Core and hinterland: what are we really talking about?

This is the fifth 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 fifth post having first read all previous posts. You can find them here.

So far we have spoken about the elements of curriculum theory and design that function at a macro level. The idea of narrative. The principle of knowledge. The very specific ordering and layering of information at a long-term level to generate deep and powerful meaning as the curriculum builds. The echoing, foreshadowing, and interplay of knowledge as the curricular narrative plays out across the years.

But what about the ‘stuff’? At some stage we move further down the stages of curricular content planning and arrive at a classroom level: the enacted curriculum. When I first started teaching, it was here that I was given free reign over how my lesson looked and felt. As a trainee this meant working from a centralised document and planning any number of jazzy activities. These likely involved children walking around the classroom looking for information.

John Tomsett put forward this amended graphic (adapted from a model put forward by Thijs and van den Akker in 2009) during his ResearchEd talk on core and hinterland knowledge. I think it is a helpful tool for understanding the layers of curricular planning.

Across the corridor from me my colleague was simply talking to his class. Boring, I thought. Better they hunt for these clues I have stuck up around the room. Years later, I now realise two things. Firstly, the children in his class benefitted from a more direct mode of instruction. This is a pedagogical matter and there is a great deal of reading you can do on modes of direct instruction. Secondly, and more interesting in the context of this series, his children were learning different content to mine. Content that I hadn’t seen on the neatly organised planning document I had been given. Not all the time. And not at the expense of the clearly specified ‘vital’ content on the planning document we had all been given. But there was something his children were getting that those in my class weren’t.

It has taken me a long time to realise what was happening then. What I considered to be excess and clutter at the time I now realise to be something different. And the relationship I now have with that specified ‘vital’ information has changed a great deal. For at the level of the enacted curriculum we are faced with a very particular set of curricular challenges. At the heart of this is the decision around what knowledge is deemed important to remember within a particular unit of work. The aforementioned ‘vital’ knowledge. But of equal importance is the question of how to give meaning to this knowledge. Again, I am not talking here about pedagogical choices around modes of instruction. I am talking about the aspects of the curriculum (the what) that allow for this vital knowledge to make sense. The stories, examples and intrigue that give depth and nuance to pupil understanding of seemingly straightforward pieces of information. I am talking about the curricular choice of what content makes it into our classrooms and why.

Core and Hinterland

At the heart of this decision lies a paradox. There are certain pieces of information that, as in those planning documents I was handed in my trainee year, we might consider to be vital core knowledge. These are the pieces of information that it is critical students retain and understand. The understanding of this information will, I would imagine, be a prerequisite for future learning happening at all. Every teacher knows this and makes sure that every child leaves having heard, read, or experienced this core knowledge in some form or another across the unit of work.

But to reduce the teaching of this core knowledge to its direct instruction would be strange. Worse yet, it would not work. Simply drilling students on core knowledge would reduce the curriculum to the memorisation of facts. It would amount to a mutilation of our craft and a disservice to our children. And not simply because the mechanics of this would likely be dry and lifeless, but because the knowledge students leave with would be fundamentally shallow. They may well be able to regurgitate propositions captured on a knowledge organiser, but the depth of meaning behind these bitesize chunks of content will be surface-level at best. Though I favoured the pedagogical mode of the in-vogue gallery walk at the time, it was this type of understanding that students possessed in that class in my trainee year. Shallow.

This is where Christine Counsell’s notion of the hinterland comes in to play. We might consider the hinterland to be the rich array of content, stories, and examples that give meaning to the core. Far from the excess and clutter that I thought I had seen in my colleague’s class, the hinterland is the life-sustaining context that feeds the core. The intrigue and significance that lie within those neatly defined propositions.

Like Counsell, Clare Sealey has pointed to the term’s origin in urban planning. In the same way as a city needs a vital hinterland that nurtures and sustains life within, so too does the core knowledge in our curriculum need a hinterland that allows the core to thrive.

Thinking about the enacted curriculum in these terms allows us to plot some interesting dynamics. Firstly, the relationship between the two types of knowledge is not hierarchical. The hinterland is just as important as the core even though we may not be asking students to remember its details. As stated, to remove the hinterland would be to remove the life from the core, and reduce the teaching of new material to the memorisation of facts.

This is, of course, a curricular matter. To confuse the hinterland with a set of activities that make the core more engaging would be to fall into the trap I did. This would lead to the outcome outlined above – the memorisation of facts without substance. Instead, we need to think about the hinterland as the extra knowledge that enters the classroom in a non-invasive manner and makes the core more memorable.

The hinterland as residue

To my mind there are two ways to consider the relationship between knowledge we consider core and knowledge we term hinterland. The first of these is to consider the hinterland as giving way to the core (think panning for gold). The residue. In this sense the core is the very specific knowledge that is left behind once we move beyond a story, example, or lesson.

Let’s take an example. Imagine students are studying the Islamic world in the 10th Century. They need to see the dynastic powerplay between the Umayyads and the Abbasids. It is vital they do so in order that they properly access the pithy little enquiry which asks what connected the two great cities of Cordoba and Baghdad. Appreciating the complex political rivalry between both dynasties (and by virtue cities) is vital if we are to set up a nuanced understanding of connections across the Muslim world in the 900s. Were I to capture this in a simple proposition it might be that ‘the Abbasid and Umayyads were political rivals based in Cordoba and Baghdad.’ This knowledge is core.

And of course here is the paradox. To simply tell students that the Umayyads and Abbasids were two rival factions (perhaps even with some detailed fleshing out), would be to reduce the teaching of this content to the communication of core knowledge. Students may easily be able to regurgitate this stock phrase when writing about the cities of Cordoba and Baghdad. But there would be no substance behind their writing or understanding. No sense that they really ‘got’ the idea at all.

This is where the hinterland comes in. It is the hinterland that allows them to see and feel the rivalry and its various roots and machinations. In this case, the hinterland is the story of Rahman I.

Rahman was an Umayyad prince, chased out of his Syrian homeland in 750 after the Abbasid revolution. He was forced to flee across both mountain and desert in a bid to escape the Abbasid clan who had overthrown his family. He moved desperately across the harshest of landscapes, all the while pursued by horsemen waving the black flag of his mortal enemy.

In a particularly colourful retelling of the story, Rahman arrived at the edge of the Euphrates with his brother and a servant named Badr. His brother made it halfway across the river before turning back (the Abbasids were promising mercy for the deposed princes, their flags fluttering in the wind). Upon arriving on the opposite bank, Rahman turned only to see his brothers head held aloft. Mercy, it seemed, was something the Abbasid horsemen had little genuine interest in.

Rahman continued on his journey with Badr, mourning his brother and carrying the image of the severed head in his mind. He traversed north Africa but could never settle for long. Local rulers may have initially accepted this royal fugitive, but their hospitality was often short lived (no leader wants a would-be Caliph living under their nose). His pride was stripped bare as he was forced to disguise himself, beg, barter and hide, until he eventually arrived in Morocco.

It was here that Rahman looked out across the thin strip of sea that separates north Africa from Europe towards the bull-shaped peninsula of Spain. It was in Spain that Rahman would begin a new life as Emir of al-Andalus. It was here that an army sent from Syria by the Abbasids would be defeated by Rahman. And it was here that in a deliciously ironic turn of events, Rahman would neatly package the heads of the Abbasid generals and send them back to Baghdad. Justice for his brother.

The story of Rahman, the Euphrates, and the various beheaded parties is a memorable one. Stories themselves hold immense cognitive significance (Willingham terms them ‘psychologically privileged’) and we know full well that our students enjoy listening to them. But in this instance they also carry an immense curricular purpose. Much of the narrative detailed above is hinterland knowledge. I do not need my students to remember the colour of the Abbasid flags, nor will I be testing them on this. But their inclusion is vital. They invite pupils into the narrative. They help build suspense, drama and tension to the point where students themselves become invested in the dynastic intrigue.

And this is the key. What is left behind from this story is a very simple proposition – ‘the Abbasids and Umayyads were political rivals based in Cordoba and Baghdad.’ This simple statement is now furnished with meaning and complexity (the kind I could not possibly hope to achieve by bypassing the hinterland). We know why, how, even what this looked like. I can do so much more with my pupils once their core is deepened in this manner.

In this instance, the hinterland has given way to the core. The core is the golden nugget of residue that means so much. I get here through the story of the black flags fluttering in the wind.

The hinterland as the life-sustaining context

The second way we might think about the relationship between core and hinterland knowledge is to think about the hinterland as the life-sustaining context of the core. This is less direct (though no less important) than considering the core as the direct residue of the hinterland.

Let’s take another example. Year 7 are reading Oliver Twist. There are certain extracts that we will be analysing in detail, the meaning derived from which will ultimately be considered core knowledge. There is a particularly juicy extract in which Oliver is taken out by the Artful Dodger and is ultimately accused of pickpocketing. The extract is of critical importance.

The moment that Oliver is “seized by the collar” is a profound one. The violent seizure of this young boy as he is marched off like a criminal reveals the ultimate corrosion of his innocence. Dickens’s choice of language is particular. Oliver is “seized,” “lugged,” and “dragged.” We are forced to feel something when this vulnerable orphan is carted off like an adult. We sense the determinist nature of Victorian attitudes towards the working class and impoverished.

But to we do not get here simply via the extract. We do not elicit our emotional response purely on account of this short passage itself. Our understanding of this core knowledge is dependent on having first passed through the hinterland – the novel at large.

By having absorbed the life-sustaining context of the core, this particular extract is given depth and meaning. The vivid descriptions of London’s messy, crowded streets that function as this context change the way our pupils interact with this particular extract. The vagrants, robbers, idles, and thieves convening on the muddy passageways of Dickensian London have foreshadowed Oliver’s own corruption. These passages may not be core but they are vital. They nurture and sustain the core. They mean that by the time we arrive at the core we are ready for it.

Similarly, the motifs of innocence, corruption, and vulnerability are only given due attention once we see their recurrence in the language. Plot summaries that simply state London’s degenerate condition will not do. How could they? In order for the plot to make sense, in order to give meaning to the core and to frame those vital passages of rich language, we must move through the hinterland. As Counsell terms it, “this messy material matters.”

In an example given by Adam Boxer, we can see the work of the hinterland in a science lesson. The story Boxer gives of Haber is not one that students will be tested on, nor do they need to remember the particulars. What it does do, however, is provide the life-sustaining context for the core – Haber’s process. Just as students become invested in Oliver via those descriptions of London’s streets and the orphan’s own journey towards experience, so too do students find themselves absorbed in the narrative of Haber. Eager to see what comes next. Ready to remember the core.

Boxer has written wonderfully on the matter of core and hinterland knowledge in this blog. His discussion on the pedagogical implications of knowing whether knowledge is core or hinterland are particularly insightful.

What does this mean for our practice and our curriculum?

The implications for thinking about the enacted curriculum in terms of core and hinterland are vast. Firstly, they reveal (or emphasise) the power of stories. Narratives are powerful tools at our disposal. When used effectively they provide meaning and depth to core knowledge that may otherwise be rendered dry and lifeless. And their inclusion in the curriculum over, for instance, engaging activities that serve no clear curricular objective are paramount. If you want students engaging in your lesson and consuming the core in all its richness, then the stories of the hinterland are critical.

This opens up a really interesting dialogue around what we teach vs. how we teach it. I would argue that thinking about the former should come before the latter. And would argue that the latter is dictated by the former anyway. Whatever the case, switching our thinking from ‘what is the best mode of teaching this core piece of knowledge,’ to ‘what hinterland knowledge best allows this core to be learnt’ is powerful.

Secondly, the terms allow for critical conversations to be had about what it is that we want students to know. I used the analogy of a curriculum as a novel in the first post in this series. Everything in the novel has a purpose and place. Every character, event, and interaction has a role in changing the way we see later passages and episodes. The terms core and hinterland help us think harder about the function played by knowledge within the curriculum.

And finally, the understanding of the role played by hinterland in sustaining the core point towards a degree of subject knowledge. Reading around and engaging in your subject helps build the type of hinterland that draws students in. The more we know about our subject matter, the more our hinterland is rich. John Tomsett displays this brilliantly in his ResearchEd video on core and hinterland knowledge.

Having said all of this, we must of course also be wary of clutter. Too much hinterland and we de-emphasise the core. We lose sight of what it is that students actually need to retain and remember. Equally, in some subjects and in some cases we may want to reduce teaching to the explicit instruction of bitesize propositions. This is, of course, why the terms are so vital. They allow us to determine what knowledge is doing in various places, and make critical curricular decisions around what things are taught, and how they are framed.

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.

Adam Boxer, Core and hinterland: What’s what and why it matters, https://achemicalorthodoxy.wordpress.com/2019/02/01/core-and-hinterland-whats-what-and-why-it-matters/

Christine Counsell, Senior Curriculum Leadership 1: The indirect manifestation of knowledge: (B) final performance as deceiver and guide, https://thedignityofthethingblog.wordpress.com/

Clare Sealey, What’s all the fuss about knowledge-rich curriculum: part one, https://primarytimery.com/2018/09/09/whats-all-the-fuss-about-a-knowledge-rich-curriculum-part-one/

John Tomsett, Core or Hinterland? Who owns the enacted curriculum? https://researched.org.uk/2020/06/06/john-tomsett-core-or-hinterland-who-owns-the-enacted-curriculum/

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