
commitment to implementing reform. Several issues to be considered for teacher
training and support evolved from our analysis of teachers’ perceptions of the
curriculum reform and the implementation: first, teachers are insufficiently provided
with professional development programmes that support curriculum implementation;
second, teachers lack opportunities to work through implementation problems and
difficulties with peer teachers; and last, contextual and cultural constraints inhibit
implementation of curriculum reform. Based upon these findings, this study makes
several suggestions for teacher educators and curriculum policymakers.
Keywords: curriculum reform; curriculum implementation; elementary teachers;
teacher educators; curriculum policymakers

Over the last few decades, many countries have made significant efforts to implement
curriculum reform. Often these reforms are well-designed and have valuable aims.
Nevertheless, in many cases, their implementation has resulted in less than desirable
outcomes, and well-intentioned curricular reforms were never translated into classroom
reality. Much literature has focused on why curriculum reform initiatives have rarely been
effectively implemented and have often failed to achieve their objectives (Cohen, 1990;
Feldman, 2000; Fullan, 2007; Fullan & Miles, 1992; Klein, 1994; McLaughlin, 1987).
Much research argues that teachers are the key to curriculum reform success (Kirk &
McDonald, 2001; Little, 1993; Spillane, 1999). Their knowledge, belief and perceptions
play a fundamental role in the effective implementation of reforms. Fullan (2007) points
out that change is a subjective process in which individual teachers construct personal
meanings from the changes they experience. It is therefore imperative to understand the
conceptual “maps” that teachers construct regarding the meanings they attach to reforms.
Little (1993) argues that responding to reform is an interactive act which, for teachers, is
personal, collaborative and ongoing. It would be wrong to expect teachers to accept and
implement curricula faithfully in a way intended by developers. That is, teachers formulate
their own meanings and perceptions when reforms are introduced to them. Whether

*Corresponding author. Email:

q 2013 National Institute of Education, Singapore

16 M. Park and Y.-K. Sung

teachers accept these reforms will have consequences when implementation is attempted
in the classroom. Teachers’ perceptions can be thought of as their perspective on how one
engages in pedagogical practice. Thus, understanding what teachers perceive as the
purpose of curricular reform is crucial for its successful implementation.
Within the Korean context, as elsewhere, it is common for curricular reform to result in
a façade of change. Many studies have examined the gap between policy and practice in
curricular change and have explored some of the issues that limit and negatively affect the
implementation (Kim, 2004; Kim & Jeong, 2003; Moon, 2005; Seo, 2009). However,
these studies have mainly focused on how faithfully teachers implement a particular
reform. Relatively few studies document how teachers perceive curricular changes and
how this perception is related to implementation.
The purpose of the present study is to explore the meanings teachers have attached to
recent Korean curricular reform and to examine why Korean teachers have low enthusiasm
for and motivation to implement these changes. In particular, this study focuses upon the 7th
national curriculum implementation.1 The research questions that guided this study were: 1)
How do Korean elementary school teachers perceive recent curricular reform? 2) From
where do their perceptions emanate? 3) What should be considered in order to more actively
and effectively enable teachers to implement reform? In answering these questions, this
study provides a picture of how Korean elementary school teachers respond to curricular
change and are integral to successful implementation. The study discusses several issues
critical to effective curricular reform implementation. It concludes by presenting
implications for teacher educators and policymakers, with the goal of enhancing teacher
involvement in and commitment to reform implementation. Although the data focuses on a
small sample of Korean teachers, we believe it speaks to many researchers, teacher
educators and practitioners who are involved in enhancing and facilitating curricular reform
implementation in a variety of contexts.

The 7th elementary Korean national curriculum

Korea has a highly centralized education system and standardized educational content.
The Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology (MEST) is responsible for the
curriculum; it provides schools with lists of permitted subjects, textbooks and
examinations, although there is some room for modification, either by local education
authorities or by individual schools. Criticism of this centralized and bureaucratic system
of curriculum control, designed apart from teachers and implemented without their
feedback, led to a public debate about the school curriculum at the beginning of the 1990s.
As a result, the 7th national curriculum, intended to redress a highly centralized
curriculum system, was initiated in 2000 with an emphasis on autonomy, decentralization
and greater flexibility. As a result, the government’s monopoly on decisions regarding
curricula, textbooks and the whole transferred to provincial and regional education
authorities, individual school principals, teachers and students. The 7th national
curriculum initiated discretionary activity hours in which school and teachers were given
authority in terms of what and how to teach.2 The school may operate its discretionary
hours with diverse programmes, such as projects, small-group joint research, or the
teaching of integrated subjects, in accordance with the needs and demands of the school,
teachers and students. Furthermore, teachers had been granted greater autonomy to
reconstruct the curriculum and they were encouraged to be actively involved in the
decision-making and planning processes. Despite this emphasis on teachers’ autonomy,
many studies have indicated that this principle has not been implemented effectively, due
Asia Pacific Journal of Education 17

to the many obstacles that limit teachers’ autonomy in this process, including the extra
work needed when planning and coordinating the curriculum, the deference given to
textbooks, and the lack of experienced staff (Kim, 2004; Seo, 2009).
A second critical point of the 7th national curricular changes is the emphasis on
learner-centred education.3 The Korean educational context was, and continues to be,
highly competitive and teacher-centred. It is customarily believed that knowledge can be
transferred to students and that the responsibility for education is the teacher’s. Students
have traditionally assumed the role of passive listeners and are considered blank slates on
which knowledge is etched. However, based on research that the learner-centred approach
develops students’ creativity, knowledge acquisition, and personal and professional
abilities and productivity more efficiently than the teacher-centred approach, many current
educational reforms argue for the former. Learner-centred education emphasizes self-
directed learning, an elective-centred curriculum4, and differentiated instruction in the 7th
national curriculum.
The focus on learner-centred education is a radical change for the majority of Korean
teachers, who are accustomed to the traditional approach. Many empirical studies have
found that although the term “learner-centred education” has been popularized in
elementary education, teachers tend to revert to the familiar teacher-centred approach for
reasons such unfamiliarity, lack of resources and a high teacher: student ratio (Choi, 2004;
Jeong, 2000).
A third key point of the 7th national curriculum is curriculum differentiation. The 7th
national curriculum introduces the differentiated curriculum in order to diversify the
curriculum’s contents and methods of instruction, in consideration of each student’s
ability, aptitude and career path. Curriculum differentiation implementation strategies are
as follows: (1) Ability-grouping is applied to elementary mathematics and English.
Ten levels of mathematics courses are offered from Grades 1 to 10, while four levels of
English courses are offered from Grades 7 to 10. Each level is divided into two sub-levels
which are respectively operated on a semester basis. (2) An advanced or supplementary
course is offered from Grades 1 to 10 for Korean Language courses, from Grades 7 to 10
for social studies and science courses, and from Grades 3 to 6 for English.
Ever since the proposal of curriculum differentiation in the 7th national curriculum was
made known many arguments have been made about its meaning, implementation strategies
and teacher/parent response. Many studies have criticized curriculum differentiation for
tracking students via academic achievement level with little consideration of other
dimensions of student aptitude, interests, goals and developmental status (Kim, 2000).
These studies have also reported the problems teachers have experienced in implementing
curriculum differentiation, including an excess of official duties, a lack of resources and
facilities, and traditional assessment structure (Kim & Jeong, 2003).

Theoretical underpinning: some curricular reform issues

Extensive literature indicates that a number of factors may affect the implementation of
curricular changes (Fullan & Miles, 1992; Galton & Moon, 1983; Hargreaves, 1994;
Kelly, 1999). Here, we refer only to studies of particular relevance, including those that
address teacher attitudes, professional development and teachers’ understanding of the
The propensity for adopting curricular innovation depends on teacher attitudes towards
or receptivity to it (Brown & McIntyre, 1982; Morris, 1988; Richardson, 1991). Waugh
and Punch (1993) propose a model that provides empirical support for a range of variables
18 M. Park and Y.-K. Sung

that affect teacher response to a system-wide change, including alleviation of fears and
uncertainties associated with the change, the practicality of adopting the change, perceived
expectations and beliefs regarding the change, perceived school support for the change,
and a personal cost appraisal.
Kennedy and Kennedy (1996), meanwhile, question the mismatch between teachers’
attitudes and their actual behaviour in the classroom: teachers might express a positive
attitude towards an innovation, yet might not actively implement it in class. Responding to
Ajzen’s model (1991), they explain the complex interrelationship of beliefs, attitudes and
actions that motivate teachers. Rather than seeing attitude as the single determining factor
of behaviour, they focus on behaviour intention. Intention is derived in part from attitude,
but two other important elements are also involved: subjective norms and perceived
behavioural control.
Subjective norms are what the individual believes others think about the behaviour in
question. “Others” may be individuals who have influence over the teacher by reason of
their social or professional relationship. For teachers, they may be colleagues, principals,
department heads, ministry officials, parents and students. Teachers who are initially
enthusiastic about an innovation may easily become disillusioned if there is the expression
of negative sentiment on the part of their principal, colleagues or parents.
Perceived behaviour control means the degree of control individuals believe they have
over an innovation. Behaviour control factors may be internal or external. Internal factors
may include teachers’ capacities to implement a curricular innovation or the amount and
clarity of information provided about it. External factors may include circumstances and
environmental considerations such as over-assigned official duties, working in a
traditional school structure, and institutional support and cooperation. Such internal and
external factors together make up an individual’s perceived behavioural control. It is
important to note that if teachers perceive an innovation as being outside of their control,
however positive their attitude towards it, they may not implement it.
This explanation suggests that teacher attitudes towards an innovation, its
consequences, and its associated contextual variables are all important in determining
implementation. It implies that we need to take a systemic view of change which not only
considers teachers attitudes, but also social norms and perceived behaviour control, which
is specific to a particular context.
Enhancement of teacher professional development is also fundamental to successful
implementation of a curricular innovation. Despite general acceptance of professional
development as essential to successful curriculum implementation, reviews of
professional development research have consistently pointed out the inadequacy and
ineffectiveness of such programmes (Hargreaves, 1994; Little, 1993; Spillane, 1999).
Verspoor (1989) suggests four elements for successful teacher training that support
curricular innovation: permanent and locally available in-service training, the establish-
ment of effective systems for teacher supervision and support, adjustment of the content of
teacher training to the teachers’ own level of knowledge and experience, and
encouragement of teachers’ motivation and commitment.
Some research indicates that professional development programmes fail to understand the
process of teacher change (Guskey, 1986). Professional development activities are frequently
designed to initiate changes in teachers’ attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions with an assumption
that such changes will lead to specific changes in their classroom behaviours and practices and
subsequently result in improved student learning. Guskey (2002) contends that it is not
professional development per se, but the experience of successful implementation that
changes teachers’ attitudes and beliefs. The key element in significant change in teachers’
Asia Pacific Journal of Education 19

attitudes and beliefs is clear evidence of improvement in the learning outcomes of their
students (Guskey, 1986). Support for this idea comes from many empirical studies. These
studies demonstrate that teachers seldom commit to a curricular innovation until they have
seen it succeed in their classrooms with their students (Bolster, 1983; Cohen & Hill, 2000;
Huberman, 1992). As Fullan (1985) notes, changes in attitudes, beliefs and understanding
generally follow, rather than precede, change in behaviour.
Based upon his understanding of teacher change, Guskey (2002) suggests principles to
consider for professional development. First, it is important to recognize that change is a
gradual and difficult process. Like practitioners in many other fields, teachers are reluctant
to adopt new practices or procedures unless they are sure they can make them work
(Lortie, 1975). Learning to be proficient at something new and finding meaning in a new
way of doing things requires both time and effort. Second, it is also important to ensure
that teachers receive regular feedback on student progress. It is well-known that successful
actions are reinforcing and likely to be repeated when they are perceived as increasing
one’s competence and effectiveness. This is especially true of teachers, whose primary
psychic rewards come from feeling certain about their capacity to affect student growth
and development (Guskey, 1986; Huberman, 1992). Third, it is important to provide
continued follow-up, support and pressure. As Guskey suggests, since change in teachers’
attitudes and beliefs occurs mainly after implementation and when there is evidence of
improved student learning, continued follow-up, support and pressure is critical. It is clear
that professional development must be seen as a continuous and ongoing process, not a
piecemeal event (Loucks-Horsley, Hewson, Love, & Stiles, 1998).
It is essential that teachers have a thorough understanding of both the theoretical
underpinnings and the classroom application of a curricular innovation (Cohen, 1990;
Karavas-Doukas, 1995; Spillane, 1999). For example, Wilson’s case study (1990) of a
teacher implementing a new curriculum demonstrates that the teacher’s lack of
understanding of the appropriate instruction intended by a curricular reform interfered
with his ability to implement it. Waugh and Punch (1993) also report that lack of
knowledge is related to the extent of uncertainty and receptivity to change.
However, as Fullan (2007) warns, teachers are likely to “misinterpret and
misunderstand some aspect of the purpose or practice of something that is new to
them” (p. 199). For example, Spillane (1999) finds that while maths teachers gravitate to
new curricular ideas, most of them do not interpret these ideas as changing the core of their
mathematics instruction. Thus, they implement curricular reform ideas in ways that
involve few or no changes to their core practice. Karavas-Doukas (1995) offers another
example that teachers exhibit incomplete understanding of the curricular innovation they
were charged with implementing and that these misconceptions contributed to their
negative perceptions of the innovation.
Cohen’s study (1990) highlights the importance of learning about how teachers
understand new curricular policies through the lens of older curricular policies. He argues
that whatever novelties curricular innovations embrace, teachers work with the residues of
the past, such as previous curricular policies, professional experiences, beliefs and values.
It suggests that the dissemination of curricular innovations by curriculum developers or
change agents is insufficient in promoting teachers’ understanding. It is imperative to
check continuously where teachers stand in their understanding of innovations and what
new meanings they attach to the process of curricular innovation.
Collectively, these analyses point to the difficulty and complexity of the process of
curricular reform. It is important to remember that regardless of the context and nature of a
curricular innovation, in the long and arduous journey of implementation, the teacher is
20 M. Park and Y.-K. Sung

an essential figure. Teachers are the key agents of curricular change, and without their
willingness to participate, there can be no change.

Research method
This study uses a qualitative research interview method. As Kvale (1996) states, the
qualitative research interview is intended to provide a rich and detailed description and in-
depth understanding of an individual’s experiences. Thus, the qualitative research
interview seems particularly suitable to investigating how teachers perceive and
experience curricular reform and implementation.
We collected data between April and December 2010 through semi-structured interviews
with six elementary school teachers in Korea’s capital, Seoul. In selecting participants, this
study followed the general process of purposeful sampling. According to Patton (1990),
purposeful sampling is effective when a researcher looks for participants who are likely to
give in-depth information necessary for addressing research questions. Following his
guidelines, we looked for experienced teachers who used to be or still are involved with
coordinating school-wide curriculum frameworks and organizing school curricula. Through
their rich experiences, they were expected to provide deeper understandings of how
they perceived curricular innovation and how these perceptions affected implementation.
The criteria for participant selection included availability, willingness and experience. The
teachers represented a wide range of duration of teaching experience and were teaching
Grades 3 to 6 in different public schools located in Seoul (see Table 1).
Each interview took approximately 1 to 1.5 hours, and the responses were tape-
recorded and transcribed verbatim. The interviews were semi-structured, which means
that although the researchers drew upon several predetermined questions and special
topics, they varied the focus of each interview according to the interview context and
teachers’ responses (Berg, 2007). We attempted to minimize our control over the course of
the interview and enabled the participant teachers to speak about what they wanted to; this
also gave us the flexibility to adjust to the particularities and idiosyncrasies of the
individual teacher’s stories. We asked the six participant teachers to describe how they
have implemented the new curricular reforms, what changes in their teaching practice and
school curriculum were caused by these reforms, and what problems and difficulties they
have experienced during implementation. The interviews systematically explored
teachers’ perceptions of the reforms, commitment to implementation, and dilemmas and
obstacles encountered during implementation.
The interview data was processed through qualitative content analysis, which is a
flexible method for analysing text data, intended to “to provide knowledge and
understanding of the phenomenon under study” (Downe-Wamboldt, 1992, p. 314). In this
study, qualitative content analysis was used to understand the participants’ subjective

Table 1. Teacher participants.

Teachers Gender Educational level Years of teaching Grade level
Han Female Bachelor’s 26 3
Jang Male Master’s 20 5
Jin Male Master’s 12 6
Kang Female Master’s 15 4
Lee Female Bachelor’s 3 3
Park Female Ph.D. 17 6
Asia Pacific Journal of Education 21

perceptions through interpretation of data by means of the systematic classification

process of coding and identifying themes or patterns (Miles & Huberman, 1994).
Data analysis was conducted as follows: we read the interview data several times to
obtain a sense of teachers’ perceptions as a whole. While reading, we took field notes.
These field notes were used when we interpreted the data and found themes to be
addressed. In this process, the condensed meaning units were abstracted and labelled with
a code. The whole context was considered when coding. The various codes were sorted
into sub-categories. Then the underlying categories were sorted into four content areas:
teachers’ understanding of curricular changes; their perceptions of implementation;
changes in their role, teaching practice and the school curriculum occasioned by the
curricular reform; and obstacles, challenges and dilemmas involved in implementation.
There were also two phases of interpretive data analysis: (1) an analysis of data for
each participant, and (2) a comparative analysis of the five participant teachers. First, we
analysed the data of each participant teacher. After the recorded interviews were
transcribed and coded, a synopsis was written in which all relevant data for each teacher
was collected. This allowed us to efficiently access relevant information for all participant
teachers, which facilitated comparisons between teachers in a later phase. Second, the
technique of “constant comparative analysis” (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) was used for both
the vertical and horizontal analyses, through which preliminary interpretations are
continuously compared with the stories of other teachers. In the cyclical processes of
reading, interpreting and checking, we focused on interpreting and understanding the
patterns and mechanisms of teachers’ perceptions and the problems teachers face during
implementation. The interpretive analysis also includes a dialogue with the work of
authors. We will refer to the literature as we discuss our findings.
Member-checks were employed for validity. Each participant teacher in this study was
afforded opportunities to read, correct and make comments on the transcripts of the
interviews and the themes found in this study (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Additionally, we
discussed our interpretations of the data and findings with colleagues who know a great
deal about the curriculum implementation process. Such discussion served the purpose of
“peer-debriefing”, what Lincoln and Guba (1985) describe as “exposing oneself to a
disinterested professional peer to keep the inquirer honest” (p. 308).

Teachers’ perceptions of curricular reforms

The teachers in this study assigned a range of meanings to the curricular changes, and
these varied from one teacher to another. The teachers fell into two groups: those who
were negative and not constructive about the reforms, and those who showed a lack of
interest in the changes and low morale in implementing them. The first group of teachers
highlighted how the reforms merely intensified their workload, without introducing
significant new thought into their teaching practice. The second group believed that the
overall direction of the new curriculum might lead to some improvements in the quality of
education. However, they acknowledged that they experienced dilemmas and tensions in
implementation, and they indicated that barriers must be overcome if teachers are to
internalize curricular change and be motivated to implement it.

1. Curricular reforms impose a heavy workload, without significant change benefit

One of the teachers’ common perceptions of the curricular reforms was that they were not
innovative, and yet created a work overload. We were frequently given the impression that
22 M. Park and Y.-K. Sung

the new curriculum was demanding and burdened teachers. When asked about the most
recent changes created by the 7th curriculum, teachers very infrequently mentioned the
positive effects on schools. Notably absent were references to some of the curricular
innovations the curriculum did introduce, such as an investment in learner-centred
education and teachers’ autonomy in developing curriculum. The workload they
continually referenced was the imposition of empty administrative work; this work
prevented the teachers from: a) recognizing positive, substantive aspects of the
curriculum, and b) implementing these aspects in the rare cases when they were
acknowledged. Put another way, the heavier workload blinded the teachers to any
potential benefits of reform, while also introducing work the teachers already felt they
were doing. Kang states:
The 7th national curriculum allows schools to increase or decrease instructional hours on its
own within 20%. It merely imposes a lot of work upon us. Irrespective of the 7th curriculum,
if we felt that more hours for any subject or any learning content were needed, we provided
extra lessons on our own initiative. But the 7th curriculum requires increased documentation.
For example, it orders us to spend more time working on providing rationale for which content
of which subject would be added or subtracted, rescheduling the timetable, developing proper
lesson plans, reporting to parents, record keeping, and so on. It takes a lot of time.
Documentary work has reduced the amount of time teachers can dedicate to the
curricular agenda. The participant teachers all expressed concern about the amount of time
they dedicate to administrative duties, which makes it difficult for them to find the time to
pursue curricular work. For example, one teacher, Park, characterized the time she spends
on administrative work instead of curricular work. Nearly every participant teacher
confessed that they did not place a priority on developing a better understanding of
curricular ideas, and further that they were not oriented towards the curricular reform ideas
in the first place. Given their heavy workload, it may be of little surprise that they chose
not to embrace and immerse themselves in reforms.
Another teacher named Han reiterated this issue, indicating that the major effect of the
new curriculum on teachers was merely the documentation requirement and not any real
changes in practice:
We do have a heavier workload due to the 7th curriculum. There is nothing much new in the
new curriculum except the paperwork that is involved. We are now spending much time on
the job that is not related to teaching itself, such as paperwork. As a teacher, our role involves
much more than teaching itself. We always have loads of paperwork to do, which makes us
totally exhausted and frustrated. We are so busy that resist change to the core of our teaching.
The reporting document may show that change is happening in schools, but when you go into
the classroom, there is no change as such. I mean you don’t see any real change in practice.
Indeed, many teachers in this study professed that they have been teaching in rather
traditional ways without paying much attention to the ideas behind the reform. This is
because the teachers’ work overload has allowed them very little time to rethink their
teaching practice. One consequence is that the changes proposed may be implemented at a
superficial level without impinging on more fundamental aspects of their teaching itself.
The teachers’ workload also made it difficult for them to achieve a clear sense of the
vision and goals proposed by the reforms. When we asked about the overall impact of the
new curriculum on their sense of teaching and educational beliefs, their response was
marked by ambiguity and uncertainty. For example, Jang characterized one of the major
curricular changes as learner-centred education, but he could elaborate little on what goals
and visions this particular agenda involved and how he was implementing it in his day-to-
day practice.
Asia Pacific Journal of Education 23

Researcher: What change does the recent curricular emphasis of learner-centred

education give you, in terms of your perspective on the goals of student activity, the
role of the teacher, student interaction, etc?
Jang: Well . . . there is nothing much new evident in the classroom except the
paperwork. Prevalently, teachers don’t think about the curriculum comprehensively.
We don’t have enough time to think about what pedagogical visions the curriculum
reform implies. Most teachers, except for curriculum advisors, have not read the
curriculum policy document carefully. To tell you the truth, I am not prepared to tell
you this moment what the learner-centred learning means . . . . I know I use my own
approach depending on the circumstances and the level of class rather than trying out
the new approach proposed by the curricular reform.
Lee also expressed confusion and uncertainty about the nature of learner-centred
education. Her concept of learner-centred education was limited to group-work or activity-
based teaching methods. Despite the pedagogical vision involved in learner-centred
education, she narrowly describes it as a teaching strategy, without an understanding of it
in a more comprehensive sense, as a direction in education. These teachers’ quotes make it
clear that teachers do not understand the ideas behind the new curriculum.
The teachers related their limited understanding of the ideas behind the curriculum
reforms to the question of the teachers’ work overload, indicating that teachers’ heavy
workload prevented them from devoting time and energy to working for the curricular
changes. Overall, the teachers have been charged with implementing a curriculum which
they have not fully grasped on theoretical and practical levels. Without a profound
understanding of the ideas behind the curricular reforms and without a clear vision of their
goals, the teachers were unlikely to implement the ideas behind the reforms in their day-to-
day practice in an educationally relevant and meaningful way.

2. The ideas behind the reforms are valuable, but I don’t care
Some teachers had mixed feelings about the curricular reforms. They viewed the new
curriculum as suggesting a positive and bright future for their students and agreed with the
curricular changes. However, they also expressed disinterest in the reforms and a low level
of motivation. This is a big concern because teachers’ paying attention to the substance
behind the reforms is fundamental to successful implementation and the quality of
education in general. The participant teachers discussed a number of reasons for this,
including lack of in-service programmes for teachers, the conservative teacher culture,
resentment toward curriculum developers, and cultural constraints.
Lack of in-service professional development for teachers was cited as the main cause
of low teacher motivation. The teachers were convinced that the reforms were
appropriate and valuable for learners, but this does not mean that they know how to teach
accordingly. The teachers unanimously felt that the provided in-service training
programmes merely passed on the information of major curricular changes and failed to
build bridges to classroom reality and practice. Lee mentions that teacher training did not
enable teachers to develop the knowledge, skills and attitude necessary for effective
There is in-service training programme once or two times when curriculum is reformed.
But I don’t find it helpful at all. It usually focuses on generic information about the
curriculum. It is too theoretical with very little practical guidelines on how to perform the
curriculum. Reform ideas are just presented, and I’m supposed to figure out what to do with
them. When I get back in the classroom after the programme, I have to start everything all
24 M. Park and Y.-K. Sung

myself. It’s frustrating. I need more training workshops, conferences, or courses until I’m able
to implement reform ideas with a clear vision of them.
Further, there were very few opportunities for teachers to work together with their
colleagues to discuss critical classroom issues and devise ways to ensure implementation.
How teachers involved themselves in curricular reform was left to their discretion.
Accordingly, the teachers felt extremely alone and isolated in the implementation of ideas
that seemed essential if they were to reform the core of their practice. Jin describes the
teachers’ culture as being unsupportive of sustained investigation of the curricular agenda:
When the 7th curriculum started to be enacted in schools, I had many questions about it as a
beginning teacher. But nobody was willing to help me. The experienced teachers were not
pleased to discuss the curricular agenda and implementation problems. When I participated in
classroom observation, I asked how this class enacted and embraced the innovations intended
by the 7th national curriculum. Other teachers looked at me as if to say, ‘It is stupid of you to
raise such a disturbing question.’ Their class observation mainly focused on how the flow of
the class went, how the class drew out student participation and motivation, and how
assessment was performed. They were not interested in how much new curricular ideas were
enacted. They didn’t discuss curricular agenda much.
Han echoed this sentiment, indicating that teachers generally work in a very
conservative culture. According to her, teachers have a tendency to avoid discussing,
thinking about, or committing themselves to more fundamental changes that might affect
the context of what they do or raise substantial questions about how they teach. Further,
doing things differently from other teachers is not encouraged and praised. Lee shared her
experience that when she tried out something new in her discretionary activity class, other
teachers seemed not to appreciate it. Although she asked for help from the other peer
teachers, they were not willing to give her any. She was left alone to do everything on her
own, such as developing lesson plans, rescheduling the timetable, reporting to parents, and
so on. It frustrated and bothered her and resulted in low motivation for continued change.
She mentioned that this isolation is part of the reason why teachers are content to go along
with prevailing trends, rather than being reform-minded.
Another factor limiting teacher engagement is resentment of curriculum developers,
who are not acquainted with classroom situations. Teachers have resentment and mistrust
towards adopting curriculum reforms suggested or mandated by those who are external to
the classroom setting. The participant teachers complained that curriculum developers
often impose standards that do not fit well in classrooms. Park disclosed this in the
following way:
We, teachers, have a strong anger for curriculum developers who are mostly scholars.
Curriculum developers have rarely taught kids in classrooms. They don’t know the reality.
They borrow western theories with little recognition of classroom context. They are pursuing
idealistic aims that are often based upon what is regarded as good practice in western countries
without a consideration of the current our human and financial capacity to achieve it.
Curricular change is demanded by curriculum developers. Teachers are less likely to take
ownership of the reform process. It makes us feel threatened, defensive, and perhaps rushed.
Related to this issue, the teachers had a strong doubt about how much authority would
be transferred to them, despite the fact that the emergence of school-based curriculum
development began to advocate the central role of teachers in curriculum decisions. Han
mentioned that the top-down nature of the reform process and the Korean authoritative
structure of curriculum development made it difficult for teachers to feel they “own” the
reform process. According to her, teachers technically have less autonomy regarding
the curriculum within the classroom as well as within the system because they are
Asia Pacific Journal of Education 25

expected to follow the predetermined curriculum framework and teach from government-
published textbooks. This has led teachers to view curricular reforms as merely external
pressure, which has resulted in low morale.
Teachers are also confronted with a variety of cultural constraints that limit
implementation, such as the traditional perception of the textbook, achievement-oriented
students and parents, the teacher’s role as the controller of students, bureaucratic
management of the curriculum, standardized tests, and so on. To cite one example, Kang
notes how schools and parents stress teaching the content of the entire textbook, without
freedom to experiment:
Deference to textbooks has been deeply ingrained in students and parents. If some part of the
textbook is left uncovered or replaced with other content, students and parents assert that
teachers are ‘not teaching’. They believe that covering all the contents in textbooks is
essential. Thus, despite the emphasis on teachers’ curriculum reconstruction, we are reluctant
to actively reconstruct or reorganize the curriculum.
This myth underlying the textbook restricts teachers’ autonomy over the curriculum.
In particular, because the standardized tests are taken from the national curriculum,
teachers have no choice but to cover all the contents in the textbooks and so have little
discretion to reconstruct the curriculum’s contents.

So far, we have described how Korean elementary school teachers perceive curricular
reform and their implementation. They generally viewed curricular reform as extra work,
and they showed little motivation to implement it. This general attitude has caused both
limited implementation and non-implementation of the reforms. This suggests to us that it
is important to think about how to support teachers actively and effectively, so that they
are receptive to change. Several issues have evolved from our analysis: first, teachers are
insufficiently provided with professional development programmes for curricular
implementation; second, teachers lack opportunities to work with peer teachers on
problems and difficulties with implementing curricular reform; and third, there are
contextual and cultural constraints hampering implementation.

1. Insufficient professional development

I hate it when I go to in-service training. The instructors present things that make no sense.
They just bring ideas and say ‘Well here, maybe you want to try this.’ I just sit there and listen
with little commitment to learn. Moreover, it is just a half-day programme. Apart from the
occasional local in-service training or an annual or bi-annual programme, systematic in-
service training is largely nonexistent. (Jang)
It should be noted that both prior to and after the implementation of the new
curriculum, no in-service teacher training has been systematically provided. The teachers
in this study expressed grave dissatisfaction with the quality and quantity of their training.
While the teachers reported attending in-service teacher training and workshops in support
of the new curriculum, they also underscored the insufficiency of these programmes in
enabling their understanding of and ability to enact the curriculum. The duration of the
training is viewed as too short. Most teacher-training is comprised of relatively short-term
programmes, involving several hours or days of workshops, with limited follow-up
activities. Further, information is merely passed out at the workshops, and for the most
part, teachers remain passive listeners. In other words, the workshops on the curricular
26 M. Park and Y.-K. Sung

reforms are themselves conducted in the old, traditional ways instead of acting as real-life
The problems of teacher training in Korea have been indicated in many studies
(Cho, 1999; Kim, 2003; Kim, 2007). As mentioned previously, the teachers in this study
complained that they understood nothing from the training they received or were very
confused about what they were expected to do with the new curriculum. Some were not
convinced of its benefits and the areas in which it could make a difference in education
quality. As a consequence, teachers in general do not feel well-equipped to implement the
new curriculum.
Lacking opportunities to equip themselves with the knowledge, skills and attitudes
necessary for successful implementation of the new curriculum, it is difficult to see how
teachers can work effectively with it. Many participant teachers admitted that they simply
repackaged their traditional lessons in terms of new goals and resorted to their own ways
of teaching in the absence of enough knowledge and skill to implement in new ways.
When questioned about any changes in their teaching practice in following the new
curriculum, the teachers appeared not to notice any significant differences. This implies
that they implemented the new curriculum in ways that involved few, or no, changes to the
core of their practice.
Another significant issue related to teacher professional development is that it is
typically a one-off event where reform ideas are presented and teachers are offered no
ongoing or sustained support for implementation (Cho, 1999). The teachers in this study
maintained that they had few opportunities to test their understanding of key reform ideas
and to inquire about the implementation process. Although they had questions with regard
to the reform ideas and they were confronted with difficulties and problems during the
implementation process, it was difficult for them to get help and support.
It would be naı̈ve to think that teachers can quickly master the new curriculum without
any conflict. The implementation of the new curriculum is subject to a constant process of
adaptation and modification, as teachers find a balance between the goals of the new
curriculum, their own skill and understanding, and the contexts in which they operate
(Fullan, 2007; Huberman, 1992; Spillane, 1999). This is an ongoing process, in which
teachers learn, unlearn and relearn the curriculum. As emphasized by Fullan and Miles
(1992), “Change is a process of coming to grips with the new personal meaning, and so it is
a learning process” (p. 746).
This implies that teacher training should be based upon a continual learning process
and not short-term unsystematic training sessions. If teachers are asked to change the core
of their practice, they should be provided with ongoing in-service training to cope with
problems and difficulties encountered in the implementation process. Introducing
curricular reform should not be the end of the reform process but the beginning of a

2. Lack of peer support for solving problems and resolving difficulties in curricular
reform implementation
Even 15 years ago when I started teaching, teachers did a lot of talking together. When we had
recess or lunch, we enjoyed talking about what was going on in the classroom: ‘Well, this is
what happened when we worked on division today’, ‘I come up with the idea’,of how to teach
students who seemed to have little interest in learning’, or ‘Here is an effective strategy to
implement this curricular idea,’ and so on. I had learned a lot from these formal and informal
conversations with peer teachers. Among other things, my colleagues were a major source of
my professional development. We helped each other grow. However, recently teachers have
Asia Pacific Journal of Education 27

become more individualized; they are swamped with an increased workload, which decreases
conversation and dialogue. I’m missing the time I spent with them. (Park)
The teachers in this study indicated a lack of peer support for solving problems and
resolving difficulties in curricular reform implementation as being a crucial cause of their
lack of commitment to implementation. It is clear from the interviews we conducted
that the teachers’ implementation efforts are very much solo affairs. For example,
Jin previously described how teachers rarely discussed or shared amongst themselves their
attempts to modify their classes. Lee and Park also agreed that they were left to work out
problems, difficulties and dilemmas encountered during implementation on their own with
little collaboration among peer teachers.
In contrast, many studies show that teachers gain insight into how to put curricular
ideas into actual implementation by collaborating with peers (Briscoe & Peters, 1997;
Rosenholtz, 1989; Spillane, 1999). Rosenholtz (1989) provides evidence on behalf of this
point, arguing that non-collaborative schools tend to be marred by cynicism and routinized
practice, while collaborative ones support continuous change: teachers interact freely,
pooling understanding to improve educational practice (pp. 41– 70). In her study of
Korean teachers’ experience of reconstructing the national curriculum, Seo (2009)
suggests that effective implementation of a reconstructed curriculum can be facilitated
when peer support exists and when teachers feel free to express their own doubts and
concerns. Fullan (2007) continues this line of reasoning and suggests that collaborative
work cultures raise morale, increase teacher enthusiasm, and help get things done:
It [a collaborative work culture] helps reduce the professional isolation of teachers, allowing
the codification and sharing of successful practices and the provision of support . . . Working
together has the potential of raising morale and enthusiasm, opening the door to
experimentation and increased sense of efficacy . . . Constant communication and joint work
provide the continuous pressure and support necessary for getting things done. (pp. 152– 154)
Collectively, these studies argue that it is important to provide teachers with
opportunities to talk with each other and work together to best serve curricular
implementation and to keep schooling vibrant and relevant.
Many teachers in this study indicated that sustained interaction among peer teachers is
a significant source of their learning and professional development. For example, Park
claimed that it was through formal and informal conversations with her colleagues in
school that she was able to build her knowledge and skills for effective implementation.
According to her, because those conversations were grounded in the actual
implementation process, they provided her with the practical knowledge necessary for
the implementation of the new curricular ideas. However, she mentioned that daily
conversations and casual dialogues among teachers decreased as the heavy workload
promoted isolation. She suggested creating a school climate in which teachers are
encouraged to talk and collaborate with peer teachers to clarify the theoretical and
practical aspects of the actual implementation of curricular ideas and to refine their
understanding of what they are expected to do with them.
Evident from this study is that this is not an easy task considering the individualism,
privatism and conservatism of teacher culture (Lortie, 1975). Traditionally, schools have
been isolating places for teachers to work. As mentioned earlier, the participant teachers
described a feeling of separation from one another. Busy schedules, heavy course loads
and additional duties make it difficult for teachers to make the time to talk and work
together; these things accelerate teacher isolation and individualism.
28 M. Park and Y.-K. Sung

Further, teaching is viewed as an individual and private activity, rather than a

collective and collaborative one (Kim, 2003). As Little (1982) mentions, participant
teachers argue that the privatism of teaching discourages them from seeking and giving
advice among themselves and leads them to shy away from colleagues’ judgement and
criticism. For teachers to engage in active change, the norm of privacy that dominates
teacher culture must be replaced with one of collaboration and deliberation about a
curriculum and its implementation, making teachers more receptive to and engaged in the
curricular reform.
Overall, effective implementation of curricular reform is more likely to occur when
collaborative working relationships are established between teachers. This suggests that
whether, as well as the extent to which, teachers implement reforms will depend not only
on teachers’ individual capacities, but also on the social capacity that creates and supports
continuing discussion and daily conversations about curricular ideas. Spillane (1999), in
this respect, emphasizes a “social enactment zone” that enables teachers to develop
understanding of reform ideas and to revise their core practice through collaboration and
conversation with colleagues. An exclusive focus on teacher learning opportunities that
target individual teachers may be misguided. This suggests that building teachers’ learning
communities is crucial to encouraging teachers’ willingness, participation and cooperation
(Loucks-Horsley et al., 1998), and, consequently, to supporting an effective
implementation process.

3. Contextual and socio-cultural constraints

Based upon my experience, the paradox of curricular reform is that curriculum developers
require many things of teachers, but there is little consideration of constraints affecting the
process of implementation. They are less inclined to allocate resources crucial to making the
kinds of changes curricular reforms envision and to consider why teachers are reluctant to
implement them. Unfortunately, there appears to be a weak system of support for teachers in
their effort to implement new curricular ideas. (Kang)
This study endorses the notion that curricular implementation is complex and requires
an investigation (and potentially revision) of contextual and cultural constraints embedded
in the school (Fullan, 2007; McLaughlin, 1987; Rosenholtz, 1989). As Klein (1994)
argues, curriculum reform must occur in concert with other social changes in order for
them to have a significant and long-lasting effect. From this study, it is evident that in the
launching of the new curriculum, certain critical contextual considerations requiring more
attention were neglected, such as lack of adequate resources necessary for implementation
and teachers’ workload. The teachers questioned whether the resources for implementing
the new curriculum would really be made available – and, in fact, despite the increasing
expectations and demands placed upon teachers by the new curriculum, the resources
allocated to them were not enough for their needs. This insufficiency of resources
(teachers, materials, space) was cited as one of the causes of the teachers’ limited
implementation of the new curriculum. The participant teachers viewed the new
requirements as irreconcilable and unachievable without allocating the necessary physical
and human resources. If extraordinary resources are not levied in support of efforts to
implement the new curriculum, the promise of deep reform is dim.
In addition, the participant teachers complained that the sum total of their existing
responsibilities required more work than the number of work hours in a day. Given their
daily busy work schedule, any type of reform could easily be seen as a highly frustrating
and overwhelming imposition. Without changes in their workload, the curriculum reform
would only further intensify their work. Clearly, the structure of teachers’ work has not
Asia Pacific Journal of Education 29

been addressed as part of the reform effort. The persistence of teacher criticisms of
workload suggests a need to take such concerns seriously. Fundamental issues of teacher
work conditions should be addressed before reforms are implemented.
Further, cultural constraints impact not only school culture, but reform. Tyack and
Tobin (1994) term “the grammar of schooling”. Grammar underpins the culture of schools
and is reinforced by customs, rituals, ceremonies and artefacts of everyday school life
(Deal & Kennedy, 1982). It plays an important role in the implementation process because
it influences teachers’ decision-making. Many factors contribute to the strength and
persistence of the traditional grammar of Korean elementary schools, as mentioned
previously: the assessment system, textbooks, teachers who are trained in and have
developed long-standing attachments to the traditional way of teaching, and the privatism
of teaching (Kim, 2004; Seo, 2009). The Korean educational context was, and still
continues to be, highly teacher-centred. The teachers, not having being trained in and used
to such an approach, consider implementation – with its emphasis on learner-centred
principles – problematic and unfeasible.
The latter implies that implementation of a curriculum cannot be considered in
isolation from the culture in which it is to be implemented. Similar trends have been
reported in other work. For example, Fullan (2007) points to the understanding of the
relation between school culture and educational change, stressing the importance of
linking contextual cultures found within a school with reform efforts. If a curriculum is to
be meaningful to teachers, it should address the range of challenges that confront teachers
and acknowledge the mundane realities of curriculum implementation. Without taking
these issues into account, reform efforts are likely to create a push-pull process, with
outsiders pushing and teachers resisting.

Teachers’ perceived meanings of curriculum reform play a significant role in their attention
to, reception of, and understanding of reform ideas and consequently determine reform
success. This study has shown that teachers are generally critical of the 7th national
curriculum and attach unconstructive meanings to it. These formulations negatively impact
implementation. This is not meant to imply that the curriculum is itself complete, whereas
the teachers are problematic. Instead, it is fair to say that it is imperative to understand the
cause of teachers’ indifference to and resistance against curricular reform. Thus, this study
raises several issues to be considered for implementation support for teachers: insufficient
teacher professional development, lack of peer support for implementation problems and
difficulties, and contextual and socio-cultural constraints. Based upon these findings, we
make several suggestions for teacher educators and curriculum policymakers.
Firstly, this study reveals that teachers are left alone to struggle with the challenges and
difficulties they encounter during the implementation process. The participant teachers
expressed dissatisfaction with in-service teacher training and workshops in that those
programmes are not sufficient and are too short to deal with many aspects of the reform.
It is therefore suggested that teacher training needs to be systematic, ongoing, and
developmental, rather than piecemeal. Based upon the findings of this study, we
recommend two-way training systems: one should connect the innovations with the
realities of the specific school context; the other should provide the opportunity to reflect
on the meaning of the innovation and its implementation away from the pressure of daily
routines. Furthermore, our findings suggest that a successful teacher training programme
should address teacher attitude and shifts in teachers’ perspectives regarding curriculum,
30 M. Park and Y.-K. Sung

pedagogy and assessment that must accompany implementation. Curricular reform is

intended to bring about changes in teacher knowledge and practices that are closely linked
to motivational attitudes. If teacher training does not promote changes in teachers’
attitudes and perspectives on the new curriculum, the intended reform cannot be realized.
In addition to in-service education, this study demonstrates that administrative and peer
support plays a significant role in facilitating implementation and seriously affects teachers’
decisions to innovate in the classroom. The participant teachers in this study stress the
importance of collaborative working relationships with colleagues. Through collaboration,
teachers can talk through and eliminate the natural fears and difficulties that arise with any
meaningful curricular change. Policymakers and administrators need to promote and help
develop a school culture that encourages teachers to work together to practice new
curricular ideas and resolve practical problems experienced during implementation.
Secondly, this study suggests that policymakers propose curricular reform that takes
into account the preconditions for this reform. It is evident from this study that curricular
reform is officially proposed, but the national authority concerns itself little with
implementation. Curricular reform tends to unfold in a piecemeal way, without addressing
issues of teacher motivation, commitment, and contextual and cultural constraints.
Throughout the interviews, teachers frequently referenced the many constraints and
problems they faced in their everyday teaching. All of the teachers in this study indicated
that their heavy workload constrains implementation, but the reduction of workload has
not been addressed in the reform effort. It seems to be expected that curricular innovation
could happen almost overnight, despite teachers’ and schools’ lack of capacity. No effort
was made to map out a series of smaller steps that might be undertaken towards eventual
implementation. We suggest that policy-makers listen to teachers, who derive their
intimate knowledge from the local context of implementation, from their knowledge of
students, available resources, and the practicalities of their work.
Thirdly, this study recommends that policymakers make more effort to get a consensus
from teachers on the importance of curricular changes. Changes are best achieved when
teachers voluntarily participate in the curricular reforms that they perceive as being
meaningful and important for children. Successful implementation is not so much
compliance with the government’s plan as making sense of the outcomes of a change and
then facilitating these outcomes. Policymakers should not alienate teachers. If teachers
feel they are the targets of reform, policymakers will not be able to avoid another push-pull
cycle. Governmental or local educational authorities, policymakers and professional
development facilitators need to maintain a close working relationship with teachers,
so that they can learn more about teachers’ difficulties relating to the reforms.

This work was supported by a grant from the Kyung Hee University in 2010 (KHU-20100125).

1. Korea has a national curriculum, which has been revised regularly in accordance with a 5- to
10-year cycle since the first revision in 1954/1955. The 7th national curriculum suggested
significant changes compared with previous curricula, such as curricular autonomy for teachers
and schools, a differentiated curriculum and the emphasis of a learner-centred approach. The
revised 7th national curriculum introduced in 2009 is the current one in place. This study mainly
focuses on teachers’ experiences with implementing the 7th national curriculum, since it is an
overall education reform plan, the main ideas of which are still operational.
Asia Pacific Journal of Education 31

2. The Korean elementary curriculum consists of subjects, discretional activities and extracurricular
activities. The 7th national curriculum’s curriculum allocates 68 hours for discretional activities
in the elementary school curriculum, 136 h for the middle school curriculum and 204 hours for the
high school curriculum.
3. Learner-centred education has become a popular catchword in elementary school since the
6th national curriculum introduced open-classroom movement. However it is emphasized more
as a leading principle in the 7th curriculum.
4. An elective-centred curriculum is implemented for two years (grades 11 and 12).

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