Monthly Archives: January 2015

Curriculum Design 3: A common vocabulary, or a common misunderstanding?

In the last of my series of 3 posts on the trials of curriculum design, I want to look at something that seems to me to be a growing problem in our system.

Firstly, we have the challenge of trying to get teachers to engage in curriculum design in a way that has just never been possible before, particularly in primary schools. For near 20 years, the agenda in primaries has been driven by frameworks and strategies: the big picture was drawn for you – teachers were expected to do the painting by numbers bit. Now we have a much more blank canvas, and that’s a frightening place to be.

But the new concern I have is the transferability of what we know from ‘research’ into classroom practice and school planning – particularly that surrounding the growing vocabulary of curriculum design.

It’s great that research can now tell us more about what works, and even better that there are more and more channels for sharing that with teachers. The report before Christmas from the Sutton trust: ‘What makes great teaching?‘ was a prime example. But what did we learn from it?

The report tells us that spacing study leads to greater long-term retention; that interleaving leads to better transfer of skills than blocking; that generating responses is more effective than studying; and, that pedagogical content knowledge can lead to higher gains. We know from other research that overlearning can be effective The problem with all these gems of wisdom is in the interpretation.

After all, what does it mean to ‘space’ study? Does it apply only to revising before an exam? Should our curriculum be built around spacing units of work? Or individual lessons? Should a maths teacher teach addition on ten consecutive Mondays, rather than over a fortnight? Or teach a weekly block every half-term? When does spacing simply become time to forget?

What of interleaving? The Sutton Trust report tells us:

Learning in a single block can create better immediate performance and higher confidence, but interleaving with other tasks or topics leads to better long-term retention and transfer of skills.

But again – what constitutes interleaving? Does the fact that my maths lessons are interleaved with English, Science and PE count? Or should I be mixing up the topics I teach by changing each week in maths? Or every day? And if blocking’s no good, then is my mastery model up the spout? And what, for that matter, do we mean by mastery anyway? For some it is about everyone moving on together; for others the key point is about over-learning and fluency; or is it about applied learning in complex contexts?

This causes me to reflect on the ‘spiral curriculum’. We often think of the spiral as being coming back to things termly, but in some cases are people using it to mean revisiting every few weeks? Or did the term really represent the difference between the UK model of teaching across the maths areas every year, compared to the case in some states where Year 9 is for, say, Algebra, and Year 10 is for Geometry?

The questions are endless. How do we measure ‘overlearning’? Is it enough to do 5 more calculations once you seem to be good at column addition? Or must it be 50? Or a week of lessons?

I raise all of these problems not merely as theory, but practice. I have grappled with many of these ideas over the past couple of years, and still struggle. I have gone to some lengths to work on longer blocks of learning as part of my mastery model, yet at the back of mind I always have the niggling doubt about interleaving. Is spaced practice enough to counter those concerns? Or are others looking at  my model thinking that I’ve done exactly what the Sutton Trust advise against in “blocking learning”?

The trouble with these theoretical questions is the way they play out in classrooms, staff meetings and with the powers that be. The DfE talks of a mastery curriculum – and then confuses the term by using it to mean high-attaining in its performance descriptors. The EEF evidence shows that feedback is effective, so Ofsted inspectors demand to see more marking, despite the fact that the EEF report also says that feedback should be sparing, and need not necessarily be directed at the student!

I find myself confused. And I consider myself to be one of the more engaged in the debates in the profession. The increasing use of research and evidence in education should be welcome, but I’m just not convinced it’s ripe for its audience yet.  It seems that we are often using a common vocabulary… to talk about different things.

Related blog recommendation:

Joe Kirby – who is always knowledgeable on matters of cognitive science and its impact in the classroom  – does a great job of explaining many of the research findings in his article: Why don’t students remember what they’ve learned?

Other posts in this series:

Curriculum Design 1: Do we even need to design the curriculum?

Curriculum Design 2: Spaced practice vs spiral curriculum?


Curriculum Design 2: Spaced Practice vs Spiral Curriculum

In my last post, I raised the issue of whether we need to design the curriculum at all. (Hint: we do). Today, I want to look at the matter of spiral and spaced curricula.

The currently-popular model of teaching – in primary at least – is that of short blocks, frequently repeated. The primary maths framework diagram gives a… fascinating… insight into what this might look like in practice, with units planned over a term, and then a cycle of repetition through each term to build on previous work.


We’ve also recently seen much emphasis on the benefits of Spaced Practice in learning. At first glance, this apparent spiral model could equally describe a model of Spaced Practice: children meet a concept, then go away to work on others for a ‘space’ of time before returning to the same theme the following term. I think that may be a misunderstanding of the issue – although I should stress that I’m no expert here, and others may add more – that confuses the matters.

To me, Spaced Practice is about repeated use of learned skills. We all know how rusty our foreign language skills become after leaving school because we just don’t use them often enough. If, each month, we were forced to have just a single 5-minute conversation in French, there is no doubt that we would better retain what we once knew, surely? But we probably wouldn’t get much better at it.

Spiral Curriculum, on the other hand, means trying to build on knowledge each time. Of course, how tight we wind the spiral varies: do we re-visit line graphs every half-term? Every term? Once a year? If it’s only annually, then can we reasonably expect children to remember all they were taught a year before? And how long do we spend each time? Two days? Three?

It’s not enough to simply keep coming back to topics at some point.

Let me draw in one of my infamous rambling analogies

Imagine a builder, laying out bricks. He’s quite likely to spiral in some form, keep coming back to the same part of the wall and building slightly higher. But importantly, he needs to make sure that each layer is ‘just so’ before moving on. He cannot hope that by quickly throwing bricks down, that the bricks on higher levels will help to cement the lower ones in place. If the mortar is wrong, or the brick laid poorly, then the whole wall will be all the weaker for it.

The spiral curriculum alone is not enough. Teaching based on assessment alone is not enough. What we need is a really well-structured, sensibly-sequenced, practice-filled curriculum as our basic starting point. Then, absolutely the strength of good teaching will be about using assessment to know when to move on and when to stick with what’s started, and making sure to revisit things regularly to keep knowledge and understanding in place. But they need the excellent curriculum to underpin them if they’re really to be effective.

A common visual representation of the current model of re-visiting blocks looks something like this:


Each block representing a ‘unit’ of work on a theme, and each theme visited several times through the year. At first it seems to make sense, but actually a term is a long time to retain information that isn’t being used. I think that what is suggested by Spaced Practice should look something more like this:


Here I’ve represented my preference for longer units on a common theme, rather than small spurts of teaching, but crucially each unit also incorporates elements from the previous unit. A very simple example might be the teaching of column methods for addition and multiplication. Once column addition is really secure, then when teaching long multiplication those skills are used (and thereby kept secure) as part of the process. It’s not a matter of re-teaching, or even of developing those particular skills further. Rather, it keeps them fresh. Of course, at some point a progression is likely – the spiral model still has its place over the longer term. But this time, with secure foundations, the next layer should be far more easily introduced and developed.

The trouble is, all of this highlights one of the many problems of research in education at the moment: it’s easy to agree that spacing is good. What is much harder is to agree on what we really mean by that – and other terms like it. More of that in blog 3.

Related blog recommendation:

David Thomas has written about three things he put in place last year in his lessons that have improved his teaching, including spaced testing & interleaving:

Posts in this series:

Curriculum Design 1: Do we even need to design the curriculum?

Curriculum Design 3: A common vocabulary, or a common misunderstanding?

Curriculum Design 1: do we even need to design the curriculum?

I had an interesting twitter conversation this morning with people whom I consider to be very thoughtful, reflective and sensible primary teachers. As far as is possible by tweeting, we covered several subjects relating to the planning and teaching of a curriculum, and many of those thoughts deserved more consideration I felt. What started off as a very long blog has therefore been broken into two. Later I’ll post about the relative congruence between a Spiral Curriculum model and Spaced Practice, and the challenges of the vocabulary of teaching, but first onto a question of a structured curriculum at all.

The conversations I’ve had frequently recently confirm my experience that an increasingly commonly-held view (in primary schools at least) is that curriculum should be an outcome of assessment. That is, that teachers can identify what children can’t do, and then teach them that. It seems to make sense at first: no more slavish following of schemes that don’t address children’s need, but instead a real sense of responsive teaching based on feedback. Pre-planned curricula seem so outdated.

I have several worries about this.

Firstly, the trend towards this attempt at responsive teaching is usually based on materials such as APP, or even test results. Teachers ascertain where children are not achieving certain targets and then teach them to. Often these are the same teachers who criticise national curriculum tests because it forces other schools to teach to the test. (Notice how few people think it’s their own school doing it?). But the reality is that it often is the main cause of teaching to the test.

For example, in maths a teacher might identify that her class are struggling with short division, and with calculating angles around a point, and with ordering decimals. At first glance it might seem to make sense to tackle each of these in turn over a few days each, thereby largely ticking off the chart and getting closer to scoring points on the test. Except, of course, that the problem may lay deeper. All three of those difficulties are quite possibly the result of an underlying lack of understanding of place value.

The problem with the assessment-led teaching is that it too often becomes a scattergun approach, trying to “pick off” individual issues, rather than looking at the big picture.

Of course, the other extreme is no good either. Often teachers see this assessment-led model as an alternative to following a scheme dogmatically. And they’re right to eschew the latter; I’m just not convinced that the former is the right solution.

Trouble is, what thought do we ever give to curriculum design as a profession? Perhaps because of the National Strategies, but probably for a whole host of reasons, very few teachers are ever trained in anything more than lesson-planning for up to about 6 weeks. But the big picture is vital if we’re to really make the curriculum make sense. We know already that many of the problems that kids face in Y6 and even right up to GCSE have their roots in poor foundations in much earlier years. Picking off objectives one at a time won’t solve that.

I’ve spoken before about the merits of a mastery approach that spends longer amounts of time on fewer things in both maths and English. I’ve never been a fan of the block-based approach that was put forward in the primary maths framework, but I don’t think assessment-led teaching is an improvement on that. The problem we need to tackle is not the use of schemes, but the quality of the schemes in the first place.

Secure foundations are essential to so much of what we do in schools, and we neglect them at our peril. We’ve become reliant on the spiral model because we like the idea that “well, if they didn’t get it this time, we’ll come back to it next term”. Trouble is, by then, those who did ‘get it’ need to move on further, and those who didn’t end up trailing further behind. It’s for that reason that I prefer the approach with longer blocks on each strand.

But perhaps the most important thing is the thought that we need to give to the sequencing and structure of what we teach. Rather than waiting to find out what kids can’t do, we need to base our decision-making far more on what we need to provide to allow our students to make progress. And by progress I don’t mean the flash-in-the-pan meaning of Ofsted, but actually progressing through a sequentially more challenging set of concepts, each building on what went before. This aspect of the spiral approach makes sense, but it needs to be planned out and thought through, not merely a reaction to gaps on an assessment grid.

Related blog recommendation:

Bodil Isaksen (@bodilUK) has written an excellent post this week about why the aversion to textbooks in the UK may caused by the poor quality curriculum design within them, and looks at the Singaporean alternatives.

Posts to follow:

Curriculum Design 2: Does spaced practice mean the spiral curriculum?

Curriculum Design 3: A common vocabulary, or a common misunderstanding?

Is Ofsted leading schools to mis-direct their energies?

There is much to be said for Ofsted’s willingness to change over recent years, and for its recognition of the limitations of its capability. Its decision to bring all inspectors in-house should probably be welcomed; its abandonment of lesson gradings has been widely praised… but is it actually achieving its purpose of raising standards?

As both inspections and reports become briefer, there is a risk that the guidance that schools are given on improvements, rather than raising standards may actually serve to distract a school from the work of improving its provision. After all, 10 hours is barely long enough to get any idea of what a school is like, let alone to accurately work out what it needs to do to improve. Yet, for some reason, inspection reports now insist on setting out what needs to be done.

This is a relatively recent phenomenon, and one that seems only to have arisen as inspections have shortened. Take one school as an example – a primary school in my hometown. When inspected in 2004 it was satisfactory, ten years later it requires improvement. Reading of the reports suggests that the reasons are similar in both cases: progress in core subjects was not good enough (and hence outcomes not high enough given the favoured intake).

In 2004 it was inspected by 5 inspectors over 3 days (15 inspector-days in total, still a reduction from earlier inspections); in 2014 it had just 3 inspectors for 2 days – less than half the time. In 2004, inspectors limited themselves to indicating what needed to be improved, based on its more thorough inspection: it was for the governors (supported by the professionals who knew the school well) to set out a plan of how this was to be achieved:


Compare this to the 2014 inspection, where after just 6 inspector-days of work it seems that Ofsted feels that it can tell exactly what needs to be done:


Notice that the essential problem was the same: children were deemed to be making insufficient progress from their starting points. In the former case, it was for the school to set about improving that: Ofsted merely reported what it found. By 2014 Ofsted seems to see its role as directing those improvements.

This is almost certainly an understandable reaction to claims that Ofsted merely sat in judgement and failed to support schools to improve. However, does this really achieve that?

It strikes me that if children are not making enough progress during their primary years then the issues may well run deeper than making sure they’ve understood tasks in lessons and responding to marking. In fact, I’d argue that the first bullet point would be a ridiculous claim to make on the basis of a few lesson observations over 2 days. But isn’t that exactly the problem? That’s all the inspectors had to go on.

And so, no doubt, that school will now be investing its time and efforts into the bullet points put forward by Ofsted. When inspectors next return, tasks will be well-explained (although not necessarily well-chosen or used), mini-plenaries will abound to check that children know what they’re doing (although not necessarily learning), a new marking policy will have been developed (with the resulting dialogue, despite the recent clarification) and leaders will be checking on the quality of teaching and learning… by checking that tasks are being explained and mini-plenaries used.

Nowhere is there any advice that the school might look at the quality of its curriculum provision, or evaluate the relative strengths and weaknesses of its teaching and set out a plan accordingly. No: Ofsted has made its judgements on the basis of a few drop-ins, and that will now direct the school’s efforts for the next 2 years.

The fact is, two days is not long enough for an inspection team to ascertain what needs to be done to improve provision in a school. If it were, being a headteacher would be easy; consultants would be redundant; school improvement would be a picnic. By imagining that an inspection team have the knowledge or understanding of a school’s situation to effect improvements, we are being fooled. And by letting them dictate the direction of school improvement, how much time is being wasted in schools up and down the country in making changes to meet the bullet points, rather than to improve provision?

Increasingly it is becoming clear that flying inspection visits are not adequate for the real detail of school improvement; they can provide but a snapshot – even over a week. That’s not to say that the snapshot might not be useful; merely to note that an identification of the issues is not necessarily enough to propose a cure.

Maybe a medical model is worth considering? Inspectors can do a fair job as General Practitioners: brief check-ups and dealing with minor ailments, but where a school really needs improvement, perhaps it should be referred to the appropriate specialist for further examination and treatment. Otherwise we risk simply issuing the same simplistic treatments to everyone for everything.

Doubtless in many other schools there are teachers who know that they’re focussing on the wrong things because of Ofsted ‘bullet points’ – I’d welcome your comments telling me about them (anonymous comments welcome)

Getting started with Twitter

Whenever I speak at conferences or Inset sessions, I always drop in a recommendation that teachers and school leaders should sign up to Twitter. Naturally, it’s not the main thrust of my presentation, and so I move on, but I thought it would be useful to have a post to direct people to, with suggestions for getting started.

Because of the work I do, the suggestions are probably more useful for school leaders, but for classroom teachers getting started I’d also recommend Mrs P Teach’s blog on inspirational teachers to follow.

Firstly, some words to reassure:

  • You can register completely anonymously
  • You don’t have to ‘say’ or ‘tweet’ anything if you don’t want
  • It’s nothing like Facebook

The main reason I recommend school leaders in particular to sign up for Twitter, is the ability to keep track of changes in education, which no-one can deny are frequent and rapid. Often now, news of significant changes is available on twitter well before it reaches the usual channels via Local Authorities or even proper press releases. If nothing else, leaders would be wise to have access to the main threads of key organisations.

Below is my guide to getting started in brief, with some key recommendations for individuals and organisations to follow to keep up to speed with the latest changes in education. For each of the main steps I have also provided access to a step-by-step guide for those less confident with technology and those particularly concerned about privacy settings.

Getting Started

The first step is to sign up. It’s dead simple and all you need is an email address. If you’re particularly concerned about anonymity, then you can sign up with an anonymous username and never add a picture, but I’d recommend signing up with your personal details and then protecting your account.

One thing I do suggest is ignoring all the recommendations that Twitter makes for you. It’s too easy to end up following 40 people you’re not interested in and then having to wade through rubbish to find the important details. Instead, once you have signed up and the recommendation lists appear, simply redirect your browser to to see your main page. At first it will be be fairly blank, but that’s just how we want it – that way you can choose the content that you want to see rather than just what Twitter thinks you might like!

Download the step-by-step guide to setting up a Twitter account

Securing your privacy

I suspect that a large number of teachers and leaders avoid social media because of the fear of causing an accidental stir somehow, or opening up unwanted communication channels. That’s easily avoided on Twitter by protecting your tweets – even if you don’t intend to post anything ever (and that may well change!). Do this straight away to give yourself some reassurance.

Once you’ve signed in to Twitter, simply click on the egg next to the Tweet button (or on your photo if you’ve added one) and choose the ‘Settings’ option. On that page is a section for Security & Privacy which will allow you to tick the ‘Protect Tweets’ option and look at other options for securing your account.

Download the step-by-step guide to altering Twitter privacy settings.

Following useful streams

To me, the key advantage of twitter is being able to keep up to speed with things that affect my role. To that end, I recommend following the ten accounts I list below to see new information when it first appears. (see the link at the end for the easiest way to follow them all)


Department for Education
The department is actually a very good user of Twitter for publicising new information, consultations, etc. They are also reasonably good at responding to requests for information & clarification.

ofstedtwitOfsted News
Another organisation that is beginning to learn the power of Twitter. The main feed itself provides the key information as frameworks change, but is not yet used for responding to queries very much. For that, see below:

harfordtwitSean Harford
Mr Harford is the recently-appointed National Director for Schools at Ofsted. He is an active user of Twitter and is often seen engaging with discussion & debate about the inspectorate’s work.

myatttwitMary Myatt
Mary is another member of the Ofsted world, this time a practising lead inspector. She offers an honest and open view of inspection from ‘the other side’ and also updates on changing frameworks. Mary also does a good job of re-tweeting useful blogs.

nahttwitNAHT News
The NAHT is a useful source of information for primary school leaders particularly. It also references other blogs and information sources that might be of use, and so is a great starting point.

c2gtwitShena Lewington (Clerk to Governor)

If you’re not already familiar with the website, then bookmark it now. Shena is an invaluable mine of information about governance matters of all sorts.

sdtwitSchool Duggery (Education Matters)
This feed does a great job of keeping on top of announcements and changes in education, and holding those in power to some account with accuracy and precision. Well worth following.

bytwitBeyond Levels
In the ever-changing ‘life-after-levels’ landscape, it’s good to have an eye on what’s happening elsewhere in the sector. This account provides links and references to what’s going on in schools nationwide.

ajjtwitAndy Jolley
One of the headaches of school leadership is changes that appear in non-educational areas such as food standards! Andy has done a great job in holding the government to account over UIFSM and provides regular updates on related matters.

michaelt1979twitMichael Tidd
I couldn’t not include myself! If you’re a primary leader with any need for information on curriculum, assessment or on-going changes from the department, I do my best to keep people informed and engaged!


The easiest way to start following all 10 of these people (and to see some other recommendations I’d make), is to access my list at this page. This will present a list of over 20 recommendations, including those above, each with a handy “follow” button next to them to allow you to add them to your account.

So now you’ve no excuse!

The reality sets in (relaxing the privacy)

The chances are, some folk who read this will set up an account and then never access it again. Others will use it to follow and never interact. But I wouldn’t be surprised if a small majority end up hooked and find themselves taking part in conversations, or asking occasional questions. Remember that if your account stays protected then people can’t see your posts or questions, so you may want to choose to relax that in future. My experience has been fine – a few pupils have found my account, one even followed me for a while once. But the reality is expressed well by the conversation I overheard in school as one Y6 child told another of her discovery: “I found Mr Tidd’s page on Twitter… yeah… it’s really boring!”