Reflecting on … how research is helping me to redesign our department’s curriculum.

Amanda Spielman (2018):  “Too many teachers and leaders have not been trained to think deeply about what they want their pupils to learn and how they are going to teach it.”

When I became Head of History, over a decade ago, our curriculum offer was quite typical and largely outside of my hands.  We followed a conventional Key Stage 3 covering 1066-1945, in line with the National Curriculum directives, and did a range of units at Key Sates 4 and 5 that were intensively focused on modern world history.  In these courses we included as much overlap as possible in order to, we believed, give our students the best chance of excelling in their final exams.

The freedom offered in recent years is both empowering and exhilarating, but not something that it was easy to instantly know what to do with.  At first, I tinkered with the original national curriculum material, cautiously chose a wider range of A-level and GCSE options as directed by the new specifications and, to be fair, invested a considerable energy into mastering these new topics.  However in the last couple of years I have found myself in a position to think much more carefully about what students should be learning in their time at John Mason – what is the “powerful knowledge” I want them to take away, and why.  In developing my thinking in this area, a number of principle ideas from educational research have been tremendously helpful.

Key idea 1:  Learning is about knowledge in long term memory and builds in schemas of connected ideas.    

Too often in the past I have considered units of work, and even lessons in isolation, considering their “quality” based on performance-related outcomes (rather than learning outcomes) such as pupil enjoyment.  Furthermore I have often failed to be explicit in helping my students to integrate new knowledge to an integrated whole.  The fact that it is easier to teach a course the second time around is a truism that I now relate to the connectedness of knowledge in my own head and my tendency to forward-plan rather than plan from the end.  In light of this I am changing my curriculum planning model and instead of thinking forward from units or even tasks that I like or want students to experience, I am thinking about the key knowledge they need to understand.  In this planning, the knowledge organiser is becoming an indispensable tool.  They are available to download (and time is not infinite!), but wherever possible I am trying to make my own, or at least edit the ones I download, to ensure that I am carefully thinking about the knowledge we are delivering and how it connects in a meaningful way.

Key idea 2:  Students’ response to teaching will be affected by the knowledge they already have, the mindset they bring to the class or subject and, more than anything else, their peer group. 

However, no matter how carefully designed the knowledge organiser and related teaching activities, each student is going to connect the ideas in their own, unique, brain in their own, unique, way.  If in doubt they will look to their peers for guidance which can be helpful, but can also end up building and escalating misconceptions.  The student with the greatest understanding is not necessarily going to be the one the others listen to.    The implications of this for teaching, learning and curriculum planning are vast.  However, one or two key things that I need to think about at the curriculum planning stage strike very strongly.  The first, perhaps, is the need to consider our students’ context very carefully when planning curriculum delivery.  Not knowing doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll ask – and certainly not that they’ll ask the teacher.  They can and will attach ideas to what they do know and can create powerful and long-lasting misconceptions in this process.  It is therefore imperative that I consider their backgrounds and access to relevant contextual information very carefully when planning learning – that vital cultural capital or lack thereof that can make so much difference.  It is important to allow time to explore pre-conceptions.  Educational visits and other experiences that bring the learning to life can take on a new significance, for children who are unable to visualise the content we are describing.  And, vitally, I must share the curriculum map with students (the knowledge organiser comes in handy again here) in order to help them piece together the individual units of learning in a meaningful way.

Key idea 3:  Teaching needs to be responsive, and interactive and the need to build a dialogue about learning includes assessment.

Even with the most careful planning in the world I cannot entirely change idea 2 and my students will build schemas that are unique to them.  But the better I can understand what they are thinking and how they are assimilating information the better able I am to shape this and tackle misconceptions.  Again the implications here are many and varied and this links closely to the nature of questioning in the classroom, which I have discussed a lot elsewhere.  However, for me, the biggest implications for “bigger picture” curriculum planning have been for assessment.  I’ve put a lot of thought into how and when to assess, how to create assessments that really give me insight into what students have taken from the learning and how to “break away” from the rigid adherence to exam questions when a different assessment model would offer better insight.  It is also the key rationale behind our dialogic marking policy, the careful emphasis on minimising staff workload and allowing freedom to respond to what the students have understood.  A driving principle behind our approach to formative assessment is to identify and address misconceptions, in whatever form of response is most appropriate.

Key idea 4:  Memory is strengthened by revisiting material and retrieval practice and learning is maximised when the cognitive load is optimised.

Understanding of how memory works has been one of the most important research areas in developing my teaching and planning.   The old model of delivering blocks of material and then revising these at the end of the course (or expecting students to revise the material) was my instinctive approach for many years.   Now when curriculum planning I try to carefully consider the principles of interleaving, retrieval practice and cognitive load.  This is not the place to detail research into memory at length, but the key implications I have taken are this:

  1. Students will not remember all the “powerful knowledge” I want them to on the first exposure and so I need to work out how to revisit material over the lifespan of a course. This needs to be carefully planned to ensure that the information itself does not lose internal coherence (e.g. in history, say, a chronological structure).
  2. Regular, spaced retrieval practice including low-stakes testing will support students’ retention of the core material they have learned. The time for this needs to be worked into my curriculum plan.  I have made the decision to allocate lesson time to this as I am just not convinced that it will be done well at home by all students, thus creating a chasm in their understanding.
  3. The more information they have readily available in long-term memory the less the “cognitive load” is of absorbing new material and more complicated concepts. By revisiting concepts after spaced retrieval practice I maximise the likelihood of students being able to access such material.  Therefore I need to plan this into my curriculum delivery model.

Key idea 5:  Students of all ages and attainment levels can benefit from metacognition.

Too often in the past I have focused on the end product as the end of the learning,  My assessment of students’ success has been based on a summative piece of work and I have used my professional judgement to try and unpick where and how things went wrong and to plan interventions.  I am only just beginning to understand the power of metacognition to help students understand, plan and monitor their own learning.  I am blogging about my experiences with this in other posts.  However I am already experiencing the implications for my curriculum planning.  The need to leave time and space and identify key points for me to model my own approaches and thinking has further developed my planning around the delivery of new concepts and assessments.  The construction of learning models that support an iterative process where students are able to experience learning in repeated iterations, wherein they reflect on their past learning strategies and develop these is vital.  We are going to be doing a lot more work on this in the next year but already it is feeding into my planning models and we are developing resources to support this at key points throughout the learning in all key stages.

With all this to consider, there is a lot to take on.  Different teams and subjects are at different places and there is work to do in developing these ideas in practice.  Developing and improving a curriculum is not a single or an overnight job but one I am working on all the time.  It will never be perfect.  However, with these research ideas in mind, I feel more confident than ever I have that I know the right questions to ask of our curriculum and that I am identifying ways to improve it that will have real impact on students’ learning at John Mason School.

Questions to help reflect on curriculum design:

  • How have you designed your curriculum and what is the rationale behind this?
  • How do your curriculum choices reflect the context of your pupils?
  • How did you choose what to teach and when?
  • How are subject skills developed throughout the curriculum?
  • How do you identify gaps in knowledge and how do you assess skills?
  • What works well and what needs to be developed within your curriculum?

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