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 Pre-planned curricula seem so outdated.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?

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7 thoughts on “Curriculum Design 1: do we even need to design the curriculum?

  1. ingotian 10 January 2015 at 1:05 pm Reply

    If you are going to set a test or an exam you have to base it on some idea of what will have been learnt. That in turn implies at least a syllabus. Syllabus, curriculum? Seems to me these are in the broadest sense synonyms although syllabuses tend to be more subject specific.

    Take the abominable KS1/KS2 performance indicators that are currently in consultation. If instead of setting out a programme of study as a list of content, the NC was simply a specification in terms of the key learning outcomes children need together with the associated assessment criteria, the current consultation would not be necessary and priorities would be a lot simpler and clearer to everyone.

    Now I anticipate the objection that if you specify particular outcomes teachers will only bother teaching to them.That is true though of any specification and it is already happening in any case. Simplifying the bureaucracy at least provides some scope for better deployment of resources. Setting priorities for key learning outcomes really should leave professional autonomy as to the means of getting there and for the contexts of teaching. It seems to me that getting rid of attainment criteria and specifying content is the exact opposite of what should have been done. No system is going to be perfect or please everyone, but reducing the bureaucracy around what is statutory needs to be a high priority and what is statutory should be the key learning outcomes that really are essential not every political subject group’s pet bit of content. If done rigorously that would leave it to teachers to decide on what else was important in specific cases.

  2. Bryn Goodman 10 January 2015 at 3:20 pm Reply

    Great post, Michael. It sums up brilliantly what we were talking about this morning. Having thought about all this a little more, maybe teaching from assessment would be improved if teachers focused on what children CAN already do when planning their next teaching steps. Maybe this would avoid the problem you mention about missing underlying gaps if teachers identify what they think children can’t do when planning their lessons.

  3. cazzypot2013 10 January 2015 at 6:13 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  4. Debbie Hepplewhite 10 January 2015 at 6:49 pm Reply

    I agree that what really matters is teachers’ capacity to be evaluative of content, programmes, practices, learning outcomes – whatever.

    So, the question is, how well-equipped are teachers to be truly evaluative – and what time and attention are they afforded to collaboratively be evaluative?

    In order to be evaluative, there needs to be an element of ‘comparison’ and a strong idea of what a subject or programme ‘looks like’ and its relative effectiveness – or likely effectiveness.

    I certainly find in my field (phonics, basic literacy for reading, spelling, writing) that teachers are generally not fully able to be evaluative because so many myths and misunderstandings abound – including amongst advisory folk.

  5. […] my last post, I raised the issue of whether we need to design the curriculum at all. (Hint: we do). Today, I […]

  6. […] A crucial message here is that thinking about assessment also means thinking about your curriculum. Addressing perceived weaknesses bit by bit can just mean neglecting the deep ideas that underpin subjects. […]

  7. Curriculum Design | Pearltrees 30 November 2015 at 3:42 pm Reply

    […] As Jerry White, deputy principal at City College Norwich, says: “We’re not going to run a £50,000 marketing campaign without proof it will work. But we have got a minibus with a trailer on the back and we’ve got a print room that can run off a poster you can stick on the back with a bit of wallpaper paste or whatever. So we’ll have a look at social media traffic and a few other measures to see what kind of impact it’s had and take it from there.” Design thinking is also used to generate ideas at City College Norwich. Curriculum Design 1: do we even need to design the curriculum? […]

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