Curriculum: A Warning, Part 1

‘Curriculum’ is a lovely, concrete noun. And, like concrete, it can be pretty hard to shift once it’s in place. So, in this post, I’m offering a warning before stuff that’s a bit rubbish becomes too embedded to move. A big, concrete caveat to counterbalance the big, concrete curriculum narrative that has, in some parts, started to warp.

Curriculum is in the ascendant. Whether we believe a curriculum should be cross-subject and thematic, or steeped in knowledge (it should be the latter, obvs), it’s a narrative that everyone’s talking about. And a hand-clapped, whooped bravo from me for that. The more we talk about what we teach, the better. I also think it’s important that we talk about how we teach alongside discussions about curriculum. Pedagogy was, and still is in some parts, overrated (Stuart Lock, 2017), but the how should have an interwoven, richly tapestried relationship with the what, dictated by the subject discipline. But that’s another blog.

I am delighted that knowledge has finally shaken itself free of the engagement mind-manacles of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Remember, knowledge-enthusiasts, we used to be the pathetic little creature languishing at the bottom of that pyramid – the creature that shook a little Gollum knowledge-fist at the evaluation and synthesis heavens in futile exasperation. As Willingham says, teachers had become “wary and weary of knowledge” (Daniel Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School?, p.26). Heck, school leaders were really wary too. My playing of Britney’s ‘Toxic’ at the start of a lesson on Browning’s ‘The Laboratory’ (a totally tenuous and embarrassing link, I know) was praised in an observation more than my expert questioning of the pupils. Because ENGAGEMENT. There are numerous examples of this. Rebecca Foster started a wonderful but painful thread on it fairly recently. And it’s not just embarrassing, it’s horrific. It’s disgraceful that time was wasted on practice grounded in what Tom Bennett calls ‘folk’ teaching: stuff that’s been heard in the staff room, or what I was told as an NQT: “Don’t worry Claire, you’ll work it out eventually”. I don’t want colleagues to have to work it out eventually. Our children’s futures are now. We don’t have time to waste.

We gambled on the futures of our children with the toss of a snakes and ladders ‘revision lesson’ die and the spin of a Bloom’s question wheel. Practice like this was a joke, a circus. I reckon if I’d unicycled in lessons that would have gone down a treat, especially if I’d swapped de Bono hats with a flourish while doing so. And as for Bloom’s, remove knowledge and the rest comes fluttering down in a flimsy house of laminated card sorts. We did our children a huge disservice and we did our colleagues a huge disservice. I am embarrassed to have been complicit in this nonsense at the time. But more so, I’m furious that so many young people had their futures risked in an explosion of glitter and frippery pedagogical ‘good practice’.

So it’s all very well us laughing knowingly in 2019, chuckling at our past errors and eye rolling at our ‘engaging’ origami fortune teller starters collecting dust, but I’m worried. I’m worried that this welcome focus on curriculum could mean that new knowledgy and curriculumy ridiculous practice will emerge. And it already is. Here are some examples. Beware. Challenge, question and raise a sceptical eyebrow where it rears its curriculum lip-serviced head.

1. Knowledge organisers

Now these can be brilliant or rubbish. Many schools have seen them as a magic bullet, and immediately churned them out of photocopiers at terrifying speed. This isn’t because schools and school leaders don’t care. They do, of course. But the knowledge curriculum narrative has been leapt upon in parts by those who think knowledge organisers will lead to an immediate improvement in outcomes, or that it will tick a box for Ofsted, or that it looks good on a school website. There sometimes hasn’t been careful thought about the curriculum narrative; sequencing is perhaps non-existent and subject leaders haven’t been given the time to consider curriculum properly. This dearth in curricular thought has led, in parts, to significant underperformance and the gnawing poverty of low expectation in many of our schools. So where schools have given primacy to curricular thought, knowledge organisers can be brilliant (as long as the climate for learning is good so teachers can actually get to teaching, and the careful consideration of pedagogy linked to the subject discipline is prioritised too). But knowledge organisers on their own do not a curriculum make.

2. Knowledge booklets

See number 1. These can also be brilliant or rubbish. Thankfully, most I have seen have been pretty good. But without the bigger curricular considerations and conversations, they are a well-intentioned lip-serviced resource. Waving them around on Twitter does not mean a curriculum, or indeed a school or MAT, is necessarily that good. Again, knowledge booklets on their own are not a curriculum.

3. ‘Knowledge checks’

This is a sly one. Using the perceived new narrative of ‘knowledge-rich’, these, in some parts, are the ultimate lip-serviced nod to knowledge. But, painfully, they’re mini-plenaries by another name. We all know about poor proxies for learning. Mini-plenaried ‘knowledge checks’ every 15 minutes to prove or evidence (gah!) learning are indeed a poor proxy for learning. I can teach you something and then check you remember it 15 minutes later. You probably will remember it. But will you remember it tomorrow, or next week, or next month, or in six months? Learning is invisible. Waving a ‘knowledge check’ sheet around and claiming this knowledge has been learnt in a lesson is a very, very poor proxy for learning. As Greg Ashman says, a good proxy might be something like a delayed test. It is not a ‘knowledge check’ every 15 minutes in a lesson. Stop hijacking the knowledge narrative with poor proxies and poor practice.

4. Intent, Implementation, Impact

I really like the new Ofsted Framework; I make no bones about it. I have faith in Amanda Spielman and her team to listen and engage with practitioners and school leaders. But some schools hurriedly leap onto Ofsted language in a frantic bid to ‘do curriculum’. I’m not blaming them, necessarily. This has been what many schools have done for years with different permutations of different frameworks, and those of us who have been in teaching a while, particularly those of us in senior leadership for a while, will have seen this many times. But in this specific example, it is often schools who haven’t, for whatever reason, prioritised curricular thinking. Intent, implementation, impact sounds snappy, right? Again, for some school leaders who love a process, it’s a magic bullet, or a curriculum ‘action’ ticked off the list. Ofsted will love it! It’s on the website! Look at us using their language! And, sadly, I see ‘implementation’ misinterpreted as descriptions of GCSE modules, weightings of GCSE papers, lengthy descriptions of content, rather than considerations around the narrative and sequencing of the curriculum. I worry that schools view this as a scrambled, frantic attempt to show everything for Ofsted, rather than giving careful thought to curriculum development. Please don’t do this, head teachers and school leaders. Curriculum thought and development does take some time. But it’s a joy. Give your subject leaders back their subject; free them from the shackles of pedagogical ‘engagement’ and gimmicks. Allow your teachers and pupils to love subjects for all they are, not for a GCSE question rolled back to year 7, not for ‘engaging’ music played in lessons if it’s not a music lesson, not for unnecessary and distracting carousel activities.

5. Senior leaders named as being ‘in charge of curriculum intent, implementation, impact’

This has become more and more apparent in the last few months, both in job adverts and in descriptions of senior leaders. Please stop. What you mean is ‘The senior leader in charge of curriculum’. That is fine. Please stop warping language because you think it sounds like what Ofsted want to hear.

Curriculum is in the ascendant. We’re returning to conversations about what we’re teaching. This is awesome. But curriculum is far bigger than a process. It’s what your school is. As Tom Sherrington says, “Your curriculum is your school…This is what we are. This is what we do. And we’re proud of it.” Please think about this carefully before churning out the above. Curricular thought is good. Lip-service is not.

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