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 and in the second post, I 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.

In this third post I explore two further challenges facing school leaders when developing the curriculum.

What elements of the curriculum can we (re)design?

As I pointed out in my second post in this series, 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 raises several questions, that main one being, “What is and is not up for grabs when designing a curriculum?”. Well, we must begin at the end. What do we want Year 11 students to know, understand and do in order to be able to attain GCSE/Level 2 qualifications? There is little room for manoeuvre at Key Stage 4: the specification is largely the thing for each subject. A school can be flexible about how they deliver the non-qualification aspects of the curriculum, but in England, the accountability measures mean that there is little space for anything else at Key Stage 4 than GCSE/L2 subject qualifications. That said, there are always opportunities, no matter how small, to explore the subject’s hinterland at GCSE and A Level.

From a subject specific point of view, the interpretation of the Key Stage 3 National Curriculum has to result in a curriculum that best equips students for the GCSEs. And yet, what of those subjects which a Year 9 does not pursue at GCSE? If a student chooses to finish his or her Geography education at the end of Key Stage 3, what they are taught in the final months of Year 9 will, quite possibly, be the final encounter with Geography as a subject for the rest of their lives. That is one convincing reason why the Key Stage 3 curriculum needs to be more than just preparation for GCSE.

Quite simply, Key Stage 3 is the intellectual powerhouse of the curriculum, where our students must receive the best possible education. It is where there is the most flexibility, where most curriculum decisions can be made.

Likewise, at Key Stage 2, the curriculum needs, on the one hand, to focus upon ensuring the pupils are secondary-ready; furthermore, the accountability system oft skews what is taught in the latter primary years towards preparation for SATs. On the other hand, there is flexibility here too to increase the curriculum’s intellectual challenge, as there is at Key Stage 1. The Early Years curriculum is tightly focused upon the basics of reading, writing, speaking and number. In some ways, getting EYFS right is the most important element of the curriculum. Build from the bottom up: you want to construct your curriculum on a pair of Church’s rather than sand-encrusted espadrilles.

So, one challenge for school leaders is to define for colleagues what is and is not up for grabs when designing the curriculum, when the school leaders themselves do not know enough about every subject at every key stage.

How far do we need to consider subject specific pedagogy when designing the curriculum?

The issue of comprehending subject specific pedagogy is a key element of curriculum design. It is worth asking anyone who teaches: “What are the specific hallmarks of pedagogy in your subject?” It is a question which initially stumps most people. General responses, such as “modelling”, are not really specific – most subject teachers use modelling techniques as part of their pedagogic armoury. If someone offers “modelling” in answer to my question, I then ask, “But what modelling technique is specific to the subject content you are teaching and how does that modelling technique you use in your subject differ from how another colleague teaching a different subject might use modelling as a pedagogic tool?” This follow up question stumps most colleagues.

To be fair, “What are the specific hallmarks of pedagogy in your subject?” is a really hard question to answer, but it is crucial that colleagues in each department have a shared understanding of subject specific pedagogy so that when they plan lessons – particularly for vulnerable students – they do so in a way that addresses the more complex barriers to learning which the subject content inherently contains.

Whilst it is somewhat dated and, perhaps, flawed, Shulman identifies what he calls “pedagogical content knowledge” which he defines thus: “Within the category of pedagogical content knowledge I include, for the most regularly taught topics in one’s subject area, the most useful forms of representation of those ideas, the most powerful analogies, illustrations, examples, explanations, and demonstrations – in a word, the ways of representing and formulating the subject that make it comprehensible to others . . . [It] also includes an understanding of what makes the learning of specific concepts easy or difficult: the conceptions and preconceptions that students of different ages and backgrounds bring with them to the learning” (Shulman, 1986).

Shulman’s definition is best exemplified by imagining an experienced teacher co-planning with an NQT. The experienced teacher will be able to identify at what point in the lesson students will misconceive what is being taught; the NQT will not. I am a pseudo mathematics teacher. I have one way of teaching simultaneous equations and I find it hard to comprehend why students cannot understand how to solve simultaneous equations after I have explained a worked example. When they ask me to go over it again, I repeat the same explanation, but talk more slowly and loudly, as though I am explaining in English to a garage mechanic in rural France, for the second time, that my car is overheating.

Beyond Shulman, I have always subscribed to the principle of letting the subject matter determine the pedagogy, something I picked up from Michael Fordham.

So, two challenges for school leaders to address when engaging in curriculum design…a third challenge is weaving assessment into the curriculum, something I will look at next week in my fourth and final post, where I will propose a way of developing the curriculum which takes everyone with you, is user-friendly, is based upon sound principles, is academically aspirational and is focused upon developing teachers’ expertise.

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