In 33 years of teaching I have taught subjects way outside my English literature specialism. I think the most challenging was attempting to teach the Level 2 GNVQ in Leisure & Tourism. I was, metaphorically, only ever one page ahead of the students in the text book. I say metaphorically, because there was no text book and no scheme of work either. I was, literally, making it up as I went along.
It was over a quarter of a century ago. Things were different then. In my youthful arrogance, I reckoned I was teaching children, not the subject. As long as I knew a bit more than them, force of character and enthusiasm would see me through. After all, I had my D32, D33 and D34 assessor qualifications (remember them?). I lasted one academic year on the Leisure & Tourism team, which was one year too many for my poor students.
As subject teachers we have to know our discipline relatively deeply, certainly much more deeply that our students. Being a page ahead of those we teach is, both literally and metaphorically, just not good enough.
For the past decade, I have taught A Level Economics. I attained a grade A when I took the same qualification nearly 40 years ago – a good foundation, but nowhere near enough to teach students the subject now, some of whom have aspirations to study PPE at Oxford. So, I have worked hard at knowing and understanding the content, how to teach the particularly tricky bits, and how to assess whether the students have learnt what I have taught. Teaching comparative advantage, for instance, so that my students understand and can apply the concept has taken a great deal of effort. It’s been a slog, to be honest.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that school leaders need to know the principles of curriculum design as well as anyone in the building. And if school leaders do not have an expert grasp of the workings of the curriculum, it means they do not fully understand the educational provision for which they are responsible. After all, what is a school if it is not what our students learn?
There is a difference, however, between what school leaders need to know about curriculum design and what a school community as a whole needs to know about curriculum design. In the same way that I have to find a way to explain comparative advantage so that my students know what it is, understand how it works and can apply the principles of comparative advantage to new situations, so it is with curriculum design within a school.
Not everyone is as into their work as I am. Even when I am fishing, I think about learning – how float fishing on a river, for instance, involves myriad micro skills which I have, over decades, learnt to the point of unconscious competence. In our staff room we have utterly competent colleagues who do a damned good job, who have accepted the professional obligation to improve their practice, but only up to a point. It is simply not as important to them as it is to me. And that is absolutely fine. In fact, it is more than fine. Getting the balance right between our working lives and our home lives is so important. It is a balance I have always struggled with and got wrong more times than I got right over the course of my long career in teaching.
It is worth remembering that fewer than one in 500 teachers in England attends the national researchED conference in London; the edu-world on Twitter is not representative of the teaching profession as a whole.
The focus upon the curriculum in the past four years has had its troubles. Alex Quigley pointed out how curriculum development should come through teacher development; Becky Allen and Ben White’s “Careering towards a curriculum crash?” is an excellent critique of the dangers of focusing upon the curriculum as a way to improve standards. I have been working on curriculum development with my friends and colleagues Mary Myatt and Tom Sherrington for the past few years and I have come to the conclusion that the profession is probably over-complicating things for teachers.
So, when it comes to the curriculum, if you have chosen to be a school leader, you have an important responsibility to know, understand and apply the principles of curriculum design. Then you have to make those principles knowable, understandable and applicable for subject leaders and teachers in a way that does not intimidate, but does not dumb down. I would argue that school leaders have to meet colleagues where they are and then ensure that every teacher has a minimum level of knowledge and understanding of curriculum design.
In my next three posts, I will present a way to support curriculum design in schools which is, above all else, user-friendly, beginning with defining the terms we use to discuss curriculum design.