The curriculum challenge…renewed

People have gone relatively quiet about the ‘c’ word… curriculum.

Whilst schools grapple with the challenges of having all pupils safely attend school, then everything has to be considered anew. The careful sequencing of curriculum still matters a great deal, but as schools are recommended to consider lopping great bits off, then new plans and considerations about curriculum emerge.

What are the keystone concepts of our curriculum? How is knowledge best organised in the curriculum model?

There is something about Stenhouse

Although the new challenges that attend curriculum seem utterly of this moment, useful insights can be found in the writing of educational thinkers from a lifetime ago.

Lawrence Stenhouse was writing about curriculum decades before I was born. In his seminal book, ‘An Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development‘ he squarely locates the key support factor for curriculum success:

“…curriculum development must rest on teacher development and that it should promote it and hence the professionalism of the teacher. Curriculum development translates ideas into classroom practicalities and thereby helps the teacher to strengthen her practice by systematically and thoughtfully testing ideas.” (p24-25)

Stenhouse squarely rejects the notion of teachers being “docile agents”. There will be no off-the-shelf ‘recovery curriculum’ that betters the agency of teachers as they make intelligent adaptations to their existing curriculum that is rooted in their understanding of history, science, literature, and their pupils.

Indeed, as questions remain in secondary schools about lopping off subjects and doubling up on English and maths, Stenhouse offers an important challenge:

“[Citing Peters (1966)] In history, science, or literature… there is an immense amount to know, and if it is properly assimilated, it constantly throws light on, widens, and deepens one’s own view of countless other things.”

Instead of secondary schools doing more English, perhaps we can instead double-down on high quality reading and writing instruction in history and science. It is not easy to weave together meaningful cross-curricular links, but nor is it easy to make more and more gains from more and more English.

Stenhouse, in the ’70s presents a compelling image of an “extended professional”. Indeed, it could describe many of the teachers who have been determined to develop their professional knowledge during the pandemic lockdown:

“In short, the outstanding characteristics of the extended professional is a capacity for for autonomous professional self-development through systematic self-study, through the study of the work of other teachers and through the testing of ideas by classroom research procedures.” (p144)

He goes on to present a compelling notion of the teacher as researcher:

“A research tradition which is accessible to teachers and which feeds teaching must be created if education is to be significantly improved.” (p165)

In the spirit of teacher as researcher, grappling with the complexities of new classes, some missed learning, new routines, and more, it leaves teachers and middle leaders with some compelling questions to steer their decisions around curriculum.

Here are some questions that may be useful for teachers and middle leaders considering intelligent adaptations to the curriculum and ‘classroom practicalities’:

Questions to help address curriculum challenges:

  • What ‘classroom practicalities’ need to be addressed that provide the platform to teach the curriculum successfully? [e.g. support for vulnerable pupils; behavioural routines; rooming & resourcing; seating arrangements; and countless new routines attending class feedback, marking etc.]
  • What topic/content sequencing will provide an autumn term ‘smooth landing’? [e.g. is there a curriculum topic/s that teachers – and pupils – will be confident undertaking in Sept/Oct, as they establish an array of new routines and consolidate skills and knowledge that may have slipped due to natural learning loss]
  • What diagnostic assessments will best reveal what has been forgotten, misunderstood, and swiftly recalled? [e.g. discussion; concept mapping; quizzing]

Read Rob Coe’s cracking EEF blogs on assessment are very helpful on this question – see HERE.

  • How will 1-2-1, or small group, targeted interventions (e.g. tutoring) be best synchronised with classroom teaching and curriculum planning? [E.g. sensitive diagnostic assessment; effective TA liaison; teacher training on intervention content]
  • What blended curriculum model would be most responsive to unplanned school closures? Is there an existing platform for the school curriculum, or can resources like Oak Academy be integrated into your curriculum planning? [Considerations of teacher workload, tech access etc. will continue to be important to mediate and mitigate]
  • How can routines and practices developed during partial school closures help enhance homework provision in the year ahead? [e.g. video and online curriculum content developed for closures could be reused, or recast, to provide an improved homework offer]
  • How do we best reconnect pupils with the ‘big ideas’ and basic building blocks of the curriculum? [E.g. we may need to retell the narrative that connects those big ideas; grapple once more with common misconceptions that have crept back in the thinking of our pupils; or re-establish and reteach the key vocabulary of the subject domain]
  • What rich opportunities will we provide that break beyond the parameters of the prescribed curriculum? What voices and perspectives are missing from our curriculum? [e.g. ensuring additional reading can enrich our pupils’ understanding; many English teachers will rightly be considering their literary canon and how they can include more diverse voices]
  • How will we evaluate and monitor our curriculum adaptations? [e.g. peer curriculum planning, paired with reciprocal observations and curriculum plan adaptations; termly departmental feedback systems; moderation of pupils’ work]

There are, of course, many questions beyond this short list, but that will be the work of teachers and middle leaders rigorously testing ideas, refining plans and developing the curriculum. It is the job of school leaders to create the culture and clear the way for this work to happen and to support teachers with great professional development.

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