In this short series of posts I am exploring the issues surrounding curriculum design. In the first post I began with the role of the senior leader in the process of shaping the school curriculum:

“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 ensure that every teacher has a minimum level of knowledge and understanding of curriculum design.”

The first step towards a common understanding of curriculum design is to agree a set of terms and accompanying definitions which we all understand. In this second post, I have collected in one place the terms currently used to discuss the curriculum so that colleagues faced with curriculum design can decide for themselves which terms they want to adopt for their individual schools.

There are two definitions I use when referring to the school curriculum. Lawrence Stenhouse once described a curriculum as “an attempt to communicate the essential principles and features of an educational proposal in such a form that it is open to critical scrutiny and capable of effective translation into practice”. Two things I like about Stenhouse’s definitions: firstly, that it is “open to critical scrutiny”, something that is essential as our thinking changes over the years, and secondly, that it can be translated “into practice”, which is essential if we are going to teach our curriculum to pupils in schools.

Mary Myatt makes a critical distinction for those who work in a country with a nationally prescribed curriculum: ‘“The National Curriculum” and “the curriculum” should not be confused – it is vital to distinguish between them. The curriculum – taught and untaught – represents the totality of the experience of the child within schooling (aims, content, pedagogy, assessment). It includes wider elements, including opportunities to acquire vital “personal” and “social” capitals. A national curriculum cannot specify and control all elements of the “real” curriculum and is likely to run into difficulty if it attempts so to do. A national curriculum operates as a means of giving all pupils access to a common body of essential content’. Mary’s definition is a hugely helpful contribution and clarifies the role of the National Curriculum within the entirety of the school curriculum.

Here are some of the terms currently used when discussing curriculum design, along with their accompanying definitions, as I understand them:

  • Substantive knowledge is the “stuff” that we know: the facts, concepts & rules that form the building blocks of the various subjects…This “substance” is central to being able to think mathematically, or scientifically, or historically, or to communicate clearly.’ Clare Sealy, TES, 11 October 2019
  • Disciplinary knowledge is a curricular term for what pupils learn about how that knowledge was established, its degree of certainty & how it continues to be revised by scholars, artists or professional practice. It is that part of the subject where pupils understand each discipline as a tradition of enquiry with its own distinctive pursuit of truth.’ Clare Sealy, quoting Christine Counsell in the TES, 11 October 2019
  • Powerful knowledge is the knowledge that comes from specialist communities and centuries of learning, and it does change, but more slowly than people believe. It is context-independent. It can lift children and young people out of their lived experience. It is the job of a teacher to engage with the prior experience of the pupils and give them access to powerful knowledge. Michael Young
  • “For pupils to learn how knowledge is formed and changed distinguishes a knowledge-rich curriculum grounded in ‘powerful knowledge’ from one merely ossifying a canon…Young and Muller [imagine a future] whose radical potential harnesses the fertile, generative qualities of knowledge to give all citizens access to intellectual tools for rational change.” Christine Counsell
  • Declarative knowledge: ‘to know that’ the facts, concepts, rules. It just sits there and waits to be of service.
  • Procedural knowledge:  ’to know how to’ produces action, how to perform the steps in a process.
  • Conditional knowledge: ‘to know when and which one’ is knowledge about when to use a procedure, skill, or strategy and when not to use it; why a procedure works and under what conditions; and why one procedure is better than another (a form of metacognitive knowledge).
  • “The core knowledge you want pupils to remember is supported by an equally important hinterland, the little examples, the stories, the illustrations, the richness, the dwelling on this but not that, and the times when you as a teacher go off-piste with your passion.” Christine Counsell
  • Research in education recognizes that each discipline has threshold concepts that are “akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something” (Meyer and Land 2003). By actively teaching threshold concepts and purposefully integrating threshold concepts into curriculum design, we can improve student learning in our courses (Fouberg 2019). Threshold concepts are transformative, probably irreversible, integrative, bounded, and troublesome. They are transformative because they change perspective; irreversible because once ‘seen’ they cannot be ‘unseen’; integrative because they help bring clarity to other concepts; bounded because they differentiate ways of seeing; and troublesome because truly understanding the concept requires intellectual struggle or tenacity. Eric H. Fouberg

It can be intimidating to teachers when they hear experts bandy these terms around as though we should all know them. The thing that really matters is to ensure that, as a school, the definitions of the terms senior leaders decide to use to discuss curriculum design are universally understood within the institution.

In my next post I will explore some of the other challenges facing schools when establishing the principles and process of curriculum design, before, in my fourth and final post, I will propose a way of developing the curriculum that is based upon sound principles, is academically aspirational, involves developing teachers’ expertise, is user-friendly, and which, crucially, takes everyone with you.

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