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  • Tom Oakley

Thinking Curriculum (1)

Your school’s curriculum reflects what you value and your aspirations for the students you teach and the community. It should address what your students need by making the most of what your team can provide. Therefore, curriculum is everyone's business because everyone has a role to play in making sure it turns out how we want it to.

With that in mind, it’s worth clearly stating that curriculum is not limited to the list of statements in the National Curriculum, nor is it confined to the schemes or textbooks you use. It includes the way you connect ideas between subjects and topics, and all of the things you do to enrich learning for students so that they develop the knowledge, skills and understanding they need.

In this post, I’ll briefly explain my simple mental model for curriculum, teaching and learning which, incidentally, formed the headings of my subject leadership folder because (in my view) it encapsulates our why, what, how, when and if in a fairly concise way. I’ll also pose some questions to support your thinking.

The 6-part model

The model consists of 6 inter-connected components: context, curriculum coherence, assessment, planning, teaching and learning.

Context - Context in this sense means thinking about what your community of learners need and what your team can offer (the collective expertise you have) including the resources/facilities you have access to. These factors should influence your curriculum planning.

In my subject leadership folder, this included the school SEF, recent data and the subject action plan. Anything that summarise the children’s needs and staff strengths.

Q: Which mechanisms do you have in place to find out what your students need?

Curriculum coherence - If curriculum is the means for providing what your community needs, then curriculum coherence is about ensuring that this done in a joined-up and effective way. This can feel like too much to think about at once, so I frame my thinking around four E’s: expectations, engagement, enhancement and enrichment. This enables us to consider not only what we do, but why we do it. This will be explained in more detail in a future post.

In my subject leadership folder the curriculum section included the subject curriculum statement and policies, progression maps, yearly overviews and links to the NC and resources to support teacher subject knowledge.

Q: What can your teachers use to help them to see how learning in one topic or year group links to the next?

Assessment - this is fundamentally linked to curriculum expectations and I believe we should measure what we value, not just measure what is easy. I’ve already touched on this and the importance of finding out what pupils know before planning for teaching. You can read my three-piece series looking at pre-topic assessments, in-lesson formative assessment and post-topic summative assessments to find out more.

In the assessment section of my subject leadership folder, you’d find an overview to outline what teachers need to assess (core knowledge and statutory expectations), as well as guidance to inform when and how they’d do this. You would also find a summary of recent data, to be shared at the next full governing body meeting.

Q: Which information do you gather to inform planning?

Planning - long-term, then medium-term and short-term planning helps to make the enormous curriculum journey more understandable as a series of shorter routes with clear landmarks and turn-by-turn navigation - which should help teachers to reflect on the actions required to take the children from where they are now to where they need to go next and after. But planning is much more than just a series of documents, it’s the thought process we go through when we decide what will be taught when and how. This will be explained in more detail in a series of future posts.

In my subject leadership folder the planning section included annotated medium term plans and guidance supporting teachers with adapting planning to address misconceptions and meet the needs of students with gaps - as identified through assessment analysis.

Q: If ‘planning is a thought process’, do all of your teachers think along the same lines when planning? How do you aid this?

Teaching - if planning is where our preparation and mental rehearsal takes place then teaching is the ‘live performance’, but despite our best curriculum mapping etc. it’s not an exact science and is more like an expert improvisation than a scripted show - which is why two teachers using the same plan won’t exactly teach the same lesson.

In the teaching section of the subject leadership folder you would find notes and information used to support colleagues’ CPD and the records of coaching sessions with teachers.

Q: How could you exemplify what good teaching looks like in your subject?

Learning - it’s what we are talking about when we say “we want to keep the main thing the main thing”, however the reason it appears last in the list because it’s highly dependent on the interplay of the other aforementioned components. Considering learning on its own means losing sight of the big picture. The learning section of my subject leadership folder would include notes from conversations with students about their learning, examples of learning from book monitoring and supportive documents for parents and careers who want to help at home.

Q: How do you know that learning is taking place and not merely performance of the steps to success?

These six components and questions help me to think about why we do what we do. The subject leadership folder helped me to keep track of the things I might want to refer back to when updating the subject action plan or when contributing to the school SEF. I know that leadership folders aren’t universal, or often physical folders any more, but I found mine invaluable.

Your mental model

When working with subject leaders, I ask them to think about their mental model for curriculum, teaching and learning and, as you would imagine, no two subject leaders describe exactly the same thing. Do you have a clear idea of what the components of your model are and do you see similarities to mine?

I wonder if you sketched this model, would it be a hierarchy, a flow chart, a spiderweb or a series of cogs? Feel free to draw and share at @thinkingcpd on Twitter.

This blog will return soon with posts about understanding our context, coherent curriculum design (my “four E’s“) and developing effective planning. Stay tuned.

Recommended reading

If you’re on Twitter and interested in reading what some of the things the edu-Twitter folk are talking about when it comes to curriculum, consider following Mary Myatt’s Curriculum list - or read one of Mary’s blog posts. If you can, go and attend a workshop or webinar of hers. I find that she’s always worth a read or a listen.

Recommended listening

If you enjoy a podcast and are interested in hearing how school leaders are shaping their curriculum, have a listen to the Thinking Deeply About Primary Education podcast. There’s some very thought-provoking conversations about whole-school curriculum transformation as well as subject-specific discussions. Link to Amazon music, but available wherever you get your podcasts from.

What’s queued on my YouTube ’to watch list’

Dylan Wiliam at ResearchEd 2020 -

Neil Almond on Curriculum Coherence -

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