Why teachers need to approach the curriculum like a Channel 4 reality show

 

Last weekend saw the excellent Habs teaching and learning conference. At it, I shared some ideas around developing excellence as part of the everyday experience. This is the first in a series of posts that will tease out some of the points for readers. I’ve written before about raising expectations in the classroom. There are three ideas that underpin the talk:

 

A few years ago, I remember doing a little bit of work for the BBC, essentially getting clips from documentaries. It struck me that for every one hour programme, there was:

  • a recap at the beginning of the programme, reminding viewers of what happened last episode and the premise of the documentary.
  • periodic recaps throughout the programme, reminding viewers of what happened over the course of the episode and the previous episodes.
  • a preview of the next episode, linking the current episode up with what will follow.

Indeed, it seems that many television shows (including one of my current favourites above), have recap built in.  It strikes me that this is a good model for a sequence of lessons that explore a key concept. In addition, it seems a very good model for a curriculum. You see, one of the first actions I took at Head of Geography was to eliminate repetition of content. The curriculum covered rivers once, coasts once, but did revisit key concepts. Now, on reflection, this is despite being well trained and having experience of revisiting key content working in the classroom.  I’ve been pondering what accounted for this decision.

As I sit here and write this, I am also reminded that, as an A Level student, teachers often (or perhaps that’s just my memory) telling us something like ‘you’ll need to unlearn what you did at GCSE because it’s a lot more complicated than that.’

I’ve never been one for fads. A review of past lessons plans shows no nod toward learning styles and, even after a fantastic presentation by De Bono himself, I only adopted some of the Thinking Hats model in my own teaching. So, what accounts for this decision?

For one thing, it wasn’t outcomes, which rose brilliantly over my tenure. The only conclusion that I can come up with is that, as a novice teacher, I was still trying to find out what worked in the contexts that I found myself.

These days, I’ve returned to covering content in an interleaved fashion, providing opportunities for retrieval. Looking back on my PGCE notes, I found reference to the spiral curriculum (first mentioned in the 1960’s) and the difference between progression and continuity. And that’s when it dawned on me. As a novice middle leader, I had the two mixed up. A great curriculum needs both progression and continuity. I based my decision on the experience of low challenge: where the same content, skills, assessments etc where covered time and time again but without any increase in the intellectual challenge expected from students.  You see:

Progression:  refers to the measurable advances in knowledge, skills and understanding that young people demonstrate.

Continuity: refers to the way in which a curriculum may return to the same ideas, themes and content. The important point to note is that, although there is nothing wrong with this, there must be a marked increase in the demand placed upon students as they revisit content: it’s not just about recalling the knowledge but applying it to new contexts, ideas and using knowledge in a synoptic way. The welcome increase in demand of the A Level specifications is a good example of where progression and continuity work well together: there are few marks for knowledge, and plenty for application of that knowledge, moving away from the regurgitation of facts.

This means that these days, the curriculum that I follow visits similar concepts and ideas but at a more difficult level. I remember watching a Year 2 Maths lesson one day and a Year one the next. Both covered the same content (mathematical notation including the < and > symbols), in the same way. Now, I am no mathematician, but that strikes me as being a poor example of progression, although there is continuity of content. A good curriculum needs both, where students can use familiar ideas to build upon their knowledge, skills and understanding.

A third curriculum idea is sequencing. Now, this is where we revisit the problem with lessons. If we are to create a curriculum with sufficient challenge, we need to craft sequences of learning that span multiple lessons so that the knowledge, skills and understanding of young people are developed. As a Head of Geography, this meant creating a curriculum from lesson one of Year 7 all the way through to the last day in Year 11. Of course, some ideas can be covered in single lessons but, more often than not, the core concepts of a subject need to be developed over weeks, half terms and years. Sometimes, units and ideas are shoehorned into set periods of time for pragmatic reasons, such as arbitrary half termly units. It strikes me that this is not a positive way to organise learning.

Not paying careful attention to sequencing can also develop a hierarchy of knowledge, with an assumption that some content can only be explored at a certain age and stage. This doesn’t take in to account the different rates at which people learn so therefore matching content to a particular grade or measure is problematic and, at least in geography, should be avoided. I’ve always explored the most difficult concepts (such as globalisation, sustainability and interdependence) straight away in Year 7, enabling student to revisit and reinforce these underpinning aspects of their geographical understanding. This enables progression, continuity and allows sufficient time for a thorough understanding to be developed.

A well designed curriculum will provide both profession and continuity so that young people can develop intellectually. The scaffold will be reduced as pupils get older as they move away from being novices toward mastery. A well designed curriculum will enable teachers to explore the narrative of their subject and provide plenty of opportunities for revisiting previous knowledge.

I was wrong as a novice Head of Geography. A well designed curriculum will revisit, recap and build upon past content, skills and concepts. In order to do so, first teachers need a conversation around their curriculum, and this is where I’ll pick up next time.

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