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Curriculum: what are we really talking about?

About a year ago my interest in curriculum was piqued when a colleague recommended I read Michael Young’s Knowledge and the Future School. On the matter of curriculum, I was swiftly obsessional. I was – and still am – convinced that curriculum is the single biggest lever to addressing educational inequality. And I remain adamant that curriculum and subject expertise should lie at the heart of a school. But, as Christine Counsell wisely points out, curriculum is “fiendishly complex.” It has taken me the best part of a year to wrap my head around some of the nuances of curriculum design, curriculum leadership, and the relationship between the two. And I am still a long way off where I ought to be.

Still, the nature of my role in school has afforded me the opportunity to prioritise reading, thinking and writing about curriculum. I am aware that this is not the case for everyone, not least the subject heads who are responsible for developing school curricula. Or, for that matter, the individual teachers who often play an active role in the planning of lessons and units of work. In fact, my experience in school suggests that curriculum understanding is something lamentably absent in large parts of the staff body (and this includes senior leadership), despite the recent curricular turn in education.

My aim in this series of blog posts is, therefore, to note down in one place a few basics of curriculum design and theory. The series of posts are not intended to push the boundaries of curricular thinking, but instead to bring together the wealth of brilliant writing and research into a single series. My hope is that this will be of use to teachers at all levels in their career. If we are serious about curriculum lying at the heart of schooling, then it necessitates individuals at all levels gaining a good understanding of what it really means (we expect the same of aspects of pedagogy and managing behaviour).

The series will be split across 6 posts, with this first one being a very basic introduction to the concept of a curriculum. The second will outline what we mean by a knowledge-rich curriculum (and why I think this is our best bet). From here, the series will consider the relationship between substantive and disciplinary knowledge in a curriculum, what is meant by curricular coherence and how different subjects can achieve this, the framing of core knowledge within a curriculum, before finally exploring the concept of the curriculum as the progression model. First then: what is curriculum?

What is curriculum?

It is generally accepted that the term ‘curriculum’ was first used in Scottish universities during the 17th Century. At the time, the term denoted a programme that students were required to study. This was a reference to the word’s Latin origins (curriculum literally means racecourse). This programme was therefore a ‘course’ of study. A direction in which all pupils were intended to go.

Since then, the idea of curriculum has taken on new meaning. It is now accepted that there exists no single definition of curriculum (which takes a thorny issue and complicates it further). At a basic level, however, we can take curriculum to be the what of teaching. The subjects, topics, people and places that end up populating lessons. In this sense, it is distinct from the pedagogic how of teaching. Distinct, but interrelated. If we are to strip things back to their core components, then pedagogy is the means of communicating the curriculum. Direct instruction, retrieval practice, and the myriad activities that populate twitter on a daily basis are all modes of pedagogy. And in most cases, they are a means to communicate the curriculum in the most efficient and/or engaging manner, so that as much of the curriculum is remembered as possible. In this vein, the best teachers will make pedagogical choices based on the curriculum, and not the other way around. The what of teaching, should dictate the how.

“To talk about teaching without considering what is being learned, is to create an intransitive pedagogy, a pedagogy without an object.” 

christine counsell, In search of senior curriculum leadership : Introduction – a dangerous absence.

We encounter the word curriculum in a number of contexts while working in schools. We hear the word used to describe CPD schedules, units of work, and of course the central body around which many of us work: the National Curriculum (NC). I would argue that the ubiquity of the term has led to the complication of the already complicated.

Let us take the NC, for instance. For many of us, some degree of adherence to this is a requirement. But what is it? Well I would share in Dylan William’s assessment that it is not “really a curriculum at all.” Though it is focussed on the what, to consider this a curriculum is to fundamentally misunderstand the idea of what curriculum is, and has the power to be. And this can have the unhelpful outcome of distracting us from what really matters – the school curriculum.

The school curriculum is a fundamentally different beast to the NC, and is the object of this post (and indeed entire series). Where the latter is essentially a list of what the government and various education bodies want children to learn, the former is a very specific artefact of learning that is distinct to a given subject in a given school. And as this knowledge is selected and chosen by us (often from the NC), it is also an exercise in power. By choosing what does and does not go into a curriculum, you are making a conscious decision of what knowledge students will – and will not – be entitled to. This alone should be enough to stress the significance of school curricula.

The school curriculum

So, the school curriculum is not the same as the NC. It is not simply a list of things students should (or even could) know. And it is clearly not something that we should take lightly. So what is it? Well at a basic level it is the content (chosen by us but influenced by the NC) that is taught to children in school. This content is dictated by time. We cannot teach everything and we are required to operate within the limits of the school day, subject time allocations and so on. So the school curriculum is content structured over time (this would suggest even more consideration must be placed on what topics do and don’t warrant inclusion in the school curriculum).

But what stops this becoming the mere sequencing of NC topics? This is the most common pitfall of most school curricula. They exist as a (often very well) sequenced collection of NC bullet points on an A4 grid. The feeling is that this means the job has been done, and the curriculum is complete. But the reality is that the knowledge of students who learn these curricula (and this I know from my own wealth of failures) remains very shallow. They may know lots of things, but they cannot see how these are connected. And without the connections, their ability to build a deep and complex understanding of the subject (the type required to excel well beyond GCSE) is left wanting.

This is where Christine Counsell’s analogy of the curriculum as narrative becomes helpful. If we now begin to see the curriculum as content structured as a narrative over time, we make some real headway.

Consider your favourite novel. It has a plot. You could probably reduce this plot to a series of 20 bullet points on a piece of paper. It also has characters (quite a few, I would imagine!), places, themes, ideas, objects, phrases, interactions etc. that appear throughout. In fact, more than just appear, these features run throughout, around, and across the plot. They help weave the plot together. Some appear more than others, but all are present and continuous. They help make sense of the plot.

Imagine, then, your curriculum as a novel. The plot that has been reduced to the 20 bullet points on a piece of paper might mirror your selection and sequencing of NC topics (or topics of your choice). These are not disparate topics, but are instead a narrative structured over time, distilled into sub-headings (much like chapter headings). Like our novel, these topics are connected by reoccurring features. We would expect to encounter many of the same themes and ideas across these topics. And like any good novel, we would wish to have these deliberately connected by narrative threads. This would help give meaning to the novel at large, and ensure it is not just a collection of short stories. These connections are what take a curriculum from an unconnected (but possibly well-sequenced) series of topics to an interconnected narrative.

We can take this analogy even further. The end of a novel may often reach a crescendo in which the various narrative strands are brought together. Our protagonist may achieve redemption of some kind. Or we may even experience tragedy. Whatever the case, we are made to feel something at the end of a novel. We elicit an emotional response to what we are reading. This same response would not be expected from reading these passages in isolation. Picking up a book at random and reading the ending would be unlikely to stir in you any kind of emotion or feeling.

This is because all that has come before in the novel is necessary to make sense of what comes later. We cannot possibly hope to meaningfully engage with and understand the end of the story without first appreciating and understanding the beginning and middle (and all that take place in between). Everything in a novel has a purpose. Every word. Every sentence. Every idea. This may not always be explicit. Great writers are known to drop hints and clues along the way that only reveal themselves at the end of the text. These enrich the novel. They make the crescendo all the more dramatic. A curriculum is the same. Every piece of knowledge has a purpose within a curriculum, and can be connected to other pieces of knowledge, topics, and themes across the entire sequence.

Which brings us towards the end of the analogy. It isn’t just that the end of a novel is devoid of meaning if we have not first read the rest of the text, it is that what has come before fundamentally alters the way that we view what happens later. There is a depth of knowledge that we possess as we move towards the end of a novel. It may not always be at our fingertips, but it is there. It is this knowledge that implicitly shapes our understanding and response to events across the narrative. And in this lies the beauty of the curriculum. It is more than just a sequence of topics. It is the sequencing of topics and deliberate connection of these so that topic X changes the way that pupils see topic Y.

And so what about us? What is our role in this? Well the daunting reality is that if the curriculum is the novel, then we are the author. And we have been tasked with writing a masterpiece. This may seem a terrifying prospect, but it is also an exciting one. And it is our responsibility to understand not only the totality of the task, but also the significance of it. More and more schools are moving towards a 3 year KS3. This is a brilliant and exciting development, but it brings with it a truckload of challenge. A 3 year KS3 naturally means a 2 year KS4. And a 2 year KS4 means pupils will need to ‘get’ things very quickly. The curriculum must play a vital role if this is to happen. Or as Mary Myatt puts it, we must “reframe KS3 as the intellectual and cognitive powerhouse of the school.”

The rest of this series will explore how we can develop successful KS3 curricula. In next week’s post, I will be drawing upon the work of Michael Young, Jon Hutchinson, and Summer Turner to outline what we mean by a ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum. I’ll also offer some reasons as to why I think it is our best bet.

Further reading

As stated above, the aim of this series is not just to offer an accessible introduction to curriculum, but to concentrate much of the brilliant work of others in one place. With that in mind, below is a short reading list to accompany this week’s post. I will be posting similar lists each week. This list also functions as a set of references for the above post.

Christine Counsell, Senior Curriculum Leadership 1: The indirect manifestation of knowledge: (A) curriculum as narrative.

Dylan William, Principled Curriculum Design.

Mary Myatt, The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to Coherence.

Michael Young, What is a Curriculum and what can it do?

Professor Mark Priestley, Curriculum: Concepts and Approaches.

Robert Burns, Curriculum as Narrative,


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