ResearchED on Curriculum

A colleague recently pointed me to the ResearchED Guide to the Curriculum, a volume of essays edited by Clare Sealy. Following the guidance of Lemov and Badillo‘s essay in this volume that ‘reading a book should be a writing-intensive experience’, I’ve written down some of my thoughts after reading this book. They come from the perspective of someone who teaches (albeit in higher education rather than in a school) and is a researcher (but not in education). Of course, my background undoubtedly skews my perspective and limits my awareness of much educational theory.

The context here is that schools in England have been very busy over the last couple of years rethinking their curriculum, not least because the new Ofsted school inspection framework places it centre-stage. So now is a good moment to engage with schools over some of the more tricky questions involved.

I found this collection of essays very thought provoking, and would recommend engaging, whether or not you consider yourself to a fan of the “curriculum revolution” underway in English schools.

Knowledge and Teaching

Many of the contributions relate to a knowledge-based curriculum, but none give a working definition of knowledge. I think it’s useful for educators to reflect on, and leaders to engage with, epistemology at some level. When ideas like a “knowledge-based curriculum” start to be prioritised, then we need to understand what various meanings this might have, and precisely to what other ideas these terms may be being used in opposition. Of course this becomes even more important when politics enters the picture: I find it hard to envisage a definition of a knowledge-based curriculum that is broad enough to encompass both Michael Gove’s approach to knowledge in history and Michael F.D. Young‘s principles espoused in this book. A central problem in the theory of knowledge, of course, is the theory of truth; it’s interesting that Ashbee‘s essay in the same volume riffs on this theory when asking whether it is right that students should learn something false (the presence of electron shells in an atom) in order to facilitate understanding later on. Again, I think this could do with a more sophisticated analysis of truth and falsity here – it is by no means universally accepted that the presence of electron shells can be said to be ‘false’, and I do think the philosophical standpoint on such questions has implications for curriculum design – especially in the sciences.

The same holds for teaching. The role of teaching in imparting knowledge needs to be fully explored. Even if we accept the premise that, to quote Young, ‘schools in a democracy should all be working towards access to powerful knowledge for all their pupils’ (and also leave to one side the definition of a democracy) this leaves open the question of the role of the teacher in providing that access. At one extreme seems to lie the Gradgrindian approach best summarised by Dickens in Hard Times of students as ‘little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until them were full to the brim’, at the other an unschooling approach. But both can legitimately claim to be pursuing this aim. In the middle of these extremes, the teacher’s role in setting up experiences, and in developing understanding for example through Adey and Shayer’s concept of ‘cognitive conflict’ could explored more deeply.

It’s interesting that in his essay in this book, Young – described by Sealy as one of the ‘godfathers’ of the knowledge-based curriculum – has plenty to say about problematic ways this concept has been interpreted, in particular that “a school adopting a knowledge-led curriculum can spend too much time on testing whether students have memorised the knowledge of previous years“, and that “a focus on memorisation does not necessarily encourage students to develop a ‘relationship to knowledge’ that leads to new questions.” These concerns echo my own fears, and I see the latter also arise in higher education as students make the leap between undergraduate and postgraduate work.

My own teaching as an academic has spanned the full range from largely chalk-and-talk unidirectional presentations to undergraduate students to fairly laissez-faire mentoring of PhD students through their own discovery of the background material required for their research. It’s interesting to reflect on the different level of resourcing required to follow these models, a topic Young and Aurora both pick up in their essays: the need for a curriculum model that incorporates how teachers might engage with external constraints (resource, externally imposed exam syllabuses, etc.) in the short-term, even as we work towards a better long-term future for our students.

Memorisation is mentioned by several authors, and of course can be important, but – as Young says – it’s also important that students come to view it as “a step to acquiring new knowledge“, not as acquiring new knowledge. So my question to schools is this: how is that desirable outcome student perception reflected in your curriculum? How does your curriculum help develop that view by students?

My concerns over some of the ‘knowledge-based’ or ‘knowledge-led’ work in schools in recent years is broadly in line with Young’s view in this volume that teaching viewed as the transmission of knowledge excludes the process by which students develop a relationship with knowledge (my emphasis). I was also pleased by Young’s assertion that schools should treat subjects not just as bodies of knowledge but as communities of teachers and researchers and pupils as neophyte members of such communities. To me, this is wholly consistent with the exciting ideas behind Claxton’s Building Learning Power framework I reviewed some years ago here.

What Do We Want Students to Be Able to Do?

In addition to more traditional answers, Ashbee suggests some that should make schools pause for thought. For example, she suggests that while others may have chosen the curriculum content, students should be equipped to critically evaluate the inclusion of the knowledge in the curriculum they have studied and to ask what else could have been included. I like this idea: a key question for schools, though, is where do our curricula equip students for this task?

One aspect largely absent from this volume is a critical discussion of assessment, including testing, and its role in the curriculum, both in obvious terms of shaping the curriculum in the long- and short-term, and the – perhaps less obvious – nature of forms of assessments in themselves driving students’ behaviour and understanding of the nature of learning.

Planning Lessons

In an essay on Curriculum Coherence, Neil Almond discusses the role of sequencing in a subject curriculum. Almond uses the analogy of a box set, contrasting The Simpsons (minimal ordering required) to Game of Thrones (significant ordering required.)

Three aspects of the timing of lessons are, I think, missing in this discussion and deserve more explicit consideration.

Firstly, any necessary order of discussion of topics is rarely a total (linear) order, to put it mathematically. It’s maybe not even a partial order. Explicit dependencies between topic areas have been explored in depth by Cambridge Mathematics, who have built a directed graph representation of a curriculum. The lack of totality of the order provides significant freedom in practice; it is less clear what best practice might be, as a department or teacher, of how to take advantage of this freedom. It’s also less clear when to take advantage of this freedom: should this be a department-level once-and-for-all decision, one delegated to teachers to determine on the fly, or something in between? And why?

Secondly, even once this freedom has been exploited by mapping the dependence structure of concepts into a total order, there still remains the question of mapping from that order into time. Again, there is flexibility: should this unit take one week or two, or a whole term, and – importantly – curricula need to consider who should exercise this flexibility, when and why. Within mathematics, this has come under a lot of scrutiny in recent years, through discussions around the various definitions of mastery.

Finally, one aspect that the box set analogy obscures is the extent to which the sequencing of lessons is to be co-created with the students. Simpsons and Game of Thrones writers don’t have the option to co-create sequencing on the fly with their audience – schools and universities do. To what extent should this freedom be utilised, by whom, when, and to what end?

Linking Universities with Schools and Secondaries with Primaries

Ashbee discusses the very interesting question of how school curricula can engage with the mechanisms for knowledge generation in the broader discipline. For example, experiment, peer review, art exhibitions, all help reflect the norms of the discipline’s cutting edge back into the school curriculum. This is why I was sad, recently, to see Ofqual consulting on the removal of student-conducted experiments from 2021 GCSE science examinations, to give teachers time to cram in more facts: ‘science’ without experiment is not science.

Since one of the key venues for knowledge generation is the academy, increasing interaction between schools and universities should be very productive at the moment with increased school thinking about curriculum fundamentals. I am pleased to have played a very small part in the engagement of my university, both through my own outreach and through discussions leading up to our recent announcement of the opening of a new Imperial Maths School. More of all this, please, universities!

The theme of linking phases of education also appears in Andrew Percival‘s case study of primary curriculum development, where he emphasises the benefit his primary school obtained through teachers joining subject associations, e.g. in Design and Technology, making links with secondary specialists, and introducing self-directed study time for primary teaching staff to develop their subject knowledge. Those of us in all sectors should seek out links through joint professional associations.

Lessons for Leaders

Christine Counsell‘s essay tackles the topic of how school senior leadership teams (SLTs) should engage with developing and monitoring their departments under a knowledge-based curriculum. The main issue here is in the secondary sector, as SLTs will not include all subject specialisms. My colleague probably had this essay in mind when pointing out this edited volume, as many of the lessons and ideas here apply equally well to school governors engaging with subject leaders. I would agree with this. But actually, I would go further and say that many of Counsell’s suggestions for SLTs actually echo previous best practice in governance from before the new national curriculum. In meetings between subject leaders and school governors, governors have always played the role of knowledgable outsider, whose aim is to guide a subject leader in conversation to reflect on their role in the development of the teaching of their subject and its norms. It’s quite interesting to see this convergence. I was also struck by Counsell’s insistence on the importance of discussing curriculum content with middle leaders rather than relying on proxies such as attainment results alone, which can actually act to conceal the curriculum; in my day job this mirrors the importance we try to give in staff appraisal to discussing the research discoveries of academic staff, not focusing on the number or venue of publications. I think many of the arguments made are transferrable between schools and universities. Counsell also identifies positive and negative roles played by SLTs in developing a positive culture in middle leadership, and hence provides some useful material around which governance questions can be posed to probe SLT themselves.

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