May 2021 edition: Symbiosis: The Curriculum and the Classroom

Symbiosis: The Curriculum and the Classroom

Bridging the gap

Whilst there has been a welcome focus on the curriculum and a wealth of knowledge shared around curriculum theory, this can sometimes seem detached from the everyday work of schools and teachers. To help bridge this gap we need to not just focus on the what of the curriculum - the theory, knowledge, and structures of curriculum - but to also outline how this work can be effective in practice. When we focus too much on the what of our curriculum, such as asking teachers and leaders to introduce knowledge organisers, retrieval practice or hinterland knowledge etc., we can falter in their implementation because we do not focus enough on why we might include these in our curriculum and most importantly, how to do this well.

Lethal mutations

If we do not focus enough on the how and why of our curriculum, we risk falling foul of lethal mutations. Lethal mutations occur when good ideas, often grounded in research, can become mutated by poor implementation and become less effective or in the worst case can hinder learning. We risk this in our curriculum work if we just focus on what we ask subject leaders to do. We should not be asking subject leaders for intent statements or complicated infographics of curriculum maps. Rather, we should be supporting subject leaders to get to the heart of their subject and draw out a clear rationale that underpins the curriculum so this can guide their decisions. We should be looking to create coherence by identifying the conceptual connections across the curriculum - not as an infographic - but as an exercise in ensuring prior, current and future learning is connected so that pupils have strong conceptual architecture to build their understanding. If we can support subject leaders in how to design and deliver their curriculum, not through quick fixes, gimmicks or generic approaches that lose sight of the subject, we can create the conditions for far more effective curriculum work.

Dismantling and reassembling

Effective curriculum work requires subject leaders to diagnose, dismantle and reassemble the curriculum - evaluating and refining to seek what fits, why here, why now, what makes sense, what jars. The process itself offers a way to shape and develop our subject specialists by focusing on what is being taught and then refining how this is taught in a way that best serves the subject. This shift ensures we move away from pursuing generic one size fits all approaches that can mangle the subject discipline and undermine the curriculum and allows us to get much closer to meaningful curriculum delivery as well as design.

Curriculum sequencing

Once we begin to establish what this looks like for individual subjects, a sense of structure and coherence becomes easier to establish and we can start to think about how best to sequence our curriculum. In doing so, we can ensure that by the time students reach certain endpoints, they have the knowledge and expertise to apply what they have learnt in a meaningful way that is as close as possible to the most scholarly practice of our discipline.

Effective curriculum work requires subject leaders to diagnose, dismantle and reassemble the curriculum - evaluating and refining to seek what fits, why here, why now, what makes sense, what jars.

Claire Hill and Kat Howard

Sequencing is far more than just this follows this follows this. It is more than the ordering of component parts - it is foreshadowing, embellishment, echoing and evolution. To create coherence, we need to look at the relationships and connections that make up our curriculum. This can be as simple as signposting statements: where have we seen this before? How does this have a relationship with what has been learnt previously? How does our understanding of one concept act as a threshold for understanding the next? But to do this work and to provide this coherence, we need a clear framework for our subject and those who teach it so we can help students make strong schematic connections at each stage of the curriculum. No matter how we approach this sequencing, it is crucial to constantly ask ourselves: Why this? Why now?

Wicked problem

Curriculum is a wicked problem. We need to acknowledge that it is complex and it will take time. If we attempt to oversimplify, we risk this important work being undermined. However, it also offers us a wonderful opportunity. Through meaningful curriculum work, teachers can develop their subject knowledge, refine their pedagogy and develop strong teams. Curriculum development is teacher development - the relationship is symbiotic.