How does a novice become an expert? To me, it all comes back to effective curriculum development. And to me, effective curriculum development all comes back to having ruthless ‘curriculum conversations.’ But what exactly does this mean…?
I believe there are three core elements to an effective curriculum:
- What do we want students to learn?
- How will we teach this to them?
- How will we assess their work?
Once a department has outlined their three core strands in depth, everyone within that department must be involved in having ruthless conversations about how to improve every aspect of it over time. After all, the success of our students depends on it.
What must students learn to become an expert in our field? It’s a basic, yet fundamental question that needs to be addressed if we are to have any chance of actually getting there.
Luckily, the national curriculum and exam specifications offer us a handy starting point. The national curriculum will identify what students are expected to learn at each key stage, so offers an insight not solely into what students should be expected to learn, but also what they will have learnt previously.
Exam specifications are also imperative to utilise in determining what students need to learn, because after all, that is what they will be judged by (rightly or wrongly) at the end of their studies. Clearly, you may be thinking, doing a GCSE in a subject is far from being an expert in the field, and I would wholeheartedly agree, yet they offer us useful stepping stones in their journey from novice to expert.
Conversations need to be had about what topics students will have studied beforehand. At secondary school, for example, what will students have learnt at their primary school? How do you know? Have you checked? If you don’t know, can you find out? Did they actually do it, or just say they did it? Do you know? Now, I’m not expecting you to know all of these answers, yet I certainly think knowing the answers to them will certainly help your department develop curriculum expertise, which will undoubtedly translate in students accelerating their journey to becoming an expert in your subject.
Does your subject follow a distinct chronology? Is there benefit in teaching your subject chronologically? If so, why? If you disagree, why so? Again, ask reflective questions to interrogate your curriculums rather than just accepting the status quo because it is always what we have done.
Then we move onto how we will sequence our topics throughout the years of education that our students are with us. We can use the power of interleaving, to ensure that students retain information for longer. Yes, it may be more of a struggle at the time, but its power is important in developing long term retention of knowledge. The power of interleaving can be enhanced with interweaving (teaching a new topic using knowledge of a previous topic, e.g. teaching area and perimeter with a previously learnt topic fractions). There will be numerous examples in your own subject areas that you can exploit.
Once we have an idea of what we have learnt, the order in which we will teach it, our next question is how we are actually going to teach it.
Once we have decided what we are going to teach, and in what order, the next most logical step would be to forensically work out how we intend to teach it. Yet, this is often a part that is alarmingly overlooked. Blindly following a well-sequenced, highly thought-through curriculum, with a blatant disregard to the fine matter of teaching it, is setting our students up to fail.
New, and experienced teachers alike, often begrudge the time they take ‘lesson planning’. My take on ‘lesson planning’ is that much of the time is taken by teachers in fact ‘lesson resourcing’.
For me, lesson ‘planning’ is the act of working out the best way to teach a specific topic, considering pre-requisite knowledge, where the topic leads to next, the best pedagogical methods to explain it to students, rehearsing explanations to improve the quality of your instruction, ensuring your choice of examples reflects the work that students will do and so on. It is the most important part of working out ‘how’ you are going to deliver the curriculum. Lesson ‘planning’ is what we should be focusing our attention on!
Lesson resourcing, on the other hand, is simply finding a specific resource for students to complete. It’s a classic mistake: working out what activity students should do before working out what the point of the activity is. Instead, we have already worked out what students should learn, we are simply identifying the best way to teach the content so that crucially students learn the material.
Within my curriculum model, you may have noticed ‘CPAs’ which I refer to as ‘Common Pedagogical Approaches’. In a department of say eight maths teachers, why would you all choose to model how to solve equations in potentially eight different ways? Would it not be best to decide on a preferred way, and everyone teach solving equations that way? Some argue against this arguing that it removes some of their autonomy and that they have always taught it like that perhaps. Yet, do those teachers need a reality check? Are they teaching for themselves or for the students? Either way, the conversation needs to be had in your department. Whichever way your department chooses to go, it must be carefully considered and justified.
Once students have completed the work in class, have you planned what work students will do at home, if any? Have all students got access to home learning that you have set? If homework is set primarily through online systems, have all students got sufficient resources to access this on a regular basis, or is there suitable provision at school that doesn’t lead to them missing out on other opportunities? Home learning can be incredibly powerful, but must be carefully thought through, structured, and critically monitored. In too many schools, it appears that many departments set homework because they are ‘asked to’, yet never pay much importance to the quality of work that is produced. Not only is this demoralising for students, who in turn reduce their level of effort each time, but it can also be a huge wasted opportunity for them to consolidate knowledge, and increase their abilities in each subject discipline.
I must also stress the power of stories. Even though the benefit of storytelling is propagating the minds and followers of cognitive science, its power is still underutilised in many a classroom. Simply listen to some of the best speakers on the planet on the TED platform and you will see that stories are used to some extent in pretty much every case. Stories are a remarkable conduit of knowledge.
We enjoy hearing stories, not least because they follow a routine structure, and our brains are also hardwired to always want to know the ending and are often memorable as we can connect them to our own lived experiences or our own mental models. Think about whether your next teaching topic can be taught including elements of a story, that could help retention. Clearly, this may be easier for subjects such as History, Politics, or other subjects that perhaps follow a chronological timeline or are more attuned to storytelling, yet I argue they can be used in all subjects to varying degrees.
Following the detailed discussion about ‘what’ we are going to teach, and ‘how’ we are going to teach it, it follows that we must look at how we will ‘assess’ that students have learnt what we had intended for them to learn. This assessment comes in many forms, and it is prudent that we, as teachers, allow sufficient time to explore this in depth. If ill-thought-through, assessment can become all consuming, and the opportunity cost of such endeavours can distract us from our key work. Before long, teachers can be drowning in endless data entry, triple impact marking, and other excessive marking rituals which dampen the overall impact on student learning over time.
For me, when thinking about assessment, I reflect on the parallels of learning to play a musical instrument. When learning to play an instrument, you are taught by an individual who is an expect relative to yourself. When learning a musical instrument, your teacher will highlight and model the steps you require, which you will repeat, and over time you will become increasingly independent in your playing. Now, crucially, the level feedback in a music lesson is extraordinarily high. After every note, or phrase, you will receive feedback to try and improve the performance of that particular element. You will ‘practise the micro’ elements. Indeed, when professional musicians practise a piece of music, it is often not possible to tell the piece of music they are playing as they are practising such a minute part of the overall work. The feedback is verbal, immediate, personalised, and leads to rapid improvements. Once the feedback is given, the teacher ensures you have understood the feedback by asking you to play the section again with the elements included. Importantly, the feedback is often never written down, yet is incredibly impactful. As the feedback is immediate, any errors in performance are immediately rectified leading to less chance of embedding poor technique or musical errors. Once the feedback is noted and received, the student is then tasked with going away and practising before their next lesson. Crucially, though, the teacher checks that the student has understood the feedback by asking them to play it through correctly. If the teacher is not fully assured the student has understood exactly how to play it, they will ask the pupil to play it again. Once assured, it is down to the student to then continue to practise correctly.
To me, much of learning to play a musical instrument is analogous to learning within the classroom. Clear, verbal, immediate feedback based on errors/misconceptions that a student has made in the moment is so impactful. Clearly, 1-2-1 musical lessons are somewhat less realistic than classroom environments, but the use of Mini Whiteboards (MWBs) in a classroom provides a very close approximation of what is possible. By asking a question and receiving thirty responses on a MWB, teachers can provide, direct, immediate feedback that immediately rectifies any mistake that a child can make. Once the mistake is rectified, another follow up question may be asked to ensure the teacher knows the child has now understood exactly what to do, before there is a period of independent practice within the classroom for the students to practise the topic, and secure the process of how to complete any task. Yes, some may argue that there is no ‘evidence’ that students have received feedback, but to me we must be brave here. Simply asking the students if they receive regular MWB feedback, or verbal feedback from a teacher should suffice, needless to say the long-term improvements in student outcomes from using this approach. Documenting what you have told a child is just absolutely pointless. It would take a rare student to flick back in their books at all the comments teachers have made to improve their performance. Verbal improvements, in the moment, are so much more impactful whilst also saving an inordinate amount of time.
In the short term, live marking, retrieval activities including a ‘Do now’ starter, circulating, the use of ‘show me’ whiteboards, cold call questioning are all elements that teachers can use to formatively assess work in a classroom. In some cases, particularly perhaps in maths and the sciences, students could be taught how to mark their own work, so they can immediately understand if they have got a question right or wrong, accelerated their learning whilst also ensuring mistakes are not embedded.
In the long term, summative assessments that cumulatively build on prior topics is a sensible way to not only understand what a child has retained, but also to teach students how to revise, acclimatise to the nature of summative assessment, and understand the areas they need to improve on to accelerate their learning. An in depth discussion of effective revision strategies is saved for a later blog.
Once we have discussed, developed, and honed what we are teaching, how we are teaching, and how we are going to assess work, we have not finished. We must see curriculum development as a cyclical process that everyone contributes to and that builds iteratively over time. At each stage of the curriculum model, we must communicate improvements and next steps with our colleagues, as well as to wider stakeholders including to our students.
Not only is communication imperative in iteratively building our curriculum towards achieving excellence, but it must also be proactive and reactive in equal measure.
Following an assessment, we must be reactive in the short term to understand which areas students have struggled with, whilst concomitantly being proactive by working out how to rectify this for future learning cycles and to avoid the risk of repeated failures. In the immediate aftermath, it may be that you need to reteach the whole topic, or simply ensure you ask more questions about it in future lessons, either verbally, or as part of a starter exercise. Much will depend on your subject, the topic in question, its relative importance, and the time you have available. Although this reactive teaching is essential, and likely to always exist, changes further upstream can ensure that students get it right first time and reducing the need for remedial work in future learning journeys.
If all students did poorly in a test on a specific test, alarm bells should sound. How do we reflect on this to tweak our input, improve the quality of our instruction, and make sure that next time students do better at that specific topic? No, I don’t mean teaching to the test, but I do mean using that information to do something with it. Otherwise, we teach the same curriculum, in the same way, year after year, and fail to understand or realise that we are always getting the same results, and students over time are getting the same outcomes. If teachers say, ‘students always find this difficult’, what have you done about it? Surely, if that’s the case then we should get better at teaching it first time around, perhaps?
As well as communicating our new knowledge from the learning cycle into improving teaching and learning, it’s important to communicate necessary information to students along the way. Students need to know what they have done well, and what they need to focus on to improve further. They may need extra assistance not just on what subject matter to learn, but potentially also on how to revise effectively. Although we have all no doubt questioned this at times, students do want to do well. If they can see that the effort that they have put in has led to tangible results, this is a great way to generate ‘buy in’. Giving work to students, not least a test, when you know students are set up to fail is simply unfair, and incredibly damaging over time as students are less likely to feel there is any merit in working any harder for upcoming assessments as they may now see it as a ‘lost cause’. It is our job as teachers to set our students up to succeed, and an effective curriculum development model is a major avenue in achieving that aim.
We will all have our own takes on what an effective curriculum model may look like, but I hope the model I have shared with you here has made you think, reflect, or at least started a conversation. I hope your departments are already discussing much of what I have discussed, but if not, I hope some of the material may resonate with you and help drive curriculum conversations within your departments moving forward.
I would love to continue the conversation.