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?

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

  1. cazzypot2013 15 January 2015 at 9:35 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. Jacqueline 18 May 2015 at 10:28 am Reply

    Finally someone who is asking how tight the spiral should be.
    In all the research I have read about interleaving and spaced learning I am finding no actual guidance on timing. What I have found is that it is counter-intuitive – spaced learning makes student feel less successful. Doesn’t lack of success cause anxiety and stress? As there is research that anxiety and stress restrict learning is there a risk that the long term success or spacing may be cancelled out by the stress and anxiety the approach causes?

  3. […] Curriculum Design 3: A common vocabulary, or a common misunderstanding? […]

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