I teach, therefore I am.
My presentation at #TMEastLondon entitled: ‘Adding SPARKLE to Curriculum and Assessment Design’
‘Curriculum and Assessment Design’ isn’t the sexiest title – as many of my family and friends were quick to point out when I announced my book. I can’t help but think Niamh foresaw this potential problem, which is why she kindly added the word ‘sparkle’ to my presentation.
Yet the thing is, curriculum and assessment design is where I find my happiness; making decisions about what the children in front of me will know; being trusted to be the creator of something inspirational and life-changing for the community I serve; making and laying down the stones on which the future generation will make their path. Curriculum and assessment design is working out how you light sparks in the minds of your pupils – it IS the sparkle.
That’s why I wrote a whole book about it. And I have 7 minutes to explain it…
There are two directions from which you can approach curriculum and assessment design – one is as a senior curriculum leader and the other as a subject lead or subject teacher. These approaches follow similar paths, but as a senior curriculum leader your role involves not only answering questions about curriculum and question but knowing the right questions to ask your subject teachers.
For like most beautiful and wondrous things, curriculum and assessment design is also complicated and difficult. It requires a knowledge of our subjects that a degree alone does not provide, it requires an understanding of the history of our subjects, of their core knowledge and of their structure. It requires a knowledge of how to select and sequence the most precious elements of our subjects so that our pupils will take these on themselves until they are able to experience what Professor Michael Young calls the ‘transformative’ effect of powerful knowledge.
And when it comes to assessment, it requires a complete re-write of what we have come to understand as the ways we measure our pupils’ success. Assessment, particularly testing, has been mired by the poor quality of state tests and a teaching to the test, gaming culture. We are required to break through this and look for its purpose, which is: to help us know how much pupils have absorbed of our subject and how we help them improve. We must also recognise that different subjects require different approaches to assessment and that we must be wary of one size fits all systems which have not taken into account the needs and sequencing of individual curriculums. This means changing our view of assessments, in all their forms – including tests. The word test actually comes from the Latin testa, which describes a: ‘small vessel used in assaying precious metals’. Imagine if we expanded on this etymology to change our perception of tests so that instead of tests being seen as dry and reductive they are viewed as a tool with which we evaluate pupils’ grasp of the precious metals of our subjects.
How do you begin this daunting but dazzling journey? You begin, where we should always begin, and where we should always come back to: your purpose and principles. For me that purpose is what Robert M Hutchins describes as ‘education for freedom’ – an education which inducts pupils into the ‘Great Conversation’ of humankind. Knowledge for its own intrinsic value – its beauty and poetry – and for how it empowers young people to engage with and challenge the status quo. From this purpose you can derive the principles of your subject – what does it mean to be a scholar of History, or English, or Chemistry; how are these different?
I know that as an English teacher, I want my pupils to understand the immense power of English literature. In the book ‘A Great House’ by Nicole Krauss, the narrator describes this eloquently: ‘When at last I came upon the right book, the feeling was violent: it blew open a hole in me that made life more dangerous because I couldn’t control what came through it.’ I chose the books on our curriculum with that idea in mind, I want my pupils to be blown away by the literature in their hands, to know that ‘no matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world’ (Dead Poets Society). And 2016 is an important year to understand and believe that!
When you have the firm foundations of purpose and principles to stand on, you must consider the expectations you have for your pupils and look to your subject experts to determine the big ideas and threshold concepts of your subject which match up to these expectations. Do you want to build pupils who can pass a GCSE or do you want pupils who are inducted into the ‘Great Conversation’ – for as Mary Wollstonecraft says about the education of women: ‘It follows then, I think, that from their infancy women should either be shut up […] or educated in such a manner as to be able to think and act for themselves.’ This can apply to all our pupils – how do we educate so that they can think and act for themselves? Not how do we educate them to tick a box on GCSE criteria, or to get a job, or a place in a college. These things matter for their future but focus on really educating your pupils – teaching them your subject – and the other stuff will come. Ask yourself or ask your subject teachers: what are the over arching ideas that a pupil has to know to engage at this higher plane, what are the concepts which open the doors of your subject and once you know them you can never look back?
Then remember that to think for yourself, you need to know things – you cannot create experts without the building blocks of knowledge. As Hirsch says: ‘You cannot become an instant expert [for even] Google rewards those who already have knowledge’. I see this frequently in our enrichment programme, when we take our pupils out into London every week to various cultural institutions to learn from London as their classroom; at the British Library they flock towards the manuscript of ‘Beowulf’, because we study it in school, and consequently their engagement with the trip and the stories they write at the British library are more vibrant because they already feel part of what Hirsch calls a ‘community of knowledge’. This is a fundamental part of curriculum design – selecting and sequencing the knowledge and determining how you will test this, how you will ensure that pupils remember these precious metals of your subject. To do this successfully you need to be in a community of subject teachers, you need to read – there is a vast amount of scholarship and research out there that is begging to be considered from writers and educators such as E D Hirsch to sociologists such as Michael Young to psychologists such as Carol Dweck to cognitive scientists such as Daniel Willingham through to the blogging and tweeting teachers around you.
But aside from telling you to read – typical English teacher – I also want to leave you with three practical ideas that you can take away to begin, or further develop, your curriculum and assessment design.
This means taking those big ideas as your over arching framework and then looking at your expectations for pupils at the end of Year 11 or at the end of Year 13 – what should they know by his point in their school career? Then map this backwards all the way to Year 7, to see how you can effectively build and revisit knowledge throughout their time at school. You can start with the big ideas, texts, facts and then drill down to the specific content.
It’s also really useful to map out your assessment – both within your subject and at whole school level – and to see how closely it is driven by the needs of your curriculum. Dylan Wiliam writes informatively about this in his pamphlet on ‘Principled Assessment Design’ and you should also look at Daisy Christodoulu’s work on multiple choice assessment and comparative judgement. Consider carefully the differing types of assessment you offer and for what purpose these are being run – if its not to move your pupils learning forward, then you need to scrap it!
If you take curriculum and assessment seriously at your school then you need to dedicate CPD time to build expertise amongst your staff. This should be a continued programme of time, resources, support and reviews which develop thinking around curriculum and assessment. You can start this by building an inset day completely focused on curriculum, including opportunities for whole school discussion about purpose, and most importantly subject department time to think, discuss and develop their ideas about the precious material of their curriculum.
Over the last few years, the education waters have been rocked by significant change, stress and crisis. This opportunity of curriculum and assessment design can seem like another burden. But it’s important we change the narrative about this and take it seriously: we stand in an important moment in education but also in history, it is more vital now than it has ever been that we offer our pupils the chance to be part of the great conversation, that we teach them the knowledge and ideas which will hold them steady in anxious times. Its in this struggle with the complexities of curriculum and assessment and with the fractures in education and beyond that we can find space to create something important – as the late Leonard Cohen sung: ‘Forget your perfect offering, there is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.’
If you want to know more about curriculum and assessment design, you can buy a copy of my book here: Bloomsbury CPD Library: Secondary Curriculum and Assessment Design