Leading curriculum beyond vision

Dedication to a problem

What should you teach children?’ might seem a logical starting point for a discussion about the curriculum. After all, decisions about what to teach are among the most important made by curriculum leaders and planners.

The problem when starting curriculum planning from this level is that it can lack a means of ensuring that what is taught is aligned with the underpinning purpose of the curriculum: the ’why’ we teach what we teach.

However, the tendency when we ask the ‘why’ question is to rally around the notion of vision. We saw this in the recent glut of whole school intent statements that swept across the system in response to Ofsted’s new framework.

Vision feels compelling because it speaks to that part of us that wants to solve the ‘wicked problems’ outlined in Ben White and Becky Allen’s awesome recent blog. As Ben and Becky outline, these problems are by definition often too large and complex to solve – however grand and compelling our vision.

In fact I think its worth reflecting on how far vision can really take us on its own. Tom Rees’ excellent blog indicates the potential of thinking differently: dialling down the reliance on persona and vision and focusing more explicitly on the domain knowledge of leadership. Central to Tom’s idea is the suggestion that we pay much more attention to what he and Jen Barker call ‘persistent problems’.

This idea really resonated with me and reminded me of Bernstein’s criticism of the sociology of education in the 1970s, where he called for “less an allegiance to an approach, and more a dedication to a problem.”

It strikes me that this is where some previous curriculum thinking has been a little wonky – too much about the approach and not enough about the problem. I’ve written about the ‘shift happens’ era of the mid-2000s previously so I won’t rehearse it all again here but suffice to say that the problem the curriculum was supposed to be solving tended to be fairly undercooked. The shift happens videos and its advocates told us that the world was changing exponentially and that education needed to be revolutionised somehow. But how does a school swallow and digest such a planet-sized complex problem?

In schools circa-2005 it might have looked a bit like this:

  1. Whole staff INSET day in which one of these videos was played.
  2. Assertion from leaders that something ‘different’ needed to be done in the curriculum.
  3. Some sort of ‘vision’ activity in which staff write ideas on post-it notes. The more innovative the better!
  4. Subsequent development of a new curriculum approach.

Okay, so it’s a bit of a caricature but hopefully you recognise aspects of this set up. Looking back we can see some shortcomings.

  • Was the perceived ‘problem’ real and well understood?
  • Was the problem well defined in educational terms?
  • Was it the same across all subjects?
  • Was it realistic to expect that the curriculum could hold back or divert the tide of global social-economic trends?
  • Was innovation for innovation’s sake prized too highly above evidence of what was most likely to work?
  • Was professional knowledge of the curriculum sufficient to tackle the problem?

Of course, you could argue what White and Allen call the current ‘curriculum wave’ is just another manifestation of the same approach-led phenomenon, and to some extent you’d be right. The blind advocacy of a ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum risks faddism if we don’t properly understand the problem it is trying to solve. So what is that problem?

For some people the knowledge-rich curriculum is about redressing disadvantage by closing the attainment gap, for others its about entitlement to conceptual/cognitive/cultural understanding. For a few people it might be more to do with fitting in with the perceived preference of the new Ofsted framework! Maybe for you it’s something else entirely, or all of the above. What does it mean to you?

Subject-level problem solving

For me the knowledge-rich curriculum is as much about solving smaller-scale but significant educational problems at the subject level as it is about whole school or even societal issues. As many sceptics have been quick to point out, “schools have always taught knowledge.” But this misses the point. It’s not so much the existence or not of knowledge that lies behind the knowledge-rich curriculum but the foregrounding of the importance of its deliberate selection, organisation and accumulation.

In part I think the very existence of ‘knowledge-rich’ is a reaction to the failure of the shift happens era (and what Young more broadly refers to as Future 2) to adequately define and relate its central problem and proposed solutions, with the result being that curriculum content lost coherence. For example, a lot has been written on the likely (unintended) consequence that a skills-based curriculum might have done worse by the very children it was intended to benefit.

If the knowledge-rich agenda is about anything surely it is about recognising that educational knowledge should be coherent in some way. This is, I think, why many people have become very interested in cognitive science and epistemology. In their own way each helps to provide insight into how we make sense of knowledge. For a profession where knowledge is the main currency this is powerful stuff.

Domain knowledge

But it is complicated stuff too. Knowledge is related to other knowledge, and the people that hold it, in different ways. This is manifested differently in different subjects. For example, the systematic and hierarchical way that conceptual knowledge is deepened in science is quite different to how it is accumulated through the development of perspective in art or history. This means that to answer ‘why’, ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions about the curriculum we have to search within our subjects.

So, arguably, grappling with this complexity means less emphasis on whole school ‘vision’ and paying more attention to subject level problems such as:

  • Why should pupils learn subject X or topic Y? (What are the intrinsic and extrinsic reasons for studying it?)
  • Which knowledge matters most? What is our rationale for this?
  • How is knowledge created, structured and acquired in subject X? What are the implications for how we structure the curriculum?

What seems likely – I think – is that finding satisfactory answers to these problems is unlikely to happen without the necessary subject (domain) knowledge. A generic vision is unlikely to bear this burden across the range of different subjects.

I am reminded of a visit I made to Bedford Free School a little while ago where I was struck by Stuart Lock’s commitment to ensuring that subjects would not be broken on the altar of generic leadership. If the integrity of the subject clashed with whole school systems, the subject would triumph, he declared. This didn’t seem to be because of some abstract vision or snazzy statement – it appeared to be that school’s response to the problem of how to construct a coherent curriculum.

This sort of perspective allows us to sidestep the ‘ironic tension’ highlighted by White and Allen that in the rush towards the knowledge-rich curriculum we risk inadvertently drifting towards genericism. Not on Stuart’s watch!

For middle leaders and subject teachers this means developing expert understanding of the subject. In this regard Ofsted’s research summary, published a year ago, is worth a mention for it outlines the evidence that suggests the pedagogical content knowledge of teachers is a vital resource. I’m encouraged that the importance of subject expertise is becoming more widely understood.

What does this mean for senior leaders? If not generic vision, then what? For senior leaders this means becoming expert in how you structure and support the school in order to create the conditions in which teachers can become experts in their fields. It may also require that leaders become students of the curriculum in a sense – that they listen out for the unique tone and rhythm of each subject and seek to preserve this identity. And they’ll need to be able to offer expertise where necessary, or at least signpost where it might be found.

For schools working in collaborative relationships, such as MATs, this means creating the structure and climate across schools in which subject content and expertise can be debated, crafted and brought to bear where it is needed.

If you haven’t yet, you really must read Christine Counsell’s blog.

Life after vision

If it reads like I’m unfairly putting the boot into curriculum ‘vision’ then let me clarify that I’m not dismissing the idea of knowing what you want to achieve and planning accordingly. I’m more challenging the basis on which we do this and gently questioning whether this can be done generically.

Tom’s framework offers something different, an alternative perspective on leadership: one which emphasizes as a starting point the need to define key problems (such as how to develop curriculum coherence within subjects), embrace complexity, and develop the domain knowledge and expertise necessary to make the best bets for success.

As far as it relates to curriculum leadership I think this sounds quite exciting.


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