This is the fourth in a curriculum series I am writing for those who are relatively new to curriculum design, theory and leadership. It would make most sense to read this fourth post having first read all previous posts. You can find them here.
- Curriculum: what are we really talking about?
- Knowledge-rich: what are we really talking about?
- Disciplinary (and substantive) knowledge: what are we really talking about?
As the titles of the posts above suggest, the role of knowledge in a curriculum is obviously a critical one. And though we have established why knowledge is critical and what types of knowledge must be present, we haven’t really considered what knowledge actually makes it into the curriculum. If you were hoping that this blog series would do this for you, then I am afraid you will be disappointed.
As I have said a few times now, the decision around what does and does not make it into your curriculum is an innately political one. By choosing to include certain topics, you are – by virtue – excluding others. In some subjects our hands are tied more than others. The national curriculum in a subject such as maths is fairly rigid. There is broad consensus among the teaching and academic community around what must be known. Others are different. The texts included in a KS3 English curriculum could vary dramatically across different schools. There is a cannon (of sorts). But scrutiny and revision of the cannon is commonplace. KS3 English curricula could look totally different across different schools and yet still carry the same level of academic rigour.
It is not the purpose of this series to instruct you on what should be included in your curriculum. If this is a concern of yours then engaging in your subject community is the strongest advice I can give. Participation in subject discourse via scholarship, journals and associations, blogs and even Twitter is central to the development of school curricula. Ruth Ashbee has put together a directory which includes recommendations of who to follow on twitter within each subject area. Engage with these people, ask to see their curriculum, ask why they include certain topics and exclude others. When we sat down in December to plan our new trust-wide curriculum, one of the very first things we did was to look at a series of different models and examples. The exercise was vital. It shed light on different approaches, themes and sequences that we hadn’t considered. And it allowed us to be far more critical of our own curricular journey.
But the what of the curriculum is also intimately linked to something else. The topics we ultimately chose to teach are ordered. They are sequenced. And they are done so in a very particular way. To remove a particular unit of work and replace it with something unrelated (perhaps imported from another school) would disturb the balance. Learning happening in weeks, months, and possibly even years’ time would be diminished on account of losing this precious knowledge.
It is the very careful ordering of content that allows for a rich and deep understanding to be generated. To help us understand this, we can turn to an analogy.
Neil Almond’s curriculum as TV box set
Neil Almond has put forward the idea of the curriculum as a TV box set. I like this analogy because, like all great analogies, it allows us to make sense of the complex. The premise is simple. A TV series such as Game of Thrones is made up of distinct episodes that are valid in their own right. Each episode weaves its own narrative and we are taken on a journey of discovery for an hour each week. But each episode is also situated within a wider narrative. It is part of a season that has its own currents and direction. And the seasons are part of the series at large. They work together to give us the total narrative.
As Neil points out, this is very different from a series such as The Simpsons. Each Simpsons episode is equally distinct and entertaining in its own right. But one does not need to have watched season 1 episode 1 to be able to engage in – and enjoy – season 5 episode 7. The same cannot be said of Game of Thrones. To jump in half way through would be confusing. Worse yet, to miss episodes across a season would be to miss out on certain key themes, plots, people and places. The way that we view the season finale is ultimately shaped by all that has come before.
The first key to the success of Game of Thrones lies in the sequencing of new material. Things are laid out in a very particular (and deliberate) order. At a very basic level, we move chronologically (save the odd flashback). This helps us to find our place within the narrative and pick up from where we left off each week. We would be lost if the episodes were presented in a randomised order. Beyond this, there are certain pieces of information that we simply have to grasp before we can move on with the series. Missing these vital pieces of information would deny us access to subsequent episodes and confuse the entire plot.
I often reference this analogy with colleagues because I think it gets to the heart of curricular sequencing. The crescendo of knowledge that comes with well-ordered material is made starkly apparent. The vital role of individual units of work within the curriculum at large is established. And the idea of carefully working back from a desired outcome is illuminated in vivid detail. The significance of the sequence of learning is made clear.
To translate this analogy to the school curriculum, we must first appreciate that this sequencing of knowledge will likely look different across different subjects. Knowledge in the various fields behaves very differently, and to understand it as such is important for both subjects leads and senior leaders.
Let us take maths, for example. In many (though not all) cases, mathematical understanding is built vertically. Understanding X is likely a prerequisite to understanding Y. I cannot possibly hope to grasp Pythagoras’s theorem (Y) if I do not first know what a triangle is (X) and have some basic understanding of algebraic expression (plus a lot more!). To borrow a term used by Michael Fordham, the knowledge of X is independently necessary in order to access Y. Students have to know this very specific thing in order to make further progress in the subject. Like Game of Thrones, there may be certain things that we simply have to know before we can move on.
Knowledge may behave differently, however, in other subjects. Take history. We might say that history has a more horizontal knowledge structure. There are not a strict set of underlying principles that allow access to further knowledge. And there are many examples and topics that we could teach that would help students understand new content. The example Fordham gives is a good one.
“We might say that pupils ought to study the First World War, but what about the First World War? Do we mean the western front? If so, which part of the western front, or will any bit do? Is it necessary to study the western front in every single year of the war? Or every month? Do we need to distinguish between British and French lines? Is it enough to focus on Gallipoli? Have we taught the First World War if we have covered the role of women on the home front? Have we taught it is we haven’t covered this?”
The reality here is that there exists no independently necessary knowledge that pupils require to ‘get’ the First World War. Instead, a well selected range of knowledge is cumulatively sufficient to ensure pupil comprehension. It is the combination of these different pieces of knowledge that allow for students to understand the topic. To return to Game of Thrones once again, our knowledge of warfare in the Seven Kingdoms is deepened by repeated exposure to various conflicts, not by any single battle. These various conflicts are cumulatively sufficient to allow us to move on.
We can take this idea of cumulative sufficiency and apply it in a broader curricular sense. If we want students to study topic D in Autumn 2 of year 7, then we could teach topics A, B, and C beforehand and be confident that we have provided cumulative sufficiency. Teaching A alone would not be enough. Likewise, there is no singularly-defined pre-requisite for understanding D. There are a whole host of options that I could choose from to ensure that the way students see and interact with topic D is fundamentally altered. To return to the above example, students may study A, B, and C in order to understand D in Autumn 2. But they may also study E, F, and G in order to understand D. Or, of course, some mixture of the two. Replace certain ingredients with similar examples and the students may do just as well.
The point here is that the sequencing of knowledge across subjects will likely be different. Recognising the role of knowledge within the subject you teach, and how this might affect the order of things is important. It allows us to ask critical questions of our curriculum such as ‘what is this doing here?’ It may become apparent that students have failed to grasp certain topics because an independently necessary piece of knowledge has not been taught beforehand. Or because we have not achieved a requisite level of cumulative sufficiency in the teaching of prior content. In short, the sequence of things matters. But it matters for different reasons across different subjects. (Note: I have referenced this book before, but Ruth Ashbee’s Curriculum: Theory, Culture and the Subject Specialisms is likely to be transformative in this regard. It can be pre-ordered here).
Beyond the order of things
The clever ordering of knowledge is, however, not enough. I likely would have told you years ago that my history curriculum was a carefully sequenced pattern of learning. We moved chronologically through time. We encountered (and re-encountered) particular themes and, occasionally, people. And yet there was no sense that we were building knowledge in a deliberate sense. No feeling that this was all carefully woven together. Woven in a manner that ensured the way children interacted with the end was fundamentally altered on account of all that had come before.
Reflecting back, I realise that my curriculum may well have been a well-sequenced pattern of learning, but it lacked coherence. By this I mean it failed to work as one. Things may have been aligned, but they weren’t reinforcing each other. And they certainly weren’t connected in the manner they should have been. To return to Almond’s Game of Thrones analogy, we can see that there is a second reason it works as a series. Things aren’t just well-ordered, they are connected and coherent. Our understanding is built steadily over time. As we move through the series, we become masters of the content. Hence we discuss, probe and argue with friends over the nuances of what we have watched and learnt. Our ability to do so becomes increasingly automatic. And our capacity to identify complexities is enhanced through a deep appreciation of themes and concepts.
Let’s break this down a little further. Coherence comes from the Latin cohaerentia, meaning ‘to stick together.’ We can – and should – think about our curriculum not just as a sequence of units, but a connected one. One in which knowledge is stuck together in varying and deliberate ways.
There are pedagogical tools that can help us in this regard. Robertson’s ‘forgetting pit’ is an instructive model for understanding how we learn. New information can quickly fall past the point of no return if left untethered to known information. The linking of new content to prior learning therefore becomes paramount for not just the acquisition of new knowledge, but also the formation of ever-wider schema. Something as simple as a daily review of relevant known information can go a long way to making knowledge stick together and building a degree of coherence.
This recall of prior information is no doubt important. But in the ever wise words of Christine Counsell, “you cannot Rosenshine your way into a good curriculum.” Retrieving relevant information is important but not enough. There must be curricular links across units, terms and years that allow for the robust schema development discussed in the second post in this series to be developed.
In some subjects, these links could be thematic. A year 7 English curriculum that covers Greek myths, William Blake, Oliver Twist and the Northern Lights might regularly return to the themes of innocence and experience, corruption and temptation, and sin and salvation. Students’ understanding within these themes may be enhanced by regular and robust encounters with them in different contexts. The texts themselves may be connected via reference to these themes. And students may see the power of a connected curriculum. By the time that Lyra Belacqua is introduced to them in the summer term, they will already be able to identify the duality that exists within her, see her rebellious disposition in relation to other known figures (like Pandora), and situate her – and her behaviour – in relation to wider ideas of class, confinement, and the Divine Order.
In history, places and people may reappear. Substantive concepts such as ‘the papacy’ may be introduced and returned to time and again. Diverse encounters with various popes and iterations of the papacy will give depth to students understanding of the concept. The very idea of the papacy will no longer exist as an abstract entity but will be saturated with the concrete. By the time students study Elizabethan conflict with catholic Spain at the end of year 7, the very mention of the word papacy will conjure up ideas of power, conflict, and religious turbulence. Images of crusaders marching to Jerusalem in response to a Papal Bull will furnish students’ minds. They will understand the power of the papacy in the early medieval period. A power that – as they well know – has since been challenged, probed, and questioned. They sense – correctly – that the Papal Bull of 1570 against Elizabeth just doesn’t carry as much meaning. Their understanding of the concept has deepened, changed, and complexified over time. The coherence of the curriculum has afforded this.
Concepts in the sense above allow us to make sense of various seemingly disparate pieces of information. As Mary Myatt terms them, they are a holding basket for facts. They provide the intellectual architecture onto which new knowledge and insights can be pinned. That they should be woven throughout the curriculum is self-evident. They may not look the same across subjects, nor carry the same weight or significance. They are but one way (an important one) to give coherence to our curriculum. To make things ‘stick.’
So the order of things matters (profoundly). As does the tying together of knowledge through concepts and themes. The relationship between this ordered sequence of knowledge and these concepts is ultimately what makes a curriculum. It is what drives the curricular narrative.
Understanding this, as well as the nature of knowledge within our subjects (and those we line manage) is vital. To return to the sentiment outlined at the beginning of this post, the clearest route to achieving this level of understanding is via our subject communities. Participation in these is invaluable and has the power to fundamentally change how we interact with our curriculum. It is paramount that leaders make time for their subject leads and teachers to engage in these wider communities.
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.
Mary Myatt, ‘Building curriculum coherence,’ Impact, https://impact.chartered.college/article/building-curriculum-coherence/
Michael Fordham, ‘Knowledge: independently necessary or collectively sufficient?’ Clio et cetera, https://clioetcetera.com/2017/01/05/knowledge-independently-necessary-or-collectively-sufficient/.
Neil Almond, ‘Curriculum coherence: how best to do it?’ The ResearchEd Guide to Curriculum.
Neil Almond, ‘Ramble #9: #TeamBoxSet (WARNING GAME OF THRONES SPOILERS),’ Nuts about teaching, https://nutsaboutteaching.wordpress.com/2019/05/02/ramble-9-teamboxset-warning-game-of-thrones-spoilers/
Ruth Ashbee, “Why it’s so important to understand school subjects – and how we might begin to do so, The ResearchEd Guide to Curriculum.
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