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Curriculum as the progression model: what are we really talking about?

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

I became a head of department at the end of my trainee year. It was madness and there were innumerable failures that I shudder at the thought of. Gallery walks (every lesson). Differentiated learning objectives. Obscure units of work plucked from TES in fits of desperation and projected, unadulterated, onto white boards across the corridor.

Sheets. So many sheets.

The list could go on so I will spare you the entire catalogue. When I reflect back on those mad days I (rightly) attribute so much of what went wrong to my own inexperience. Put simply, I had no clue what I was doing and why would I?

But there is one activity that sticks in my mind. I remember a senior leader asking me to put together a progression model for history. This was early in my tenure and the instruction might as well have been in a foreign language for all I was concerned. Such things had not existed when I inherited the department (lessons did not exist so no surprises there) and I had no model to work from.

Still, there was a job to do and I set about thinking about what it was that made students get better at history and how best to map this out. To my mind at the time, the point of authority within the subject community was the exam board. They set the assessments, determined the mark-schemes, and as far as I could see defined what success in history looked like. I had heard of other subjects using mark-schemes to plot progress within their subjects and so I industriously set about doing the same.

I turned my attention to the generic documents that make up sample assessment materials and began to look into the language. Band 4, 13-16 marks: “analytical explanation” and a “coherent and logically structured line of reasoning.” This was, I assumed, the type of thing I was trying to guide my students towards from the moment they entered my classroom in year 7. It had clearly been made distinct from the paltry band 3 answers which comprised an explanation showing only “some analysis.”

And so began a process in which I broke down the qualities of top answers as per the mark schemes and distilled these into their component parts. The hallowed “analytical explanation” was deconstructed into various generic hoops (evidence linked to explanation, explanation of factors, linking of factors) that students were asked to jump through. The hideous document, filled with an entirely bland and nonspecific set of propositions, was then used to plot progress in history. It was a mutilation of historical craft, and something that has stuck with me for two reasons.

Firstly, though I was new to teaching (let alone leading a department) and was blindly embracing mistake after mistake, the mapping out of progress in history like this didn’t feel right. Comparative to the other things that were happening at the time, this was recognizably odd. I knew that this wasn’t how scholarship worked.  An “analytical explanation” is not something that a historian – or a student for that matter – can simply ‘do.’ I myself would feel fairly confident constructing a causal argument on the origins of 11th Century crusading, but ask me to do the same for the rise of the Yamato kingdom in Japan and I would hardly know where to begin. Besides, using these terms as markers of progress would mean that, when achieved, students themselves arrive on a par with expert historians. They have scaled the ladder of great history and arrived at the consecrated ground of an “analytical explanation.” Hallelujah.

Secondly, I began teaching in a post-levels world. They were oft-referenced by teachers and leaders but to me they were an abstract bogeyman. A relic of the past that was not to be repeated. And yet here I was; repeating. And my point is that I do not think I was alone. The plan had come from someone within my own school. I had heard of similar things happening in other departments across the country. And though this was now five years ago, my fear is that similar activities continue to take place.

So how do we solve the riddle of progression? How do we move beyond the generic and into the specific? And how do we plot what it is to get better at a subject?

The answer lies in the curriculum.

The curriculum as the progression model

Let’s briefly consider where we have gone in this series thus far. We began by paying homage to Christine Counsell and considering the curriculum to be content structured as narrative over time. What this allowed us to see was a temporal dimension to the curriculum. Everything has a purpose and is locked in a specific place. Like any great narrative, passing through the curriculum at large was a pre-requisite for understanding later episodes and chapters in all their beauty. Ideas, knowledge, and themes are echoed and foreshadowed so as to build suspense, drama and meaning over time. The curriculum is one.

Our second post called for knowledge to be placed at the heart of the curriculum, and for this knowledge to be specified in detail. In this sense, the knowledge that every student is entitled to would not be left up for grabs. The development of wider and well-organized schema is prioritized as layers of knowledge are built upon one and other via diverse encounters with different concepts and ideas.  

And from here we dug into the types of knowledge we would expect to see. The role of the substantive (the what) and the disciplinary (how the what comes about). The role of the core and the hinterland. The careful ordering of these this knowledge to make meaning and secure access for students as they pass through the curriculum. The binding of knowledge via concepts and other organizing mechanisms in a bid to generate curricular coherence.

But where does this all get us? I think if we were to consider the above (and the past 5 posts at large) then a few threads that are common across this series emerge. Firstly, subjects matter. They are disciplinary quests that we – humans – have used to make meaning of our world. They are bounded (though of course blurred in places) and have their own rules and functions. Just as they do at university, at a school level they operate in different ways. Respecting subject specificity is paramount.

Beyond this, I would like to think a second common thread exists between these posts: the details matter. A curriculum is not meant to be a generic document. When planned and structured properly it is a vast account of the knowledge that you want students to learn during their time at your school. The knowledge is specified. It is built. It is carefully selected and sequenced to allow for students to move through the narrative. In this sense, removing aspects of the curriculum and replacing them with imported goods would not work. It would disturb the harmony of a 5 year or 7 year process of gradual development.

If we take the above two reflections to be true then we see that attempts at generic curriculum principles across subjects are most-likely ill-fated, and even attempts to genericize within the subject can be risky.

Let’s return to my example of a KS3 history curriculum and my ill-fated former progression model. If you have engaged with all posts in this series, then what should now be evident is that any “analytical explanation” worth reading is built on a firm bedrock of knowledge. The reason I could write about 11th Century crusading and not the Yamato kingdom is because I know the specifics. The details of papal insecurity. The tension and opportunity that existed between eastern and western centers of Christianity. The complex political makeup of Latin Christendom. It is my wide and far-reaching schema in this department that allows me to engage in a process of causal reasoning. Thus, the fragments of knowledge are the ingredients that make up my success. The accumulation of the knowledge is a marker of my progress. My ability to construct an argument based off this knowledge is therefore a symptom. An outcome. Not an ingredient to be broken into component parts.

When applied to the school curriculum this realization gets us somewhere. The mastering of specifics is what allows for the production of expert work. The gradual accumulation of knowledge is what builds towards the correct answering of more and harder questions. And where is this knowledge laid out? Where is all of this hyper-specific, subject-relevant knowledge carefully sequenced? Where is the substantive and the disciplinary, the core and the hinterland, the procedural and the motor mapped out in full? The curriculum.

The curriculum is a roadmap. It is a specified journey towards success in a given field. In this sense it is the progression model. The consumption of its various twists and turns is progress. And because expert work is highly specialized and predicated on knowing a great number of specific things (often substantive), there are as many progression models as there are curricula. Each one lays out a different path, even though the intended outcome (i.e. the production of expert work within a specific subject) may be the same.

Michael Fordham has written about this extensively and gives the analogy of a cake. When baking a cake one might rely on a number of ingredients (eggs, flour, sugar etc.). They are mixed in precise quantities to produce a delicious outcome. We might slice this cake and admire our work. We would not, however, suggest that mastering the slice is what has allowed this cake to be made. The slice is an outcome. It is the details in the recipe that make up our cake. They are the ingredients to be learnt. The route to mastery.


The implications for thinking about progression in this manner are naturally vast. I agree with Ruth Ashbee’s assessment that this realization is a liberating one. ln her words, it tells us that progression is “utterly bound up with specialist knowledge and cannot be meaningfully described in generic terms.” But it also tells us that thinking about progression is inextricably linked to thinking about curriculum. If we are to take all of the above, then building a curriculum that allows for progression (the steady building of knowledge to the point of expert work) is paramount.

One way this can be achieved is by first working out what it is you want students to produce at the end of your curricular journey. Is it the ability to solve hard problems? Write lengthy and increasingly complex essays? Synthesize theorem and relate to real-world examples? Whatever it is, being clear about what type of work you want students to produce at the end of, for instance, year 11, is important.

We should now see that working back from here is of critical importance. And not in the generic sense but in the specific. What is happening in expert Y11 work that allows this student to be comfortably sitting on a level 9? The reality is that they will have mastered a wealth of very specific knowledge. Much of it will be substantive and will have allowed for the formation of wide-ranging schema. But they will also have a firm disciplinary grasp (subject-dependent). They will likely have procedural knowledge that aids in the crafting of their wonderful essay. The point is there will be a great deal that goes into that work. The question for you is where all of this knowledge is on your curriculum? Is it all mapped out deliberately, sequenced carefully, and built rigorously so as to allow all students to reach this ambitious end point, and not just the one clever child sitting in the front row? That is the game to be played.

And by virtue, curriculum development is the issue to be prioritized. If we accept that when we build a curriculum we are, in fact, building a progression model, then its careful curation is of the upmost importance. Leaders need to make time for this. They need to empower their subject heads to engage with subject-specific discourse. And they would be well-served replacing the long data meeting analyzing progress via numbers on a spreadsheet with constructive discussions around curriculum. Invest in the development of school curricula, and progress will come.

Further reading

As stated in previous posts, 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.

David Didau, Specify, teach, assess: using the English curriculum as a progression model,

Michael Fordham, The curriculum as progression model,

Michael Fordham, What did I mean by ‘the curriculum is the progression model?’

Ruth Ashbee, Curriculum: Theory, Culture and the Subject Specialisms.


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