Thinking Curriculum (3): Ten Questions
Previously, I shared my mental model for thinking about curriculum, teaching and learning. The model consists of six components: context, curriculum, assessment, planning, teaching and learning.
In the last post, I expanded on what I mean when I think about the importance of knowing your context because it should influence the what, how, why, who and when in your practice.
Remember, who you are and where you are makes your school unique and therefore even if your school and another had the same ‘intended curriculum’, it won’t be the same ‘experienced or lived curriculum’.
Things to think about
⚙️ Know your setting, including your children’s needs, colleagues’ strengths and the potential and limitations of your on-site facilities
🧭 Identify the core principles that guide you in achieving what you intend for your community - the “why” or belief system
🪞 Reflect on how you will need to adapt things that may have worked elsewhere, to work as effectively within your context … and think about how your curriculum will need to evolve with your children over time.
In this post, I will shine a light on curriculum coherence and frame my thinking around four E’s: expectations, engagement, enhancement and enrichment; to pose 10 questions for school leaders.
Curriculum coherence has, in recent years, been the talk of the town on edu-Twitter and you can now devour many blogs, books, webinars, Twitter threads and podcasts on the subject.
Whatever you’ve read, I think you’re unlikely to have found many who would say that curriculum coherence is a bad idea or unhelpful aim. But we know that having a target isn’t enough, especially a complicated one.
No, if we want to achieve a complex target we need to do more than identify it. I think it’s helpful to use a framework to support our thinking and therefore to guide our practice.
Thinking about each of the areas below begins with thinking about the children we have, not the mythical ‘average child’. After all, design begins with the audience and purpose, not the product.
Expectations (or core content)
1. What do we know about our children’s starting point and needs? Point A
2. What do we expect them to learn by the time they leave us? Point Z
3. Which steps are required to identify Point A and help our students make progress from Point A to Z?
The first two questions are easier to answer if we know our context and we understand the curriculum… However, the third question can be really difficult to contemplate if you and your team aren’t subject specialists or constantly reading up on curriculum content in your own time.
This is not me saying we should change primary to a secondary model, but it is an admission that it’s hard to design a curriculum without expertise including knowledge of subject-specific pedagogy. This is particularly the case in smaller schools, where the team may consist of three or four teachers. Even in larger settings it‘s a big ask to expect the team to have all of the necessary subject knowledge and subject-specific pedagogical understanding to break the National Curriculum statutory requirements into a series of small steps - steps that take a 4 or 5 year old from a starting point of complete ‘unknowing’ to a 10 or 11 year old with ‘reasoned understanding’; but we are expected to do so.
And even then, once we have the steps, that’s not enough.
It’s important to sequence these steps in the order that represents a ‘best bet’ for supporting our students to make progress from what they join us knowing towards a deep understanding or ‘mastery’ by the time they leave.
If you want to read more about sequencing the curriculum content and identifying the key expectations for each topic or year group, I’d suggest starting with this blog post by Neil Almond: https://nutsaboutteaching.wordpress.com/2019/05/02/ramble-9-teamboxset-warning-game-of-thrones-spoilers/
Sequencing by itself is a big ask and almost impossible if we try it alone. I certainly wouldn’t know where to begin if asked to do this for RE, music, geography or phonics without a lot of help.
But before seeking this help, it’s important to gather a picture of our starting point - e.g., if our community has a strong connection to one religious community, for example, then the children are likely to already know a lot more than the ‘average student’ and this must be factored in to any curriculum planning.
Once we know our starting point and the small steps from A to Z (almost certainly with help from knowledgeable colleagues across the profession and in professional associations), we should aim to know the key concepts and milestones for each subject that we teach.
To make this curriculum journey a possibility an important step we must take so we can help ourselves is signposting where we can read up on this subject matter to develop our own subject knowledge and understanding.
My first recommended port of call for this would be the subject associations. In addition to this, there are many helpful colleagues on Twitter who could help with suggestions if you’re looking to build a professional library for developing subject knowledge and pedagogical understanding. Don’t be afraid to seek them out and ask for their suggestions of books, videos and podcasts or even to recommend the best scheme to use as a starting point.
Things to think about
💭 If you or your team doesn’t have the subject knowledge or subject specific pedagogical understanding, seek it out from experts in the short term and aim to develop in-house expertise over time.
🔭 If you buy or make a scheme, first take a good look at the big picture and identify connected concepts and prerequisite knowledge from across subject areas to support sequencing.
🔬 When zooming in on planning on a specific topic or lesson, think carefully about which prior learning to revisit and knowledge and skills to draw on. How will you know the children remember this from their previous learning?
🎛 Build in flexibility (within ‘safe limits’) so that curriculum planning and resources are adaptable to different classes and supportive enough for new colleagues.
Since my first draft for this post, back in November, Adam Smith (@MrSmithRE) has created a compendium of resources to support teacher subject knowledge in all subject areas - inspired by the TDaPE podcast. Find out more here: https://twitter.com/mrsmithre/status/1472265412909969415?s=21
Engagement, enhancement and enrichment
These next three pillars of curriculum are less commonly considered than coherence and expectations, but I believe they’re worthy of just as much deep thought because they’re the elements that go beyond the scheme of work and start with the student as a child not a vessel to be filled with things to know.
Engagement (or context-relevance and curriculum significance)
4. Why should the children care about, or pay attention to, this unit of work?
5. Which adaptations might be required to make this learning context-appropriate and age-appropriate?
6. How and when will the children think about this and use their learning after the topic has ended?
To make learning stick, we must have something to stick it to. Think about coherence not just from a ‘coherent within itself’ perspective but most importantly a ‘coherent to the children’ perspective. Can children in Year 1 really make sense of the Gunpowder Plot or the life of Queen Victoria?
Probably not. Not yet anyway.
Therefore, if I’m teaching history in KS1, I’m going to want children to first explore a personal chronology and help them to look back on events in their lifetime and take a look at the objects that tell us these things happened. Then we can think about the events that happened in someone else’s lifetime. From there, we give children a starting point for thinking about chronology, cause and effect and perspective - albeit a limited one, for now.
It’s also important to think (bonus question 5a) Will the children know enough already to grasp the significance of what we’re learning about? When I taught on an island in Thailand I knew that it wouldn’t have been context appropriate (relevant or relatable) to teach about the The Tudors without some considerable exposition beforehand. But even then, I had to consider whether the learning would be useful in the future (see question 6).
As you can see I’m not talking about task engagement in the ‘Isn’t it lovely that the children are busy doing something’ kind of way. I mean curriculum engagement from an attention, motivation and relevance point of view.
Peps McCrea has written an interesting thread about this, which you can read here: https://twitter.com/pepsmccrea/status/1452699108658065411?s=21
Things to think about
🧐 Consider how your curriculum design aligns with what is known about how we learn, such as building on prior learning, breaking new learning into smaller steps and planned revisiting to name a few.
📌 Curriculum significance involves thinking about the important ideas to keep coming back to. Think about how you can help children to revisit significant ideas before they’re relevant or required again.
🤔 Identify which aspects of the curriculum might be most difficult to relate to and think about how to overcome this when planning the unit of work.
Enhancement (or curriculum connectedness)
7. How can we make meaningful connections between our context and curriculum content?
8. How can we help children to bring together ideas from several subjects?
It can be highly advantageous for children to make meaningful connections between their learning in several curriculum areas. For instance, learning about a historical period or event can make more sense to the children if they have an idea of what came before and if they can make connections to learning about relevant themes in geography, art and RE if they exist.
However, that doesn’t mean that all of these connected ideas need to be learnt at the same time. Whilst cross-curricular topics can be inspiring and interesting to plan, they’re no guarantee of understanding. Try to make it clear what it is you want the main concept or idea to be, because if we try to think about too many things at once we end up thinking about none of them well.
In short, think about purposeful ‘connectedness’ between subjects that supports sense making, and prevents a muddling of ideas. Find a balance by identifying which connections are most worthwhile, and when to make them.
If you would like to think a bit more about curriculum connectedness, you absolutely must give this recent blog post by Lekha Sharma a read: https://teacherfeature2.com/2021/12/01/curriculum-connectedness/
Things to think about
💡 What is the main idea or theme of the unit of work and which other areas of learning will help children to make sense of this?
📚 Which areas of prior learning must be revisited and how can we make this clear in the curriculum planning to support teachers who haven’t taught that specific unit or ‘prerequisite concept’?
Enrichment (or curriculum richness and depth)
9. What is the best way (how and when, with what) for children to get hands-on or up-close to this topic matter to make it real?
10. If this is the only time children will get to learn about this, how long does this topic really need to be more than just sufficient but truly rich?
Picking up and delivering a scheme ‘off the peg’ without a little elaboration and imagination means you’re unlikely to do the topic or the children justice. Beginning with a scheme might be a good start, but the scheme alone is unlikely to be sufficient.
For clarity, I don’t mean just adding ‘fluff’. I mean adding substance to make the learning experience richer and to inspire children to think more deeply. An education we’d want our own sons and daughters to enjoy.
Ask yourself, Will this scheme give our children the experience they deserve? After all, they only get one shot at it. So let’s add some depth and not forget to have fun.
Most of the things we teach in history, art or DT might never be studied again by these students...unless they go on to study it at A Level or university. So what can we do to make it as rich as possible?
I have two tips:
> plan for meaningful experiences
> and take enough time to do it well
Experiences, such as field trips or visits to a museum can be great if they’re meaningful, memorable and well-timed. I’ve found that trips are much more rewarding towards the middle or end of a topic when children have enough basic knowledge to be interested and inspired. Too early in a unit and children can miss the significance or the potential moment of ‘awe and wonder’.
Equally, a topic or unit can lack richness if it’s fleeting and over all too soon. Curriculum planning is often constrained to the half-termly or termly structure, but who is to say this is the right amount of time? Surely not all units of work will take exactly 6 or 12 weeks, will they?
This might mean restructuring the curriculum plan. We could, for example, choose to study 2 longer units of work per foundation subject, per year, instead of the more traditional 3 shorter units. That way you’re more likely to achieve what you want without compromise. Is it radical? No. Not really, but maybe a change worth thinking about if your topics are over all too soon.
If you’d like to read more about curriculum implementation and sequencing, then I’d recommend these two posts from Emma Turner: https://thinkingflexibly.com/2021/11/15/curriculum-the-forth-bridge-and-gluesticks/ and https://thinkingflexibly.com/2021/11/27/the-interconnected-curriculum-the-difference-between-bricks-and-mortar/
If you’d like to think more about curriculum pace, read this post by Mary Myatt https://www.marymyatt.com/blog/curriculum-pace
Things to think about
👷♂️ Build in practical experiences, such as geography field work or a museum trip, or visitors or theme days, because they are powerful means for helping children make sense of what they’ve been thinking about so far.
👮♀️ Don’t forget to make enough time to enjoy the learning without it being a rush.
This was going to be four short blog posts, in the end I bit the bullet and wrote it as one longer piece. If you stayed with it until the end, thank you.
(TLDR) In summary, my thoughts on curriculum coherence could be reduced down these questions:
How does your curriculum reflect your context?
How will your students come to understand the big ideas you want them to through what you teach, how and when you teach and revisit it?
Is the content of your planned with children in mind, as well as the requirements for meeting statutory curriculum expectations?