Ofsted’s new focus on curriculum planning and curriculum design did not take Jon Hutchinson and his colleagues at Reach Academy by surprise. They’ve been engaged in a deep level of curriculum planning for several years now in their quest to develop a curriculum that was suitable not just for some of the pupils, but for all pupils in their school and other schools.
Here Jon provides some background to the Reach Academy’s principles of curriculum design, the pitfalls of their curriculum design model they reviewed, and how, in teaching their new school curriculum, their focus is not only on the intent, implementation and impact of this curriculum, but also its enactment.
What do we mean by curriculum design at school?
From our humble, cave-dwelling beginnings, humans have tamed fire, risen to the apex of the food chain, built great civilisations, charted the oceans and gone on to flourish in almost every corner of earth. Not content with dominating the entire natural world, we have blasted out through the stratosphere and explored the moon, sending satellites to farther worlds still.
How to account for this meteoric and exponential rise? Scholars offer competing theories, but all include one aspect of human behaviour which differentiates us from other species on earth: culture.
As Isaac Newton famously declared in 1675 “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”.
In short, we have accomplished so much because we do not have to begin every time from scratch. Our ancestors have already built a great edifice, ready to be passed on to the next generation.
And it is here that schools play their crucial role. We are the gatekeepers and torchbearers of this accumulated wisdom, tasked with passing on the very best that has been accomplished by our forebears.
And yet, it is a task that has been all too often unexamined. Worse, to my despair, the notion of a canonical body of knowledge is actively attacked by some influential educationalists: it doesn’t really matter what they learn, they say. On the contrary. Nothing has mattered more.
In primary schools, the name that we give to this collection of human achievement is the school’s curriculum.
Deciding exactly what we pass on to the children in our classrooms, then, is the greatest responsibility, and the greatest privilege. It is their birthright. For many children, school will be the only opportunity they have to receive it. So we need to take curriculum development seriously.
Where I started: an activity-based curriculum
It was back in 2013 even before the new primary curriculum that I first realised that I was failing these children. After teaching a unit on prehistoric Britain, I was looking at the stone age huts that my class had crafted over a series of weeks, congratulating myself on a successful history unit.
It wasn’t until my TA, Sue, covered my class one afternoon that my world came crashing down. Despite apparently high levels of student engagement hardly any of the children knew even the most basic facts about prehistory. Foundational stuff like how old homo sapiens were, and when humans in Britain first began farming. The learning outcomes simply weren’t there.
Make the curriculum fun, make it engaging
Unknowingly, I was operating on what I would now call an activity-based curriculum. When I trained as a teacher the emphasis was almost exclusively on ‘engagement’ and engaging learning experiences.
The only thing that really mattered was whether the children were engaged (it didn’t really seem to matter what they were engaged in, just that they were). As a result, I planned fun activities that would capture the imagination of my class.
Building little stone age huts was just one example, over the same half term we also ‘excavated’ some broken pottery that I had buried in the school field, walked through a local wood to search for food like hunter-gatherers, banged drums to make ‘caveman music’…the list goes on and on.
Read more on ‘engagement’: Making Maths Fun or Engaging!
Importance of subject knowledge and subject-specific expertise in curriculum design
What I did very little of was telling pupils about the most important developments during the stone age. The truth was I myself was very shaky on exactly what the most important information was, my expertise in the topic was limited, to say the least.
This is a seemingly intractable problem for primary school teachers: as generalists, it is impossible for us to develop a commanding subject knowledge of all the national curriculum subjects and topics.
And yet a report for the Sutton Trust points to subject knowledge as one of the most important characteristics for teachers in achieving strong outcomes for their students.
It is one of the problems that we have explicitly tried to solve with our curriculum design, but more on that below.
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Not an inclusive curriculum model but it worked for some
Not all the children in my class suffered under my activity-based approach. Some of them went home and had parents who had the time, resources and personal levels of education that allowed them to research this period during the evenings.
Those kids came back to school bursting with interesting facts. But they were the children who were already achieving the best in my class, and who statistically speaking (based on their socio-economic background) would be most likely to go on and attain the highest grades and access the best opportunities. This was the very opposite of an inclusive curriculum.
My curriculum teaching was widening the attainment gap
Topic by topic, year by year, these children gained an advantage over those who weren’t guaranteed the crucial cultural knowledge in my classroom. Cumulatively, this subject matter and knowledge gap grew incrementally into a chasm that would soon be insurmountable.
I had gone into teaching to try and close the achievement gap in learning outcomes, and it turned out that I was actually widening it.
New Primary Curriculum Planning
Something had to change, so armed with everything we knew about what didn’t work, we set about creating a new primary school curriculum design that works for all.
Step 1 in our new curriculum design (Ofsted’s Intent): Knowledge Organisers
In the parlance of the new Ofsted inspection framework, a knowledge organiser represents the intended curriculum, the first of Ofsted’s 3 i’s: intent; that is to say the key knowledge that you intend all children to learn and remember in the long term.
A fair amount of time within the design process has to go in to selecting the most important topics to teach and hence to be the focus of students’ learning. In schools we wrestle with opportunity cost – for every topic you teach, you can’t teach something else.
Not all knowledge is equal, some is more culturally relevant, some changes the way that you see the world, some transforms the way you understand a discipline.
Download a free KS2 Maths Knowledge Organiser for SATs to try them out yourself.
Impact of knowledge organisers
We had immediate success on implementing our knowledge organisers and self-quizzing during lessons. All pupils were able to recite key facts from memory, which made teaching easier and the lessons more enjoyable.
However, knowledge organisers were not as transformative as we might have hoped. There were two problems.
Limitations of knowledge organisers
- Teachers still didn’t possess the subject knowledge that allowed them to explicitly teach about the topics in a passionate and authoritative manner. They were a useful anchor and launchpad, to be sure, but they didn’t annihilate the attainment gap in the way that we were hoping.
- Although we knew that curriculum design was the key lever for ensuring educational equality, the knowledge organisers alone were not detailed enough to make the best teaching replicable and scalable.
Step 2 in our new curriculum design (Ofsted’s Implementation): Work Booklets
If we again invoke the Ofsted inspection framework, as has become customary recently, we might call work booklets the implemented curriculum, the second of Ofsted’s 3 i’s: implementation. These are all of the materials that are necessary to teach the intended curriculum in the classroom over a given period of time.
As well as a knowledge organiser, then, we also wrote a booklet, which for any particular subject, was split into six lessons.
Structure of each lesson in the work booklets
- Each lesson begins with a key question
- Then somewhere between 300 and 800 words of information written by a teacher at an age appropriate manner. The text can be read during lessons as a whole class, with children taking it in turns to read a sentence aloud.
- Key diagrams, images and graphs are included.
- Every 50 words or so, a short task is included. This could be a multiple-choice question based on what has just been read, or it could be a class debate on a particular issue that has been raised. We have twelve different types of tasks (each with its on dedicated symbol) which encourage the children to think hard about what it is that we want them to remember.
- Recap quiz based on the most important information from each lesson is then provided to start off the next lesson and support long-term memory change.
Step 3 in our new curriculum design (Ofsted’s Impact): End of Unit Essay
At the end of the unit, children write an essay bringing together all of their learning about the topic.
This would form part of what Ofsted term impact, the third of Ofsted’s three i’s. The essays become increasingly sophisticated as children move through key stage 2, so that by year 6 they are answering questions such as: ‘“Civil disobedience was more important than legislation during the civil rights movement.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?’
All children are given a structure strip with prompt questions of information to include in each paragraph. They don’t have to use it, but it means that we can take account of individual student needs so every child is able to write an accomplished and comprehensive essay.
Benefits of this written stage of the curriculum
- Although the essay can be challenging, by the time pupils have finished it they feel very proud have had another chance to recall and organise key information
- This active retrieval makes the knowledge less likely to be forgotten
- The essays also give us a chance to make a valid assessment of the pupils historical knowledge and writing using comparative judgement once a year with other schools using our curriculum
- We can get a sense of progression as we look at different year groups’ writing, something that can be very powerful for newer teachers who can see a clear model of what should be expected by the end of the year and key stage.
You can read more about retrieval practice in Clare Sealy’s ‘How I Wish I’d Taught Maths’ series.
Ofsted’s three i’s – What’s Missing?
One aspect of curriculum that has not been mentioned above (and is indeed omitted from Ofsted’s 3 i’s offering) is the enacted curriculum, sometimes known as the experienced curriculum.
This, in fact, is probably the most important level, because it refers to what happens in the classroom. Precisely how the knowledge is related to children, processed, explained, modelled, debated, discussed, contextualised…everything a great teacher does best.
In writing such a detailed intended and implemented curriculum, it was our hope that teachers could then focus on the enacted curriculum (which also happens to be the most fun part of the job).
Balance of autonomy and teaching best practice
Although we think that there are ‘best bets’ in terms of how to teach a class of children, we also think that it’s important that teachers have ownership of the curriculum, and are able to authentically teach it injecting their own personality and style.
We aren’t looking for cookie cutter lessons, and though the content in our lessons is very detailed and clearly structured, we still believe that there are hundreds of ways to deliver the curriculum in a unique manner.
To illustrate this we filmed each of our lesson elements with different teachers and year groups, to try and give a sense of the plurality of teaching styles and approaches.
How we’ve planned for enrichment activities within this curriculum
We also have only six lessons in our booklet, which only accounts for about half of the humanities lessons in each half term. The rest can be planned by the teacher, and can include some of the enriching activities that used to exclusively occupy my lessons. These tasks are so much richer once children have strong webs of knowledge about the topic.
A Curriculum Plan for Effective Sequencing
Probably the most important (but difficult) aspect of curriculum design is effective sequencing. Though we take for granted in maths and English the idea of slowly building on knowledge and skills, such an approach is far less likely in the humanities.
As such, pupils can learn about a topic, only for it never to be mentioned again. This makes building conceptual knowledge all but impossible. One of our curriculum principles was that every concept we want the children to learn be visited in more than one lesson.
To give an example, one concept in history that we hope to develop is the idea of ‘kingship’. We do not expect this to be understood conceptually in one lesson but through the many concrete examples and non-examples taken together that children will encounter such as:
In a Year 3 unit on Ancient Greece, Alexander the Great is studied.
In Year 3 we look at Alfred the Great during the Anglo-Saxon unit.
In Year 4 we look in detail at medieval monarchs (including the great Queen Elizabeth).
Finally in Year 5 Suleiman the Magnificent is studied during the unit on the Middle East.
With a detailed enough curriculum, we can be sure what all pupils have learnt about, and capitalise on this to build sophisticated schemas around the important disciplinary concepts.
Problems arising from this new curriculum model and how we solved them
Though over the last few years we have seen some wonderful successes and are beginning to see the power of a fully sequenced curriculum model, we aren’t naïve enough to think that we have the whole thing cracked.
Our journey has been one of bumbling from one mistake to another, solving each along the way by tweaking, adapting and rewriting materials at all levels. We are still on that journey. It may be worth sharing the three most difficult problems that we encountered, and how we tried to solve them.
We might term these problematic aspects of curriculum design the intended-enacted gap, lethal mutations, and literature overload.
Problem 1: The intended-enacted curriculum gap: what does it look like in the classroom?
No matter how detailed the curriculum materials, and how fail-safe we believe the booklets and lesson plans to be, there is no guarantee that in the classroom it will look like what you hoped it would. In the real world, where teachers are busy and topics are new, there will always be a gap between what is intended, and what is actually being taught.
Solution: weekly, instructional coaching
This gap should be anticipated, and leaders should ensure that they spend time dropping in to these lessons. All too often it is easy to simply focus on English and maths, ignoring the crucial foundation subjects.
Drop in to a lesson for 10 or 15 minutes, focussing on one aspect of the teaching (it could be the pace of the whole class reading, or the passion in the storytelling, or the feedback during the quizzing). Have a quick discussion with the teacher after the lesson and give one, clear action step to help them improve.
Over a period of weeks, you can incrementally help teachers master each aspect of the lessons and feel more confident in their delivery.
Problem 2: Lethal mutations: superficial engagement with the science of learning
Sometimes good ideas can go rotten. Usually, superficial engagement with the science of a particular initiative or approach leads to it becoming redundant, perhaps even hindering learning.
The most famous recent example is probably ‘growth mindset’, but teachers who’ve been around the block a few times could count off dozens of similar shiny new things which were quietly phased out. Dylan Wiliam has termed these ‘lethal mutations’ where people use the same language to describe very different things.
Solution: developing mental models
Alongside the practical tools needed to deliver a balanced curriculum, it is important that teachers develop a sophisticated ‘mental model’. This means exploring the science of what makes a particular approach effective, what the limitations are and how it can (and can’t) be adapted.
Problem 3: Literature overload: that’s all very well in practice, but what about in theory?
The final problem listed here is actually the first that we encountered when beginning our whole school curriculum work. Underlying our curriculum model sits a vast body of theoretical work. We have drawn on literature from cognitive science, psychology, educational research and curriculum theory. See the reading list of this is at the end of this article for an inexhaustive list of these.
In our determination to build the mental models set out in Problem 2, I think it is fair to say that we went into theory overdrive. This meant lots of CPD sessions in which the dense theory of curriculum design was dissected, debated and analysed.
The trouble was, there was very little that teachers were able to do the next day as a result of these discussions. If Problem 2 represents the pendulum swinging to thoughtless action without any theoretical understanding, then problem three is its opposite: all retch and no vomit.
Solution: balancing theory with action
Whilst it is important to develop mental models, this theoretical work should be carefully paced out over a long period of time, allowing teachers to digest new thinking from their professional development in smaller units. Furthermore, each CPD session should be linked directly towards lessons.
End by asking teachers to adapt their lesson plans based on what they’ve read, or practice delivering a particular aspect of a lesson. This will help the theory become meaningful, and make it more likely to translate into action. It’s also more likely to lead to buy-in from staff.
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Building a balanced curriculum is hard
It’s worth concluding by saying that I don’t believe it is necessary for everyone to go down the same journey that we have. Indeed, I think it would actually be a mistake for every school to try and build a detailed curriculum from scratch in the same way that we have.
It has taken us several years to arrive at the position that we are now in, and we have been lucky enough to receive some funding that has allowed us to take two members of staff off timetable and pay other teachers for extra work on developing the curriculum materials.
We decided from the outset to design our entire curriculum in such a way that made it shareable. Of course we want our school and our children to do well, but we are interested in all children, wherever they are, having access to high quality materials that are intelligently sequenced and rich in powerful knowledge.
You can find out more about how to access the Reach curriculum here.
Curriculum Design Reading List
Wherever you are on your curriculum design journey, let me finish by recommending you engage with the reading and study on this topic that’s already available. There’s a lot to read but it’ll be worth it.
- Cultural Literacy and Why Knowledge Matters, by ED Hirsch
- Seven Myths About Education and Making Good Progress, by Daisy Christodoulou
- Knowledge and the Future School, by Michael F. D. Young, Carolyn Roberts, Martin Roberts, David Lambert
- Principled Curriculum Design by Dylan Wiliam
- Why Don’t Students Like School, by Dan Willingham
- Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Doesn’t Work (2006) by Kirschner, Sweller and Clark
- Learning versus Performance: An Integrative Review (2015). by Soderstrom and Bjork
- Principles of Instruction, by Barack Rosenshine