I teach, therefore I am.
At the recent PTE Campaign conference on ‘What makes great schools great?’ I was asked to speak on a panel in response to the question ‘What makes a great curriculum?’ This write up of my introduction very briefly summarises my thinking around the theory of curriculum, but really provides a platform for more in-depth discussion and nuance about how one determines what a great curriculum should look like and poses several questions for those of us interested in designing a knowledge rich curriculum. I hope to explore some of these ideas further in my blog over the next year.
I began by explaining my current role as it seems to illustrate and give context to this theory of curriculum…
‘To understand my answer to this question, you have to know a little more about my current role. I’m a Subject Specialist Lead for English at The Inspiration Trust. I’m part of a team of subject specialists led by the trust’s Director of Education, Christine Counsell. This is part of a vision put in place by the CEO Dame Rachel de Souza, who wanted to not only ensure a set of schools in Norfolk (and North Suffolk) which had excellent exam results for their pupils but that were also going to be full of teachers and leaders who understood the value of knowledge, both for its intrinsic worth and for its potential to fight disadvantage and advance social justice, and who had the expertise themselves to be strong subject specialists and curriculum designers. Our subject specialist team was created to help build this capacity within schools.
The word ‘subject’ is of utmost importance here because essentially what our team is doing is asking the question: what is a great curriculum? But more than that – and what is missing from the question posed today – we are asking what is a great curriculum in English, in History, in Maths, in Chemistry, in Religion, in PE, in Art and so forth. Because for me, and for the team at Inspiration, a great curriculum has to be rooted in our sense of the subject. Of course when you drill down further into curriculum design you need to look at how you choose the specific content; how you sequence that content to ensure pupils remember it, which of course involves ideas from cognitive science about the effective ways to ensure pupils remember what they have been taught, and how you ensure that you are building the blocks of knowledge which lie between novice and expert, but behind that (and a requisite for this to be done successfully) must stand the subject.
Recently I’ve been reading Professor John Carey’s book ‘The Unexpected Professor’ about his personal history with literature; he describes his interactions with literature over the years and draws on the vast swathes of it that he has memorised, peppering the book with evocative quotations and allusions. As an English teacher reading this, you can’t help but think: yes this is it, this is what a scholar of English should be able to do. They should have this vast library of literature stored in their mind to draw on at will, and this library of the mind is essential not simply for those children who will become academics but for every single child no matter what job they have or even whether they go on to A-levels or university. This is about building knowledge that enriches them for life – creating a literary world from which they can draw on to understand and empower them in their lives and help them to see beyond the limits of their own world. This understanding of the emancipatory and aesthetic wonders of English literature is imperative to designing a great curriculum in English.
For a great curriculum must sing of the subject and has to demonstrate that the designer of that curriculum has been involved in a process of considered thought and intellectual struggle with the subject, to determine how to distill this into precise content and how to structure this content in a way that adheres to the principle of learning as a change in long term memory, whilst maintaining a fidelity to the subject construct.’
The discussion that followed the introductions from the panel, touched on questions around the idea of ‘teacher as academic’, the role of senior leadership and government in curriculum design, the tensions between prescription and autonomy and the involvement of parents and community in a school’s curriculum. In informal conversation and reflection after the event, it is clear that questions around what knowledge should be taught, how we make room for vocational aspects of the curriculum, what we do to ensure the curriculum works for our most struggling pupils and how we manage the intervention culture that storms through schools, are all also worthy of discussion.
Each one of these point demands further exploration, and will touch on ideas of senior curriculum leadership, subject communities, assessment in a knowledge rich curriculum and what we mean by impactful CPD. As the community of educators who advocate a knowledge rich curriculum grows, we need to become more precise in articulating what this means and more willing to publicly explore the difficult tensions and conflicts which arise. I am looking forward to blogging more on all of this – with a specific focus on English – as we take on these challenges over the next year at Inspiration. Its an incredible time to be working in education, as we start to realise the essential nature of these discussions around curriculum, assessment and knowledge. For as Amanda Spielman remarked in her recent commentary on the curriculum: ‘Without a curriculum, a building full of teachers, leaders and pupils is not a school. Without receiving knowledge, pupils have learned nothing and no progress has been made – whatever the measures might indicate.’