Curriculum as the driving force

At #CogSciSci Bath ‘2020’ I spoke about how curricular thinking and learning about cognitive science have had a huge impact on my thinking and practice as a teacher and leader. The talk was an extension of this blog which I wrote a few weeks ago, and expanded on some of the areas in which I have found a curricular focus to be so important. I mentioned a lot of things on which my thinking has changed over my 10 years as a teacher and it was impossible to signpost all the books, blogs and talks which have informed these. This blog is an attempt to set that right and collate a selection of useful links. It’s rather long, so if you were at the talk you might want to skip through to whatever sections interested you the most!

There are so many aspects of teaching which can’t be separated from one another. From a subject perspective I think there are four areas which are particularly important to focus on; curriculum, planning (and T&L), assessment and department time. These all need to be working together, in order to be really beneficial. A wonderfully planned curriculum is of no value if what happens in the classroom is ineffective, and it’s no good spending lots of time on assessment if it doesn’t provide the teacher with useful information which informs future teaching. Department time should be spent considering these things in order to generate a shared understanding and ownership of excellent classroom practice and the curriculum which flows into this. These four areas are interdependent, but I believe a carefully thought through curriculum can be the driver which sets the frequency at which they resonate together to bring the maximum effect. Let’s consider these one by one.

Curriculum

My thinking about the curriculum began with reading Tom Sherrington’s blog on the knowledge rich curriculum. Thinking about what knowledge we teach students, and want them to remember and understand, is fundamental to education. This seems like such an obvious statement, but it was the beginning of a complete turn around in my approach. I started to ask questions like these:

  • What do we want students to know?
  • Why do we want them to know that and not something else, or would either be valid?
  • What is an effective teaching sequence for these topics or within this topic?
  • How will I best explain this concept?
  • How will I make sure students are thinking hard about and learning this?
  • How will I check that students have understood?
  • How will I know that students have learned?
  • What will I do if they haven’t understood or learned?
  • What prior knowledge do I need to check before I can teach this?

These questions are not all directly about curriculum design, but they all have this knowledge at their heart. In science, the following areas are where I have focused thought in developing an improved KS3 curriculum:

  1. Selecting and defining knowledge

When I was first teaching, I viewed the National Curriculum as defining the knowledge which I wanted students to learn in science. I didn’t give any thought beyond this. But a quick look at the KS3 National Curriculum soon demonstrates how unhelpful this is. The KS3 curriculum for “the particulate nature of matter” is here: 

So what’s the problem with this? It’s very vague and doesn’t really give any clear indication of what students should be learning. If each class in Year 7 has a different teacher using this as their guide, it could easily result in every class learning slightly different things with different emphases. Is this really a problem? Well, it is if some classes are learning significantly more than others, or if one teacher decides to call the change of state from liquid to gas ‘boiling’ when another teacher emphasises ‘evaporation’. Different classes might be introduced to slightly different definitions of key terminology meaning that when they have a different teacher in a subsequent year or for a different topic, things could become unnecessarily confusing. For these reasons, collaboratively selecting and defining the core knowledge we want students to learn is important for coherence throughout years, and to ensure that all students in our school receive the education they are entitled to, regardless of their class or teacher.

When we started to think about this in my department, we didn’t try to write a whole new scheme of work, but to move away from having ‘lesson objectives’ to deciding on core ‘questions and answers’ which clearly defined the most important things we felt our students should be learning. We wrote these for the schemes of work we had in place, and they precipitated some helpful discussion about what knowledge was important and what was less so. 

In writing new schemes of work, these have been a helpful starting point for writing booklets which, alongside the core questions and answers, are the key way in which we set down the knowledge which students need. A few of these for the particles topic are shown below – you can see how these clearly define the required knowledge in a way that the National Curriculum statement does not.

Exactly what knowledge you include is for you to decide, but defining it clearly and collaboratively through discussion and debate will give everyone a clearer understanding of exactly what’s in your curriculum.

Adam Boxer’s blog which got me thinking about the power of defining knowledge as core questions and answers is here

  1. Sequencing

Once you’ve decided on what’s in your curriculum, you need to think about sequencing. There are some excellent blogs about sequencing in science and some of the approaches you might take:

These mostly consider sequencing at quite a macroscopic level – what order should different topics be taught in? There are so many good answers to this and I think the most important thing is to have thought about it and to have a reason for the choice you’ve made.

I would contend that the place to focus most attention is within a topic and some important questions to ask are:

  • What prior knowledge is required for students to access this and has this already been covered in our curriculum?
  • How does this knowledge fit together in our expert schema? What is a sensible route to introduce this to students to build up a similar understanding?
  • Are some aspects of this knowledge more challenging than others? Should these be taught first? 
  • Am I going to be using any key vocabulary or referring to concepts in teaching this which students haven’t previously been taught? If so, how am I going to ensure that they can access this learning?

For me, the most important thing is that whenever we teach a new concept it is being laid on secure foundations, or being linked to already secure parts of the schema in my students’ minds. If your teaching sequence is mapped with this in mind then it stands a much better chance of being successful.

  1. Links between topic areas

This is something which I really didn’t think intentionally about until a long way into my career, it certainly wasn’t signposted in schemes of work. But when you start to think about the granular detail of the curriculum these links start to leap out at you – you can’t debate content and sequencing without discussion how different aspects of knowlefge link together and influence one another! It’s really hard to make these links as a novice teacher unfamiliar with the curriculum as a whole, or a teacher teaching outside of their specialism, but the more we can signpost these links to students, the better they will be able to form links between different areas of the schema which is developing in their minds. It’s all too easy to plan topics in isolation, rather than viewing the curriculum as a whole. If we can consciously build opportunities for highlighting these connections into our schemes or work and lesson resources, this will be helpful for students and teachers alike. Making these links explicit can also provide excellent opportunities for spaced retrieval practice which we know supports students in securing knowledge in long term memory.

  1. Practical work

For the particles topic, we not only need to decide on the core knowledge we want students to take away, but also on what practical work to include. Practical work should be chosen for its efficacy in supporting students’ learning and understanding. A good rule of thumb is to include practical work after teaching knowledge, to reinforce learning.  For example, in the particles topic, you might include a practical where students collect data to plot a cooling curve, the focus being on using a thermometer correctly, recording data and plotting a graph, not on their scientific understanding of states of matter or changes of state. Similarly, an investigation of factors affecting evaporation rate could focus on identifying variables and ‘fair testing’ if carried out after the theory of evaporation has already been taught and students already know what results to expect.

Further reading about curriculum:

Planning, teaching and learning

In planning, I’ve moved away from asking question like; What are the learning objectives? What do students need to write down? What engaging activities can I plan which will enable them to discover this knowledge? What practical can I include to make this lesson more engaging?

We can’t even begin to think about planning, teaching and learning productively until we have defined our curriculum. I can identify seven big shifts in my thinking about teaching and classroom practice which flow from having defined the curricular knowledge more precisely. These are summarised below and I have briefly elaborated on them each with some links to some of the key reading which informed my thinking.:

Lesson to topic: Having thought deeply about curriculum content and sequencing, I have a much clearer picture of the schema I want to support my students in developing. Planning a sequence of learning through a topic, rather than thinking of lessons as discrete units, as I used to do, has many benefits. Two which I would highlight are the ability to plan explanations thinking about what’s coming later, rather than in isolation within that lesson and a much greater adaptability in the classroom if students grasp something more quickly or slowly than I anticipated, or need more practice. I’m no longer a hostage to my lesson plan.

  • Kat Howard has written more about this here.

Learning objectives to knowledge: Rather than having a vague lesson objective, such as, ‘students should be able to explain the process of boiling’, I have a clear set of questions and answers defining what students should know about this process. This also helps to build consistency across the department, if collaboratively planned.

Discovery to explanations and questions: Rather than investing my time in designing activities to enable students to discover the knowledge necessary to meeting the learning objectives, I break the knowledge down into questions and answers and then plan really clear explanations to enable students to understand. I often script my explanations and practice drawing the diagrams I want to use, as well as having a list of questions which I will ask students during the course of the explanation. These will be focussed on checking that they have listened to what has been said, getting them to rehearse key words/knowledge, and more probing questions to check for understanding.

Examples of explanations others have shared can be found in the CogSciSci Library of Explanations.

The following books are also well worth a read for examples of explanations (Cracking Key Concepts in Secondary Science) and an explanation of how to deliver a good explanation (Teaching Secondary Science – a complete guide)!

Performance to retrieval and understanding: In the past I sought to assess learning within a lesson. I now realise that this is an impossible task. Learning is a change to long term memory, so what I was previously trying to demonstrate was really performance, a poor proxy for learning. Now, I focus on how I can check recall of and activate prior knowledge (often through a retrieval task at the start of a lesson) and how I will check for understanding of newly introduced concepts during lessons. This might be through cold-call, choral response, mini-whiteboards, written work etc. An important consideration here is ratio – am I getting information about learning and understanding from as many students as possible?

Further reading about performance vs learning:

Engagement to thinking and practising: My planning of lesson activities used to focus on ‘how can I engage students?’, now I focus on ‘what will make students think hard about the most important knowledge and understanding in this lesson.’ Students spend more of my lessons sat in their seats answering questions which make them think. The energy, engagement and interest comes from me and my explanations etc, students still enjoy the lessons, and are more motivated to learn because they feel that they are making progress and being successful in understanding things which are hard!! Practice usually comes in the form of SLOP (see CogSciSci site for a unit on writing quality SLOP!)

More about writing SLOP:

Frequent to focussed practical work: I used the try to think up a practical activity for as many lessons as possible to let students ‘experience’ and ‘discover’ the science and keep them engaged, I now only do practical work when it adds value to student learning and also tend to teach the theory first, using the practical as an opportunity to illustrate, review and check understanding of this. The ‘slow practical’ method makes this much easier, giving opportunities for  questioning and directing students’ attention throughout the practical.

Subject knowledge to pedagogical content knowledge: Rather than asking ‘do I know and understand this?’, before I teach it, I try to think about about what students might find difficult and how I could overcome this/support them in not getting bogged down by misconceptions.

For a much deeper exploration of ‘teacher subject knowledge’ see:

All these changes are driven by the focus on the curriculum and result in planning which focuses much more on lesson content and ensuring students develop a secure understanding. Rather than aiming to engage students through the activities in a lesson, I seek to motivate them through supporting them to understand and succeed in challenging learning. 

Assessment

Assessment has often been the tail that wags the dog of much of what is taught in schools. This is understandable, and to some extent necessary, given the high stakes of public exams for schools and students. But we need to remember that this doesn’t mean putting exam style questions in tests from day one. It also doesn’t mean that summative assessments are always appropriate or useful. I’m not referring here to the continual assessment we do in lessons as we check for understanding or see how students are answering practice questions as we circulate the room, rather the more formal assessment – topic/unit tests, for example.

The problem with these tests is twofold. Firstly, summative questions are not designed to be used formatively and it can be very difficult to extract much useful information about exactly what in the curriculum students have or have not understood. Secondly, even if we could extract this information, an end of topic test probably happens when we’re too far through the curriculum to really be able to go back and reteach or consolidate areas of the curriculum which students haven’t grasped. Assessment really needs to be curriculum focussed, granular and regular if it is to be useful in diagnosing how students are progressing in their knowledge of the curriculum and to inform future planning and teaching. If the majority of our assessment doesn’t yield information which feeds back into planning, it’s probably not the best use of assessment time.

I’ve written and spoken in more detail about how I’ve started to adapt my assessment practice:

Reading from others which I’ve found helpful:

Department Time

Time together as a department is a vital ingredient in ensuring that the curriculum, teaching and learning and assessment are all working together. This is the time for asking the questions suggested at the start of this post. Too often department time is used for admin but a shift to conversations about the curriculum and the things which flow from this can be so much more productive (and enjoyable!). Some suggestions for better use of department time:

  • Tricky topic areas
  • Sharing explanations
  • Writing core questions
  • Writing SLOP questions
  • Sharing successful ways to check understanding
  • Improving booklets/ resources

I hope I have illustrated how curriculum is key to planning, assessment, and how we use our department time. Investing time in thinking about the curriculum gives us a much stronger starting point to determine whether what is going on in our classrooms is effective as well as providing a framework to assess whether our students are making progress in their knowledge of the curriculum, and to make effective formative use of this information. But if any one of these is pulling in a different direction, the whole will inevitably suffer.

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