What follows is an introduction to my Curriculum Masterclass on 6 January, part of Tom Sherrington’s Curriculum Masterclass series. You can book a ticket for the live event and/or access to the videos, here.
As part of our HUH project, Mary Myatt and I have engaged in wonder-full conversations with both subject leaders and senior leaders. One thing that has become clear is just how the curriculum and teaching & learning are inseparable. As our conversation with Chris McGrane in HUH’s mathematics chapter exemplifies so brilliantly, how you teach the curriculum determines whether or not students learn what you have taught them. Negative numbers might be on a curriculum overview plan, but if you teach negative numbers poorly, then you are likely to need negative numbers to appear on your curriculum overview plan once a year, every year.
It follows, then, that if school leaders are going to improve their schools they need to support teachers to develop the curriculum – what Christine Counsell described to me as “the knowledge, skills and the life of the mind that is the transformative work of the school, the residue that schooling leaves them with and the experience of its acquisition” – whilst improving their teaching, the means by which students learn what they are taught.
Before senior leaders embark upon a conversation with a subject leader, they would do well to decide upon what they want out of such a conversation. When I shared my thoughts with Christine Counsell she suggested that there were, perhaps, three reasons why senior leaders want to discuss the curriculum with subject leaders they line manage. Is the senior leader…
A…just trying to find out about principles and dynamics of quality in that subject, from a strong subject lead who is genuinely teaching you about how that subject community works, how subject structure works and how they are realising it in their curriculum, or…
B…aware of some deficit or other and is trying to inject a mixture of support and challenge to push the subject leader into some new avenues, or…
C…merely trying to work out whether they need to do more of A or more of B, or a mixture of the two?!
Informed debate is the fuel of curriculum development. Developmental curriculum conversations between senior leaders and subject leaders can take several forms; the best conversations are organic. Once you begin a dialogue with a subject leader the conversation usually develops its own energy and direction. So, once senior leaders know why they are discussing the curriculum with subject leaders, there are, arguably, seven starting points for their conversation. The first question of each starting point is often all you require, because, as Christine pointed out to me, “after the first question or two, the thing is driven by the dynamic of that subject or that particular subject curriculum’s issues and/or that particular subject lead’s concerns”.
Below I explain the premise for each of the seven starting points; on 6 January I will go into the questions under each of the starting points. Much of what follows is largely based upon the thoughts of the remarkable curriculum leader Claire Hill, taken from the opening chapters of HUH. I finish with a small number of questions for students in the classroom, where the curriculum is enacted.
The seven starting points are:
1. The history of the ***** curriculum at our school
Lots of elements of a subject curriculum in a specific school have been shaped by colleagues who have long gone. The subject curriculum can end up being a hotch-potch of different legacy units which have been developed over time but which are not necessarily talking to each other. Before you can get a full grasp of what needs to be developed within a subject curriculum, you need to find out its unique history.
2. General overview?
When you are trying to establish a general overview, begin at the end with the pupils’ learning and then go to the beginning to find out how they get the pupils to the end!
3. Curriculum Sequencing 1: Why that, then, to them?
We want to be sure that each curriculum unit builds upon pupils’ prior knowledge and understanding, develops their understanding by adding to what they already know and understand, and prepares them appropriately for what they will be learning next.
4. Curriculum Sequencing 2: Boring down into the fortnightly curriculum
One of the ways that we bring coherence to our curriculum is through meaningful retrieval practice, and that retrieval practice is around creating connections between what has been learnt before and what is going to be learnt later and activating what is required in the current live lesson. So, by looking at the fortnightly curriculum on a regular, frequent basis, you start to build a picture not as a curriculum map, not as an infographic, but crucially as a mental model for your subject leader.
5. Assessment and responsive pedagogy
We want to assess so that we can identify what pupils know, understand and can do at different stages of the curriculum; we need to know how well our assessments achieve that aim. An effective assessment schedule which dovetails with what is being taught when to whom is essential if you are going to be sure that what has been taught has been learnt. Teaching which is responsive to what the assessments tell you has or hasn’t been learnt is an essential aspect of the enacted curriculum.
One thing that sets apart the expert teacher from the novice is having a profound understanding of the subject so that they know when students are going to have misconceptions about what has been taught. The expert teacher will anticipate misconceptions and will be prepared with different ways of teaching the content which disabuses the pupils of their misconceptions.
7. What is great and how can we spread the greatness?
This starting point builds upon what is going well in the ***** curriculum and helps the Subject Leader understand what specific factors make a certain unit successful (that could include how well it builds upon what has gone before in the curriculum’s narrative and extends/deepens pupils’ subject knowledge and understanding) and how can they replicate those successful factors in units which are not so successful.
When you get into the classroom to experience the enacted curriculum, there are a small number of starting points for questioning students:
1. What are you learning about and why?
2. How does this lesson fit in with what you learnt last lesson? What do you think you might be moving on to study next?
3. How do you know how to improve in this subject?
4. To what extent do you find the work challenges you and makes you think more about the topics you are studying?
Lastly, don’t forget the vital question which needs oft repeating: “How do you know?” As I said above, on 6 January I will explore each set of questions in much more detail. I will argue that the notion of holding subject leaders to account for the curriculum is obsolete, and how senior leaders need to approach this work developmentally, with genuine humility.