Curriculum consolidation: watering the garden, not treading water

One of the first pieces of curriculum advice I gave leaders as the Covid19 crisis descended on schools was for them to think carefully about the balance between introducing new content and the consolidation of prior learning.

It was reassuring to hear Dylan Wiliam make a similar point on stage at ASCL’s annual conference in March, just days before our schools were closed to all but the children of keyworkers. It was only a passing comment but he reminded the audience that remote learning might be more effective if it leaned more towards consolidation than would normally be the case.

There are two main reasons why I think consolidation should be an important (but not the only) part of remote learning over the coming weeks:

  1. Ploughing through a lot of new content can be difficult to do remotely. Consolidation gives us another avenue to explore. 

In teachers’ normal practice when they are introducing new content they are in a constant dialogue between what it is they want pupils to learn and how best to help pupils learn it. Sometimes without even noticing, teachers do important pedagogical work such as:

A) Explaining concepts.

B) Highlighting and resolving common misconceptions.

C) Providing analogy and metaphor.

D) Drawing out links with prior/future learning.

E) Requiring pupils to recall what they’ve already learned.

F) Giving feedback.

It’s not that these can’t be done remotely, it’s just that they might be harder to do because teachers are less likely to pick up and respond to the non-verbal cues and classroom dynamics that many teachers do so intuitively.

This is particularly important when introducing new concepts, where we have to help pupils traverse the distance between abstraction and context-specific examples. This can look different depending on the subject but evidence (Martin et al 2020) suggests that the form of knowledge teachers draw on and how they relate it to other knowledge can be crucial. 

For example, over the years I’ve watched a number of history teachers introduce the feudal system only to find some pupils struggled with the term ‘hierarchy’. And kids don’t always say it explicitly: “I’m sorry, sir, but I am unfamiliar with the term hierarchy. Could you explain it to me in a way that I can understand?”

More commonly teachers pick this up through the half answers and misconceptions they spot following deliberate ‘checking for understanding’ or, as noted above, through non-verbal cues. But, in any case, how do they deal with it once they’ve spotted it?

Well, I wish I’d had a pound for every time that history teacher followed up by shifting to a context pupils are familiar with as a way in, often referring to the school’s staffing structure. Having rooted the concept within such a specific, often familiar, context the teacher then moves the concept to a greater level of abstraction, in this case perhaps identifying how power is manifested within the notion of hierarchy. The teacher then returns pupils to the original context of the feudal system having given them a foothold in their understanding.

Now, historians will tell me (correctly) that we don’t want pupils thinking the school staffing structure is the same as medieval Europe! So, a skilled history teacher might go on to explore the limitations of this analogy, but the principle of relating knowledge in this way is one that teachers use routinely across the curriculum when helping pupils to build knowledge. And what it reveals is that teachers tend not to teach knowledge in some sort of sterile knowledge environment. Rather they manipulate knowledge, pulling it together, breaking it apart and mixing it up, sometimes with this acting as a welcome catalyst. It can of course be a harmful pollutant too – such as when a teacher introduces a bad analogy and it becomes absorbed into schema (a misconception in the making) or when they link to something that simply causes a distraction (there’s a really good example of this in the LCT literature when a teacher tells pupils that Italy looks like a boot but the comment goes nowhere and pupils end up being distracted by boots for ages!).

Why am I labouring this? Just to demonstrate that the part of teaching which is about the manipulation of knowledge (which is much of the job!) is tough. Just ask those parents who now find themselves at home trying to explain concepts to their children.

All of this means teachers need to think really carefully about how they introduce new material, especially tricky concepts. Because my guess is that it’s harder to do all of the above remotely, unless it’s done with this in mind. 

It doesn’t mean it can’t be done remotely. There are some really good examples out there of how schools are trying to put in place approaches which allow for this, including Oak Academy’s approach which uses instructional videos so teachers can do some of this pedagogic work to good effect. Is it the same as a classroom lesson? No. But for my money it gets helpfully closer than a pupil having to do that pedagogic work for themselves from, say, a worksheet alone. 

So, to return to the point here, part of the answer is to think very carefully about how teachers introduce new content to pupils. But it should also be about the what: recognizing that particular new content may be too difficult to attempt remotely and is better off being covered later in the year. Of course, this will depend on the structure of the subject, but it’s this sort of thinking that is likely to be helpful to teachers and pupils.

And if we are more cautious around introducing new content, this is one reason why consolidation of prior learning may become more of a focus in the remote curriculum.

2. Consolidation is an opportunity to build fluency

If we stop after my first point, we might think the benefit of focusing on consolidation is only that it gets us around a tricky pedagogical challenge. But it’s more than that. Spending time consolidating prior learning is an opportunity to make pupils better at aspects of the curriculum, aspects which are sometimes easy to overlook because of the tendency for the school curriculum to lean heavily towards the constant introduction of new content. If we are forced to row back a little on new content, what opportunity does this give us?

Let’s start with what we know: if we don’t revisit what we’ve learned then we are likely to forget it. I absolutely love Weinstein & Sumeracki’s (2019) ‘Understanding How We Learn’ because it outlines so clearly why this is the case but also what teachers can do to overcome this. As many of you will already know, teaching strategies like spaced retrieval are proven to be effective in helping pupils to commit what they’ve learned to long term memory. This book is a great read if you have the opportunity. 

And we can go a stage further still. There is evidence that what we store in long term memory is beneficial beyond knowing the thing itself. Schema theory suggests that the more we know and remember the easier it is for us to learn more because we have the hooks on which to hang new learning. So, to stand a better chance of learning what is to come we can help pupils by ensuring they have got a good grasp of what they’ve already studied. Consolidation, if done well, is not treading water – it’s watering the curriculum garden to allow for future growth.

Cognitive Load Theory takes us another step further still by suggesting that committing knowledge to long term memory is beneficial because it frees up working memory so we can do more complex thinking. 

The point here is to show that consolidation can fulfill an important function if it is targeted at making pupils remember, if it makes them fluent in particular aspects of the curriculum. Christine Counsell talks about the importance of pupils developing ‘fingertip knowledge’ for this very reason. Having knowledge at their fingertips makes pupils better placed to think and learn more.

For me as a historian, I think this is a good time to focus on strengthening things like chronology, of which we know pupils can lose their grasp without deliberate practice and repetition. And there will be similar fundamentals in other subjects which are sometimes easy to overlook or take for granted in a cramped curriculum. Spaced repetition apps like Brainscape can be incredibly powerful for helping pupils to remember things. 

But our ability to do this depends on clarity of curriculum thinking. We have to know what it is we want pupils to learn. A tendency to wrap the curriculum around ‘tasks’ as a starting point can lead to a preoccupation with making pupils busy as the intended goal. 

Instead, if we start with a clear understanding of what we want pupils to learn we are likely to provide something more useful for them in the long term. Consolidation that builds fluency could be an important part of this. 

Conclusions and caveats:

  1. I recognize not everyone has the head space right now to think about their remote curriculum in this way. I’m not overlooking that, I’m hoping to outline some ideas that might be useful to you at some point down the line. There’s no judgment here either way – what schools are doing up and down the country is incredible.
  2. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t introduce new content. Some subjects and courses will demand a more rigid sequencing and timeline for teaching which might mean you have to keep up the pace of new content. And besides, with this situation potentially lasting for several weeks/months yet, new content will be one way of maintaining the interest of pupils. I’m just saying it might be harder to do some of it and its worth thinking about what the balance of consolidation/new content might be.
  3. I am saying that if you are looking to do some curriculum consolidation then focus on building fluency. This is a deliberate and targeted thing to help pupils remember key content. Consolidation is not the same as treading water.  
  4. Everything in moderation. I’m not suggesting the remote curriculum should only be consolidation, or that consolidation can only look a particular way. But equally, with limited time and attention from pupils it’s worth thinking about what the simplest and shortest route is. Sure, we could say that asking Year 7 pupils to build a castle contributes to their historical understanding in some way, and there may be some other benefits of them doing this, but are there other more optimal approaches we could be taking that will leave them better placed six months or a year from now? 

References:

Martin, Maton & Doran (2020) Accessing Academic Discourse. Routledge.

Weinstein & Sumeracki (2019) Understanding How We Learn. Routledge. 

1 Comment

  1. Indeed this is true as teaching new concepts are better done in a classroom setting where feedack can be given imediately; where students’ body language can be read to determine levels of understanding; where through questionning by both learner and facilitator can lead to new discoveries, greater depth and understanding.

    Like

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