I’ve been thinking about this blog for a while, sitting on drafts, deleting sections and re-writing parts. Then, this weekend, a conversation with @ClassroomTruths, @imagineinquiry, @misshorsfall and @rpd1972 among others, led to an impromptu decision for us each to publish blogs on the loosely-linked theme of topic planning.
I’ve spoken in the past about the importance of getting curriculum right for children, focussing particularly on writing, but increasingly I’m coming to feel that we wildly underestimate the importance of curriculum sequencing and design. This is probably partly because for a long time primary schools had that responsibility removed from them and usurped by the national strategies. But I don’t think the strategies got it right.
What’s more, I think the arguments are more subtle and more pressing than the choice between cross-curricular and subject-specific approaches. There are arguments on either side about the benefits of each approach, but I’m coming to feel that it’s rather like the choice between cooking on electric and gas. Personally, I prefer a gas hob and electric oven, but I don’t have any evidence to suggest that these lead to better cooking; just that I have a preference. Similarly, I’m yet to be persuaded by any argument that topic-led or discrete subject-led teaching is inherently better for learning.
So if it’s not that the bothers me, then what? I’m increasingly concerned about the choices we make to bind together the various elements of the curriculum, both within and across subjects. I’m certainly not against cross-curricular work. In fact, as a middle school teacher, I was always astounded how students in secondary schools would find a History department teaching medieval history in Year 7, but English departments keeping Chaucer back for Year 9; or Science departments trying to get children to interpret graphs without first checking whether it had been covered in maths! There is much to be said for an ‘inter-disciplinary’ relationship, whether taught by a common teacher or different ones. However, I’m not convinced that cross-curricular teaching is automatically a Good Thing.
Tim Taylor’s blog already covers some of the challenges of topic-based teaching. What I particularly want to consider is an issue that is significant even when subjects are taught discretely. After all, in many schools mathematics is taught discretely from most topics, and yet this is one of the areas I feel needs most attention. For too long the decisions about teaching of core subjects have been taken out of teachers’ hands and handed over to folders from the department. While the National Numeracy Strategy file had its strengths (the exemplification particularly), the centralised directing of objectives on a micro level absolved teachers of the responsibility for designing the curriculum other than in the narrowest sense. In both English and Maths, teachers have been told what to teach, and when to teach it, and so have given relatively little thought to sequencing the curriculum for their own students.
In some ways, teachers have attempted to develop cohesion through topic-led teaching, but the coherence that this offers can be illusory. While planning out a whole unit on the theme of Chocolate might seem attractive, does the content we incorporate provide the best possible teaching sequence for the children to learn? It’s common to jump from genre to genre as we find writing opportunities and reading texts that suit the topic, rather than finding topics that support the gradual progression of teaching. To return to the kitchen analogy, this seems to me rather like taking the ingredients of a good cake recipe, throwing it all in a bowl and hoping. Teachers need to take on the role of chef and cultivate the best combination of those ingredients, in the right order, and combined with the right techniques to create the most effect outcome.
Dan Willingham and others have explained how focussing on context can sometimes distract from content. We need to ensure that what our children are thinking about is the material we’re hoping they’ll learn. By building our focus entirely round a single idea, do we sometimes risk elevating the importance of the topic above that of the learning context.
But as I’ve said, the problem is not unique to topic-led curricula. At present our maths curriculum seems to be largely built around short blocks of content before skipping on to something else. As with other things, we find ourselves facing children who cannot remember things taught earlier in the same year, when we attempt to revisit in the second half of the year.
But as we move towards the new curriculum, teachers are going to have to take back some ownership for designing the curriculum. The old frameworks won’t cut it, not least because of the new content in areas such as fractions. What’s more, the old approach of a few weeks on fractions each year, simply hasn’t proven enough to get children to really grasp their use. If we are to be able to raise children’s understanding and knowledge about fractions, then we need to have a clear pathway through that allows children to progress by embedding learning at each stage.
So, what am I proposing?
Well, firstly, not necessarily the scrapping of topics. After all, some humanities themes lend themselves to teaching particular genres of writing, or other aspects of the curriculum. However, I am suggesting that the starting point for all of our planning, at every level, should be the key learning objectives. And I don’t mean, selecting them from an annual list to tie into a topic, but selecting, grouping and sequencing the objectives first, and then seeing if their is any scope for linking ideas together across subjects. If a school gets its long-term plan right, then it can select themes which complement the central learning, rather than lead it.
I have shown in my previous post how I’ve used the Victorians theme to support the teaching of certain techniques in Writing. I can also see how many well-planned topics can lead to effective learning. But I also see many topic titles set out for a 6-week block (or longer!), with the topic acting as the main form of cohesion. That can’t be right? If we are planning in long blocks, then there ought to be a reason for that, and one which links to the core objectives we’re aiming to teach, not to the over-arching label which provides a title for displays.
The new curriculum provides an exciting opportunity for schools to really think deeply about how they organise their curriculum across the whole school, ensuring progression and cohesion through the core subjects as a priority. Go and grab it!
Other blogs on the matter of planning and topics are listed at http://primaryblogger1.wordpress.com/2014/02/26/blogs-on-topic-planning-for-and-against/