What does your subject area want to achieve with your curriculum and why? Do you want students to gain enduring and powerful knowledge that will equip them to join the big conversations of culture and humanity? Do you want to close the disadvantage gap to bring poorer students in from the intellectual cold? Do you want your students to be critical participants in the best that has been thought and said? Whatever you want, you need to be explicit about it and share your message with your staff.
- The nature of your subject
It’s a bit much to expect all staff to be experts on curriculum studies, but here is the minimum that needs to be understood by those making macro- and micro-curriculum decisions in your subject:
- Declarative/procedural – some things are known as propositions, descriptions, explanations and syntheses of these. If students are required to know-that something, this is declarative knowledge. Declarative knowledge includes things such as the Pythagorean theorem, the economic conditions in Germany in 1914, and the stages of ox-bow lake formation. Other things are known as processes: if your students are required to know-how to do something, this is procedural knowledge. Examples include solving simultaneous equations, creating a roux, and drawing dot-and-cross diagrams for chemical bonding.
- Core/hinterland – some things need to be retained by students throughout their entire education: this is curriculum core. Other things are needed to furnish the journey, to frame the delivery, to give a sense of the beauty, depth and majesty of the realm of our subject. These are our hinterland. Hinterland may be details of life in a certain historical period, an anecdote about an explorer, or concrete examples of an abstract principle. They are precious and we must plan them as carefully as our core.
- Substantive/disciplinary – The balance of these varies significantly between subjects. Substantive knowledge is the body of facts, claims, descriptions and processes of a subject. Circle theorems, the properties of materials, and the rules of hockey are all substantive knowledge. Disciplinary knowledge is the understanding we seek to create in students about how the knowledge in a particular field is generated and verified. In mathematics, this is not taught at all in secondary schools. In history, a great deal of the curriculum is concerned with how historians come to conclusions and judgements: the disciplinary element is significant. We need to know what role, if any, disciplinary knowledge has in our own subject. When planning curriculum, its treatment and its effect on substantive knowledge need consideration.
- Threshold concepts – Some things need to be taught and understood before other things can be made sense of. Only when you understand atomic notation can you succeed with nuclear decay equations. Only when you have understood algebra and the 2-D plane can you understand complex numbers.
Careful thought must be given to the journey we take our students on. We need to move from familiar to esoteric but also to lay solid foundations for later learning. We need to leave some very difficult material until students are ready because of what they have learned previously, but equally other challenging material needs to be introduced early on, if it is a threshold concept or if it needs a long time to embed, and overcome misconceptions. We need to foreshadow later material and reference earlier material. There are probably many optimum paths; what is crucial is that we consider our path and are intentional about the route we take. If we can justify our decisions then it means we can take a well-planned route through the learning, with a meaningful sequence and planned learning activities.
- Quality teacher explanations
It’s crucial that we minimise poor quality teacher talk and maximise well-planned explanations. Teacher explanations are critical to curriculum planning: we need to ask ourselves: What needs explaining? What are the misconceptions? What are the features of a great explanation in this area? We need to plan these and centralise the resources teachers can use for their explanations.
- Activities for practice
Students need lots of practice with the curriculum. Short questions, long questions, lots and lots of questions. For some reason “questioning” is seen by many to mean verbal questioning rather than printed or on a whiteboard – but this latter format provides excellent ratio in that all students must work simultaneously. As cognitive scientist Dan Willingham tells us, “memory is the residue of thought” so we need to get our students to spend lots of time thinking about the aspect of the curriculum being studied. Dual coding activities using graphic organisers and elaboration work, forcing students to make links between areas and explain concrete or real-life examples, all of these are backed by cognitive science as they help to build storage strength in our schema. Sharing the structure of knowledge with a tree diagram or curriculum map helps students to build well-organised schema which facilitates memory and meaning-making.
- Spaced interleaving
Students need not only to build strong, well-linked and well-organised schema, but they need to be able to retrieve things from memory easily in order to apply them to new problem-solving and higher-order thinking scenarios. To build retrieval strength, they need retrieval practice, in other words, they need to practice remembering things they have learned in the past. The more they practice, the easier this will be. Research shows that this practice benefits from being spaced over increasingly long time periods, and interleaved so that subjects are alternated rather than done in big blocks. Note this is not the same as interleaving first teaching of a subject, which is problematic as it disrupts the construction of a strong and well-organised schema. Teaching should be blocked, practice interleaved.
Any good curriculum should have reading at its heart. If our students do not grow as readers, can we really say they have grown as learners? What texts do we want in our curriculum? When do we want them? What do we want students to do with them?
If we raise our students on a diet of spoonfeeding and hand-holding, we will fail them. We need to plan our curriculum carefully in terms of the content but we also need to plan in teaching and activities that develop independence in our learners. How are we going to teach them how to revise? What materials will we provide for revision?
- Meeting the needs of our students
Some of our students start school with a wealth of cultural capital, rich work ethic, and parents who will seek out and buy them revision guides, study guides, and tutors. Some of our students don’t have a single book in their house. We need to plan for this gap and plan to overcome it. What is the core knowledge in our curriculum and how can we make sure all students but especially our disadvantaged ones, build strong memory of this core knowledge from the day they join us. What can we give them to practise with? Knowledge organisers? Quiz sheets? How can we track their progress? In their book? Online? The same goes for other underachieving groups, and indeed students with low target grades. Who are we to decide that a target grade, set from a couple of days’ worth of tests, at the end of a primary education that probably wasn’t perfect, should define a student? These students deserve curriculum planning that sets out to accelerate them, to ensure they get the core knowledge secure and develop the independence and work habits that could see them close the gap in attainment with the top-achieving students.
- Matched summative assessment
It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you want something to happen you better put it on the test, or at least let it be known that it could be on the test. Great curriculum planning cannot be divorced from summative assessments. If you are teaching for memory, with interleaved spaced practice, you will need tests to be cumulative, sampling all content to date. If you have agreed core knowledge, a set of fundamentals all students must know off by heart, this needs to be a part of your assessments. It’s so easy to just block out the answers of a knowledge organiser and have that as a front sheet to a test – and it’s quick to mark too.
Adam: I really like the way this distils so many of the ideas people consider when discussing ‘the curriculum’. It shows that organising a curriculum requires a large amount of visioning, prioritising and compromise. So much more than making sure the options are in the right block and timetable is staffed. You can see from this why Ofsted have such a passion for curriculum, it can tell you so much about the schools’ values and ethos.