At the development of Ofsted’s new inspection framework Thirsk School and Sixth Form College welcomed the chance to review the curriculum and implement a redesigned curriculum over the next two years.
Necessarily this is a dynamic process as plenty of information, including additional research and examples of good practice will emerge in the next few years. Furthermore it is inevitable that the views of the government and inspectorate will vary and new priorities may emerge. There is also an appropriate understanding that this aspect of our provision will also be reviewed, adapted, and improved in a constant cycle. To borrow a phrase used by some commentators, ‘curriculum is a journey not a destination’.
As the external context remains unpredictable and uncertain our review and planning must be embedded in principles we believe in. This enables us to proceed with confidence, demonstrating integrity, consistency in line with the school’s values, and supported by our knowledge of our context and the needs of our students.
Foundation principles for curriculum review, planning and implementation
Curriculum, at school and departmental level, should be designed with grand and ambitious intent
- It should enable all students to develop their potential
- It should pass on our rich heritage of knowledge, discovery, thinking, ideas, and creativity
- It should prepare students for life and for work, building character, culture and citizenship
To achieve this all curriculum design must recognise:-
- Challenge is an entitlement for all students
- Children can remember and know more that we generally expect
- Knowledge and skills are taught to be remembered not merely encountered
- The curriculum models progression – it meets learners needs, ensures coverage, is carefully sequenced, provides clarity about what progress is, and getting better means, and is challenging
- An outstanding curriculum is board and balanced, drawing on subjects from different academic disciplines – Maths, Sciences, Arts, Humanities, Technologies and Languages
- The formal and planned curriculum is not in itself enough. The school remains committed to a wide range of additional opportunities for learners. In these opportunities the goals may be precisely planned and clear, or they may not be precisely planned or clear – but they make positive contributions to students’ abilities to develop their potential and sense of ‘self’ and ‘other’ in the world
- An outstanding curriculum is coherent and connected – where experiences and ideas between subjects are reinforced through explicit, and authentic links
We favour a ‘knowledge rich’ approach. We welcome the prominence of the EBacc measure and work by the Education Endowment Foundation suggests this is a key feature of an inclusive curriculum that can strengthen the chances for more vulnerable learners. We do not want to fall foul of the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ though this is a statement to treat with caution. It undoubtedly has been a barrier to progress for some as it is fair to assert that nationally some lower prior attainers are taught to their attitude rather than their potential. Equally it might be unhelpful to simplify this to mean that everyone will progress if only we deliver a robust, tradition, academic curriculum in a culture of high expectations. Student’s preferences, and sense of their future direction play a big part in their desire and drive and enjoyment in their learning. All our vocational or applied courses are valued and we believe suitably demanding and supportive of our curriculum principles. However in valuing and aiming to deliver a broad curriculum with practical options, to all, we must not conflate ‘engaged’ with ‘robust’. Student engagement is not a goal in itself.
Knowledge is required for the development of skills; skills and knowledge conjoin, one being the application of the other. We have to understand the link between skills and the knowledge rich curriculum. In general we want to shift the balance more towards knowledge as the building blocks of being able to do something. Skills are an outcome of knowledge. However we recognise that metacognition must be built; students need to develop the skills of learning. Therefore an important concept for us is disciplinary knowledge. Subjects must deliver declarative knowledge (facts), procedural knowledge (how to apply knowledge, to ‘do things’, skills) but to become substantive learning this needs to be understood within the language of the subject. By teaching students how engineers think, what the core beliefs of scientists are, what history as a discipline is (and what it is not), and to similarly understand other subjects, we want students to learn ‘think like a geographer’, or ‘linguist’ or ‘musician’.
One of the key strands of our teaching and learning approach is to offer regular, carefully planned opportunities to recap, reflect and review on learning – spacing opportunities to revisit knowledge to support its understanding and retention. If our teaching aligns with how our pupils’ cognitive architecture is designed then learning will be enhanced. It is based on the idea that we have a working memory that can hold a limited amount of information for a limited time and an unlimited long term memory. The retention and connection of information in the long term memory transforms our ability to function as this overcomes the limits of our working memory. The challenge is how to acquire increasing amounts of useful information in our long term memory and access it readily when needed. This is important for curriculum design as it creates important understanding for creating opportunities to revisit work and to create opportunities to practice retrieval and support memorising. Getting information into the memory has a relationship with time because unless used, or revisited, we tend to forget. We need to link new knowledge to prior knowledge. We need to practice recall. We can only take on so much ‘new’ at a time. Independent learning requires first consolidation and then elaboration to build more profound understanding. These ideas have significant implications for curriculum design and implementation.
Students tend to need ‘permission’ to take ideas from one subject area to another, and can be naturally quite reticent to do so for fear of being wrong. Our mapping exercises are supporting us to make authentic links between subjects and to enable students to bridge their knowledge, and their skills better with supportive approaches that help close the gap between core knowledge in a subject and other knowledge that may be shared with other areas.
Our recently defined whole school approach to literacy and numeracy further reinforces a commitment to the idea of disciplinary literacy. The full curriculum offer must be accessible and reading, and numeracy, needs to be taught as part of teaching students a learning toolkit. Deliberate practice in vocabulary building, challenging reading, supporting writing for creativity or accuracy or specific audience and purpose can have a powerful impact. To develop literacy and numeracy effectively we must also recognise the links to listening skills and speaking skills.
Curriculum design, if it is to fulfil our key goals of delivering powerful knowledge, which challenges all, and prepares all for success, must be underpinned by flexibility to be responsive to the learning of the students. This does involve medium planning adjusting where necessary but it primarily is about teachers using assessment effectively. This means assessing with a clear purpose, and in a way that generates reliable and valid information that can lead to better decisions about teaching and learning. The developments outlined promote the increased used of formative assessment. More ‘high challenge, low threat’, or ‘low stakes’ testing can provide a steady stream of feedback to support the teachers understanding of what students know and can do. In this way the designed curriculum, where progress is measured by securing the planned knowledge or skills, is delivered most effectively.