Revisiting old posts: Curriculum

POSTED ORIGINALLY IN OCTOBER 2019

Disclaimer: this blog post probably offers nothing new but it is my personal reflections on the framework and how we can use it to create more cohesive curriculums.  In addition, what is initially said appears seemingly simple when, in fact, the opposite is true.  Great curriculum planning – and the resourcing of that curriculum – is a process that takes years.

On Saturday, at the first ever ResearchEd conference in Rome, I spoke about curriculum, and more importantly, the Ofsted framework and how it is asking us to think about curriculum.  I began with my three confessions

  1. I like Ofsted. I think we should have regulatory bodies and whilst I may not agree with everything they do, I have always experienced fair inspections.
  2. I really like the new Ofsted framework. I think it is well-researched (28 pages of references), well-considered and makes absolute sense.
  3. I love Daniel Muijs – I think his work has been transformative for Ofsted.

For many years, the Ofsted focus has been on data and external outcomes – GCSEs and A levels.  However, if Ofsted conduct an inspection in which the outcomes dominate proceedings then Ofsted are focused on the end-point and less on the process of helping a school improve.  Having worked in two failing schools and been part of the process to good, my experience leads me to believe that there are two things that turn a failing school into a great one:

  1. Behaviour – Schools need to have excellent behaviour systems in place before anything else. If there is poor behaviour, then it is much harder for teachers to teach. The systems that are put in place within a school should liberate teachers from having to spend more time than is necessary on behaviour.  Improving behaviour leads to improved Teaching and Learning.
  2. Infrastructure – to include curriculum and assessment. If a school is failing, it actually does need a tight infrastructure – a curriculum, for example, where all teachers teach the same texts. It is important that a standard is met for all.  However, the reins can be let loose once greatness has been achieved as long as the cohesive nature of the curriculum remains.

What Ofsted now seem to have realized is that if they focus an inspection on what comes before the outcome, they will have greater chance in supporting schools to get better.  This has meant a shift away from a data focus during an Ofsted Inspection to a greater focus on curriculum and behaviour, culture and ethos.  A welcome shift in my mind.  Ofsted reflects upon this themselves in the Inspection Handbook where is states that ‘a well-constructed, well-taught curriculum will lead to good results because those results will reflect what pupils have learned.’

I centered my talk around three key questions:

  1. What does the new framework say about curriculum?
  2. What are the implications of this when thinking about curriculum planning?
  3. Is this relevant to our work in the international education sector?
  1. What does the new framework say about curriculum?

First of all the Inspection Handbook offers us a definition of curriculum which reads: ‘The curriculum sets out the aims of a programme of education.  It also sets out the structure for those aims to be implemented, including the knowledge and skills to be gained at each stage.  It enables the evaluation of pupils’ knowledge and skills against those expectations.’

From the outset, this is a useful definition.  It asks us to think about the purpose of a curriculum and what we hope to achieve.  It rids itself of the dichotomy between knowledge and skills suggesting both are important and valid and it ensures that assessment is an integral part of any curriculum structure.

Having clarified Ofsted’s definition of curriculum, I read through both the framework and the Inspection Handbook and identified four key areas that Ofsted ask us to consider when thinking about curriculum planning.  The first three are below

What is it that we want our pupils to know / learn?

Ofsted states that ‘leaders should take on and construct a curriculum that is ambitious and designed to give all learners the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life.’  Cultural capital, as defined by the National Curriculum, is ‘the essential knowledge that pupils need to be educated citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said and helping to engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.’

What are the key concepts that we need or want our pupils to understand?

Ofsted state ‘over the course of study, teaching should be designed to help learners remember in the long term the content they have been taught and to integrate new knowledge into larger concepts.’

In what order will pupils learn what we want them to?

Ofsted asks us to consider ‘what end points our curriculum is building towards and what pupils need to know and be able to do to reach those end points.’  They encourage us ‘to plan and sequence our curriculum so that new knowledge and skills build on what has been taught before and towards it’s clearly defined end points, including the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life.’

  1. What are the implications of this when thinking about curriculum planning?

The first thing I think about when planning is Cognitive Load Theory based on the work of John Sweller in 1998.  The theory is based on a number of widely accepted theories about how human brains process and store information with human memory being divided into working memory and long-term memory.

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Our working memory has a limited capacity that is responsible for temporarily holding information.  In fact, our working memory can only hold up to 4-5 bits of new information.  According to Goldstein, unless this information is actively attended to or rehearsed and encoded into our long term memory, it will be lost within 15-30 seconds.

The significance of this, for me, when curriculum planning, is thinking about how we structure our KS3 curriculum so that we embed knowledge, skills and key concepts into our pupils’ long term memory so that we make the transition to KS4 cognitively easier.  If I am thinking about how I can reduce the cognitive load for my pupils at KS4, I need to consider what knowledge I could impart in KS3 that will help them prepare for KS4, what skills I could develop to help them at KS4 and what concepts I could integrate as well.

Knowledge

Firstly, when thinking about knowledge, I need to consider what knowledge at KS4.  For example, for their KS4 IGCSE in English Language and English Literature, pupils need to be able to

  • Study and understand two anthologies of poems
  • Read and understand a range of prose extract
  • Know how to craft a piece of imaginative writing
  • Read and understand Shakespeare
  • Read and understand a play by JB Priestley
  • Know how to make inferences
  • Analyse how language and structure are used to convey meaning
  • Make comparisons and contrasts between texts
  • Know how to craft a piece of transactional writing for a variety of different purposes in a range of different forms
  • Respond to unseen poetry
  • Read and understand a novel by John Steinbeck.

This has massive implications for what we do at KS3 and the knowledge that would be most helpful to impart.  For example, if we were to take the teaching of the poetry anthology with Owen, Blake and Keats, key things I might want to consider in terms of prior teaching would be:

  • What are the different forms of poetry?
  • What are the conventions of poems?
  • What language and structural techniques do poets draw on to convey meaning?
  • Who were the Romantics?
  • What themes reoccur within poetry?

These are all questions that could be addressed within KS3 to ease the transition at KS4.  If pupils can distinguish a sonnet from a ballad from a lyrical poem, then when they come to GCSE and see these forms, they are recognizable because that knowledge is secure and their cognitive load is reduced -enabling them to  concentrate on the new knowledge that comes from learning a new poem, for example.

Skills

Secondly, the same process follows for the skills we wish to develop.  Again, starting with Ofsted’s recommendations of starting with the end point when planning your curriculum, I need to consider what a pupil in year 11 needs to demonstrate at KS4 in order to get a level 9 and then plan backwards.  Identifying the steps that pupils will need to take in order to be able to demonstrate that skill at that level later on.  For example, pupils in y11 wanting to get a grade 9 need to use ‘apt and discriminating references to clarify any points they make.’  My consideration when curriculum planning, therefore, needs to be focused on how I can get my pupils to the point where they can do that – what steps do they need to take.

progression-map-for-blog.png

Concepts

And finally, the consideration of the key concepts.  Ofsted make numerous references to the key concepts in the new framework and how the knowledge we teach should feed into larger concepts over time.  The IB for English Language and Literature identify seven key concepts within the IB curriculum: communication, creativity, perspective, culture, transformation, identity and representation.

concepts.jpg

My third consideration, therefore, is how I can plan my curriculum so that these key concepts are embedded across KS3 and KS4 to create stronger links across my curriculum.  For example, I am currently teaching The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket to my pupils.  The concept of identity and perspective is really poignant to that text.  If I frame my unit with the concept of identity in mind, I can begin to discuss relevant questions with my pupils – such as ‘What does it mean to be normal?’ – an issue right at the heart of the novel.  In doing so, I am giving my pupils a sound understanding of the concept before they explore this concept in more challenging texts later on.

Furthermore, in framing units around the key concepts, I can draw links between them.  For example, when moving on to the teaching of Poetry from other cultures and the poem ‘Nothing’s Changed’, I can explore the perspective the poet has when returning to his homeland and compare this with Barnaby’s perspective when he returns home as well.  In doing so, I am forging links between my units, to help establish schemas and strengthen my pupils’ storage capacity as well.

When we combine all three of these thought processes: the knowledge that we want to build, the skills we wish to develop and the concepts we wish to integrate, the process of curriculum development is somewhat more complex and deserving of more of our thinking and time – which is the intention of the new framework.

Some practitioners in the UK have responded to these ideas and have begun to map out their KS3-KS4-KS5, 5 year or 7 year curriculum, suggesting that in presenting it in this way they can clearly see what knowledge they wish to impart, which skills they wish to develop and which concepts they wish to integrate and how these link together to form a coherent curriculum offering – important, when we bring ourselves back to Ofsted’s reflection that ‘a well-thought out and a well-constructed curriculum will lead to our pupils achieving greatly.’  An example of one of these is below from @Pekabelo

5 year curriculum plan.jpg

Finally, Michael Tidd, a primary headteacher has amended his medium term planning in order to ask his staff to consider how the units they are planning simply build on previous learning and prepare pupils for future learning.  A simple but effective change to really begin to consider how well the curriculum itself connects.

Michael Tidd.jpg

Part 2: Assessment and the relevance of the new Ofsted framework to the international sector to follow shortly…

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