If we don’t think, curriculum dies

Last year I wrote about how some things to do with curriculum have got a bit weird. Although there are conversations about curriculum, there aren’t really conversations about curriculum. And these conversations about curriculum that aren’t conversations about curriculum often happen at the highest level in schools and MATs, but unfortunately, those conversations frequently determine curriculum’s fate. The curriculum conversation (that isn’t really a curriculum conversation – you get my drift) might be a meeting about the rolling out of curricular tools (e.g. knowledge organisers, curriculum maps etc), rather than curricular conversations in departments about the content of the curriculum itself, which is, of course, the domain of the subject specialist, but too often sidelined. Perhaps these meetings about curricular tools are so prolific because a curricular tool is something tangible and so something certain. There: you can see it – therefore the curriculum must be ‘done’, even though we know a curriculum is never really done. In this brave new world of curricular thinking, we have to be so careful that curricular tools don’t become the new mini plenaries and that the mournful cry of the last decade of, ‘Look, how wonderful! Progress every 15 minutes – it’s an outstanding lesson!’ becomes ‘Look, how wonderful! A knowledge organiser about Homer – it’s an outstanding curriculum!’. It just doesn’t work like that. Curriculum is delicious but ferocious in its complexity. It demands – it insists on – careful thought. If, as senior and middle leaders, we don’t afford ourselves the time to think properly about curriculum and to grapple with its intellectual labyrinthine intricacy, it dies. Curriculum lives on careful thought.

There’s been, and still is, wads of hurriedly put together knowledge organisers and knowledge booklets in some of our schools. There are beautifully laminated yellow brick road curriculum maps skidding across the floors of reprographics rooms, just lying in wait for their ankle-twisting triumph. And there’s dual coding on those curriculum maps, so they must be good, right? There’s a warping, a contortion. Curriculum that’s not curriculum. Photocopiers up and down the land creak under the weight of needlessly written intent statements. Site teams wearily heave onto shelves yet another colossal heap of lever arch files bursting open with frantically re-written ‘implementation maps’, unlikely to get looked at but it’s OK cos they’re written and therefore the curriculum is DONE. Deep dives that become Mocksteds. Mocksteds that become deep dives. Wholly unnecessary fear perpetuated – and then the conversation shifts hollowly back and forth from the curricular tool to ‘how to prepare for a deep dive’ and ‘what questions you will get asked on a deep dive’ when, my goodness, literally all you need to talk about – and all subject leaders want to think and talk about, and rightly flipping so – is the actual blummin curriculum. A great curriculum is not born from a scant knowledge organiser and a set of deep dive questions. This is not the way forward. This is not ‘curriculum’. It’s a distorted version of curriculum inanely grinning back at you from the Curriculum Hall of Mirrors.   

And in this curricular frenzy, some school websites shout that their curricula are unapologetically, unashamedly and unabashedly academic. That’s fine. But we really need to think it and do it, not just trot out statements because the school down the road is. Because sometimes, there’s an awful lot of talk and action, but not much thought. Now I love a knowledge-rich curriculum, and I am delighted that schools are raising expectations across the land. We don’t need to apologise for it. And nor do we need to state that we’re not going to apologise for it. We just need to think it really well, and do it.

For if, despite all our glossy curricular tools and well-intentioned but misguided deep dives and unapologetically bold statements, our kids in our schools still can’t access the knowledge to which they are entitled, and our staff in our schools leave at 7pm with heavy hearts and even heavier bags of intent statements to write, then we’ve failed. Sorry. We think, and curriculum lives. We don’t think, and curriculum dies.

If you’d like to hear some more of my views about the importance of thought in school leadership, and explore some of the considerations around learning and thinking that Dan Willingham discusses in his seminal work, Why Don’t Students Like School?, I will be talking about this at researchEDs throughout 2020, with the first one researchED Cymru on Saturday 29th February.