The language of curriculum is awash with fabulous concepts and terminology. ‘Sequencing’, ‘the curriculum is the progression model’ and ‘disciplinarity’ are just three ideas that in one way or another seem to have moved to the front of the curricular consciousness over the past few years.
However, as we turn our attention towards the summer and, after that, September, it might be prudent to think about another concept that we may not always associate so readily with the curriculum: resilience.
Given that we don’t yet know what the future holds for Covid-19 and, therefore, education over the coming academic year, it is worth thinking about how schools and subject departments might give themselves the best chance of navigating these uncertain times. Thinking about how we can create resilience in our curriculum and its surrounding structures might be one part of this. (Please note, this is not a blog about nurturing resilience as a pupil characteristic, it’s about how we might help our curriculum to flex with whatever comes its way over the next few months).
In this short blog I offer two rather straightforward ideas for schools to consider. As you’ll see, they are rather simple and not steeped in complex theory. Indeed, they are not really curriculum ideas as such, being more concerned with structures that might support teaching of the curriculum. But that needn’t be a bad thing. Sometimes the obvious things are easiest to overlook, and sometimes the ideas we generate as byproducts from debating these things can yield otherwise obscured insights, leading to helpful action.
1) Consider teaching KS3 teaching groups in mixed prior-attainment groupings.
It’s fairly common that pupils at KS3 study the same curriculum (unlike at key stage 4 where particular options are chosen). This means pupils could be taught in the same groups, such as tutor groups. Doing so might provide extra flexibility for short notice changes brought about by unforeseen circumstances, for example, such as an unexpectedly absent member of staff. Where groupings of pupils are consistent across subjects this might afford more leeway for the school’s curriculum to flex in a particular direction if required.
There is some evidence that such an approach might be advantageous for some pupils. However, this might not suit all schools and subjects. For example, some schools are committed to setting in maths. Plus, if staff were used to teaching sets grouped by prior attainment they might require significant training to move to a mixed prior attainment approach. And you’d have to consider whether a global pandemic is the right time to embark on such a shift if staff weren’t sufficiently confident and skilled in it. Should this be done across all subjects? A smaller cluster of subjects? No subjects?
I don’t suggest this as something schools should do, but it could be worth exploring whether it is something that might work in your school, even if only for this period of time.
2) Closer alignment
Given there could be a local or national return to remote learning as a result of further lockdowns, schools might find that resilience can be found in teaching groups being more aligned than usual in terms of the content and sequencing of the curriculum.
In some departments this won’t be a big deal and it might already happen, but in others it might not necessarily be the case. For example, do your art classes in Year 7 cover the same topics at the same time, in the same sequence, or do individual teachers tend to go their own way a bit? Do you know how this looks across the school, across the range of subjects?
Having greater alignment between teaching groups might make it easier for teams to share resources at short notice, or to share curriculum overviews with parents. Equally, in the event of, for example, a TA having to take a lesson this alignment might make it easier to support the colleague concerned.
One other aspect of this might be following a curriculum map that enables classes or year groups to switch to online learning at short notice. For example, it might be that following the Oak Academy curriculum maps means a cover teacher can easily be pointed in the direction of an appropriately sequenced learning resource that could be used with the class in the event of an absent teacher. Or, if a particular child was at home, a corresponding resource could be relatively straightforwardly deployed online.
That said, this would need to be balanced against the need for teachers to be able to respond to the pupils in their class – what they know and don’t know – as this might mean groups moving at a slightly different pace. This might, therefore, be worth exploring at subject level and maintaining some flexibility around it so that there wasn’t an absolute expectation that classes were at exactly the same place.
While school leaders will be looking at whole school implications for September, this sort of curriculum resilience is something that subject leads and teachers could be thinking about and working towards at the tail end of this term, where possible, so that some of this burden is relieved for September. Teachers may need some support with this and leaders might want to consider if any training would be helpful.
The more I read about Legitimation Code Theory (LCT) the more I seem to be find myself applying it across a wider range of educational questions and debates. In fact, my use of LCT has seeped subconsciously beyond my professional life and into my home life – such as the time I spent wondering which specialisation codes my children were oriented towards. Truth be told LCT has even permeated my dreams, including one in which I moved to Sydney to work at the LCT Centre, which in my dreams at least was a shimmering contemporary structure of steel and glass.
Today my LCT reflections were prompted by yet another excellent tweet by Jonathan Mountstevens in which he asked what people really meant by the notion of ‘curriculum coherence’ (you should follow Jonathan on twitter if you don’t already). Several people posted responses, many of which quite rightly emphasised the importance of sequencing. Teaching knowledge in an appropriate order surely must be a significant part of coherence. Without this building knowledge is likely to be harder or at least less efficient.
But here’s a thought: what if we’re sequencing well but sequencing the ‘wrong’ stuff? Imagine a teacher in that nightmare scenario of teaching the wrong GCSE specification. They might have sequenced the taught content perfectly but that wouldn’t escape the reality that come exam day the students would be unprepared and, most probably, unsuccessful. We wouldn’t claim that to be a ‘coherent’ curriculum would we? Or, what if content was sequenced correctly (eg the right lessons in the right order) but it just didn’t hang together over time, appearing more of a succession of unrelated snapshots? Would that be coherent?
So, in response to Jonathan’s question I turn to LCT, specifically the dimension of autonomy.
Autonomy in LCT does not refer to autonomy in the sense of a school’s ability to make its own decisions. Rather, it refers to the relationships between knowledge and the purposes it is turned towards (link here):
“Autonomy explores relations among different sets of practices, such as different forms of knowledge (e.g. disciplines). It conceptualizes insulation between their constituents (positional autonomy) and between how those constituents are related together, such as their purpose (relational autonomy). These concepts come together as autonomy codes. These concepts are particularly powerful for showing the basis of integrating different forms of knowledge.”
As ever, the LCT theoretical foliage is dense and hard to traverse in a short blog. Moreover, I’m still wrestling my way through much of it, so I offer some glimpses I’ve acquired with the honest caveat that I might be wrong.
For the sake of brevity I’ll trim it down but hope to preserve something that is accurate and, as I’ll hope to show later, potentially useful to the question Jonathan raised about coherence.
Among other things autonomy in LCT can help us to theorise how teachers bring together knowledge relating to a particular ‘target’ they want pupils to learn. This might sit at a granular level, perhaps a specific concept, at a broader topic level, across a curriculum, or anywhere on such a continuum. The point is that there is particular knowledge that is to be taught by the teacher with the intention that pupils learn it. Autonomy codes are a way of thinking about how knowledge is, or isn’t, integrated and brought to bear in the pursuit of this.
In simple(ish) terms ‘positional autonomy’ relates to where the knowledge in question is from. Is it from inside (stronger positional autonomy) or outside (weaker positional autonomy) our object of study? Is it from the context we are trying to get pupils to understand or is it from elsewhere?
‘Relational autonomy’ is to do with the purpose underpinning our knowledge practice; are we using it to teach a specific ‘target’ or is the purpose up for grabs? Have we intended to use it for one purpose but inadvertently shifted the purpose towards something else?
Varying strengths of positional autonomy (PA) and relational autonomy (RA) can be plotted on a cartesian plane and be described as one of four codes:
I won’t go into the details here but it’s worth a look at this paper if you want to know more.
To illustrate how we might use LCT’s autonomy dimension let’s take a particular curricular item as our target, such as ‘The English Civil War’. Knowledge that is from that particular topic (roundheads, cavaliers, Charles I, parliament etc) can be said, in LCT terms, to have strong ‘positional autonomy’ because it is from the same context as our intended target. If we integrate knowledge about the English Civil War for the purpose of pupils learning about that particular topic this is strong ‘relational autonomy’. This is a fairly straightforward idea – using content from the topic for the purpose of pupils learning about the topic. This is a ‘sovereign’ code.
However ,this could be contrasted with us teaching about the execution of Charles I for some other purpose, for example as part of a comment on the history of art (there are a range of paintings and illustrations about his execution) – a ‘projected code’.
This is not to say that our teaching of the English Civil War should be limited only to content from that particular context (content with strong positional autonomy). Teachers often skilfully weave together knowledge from other contexts (weaker positional autonomy) to illustrate and exemplify, sometimes through analogy or by drawing temporal and spatial links with the target knowledge. For example, it’s not uncommon to see History teachers using material previously studied, such as medieval monarchs, or from children’s own experience, such as modern democracy, in their teaching of the changes and continuities that followed the English Civil War. In the history curriculum this helps pupils to place this event within a wider chronological and conceptual framework.
More troublesome in a school curricular context can be when knowledge inadvertently takes pupils on a path away from the teacher’s intended target without it being brought back and integrated therein. LCT research characterises this as a ‘one-way trip’. You can sometimes see this in open-ended research lessons where the focus of the lesson can end up being drawn more towards generic research skills than the target knowledge, or indeed pupils end up researching the wrong thing! I might set my pupils to work to research the New Model Army but lose my pupils in information about a rock band of the same name. This would seem to fall under the banner of incoherence.
Note, this is not to say that necessarily nothing would be learned by pupils in such a situation, but the knowledge practice is less closely related to the teacher’s target and as a result there is the possibility that pupils will not learn what the teacher intended. This might have consequences down the line when the teacher assumes pupils would have learned that intended item. The point here is not to make a value judgement about pedagogic practice but to illustrate how knowledge can be woven together, or on occasion be allowed to move in a different direction.
You can see this too when a teacher tries to relate a target to knowledge from elsewhere, such as an analogy from popular culture, and pupils disappear down a rabbit hole about that particular thing (the movie/song/tv show etc).
The point here is not to advocate that knowledge from other contexts, such as analogies, should not be used (these trips into an ‘introjected code’ can bring extremely useful collateral to bring to the table, particularly when we need context-specific examples that children are familiar with). Rather, we need to be mindful and deliberate in how we help pupils to integrate such knowledge. I think it’s in this area of how we bring together knowledge that we might find some of what we refer to as ‘coherence’.
Returning to Jonathan’s question about coherence
If we zoom out a touch and return to Jonathan’s question about curriculum coherence, I think LCT’s notion of autonomy provides an interesting lens. Is it that coherence resides only, or primarily, in sequencing – the order in which things are taught? Or, might it be that one aspect of coherence is the extent to which knowledge is brought to bear and integrated towards particular intended targets?
In many subjects these ‘targets’ might look like core concepts, or perhaps the aims and objectives specified in the national curriculum or a GCSE specification. But it might be something else too. In my subject, history, a key target over time is the development of chronological understanding. But building this requires more than sequencing; it’s not just teaching events in the right order, it requires weaving them together in an ongoing iterative back and forth.
Whilst we have to ensure that we give proper attention to sequencing it is possible that without integrating knowledge effectively we hit all the right curriculum notes in the right order without bringing them together to play the right tune.
So, what might it look like to use this insight from LCT to help us think about curriculum coherence over time? Some ideas:
We need clarity over our target. This will usually be in what LCT terms a ‘sovereign code’. We have particular knowledge from a particular context we want pupils to learn. If we are fuzzy on what this is it’s difficult to turn knowledge towards this purpose.
This does not mean that every lesson or sequence will be turned towards the same target. But, where it is appropriate, we should be explicitly and proactively helping pupils to bring knowledge together so that, over time, more granular targets can be integrated within broader curricular aims. In the example above this means not just teaching the English Civil War but bringing it together within a wider understanding of substantive concepts like ‘democracy’, developing such narratives over time. Approaching our curricular thinking in this way forces us to look for the stories that span long chunks of curricular time and should help to avoid the segmentalism in which each lesson or topic sits in isolation from one another. Arguably, this way of thinking about knowledge also affords us the space to think about how we can bring together seemingly diverse ranges of knowledge and avoid succumbing to instrumentalism or narrowing. Straying from the specification might seem less of a big deal if we have a way of theorizing the integration of knowledge with our intended target(s).
Sequencing can often seem to reveal itself more readily in subjects which are hierarchically structured: in subjects which are concerned with the ongoing integration and extension of integral concepts. In subjects where progression is more cumulative appropriate sequencing can be harder to infer from the content itself – more contestation can appear. Thinking along the lines of LCT’s autonomy might be a helpful complement to sequencing in this respect. Asking which knowledge we are selecting and for what purpose is likely to provide fruitful discussion and insight. It won’t necessarily solve contestations but might help us to be better at probing, debating and explaining the curricular decisions we make.
Much of what I’ve written about so far has been to do with the internal coherence of the curriculum. But what if we situate ‘coherence’ within a wider frame of reference and ask ‘coherent with what’? What exactly is it that our curriculum should be coherent with? We might position local/national frameworks or other facets of professional and disciplinary intent as our target. We can then read across from our curriculum at the highest level to assess how well it is oriented towards these. Does the knowledge we teach come from within that context (eg the discipline), or does it come from outside? Is it oriented towards those purposes (eg the national curriculum objectives), or are we consciously or otherwise working towards some other purposes?
It might be argued that the notion of coherence was most succinctly captured in the mantra Ofsted used when training its inspectors for the Education Inspection Framework: ‘why that, why then?’ Such a prompt is powerful because it encourages us to think about not only sequencing but also selection: for what purpose are we teaching that?
As important as sequencing is, it’s only one part of what makes our curriculum hang together. LCT’s autonomy dimension suggests coherence is also to be found in the purpose(s) to which we put knowledge to work. LCT suggests that we may move around the autonomy plane, dipping into other knowledge as we make links, draw analogies and so forth, but what matters is that we ‘bring knowledge home’ – we turn it to our intended target(s) – thereby not falling into the trap of only making a series of ‘one-way trips’. In doing so we stand a better chance of avoiding the curriculum fracturing into a series of standalone lessons which, whatever the sequencing, fail to be more than the sum of their parts.
Jonathan – By no means do I believe this to be the last word on curriculum coherence but I hope it is a useful contribution to the discussion (with the caveat that I might be wrong and banished from the LCT community forthwith!). Keep asking good questions – you do make me think!
Maton, K. & Howard, S. (2018). Taking autonomy tours: A key to integrative knowledge-building. LCT Centre Occasional Paper. 1.
There’s nothing like a national crisis to challenge existing structures and catalyze change, and COVID-19 appears to be no different. Several commentators have already summoned analogies with WWII and post-war changes to Britain, outlining how COVID-19 should lead to significant changes in the education system.
And perhaps it should. Most working in our education system recognized long before COVID-19 that changes needed to be made. Indeed, some of these were already in train.
The early career framework and the proposed Ofsted ITT framework are just two examples of things which are seeking to create meaningful change. None of this to say that these alone are sufficient in addressing the issues within education.
We know, for example, that the pressure of accountability has not gone away because of the changes Ofsted has brought in – there are good arguments around why and how we might go further in reducing the weight of accountability. We know there are deeper issues too regarding the recruitment and retention of teachers, some of which are emergent from long term changes in the public perception of the profession.
However, as we look optimistically towards a post-covid future we need to be conscious of the path we choose. As we think about what might come next we need a sharper understanding than ever of where we are and where we have been. In part this means being aware of the systems of meaning and values that underpin the discourses we have.
Cosmological analysis is an aspect of Legitimation Code Theory (Maton 2014) which seeks to expose the relationships that exist between knowledge, meaning and values. It can show how particular views and terminology align in complex constellations, often set up in binary opposition to one another, and how these influence what is and is not – and who is and is not – deemed to be legitimate within a field.
The terms ‘cosmology’ and ‘constellation’ are useful because they immediately draw to mind their conceptual basis. Just as celestial bodies seem to cluster together in solar systems and galaxies, so too do ways of thinking about and being in the world.
Doran (2020) writes, “by choosing, valorizing or emphasising any particular word or concept involved in a constellation…other meanings in that constellation will likely be invoked. That is to say, depending on how tight the constellation, if you indicate that you hold one set of values, it will often be assumed that you also hold a range of others.”
In this study Doran explores a complex network of associated meanings, assembled in constellations, illustrating how meaning is built and layered over time through the complex and sometimes subtle integration of texts.
I think this has particular importance for policy making. What might appear superficially to be disparate and unrelated positions on a range of policy ideas often seem to, at some subconscious level, cluster together so that it is often assumed that if we think X on issue 1 then we probably believe Y about issue 2. We are encouraged by the cosmology to think in particular ways. This is what Bourdieu (1991) referred to as ‘the space of possibles’.
We’re used to how this feels in the discourse – the twitter spats and blog tennis – but I’m not sure how explicitly we actually see it as it really is.
LCT’s concept of mapping constellations gives us a way of revealing these for analysis and, therefore, potentially moving beyond some of the binary positions our established cosmologies encourage us to take.
This explains, I think, why Michael Young’s (Young & Lambert 2014) idea of ‘Future 3’ was so provoking and interesting when I first read it. It challenges some of the long established binary constellations in education which make us feel like we have to choose between, say, teaching conceptual (academic) knowledge and the humane vision of a curriculum that is socially negotiated (Jonassen & Land 2000).
Young’s notion of powerful knowledge is born of deep thinking into the nature of knowledge. However, as Young (2020) notes, the meaning of powerful knowledge has sometimes become distorted, in some cases misunderstanding the characteristics and potential of the ‘power’ he is referring to.
My supposition is that some of this might be because Young’s work straddles aspects of two dominant binary constellations in our education system; it is subject to a form of axiological and epistemic pull which allows it to be claimed by either side and viewed as part of its own constellation, when perhaps the promise of Young’s work is in helping us to form a different way of understanding and valuing educational knowledge.
Thinking in terms of constellations requires that we are clear about what it is that we are looking at, in terms of its scope and its characteristics, and how it is related to other phenomena – some of which work in combination to shape what we deem to be legitimate stances. This might allow us to get closer to understanding what Maton (2014) describes as the ‘rules of the game’. Exposing these for observation and analysis might open up space for new policy possibilities.
We will inevitably want to think about changes to education post-COVID-19. But the cosmology of our education system will almost certainly pull the policy discourse towards the dominant binary constellations and it will be to the detriment of our ambition if we unconsciously drift back to things that we know have let children down before.
Big questions will inevitably be on the agenda over the coming months. What should accountability look like? What should a curriculum do for young people? How should we assess pupils and what should an examination system look like?
This is not an argument against reform; it’s a call for us to have clarity about the stances we take, why we take them, and for us to ensure any reforms are the right ones and that we try to look beyond the old binary arguments.
By identifying the dominant constellations and understanding what they consist of then we might be in a better position to broaden the ‘space of possibles’, make better policy as a result and avoid the pendulum-swing we all know only too well.
Bordieu, P. (1991) The peculiar history of scientific reason. Sociological Forum 6(1): 3-26
Doran, Y (2020) ‘Seeing Values’ in Martin, J.R, Maton, K. & Doran, Y. (Eds) (2020). Accessing academic discourse. Oxfordshire: Routledge.
Jonassen, D.H. and Land, S.M. (2000) Theoretical foundations of learning environments, London: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Maton, K. (2014) Knowledge and Knowers. Oxfordshire: Routledge
Young, M. & Lambert, D. (2014) Knowledge and the Future School. London: Bloomsbury
Young, M. (2020) ‘From powerful knowledge to the powers of knowledge’ In Sealy, C. (2020) (Ed) The researchEd guide to the the curriculum. Woodbridge: John Catt
It’s an often repeated claim that within-school variation is larger than that between schools. This tends to refer to achievement data but is sometimes heard in relation to qualitative aspects of school provision too.
I wonder if the same holds true at the current time? Has the lockdown-dictated period of remote education and partial opening led to a reduction in the differences of, say, effectiveness of teaching & learning within schools, or has this increased? And what differences are there now between schools?
At policy level the potential for variation in the quality of provision has undoubtedly been considered. Indeed, several high profile figures, such as HMCI Amanda Spielman, have voiced concern about the absence of a national expectation for the quality of remote education.
In reality such a statement may only be of limited use. In order to be applicable across the diverse phases and practical contexts of every school it would have to sit at a fairly generalized level. Moreover, it would have to be mindful of the significant limitations that schools and pupils are operating within, including the lack of sufficient technology and connectivity experienced by some of our most disadvantaged pupils. Setting a stretching level of expectation centrally would require the resources to make delivery of it possible.
But there are other problems too. For example, a truly ambitious ‘national expectation’ would likely require significant amounts of training for those staff who need support. This might include learning how to operate remote learning platforms but could equally apply to building a better understanding of components of effective teaching – perhaps things like Rosenshine’s principles – as we know that effective remote provision is likely to be built on the same principles that underpin effective classroom teaching. As the EEF’s recent rapid review states, “ensuring the elements of effective teaching are present – for example through clear explanations, scaffolding and feedback – is more important than how or when lessons or support are provided.”
So, does this mean that establishing some sort of ‘expectation’ is a waste of time? I’m not sure that it does.
There are several benefits to having a clearly defined and shared set of expectations, providing it is sensible and has the support of those involved:
It underlines the central tenet of our education system: education is an entitlement for all children. By codifying this in our expectations for remote learning we help to enshrine and protect the place of education, on behalf of young people, in the midst of an all-consuming national crisis.
It allows us to set out the key features of our approach, providing a reference point for staff, pupils and parents. This should be built on the best we know about how pupils learn and what they should be taught. Having to codify expectations might force us to consider what matters most and the opportunity cost of the decisions we make.
We can establish the right level of ambition during what is undoubtedly a very challenging time for schools and pupils, balancing what we want for pupils with the best we can reasonably achieve for them, and with them; an important aspect of any set of expectations in this context is likely to include how we look after their wellbeing.
It provides provides a transparent means through which leaders, teachers, pupils and parents can be more certain about their roles and responsibilities during this unique period of education. This is particularly significant because there are aspects of these roles and responsibilities which have shifted as a result of COVID-19. For example, the demands on parents are in many cases greater than in more ‘normal’ times, especially parents of younger children whose assistance with remote learning tasks can be the difference between the child making progress through the the curriculum or not.
But just because a case can be made for the importance of a codified set of expectations does not mean the agency and appetite to do this lies only with central government. In fact, what I have outlined above may be most effective if it is not the work of central government.
And the best thing is that schools are already familiar with the mechanism through which it might be achieved: the good old home-school agreement.
Although not a legislative requirement since 2016, many schools continue to share a home-school agreement with pupils and parents. For some schools this is little more than a tradition of Year 7 transition but in other schools it is a more sacred document which is referred to routinely in school life, including when parents have questions and concerns about an aspect of the school’s expectations, procedures and routines.
Setting out expectations for remote learning at the start of this crisis was hard. Back in March few had a sense of how enduring and pervasive this challenge would be. Moreover, few had the experience of trying to teach a remote or blended curriculum on this scale. Some twelve or so weeks later my feeling is that schools are better placed to dissect and define the approach they feel will work best in their context. They will know better what they need from their teachers, pupils and parents – and understand better the barriers they face.
Therefore, I wonder if the home-school agreement should find a new lease of life in these troubling times. Perhaps it’s more appropriate to frame it as a home-school partnership as never has the term ‘partnership’ been more appropriate than at present. We all know the old phrase that ‘you can lead a horse to water…’, only COVID-19 has meant we can’t even get those horses close to the watering hole without the support of parents and others, let alone take on the drinking.
Aside from it’s external use it may also help schools to raise the bar a little internally as well, where this is necessary. We know that teachers have done a fantastic job throughout this crisis. But we also know that some find the technical aspects of remote learning difficult, and others are continuing to develop their pedagogical and curricular understanding. Perhaps the clarity of expectation encoded in an appropriate home-school agreement might help to sharpen the focus for this development, leading to appropriate training and support – beneficial for teacher and pupil.
There are simple but effective ‘rules’ that benefit everyone. And these can be easy to overlook for busy teachers having to teach in new ways. For some good work in this area we can look to Oak Academy. Take, for example, their key principle that all Oak lessons should be device-agnostic. This is so powerful as it reduces the likelihood of frustration and disengagement from the outset.
And yet I sometimes hear of schools out there where teachers are recording narrated PowerPoints which pupils can only access if they have that specific program. Frustrating if they have to use dad’s laptop to view these PowerPoints. Terminal if the child is trying to access it on the average smartphone. And this can easily be avoided by establishing clear expectations for staff – in this case that narrated PowerPoints must be exported as videos.
Clarity, not criticism
Note, none of this a call for greater monitoring. The home-school agreement is not a stick to beat anyone with. It’s about building greater levels of clarity for teachers and parents about how they can best support children.
And if the government decides to outline a broad national expectation, that needn’t be a problem (as long as it is sensible). It can be viewed alongside, or located within, the school’s existing home-school agreement, acting as a useful benchmark against which the school’s own partnership document can be checked to see if anything is missing. My guess is that most school’s agreements would go far beyond what the DfE can serve up nationally in any case.
But one of the most compelling arguments for schools refreshing their home-school agreement is that it will bind them into an evaluative process. They’ll need to give deep thought to what seems to be the best approach to take. Which things will the success of their approach absolutely depend upon, and which are less essential when teaching remotely? What does evidence and experience suggest they should do?
And this evaluative process can stretch beyond school leaders too. It might give a useful focal point for staff to contribute their growing experience, further developing that sense of shared endeavour.
For multi-academy trusts this might form a piece of work that draws upon and consolidates experience from across a group of schools, leveraging their collective insight for the benefit of their communities of teachers, pupils and parents.
And perhaps the most interesting aspect is the opportunity to engage with parents, possibly through stakeholder engagement groups, to listen to their input on the barriers they face and how the school might be able to support. Whether this is about parents wanting more certainty about the amount of work pupils will receive, or the form that feedback might take, gathering the views of parents is likely to be illuminating. It might also help them to engage with the school in the spirit of partnership. Of course, there may be some with tough messages or views about remote learning that we don’t agree with, but this isn’t new territory for schools and it often provides opportunity as much as consternation.
Finally, the home-school agreement needn’t be seen as something immutable; it may evolve further as the needs of education change – such as a move towards a blended or hybrid approach. Indeed, it may be better to position a remote learning home-school partnership as an addendum to the ‘normal’ agreement, rather than its replacement. If further periods of lockdown are required after September, having something ready to go that you can reach for might be helpful.
In short, it is not surprising that various people (including policy makers, leaders and parents) might consider the extent of variation within and between schools in terms of how they are meeting the challenge of COVID-19. However, regardless of any government intervention in this area, it is schools themselves that hold the key to securing the best remote learning within the constraints they are operating within.
The home-school agreement is one tool they might use to do this. And it’s one that schools and parents own – not government. Maybe it’s time to dust it off…
Running a school right now must leave even the most experienced leaders feeling breathless. As fast as schools tackle one challenge there’s another along promptly, all the while punctuated by an endless stream of government guidance and updates. All the while many of a school’s ‘normal’ tasks still need to be done. Such as the timetable.
As a former timetabler I’ve been thinking about how I might approach the current COVID-19 challenge if I were leading a school.
I imagine that there is many a timetabler out there who is, as in every previous year, currently drawing together a version for 2020/2021 ready to commence in September. It’s often a curious labour of love that goes through many iterations and crises before victory is snatched from the jaws of a scheduling defeat, or at least that’s how it can look from the outside.
On the inside, timetablers know two important truths. Firstly, we like timetabling (even though we might pretend not to). Secondly, it essentially boils down to a series of trade-offs: making X work will make Y more difficult. The key question is always: what do we want to prioritise? Once we are clear about that, things fall into place a little easier.
Given we don’t know how schooling is going to take shape over the rest of this term, September seems a long way off. But of course, it’s not in terms of school weeks (maybe 7 or so). Teachers have always called for the timetable to be finalized and published as soon as possible, ideally before the final day of term, so they can do any necessary planning and logistics before the summer holiday rolls around.
And that was when what teachers expected to teach in September might look largely like what they would have done in any other year. Except this September it might be very different. If COVID-19 continues to disrupt education and wider society it is plausible that even in September we will still be looking at a very different normality.
For example, it could be that sizeable numbers of pupils are still being educated remotely. Or, it could be that there are further periods of lockdown, either nationally or locally.
Many schools have found out this year that the ‘normal’ school timetable can be difficult to adhere to in the context of remote learning. The exceptions are those schools which have stuck to the timetable in their online schedule, delivering live lessons and so forth in regular slots. However, I know of several schools which started this way but found the rigidity didn’t work for their teachers or pupils. As ever, some things will work in some contexts but not others.
So what is a timetabler to do?
I think it’s helpful to see this in terms of scenario planning. No school will want to be scrambling to put together a timetable at the end of August, so having one prepared, as I know most schools will have, seems a sensible action.
But it’s also worth thinking about other scenarios, including if substantial numbers of pupils continue to require remote education from September.
I know of some schools which have decided to roll over the current timetable into next year, maintaining consistency of teachers and pupils groups as far as possible and using the old year 11 time to teach Year 7s. Then, as and when we know more about what lies ahead, they can bring a new timetable into play at, say, half term or Christmas (or later?!).
This might work for some schools, but not all. For example, constraints such as the availability of new staff might make this more difficult. It may also be that a school wouldn’t want to create the sense of pupils being held back in some way. Again, it might work for some schools but not others.
I have another thought I want to float though: whether creating a new timetable for September or rolling over the existing one, does the timetable as we’ve known it previously matter as in previous Septembers? Should we be thinking more explicitly about the rhythm of our pedagogy as well?
If we know that the standard timetable is hard to maintain remotely, or even undesirable for some schools, should we be approaching this from a different direction? Does this give us an opportunity to make structures for remote learning work more effectively from September?
I know that some teachers have found it difficult to juggle the competing demands of catering for different classes, setting work for across a range of year groups while trying to find time to assess what pupils have understood and address any issues and misconceptions. And that’s as well as dealing with anything else they might have going on in their lives, including caring for their own children or perhaps someone who is shielding.
The risk here is that teachers are paddling so hard to keep up with the generation of resources, the time taken to set remote work, create videos etc that the vital part of assessing what pupils have/not learned and responding to this are missed out. Pupils can lurch from one set piece of work to another, with limited insight from the teacher about whether the work is being understood, therefore leading to insecure learning and shaky foundations for the future.
Is there an alternative pedagogic approach that could make it easier for teachers to assess and respond?
For example, imagine a pedagogic framework in which for subject X all pupils in Year Y were given a common instructional video on a Monday, created by one teacher but used across the whole year group for all classes, in which key content was introduced with some limited opportunities for practice.
Then later in the week (let’s say Wednesday) class teachers held seminar sessions, eg through video conferencing or a Teams chat, probing pupils’ understanding and addressing misconceptions. This could then be followed up later, sharing further practice materials or whole class feedback, helping to ensure that what has been taught that week is well understood and properly connected to what pupils have previously studied, perhaps even providing the means for them to discuss it with each other. On a related note, Mark Enser’s fabulous blog is worth a read if you haven’t already. Drawing on evidence he explains, “The EEF also points to the importance of continued peer discussion in remote learning, something that can be achieved through the use of forums.”
The evidence of the efficacy of spaced repetition suggests this approach could also play a useful part in remote learning, particularly for pupils preparing for exams. Should we build this into our thinking as we turn our attention towards September?
The sort of approach I’m exploring here is interesting to me mainly because it foregrounds the important work that teachers do in helping pupils to build new knowledge into their schema, and to do it without misconception. It makes teaching and learning a more dialogic practice – something that is easily lost if remotely taught content becomes fire and forget.
I don’t claim that this process mirrors Rosenhine’s principles but there is an echo of it in adopting a pedagogic approach which makes explicit the need for teachers to check for understanding and guide practice.
It might also help with teacher workload in that you don’t have all the teachers in a department frantically reinventing the wheel for their own class. They could take responsibility for creating a high quality, step-by-step weekly instructional video for all pupils in a particular year group and after that their job is to help their own classes understand and practice the curriculum content for that week, deepening and extending as appropriate.
If the curriculum stars align, it may even be that some of this initial instructional leg work is being done by teachers elsewhere in the system, such as those at Oak Academy.
None of this is about trying to lock teachers and pupils into cumbersome mechanistic approaches to teaching and learning; the mutated remote version of the three part lesson.
Rather, it’s about thinking through what will best help pupils to understand and remember what they’ve been taught, especially in the challenging context of remote learning, and how leaders can help to facilitate that.
The more time teachers spend crafting resources in isolation, the less time they have to help pupils learn it. This is really about opportunity cost. Or, in the language of timetabling that I mentioned above, it’s about priorities.
And for that reason, at a point where time is such a precious commodity, we want to ensure that what we do has the most bang for our pedagogic buck.
And it is vital to make this manageable for teachers who may find themselves teaching some pupils face-to-face while still having to teach some remotely.
There is a great deal of useful material out there which provides evidence-informed frameworks to help teachers think about how they structure learning sequences. Tom Sherrington and Oli Caviglioli’s new ‘Walkthrus’ book is one such example and might well be a useful resource for teachers and leaders to dip into.
The needs of subjects might be different so it might be that some sort of generic whole school approach is undesirable. But at subject level a common approach across teams might be helpful and worth discussing with subject leaders.
Given that remote learning seems likely to extend beyond September in one way or another, any time that can be spared making it more effective is likely to be time well spent.
All of which brings me to this: have a timetable ready for September by all means – you may need it, or parts of it, for September. Indeed, you might need to adapt it through further iterations when we know more about what we’ll be dealing with in September.
But also know that the most important frameworks a school builds, particularly in relation to remote learning, are likely to be pedagogic.
Introduction With the current COVID-19 lockdown having pushed much of the school curriculum onto remote learning platforms there has been much discussion about how schools might best tackle this. A whole range of considerations have been blogged, tweeted and discussed, including important issues such as:
Safeguarding during live streamed lessons.
Synchronous vs asynchronous approaches.
The merits and pitfalls of open-ended project work.
Making decisions about how much new content to introduce.
How and why consolidation of prior learning might be undertaken.
How to limit the widening of achievement gaps.
I don’t propose to talk about any of those here. Rather, I want to take a look at something that, counter intuitively, is often at risk of being overlooked even in these heady days of ‘knowledge rich’ curricula: knowledge itself.
What I mean by that is that there tends to be far more discussion of how we teach knowledge rather than what we teach. And this is not a point just about curriculum planning at the level of ‘end points’ and ‘sequencing’; it’s about how teachers use, connect and take apart knowledge in the normal course of their teaching, how they think and talk about knowledge, and the implications for remote learning.
In part this blog is inspired by a recent and fairly uncharitable analysis of an online lesson hosted by Oak Academy. I won’t repeat the analysis here, but it seemed to be taking the view that Oak’s pedagogic approach was one of ‘traditional’ direct instruction, and that this was problematic.
Now, the trad/prog binary is not something I identify with personally, and this piece is not seeking to take a position in this debate. Rather, I want to offer another lens through which we might view teaching, including video lessons such as those generously hosted by Oak, in the hope we might develop a different/deeper understanding of what is going on.
Quite rightly many people pointed out that the very existence of Oak is a credit to the schools and teachers who have collaborated in extremely challenging times to develop something to support schools, children and families. This point stands.
However, a second argument in Oak’s favour is to be found, I believe, in the pedagogic work that Oak’s teachers, and many others across the system, are undertaking – something that is too easy to miss if we don’t know what we’re looking for. It is this I would like to draw attention to in this blog.
Semantic waves The means of analysis are taken from LCT’s dimension of semantics. In short, this is concerned with two aspects:
The range or condensation of meanings (semantic density)
The extent of a meaning’s context dependence (semantic gravity)
There is a lot of theory underpinning LCT, and it’s probably unhelpful to get too deep into it here. But you can find out more by following this link. I’ll aim to give you enough of the theory for this piece to make sense.
As a brief summary, analysis of knowledge practices using LCT’s semantics framework suggests that achievement in educational fields tends to be characterized by movements between knowledge that is (i) abstract, condenses a range of possible meanings and is not tied to a particular context, and that which is (ii) concrete, condenses relatively few possible meanings is tied to specific contexts.
In LCT terms these are expressed as i) strong semantic density (SD+), weak semantic gravity (SG-) ii) weak semantic density (SD-), strong semantic gravity (SG+)
I wrote about these concepts in a previous blog in relation to leadership knowledge.
Semantic waves in teaching
This can all feel a bit removed from everyday practice, but it needn’t be the case. It’s worth thinking about the educational requirements most subjects tend to place on pupils in the classroom and in exams; that pupils know key concepts and can apply them in particular contexts. A common example from my time as a history teacher is that I might teach pupils the concept of ‘revolution’ in abstract terms (SD+,SG-) and then teach them an example of a revolution, such as the French revolution. In doing so I am reducing the range of possible meanings (SD-); fewer meanings are captured by the ‘French’ revolution than by the more generic term. I am also strengthening the semantic gravity (SG+) as I am anchoring the term in a particular context (France in 1789). In doing so I am helping pupils to bring knowledge together, I am helping them to build knowledge.
This diagram from Paul Curzon at Queen Mary University of London is a useful and accessible illustration of how a semantic wave might look in practice, showing how knowledge is unpacked and repacked, as in the examples in this blog.
Semantic waves in everyday discourse: Sonic The Hedgehog
So, by thinking in terms of LCT’s semantics, we are able to see how knowledge is woven together and how it is dismantled as we move between the abstract and the context specific. LCT characterises these movements as ‘waves’, and once you know they exist you start to them everywhere.
For example, take this synopsis of the Sonic The Hedgehog movie by Empire: Hollywood has a less than stellar history when it comes to video-game movies, but there have been recent signs that filmmakers are getting closer to figuring out how to make them work. The Dwayne Johnson vehicle Rampage was dumb fun, Tomb Raider did well enough to get a sequel, and Pokémon Detective Pikachu killed us with cuteness. Now comes Sonic The Hedgehog, whose journey from video game to live-action movie has been far from smooth. The negative response to the first trailer — specifically Sonic’s disturbing, excessively realistic look — led to the film’s release being delayed and a promise of a redesign. But while the new look is a big improvement, the finished product is, by and large, forgettable.
You’ll note how it begins with a rather zoomed-out criticism in general terms of Hollywood’s back catalogue of video-game movies (SG-). It then zooms in a little on more recent successful examples, citing them specifically, before delving into the details of the Sonic film, such as the look of the hedgehog (SG+). It finishes by zooming out to a one-line summary of the movie review, in fairly broad-brush terms, thereby weakening semantic gravity (SG-).
We can illustrate these movements as semantic profiles. The example below shows how a semantic profile for the Sonic extract above might look.
In the (virtual) classroom
If we observe teaching we can see the same sorts of things taking place. The LCT literature contains numerous examples. But what if we look at an example from remote teaching?
I took a look at a History lesson from Oak and peered through the lens of LCT’s semantics. What I found was interesting. What we see is that teachers might well be doing some pretty heavy lifting in pedagogic terms, challenging the somewhat simplistic criticism you sometimes hear of ‘traditional’ teacher talk.
Take, for example, this extract from the teacher’s instruction (she is referring to a speech made by Bismarck, which is provided for pupils on an accompanying slide):
What do you think is being suggested here in this speech? How are decisions in our country made today? And according to Bismarck, who’s giving this speech, how will decisions be made?
A really interesting speech here then with regards to our country today; big decisions are made kind of using the thing mentioned here in the first sentence, through speeches and people discussing and debating and decisions being made by the majority. Bismarck, who we’re going to kind of come across in this lesson today, talking in 1862, talks about how decisions will not be made by the majority anymore, but by iron and blood; the people who are kind of ‘the powerful’, the people who are nationalistic and the few rather than the majority. Now, the reason for introducing this is because this quote is very closely associated with the term ‘militarism’. So, I would like you to pause here and copy down this definition of militarism in your notes. When you’re done unpause.
Okay, militarism. We’re introducing this really early on into our Germany course because it becomes a really key feature of Germany. This is connected to do with its creation. It’s connected to events prior to World War One, during World War 1, post-World War 1, and underpins a lot of the thoughts and feelings of the German people and German leadership that we’re going to be coming across. So, militarism, the belief that a country should maintain a strong military, be prepared to use it when needed.
We can see some interesting things going on here. Note how in the first paragraph: • The teacher begins with reference to a specific speech from Bismarck, provided in the accompanying slides (SG+). • The teacher then switches to a different context to compare with ‘our country today’, broadening the discussion to explore generalized notions of democracy (SG-), before returning to the context of Bismarck and the concrete decisions he has made (SG+).
This forms a mini semantic wave.
In the second paragraph we see another wave take place: • The teacher returns to ‘our country today’ before broadening once more to generic aspects of democracy (SG-, SD+). • Having set this up for pupils in the abstract she then walks them down the wave into the specific context of Bismarck in 1862, quoting his speech (SG+, SD-). In doing so the teacher contrasts the more abstract ‘our country today’ with the specifics of what Bismarck is proposing. This roots Bismarck’s speech within a broader conceptual meaning in a way that simply reading Bismarck’s speech on its own would not. • Then she does something else really interesting, which is to leap back up the semantic scale with her reference to the abstract term ‘militarism’ (SG-, SD+) before helping pupils to define its meaning and tying that same term to the specific context. In fact, she doesn’t just tie it to the context of Germany but she cites it as being important within the context of the GCSE course.
Semantic waves in other educational materials
So, we can see there is pedagogic work going on here beyond things like, say, the type of activity or the style of instruction.
Moreover, if we contrast it with how similar content might be encountered elsewhere by pupils we can see why Oak’s approach might be helpful for children. While other approaches can also facilitate ‘waves’, I wonder how explicitly these will take shape and what the range of the semantic waves would be.
For example, Wikipedia carries a section detailing similar content to that explored in the Oak lesson:
German unification had been a major objective of the revolutions of 1848, when representatives of the German states met in Frankfurt and drafted a constitution, creating a federal union with a national parliament to be elected by universal male suffrage. In April 1849, the Frankfurt Parliament offered the title of Emperor to King Frederick William IV. Fearing the opposition of the other German princes and the military intervention of Austria and Russia, the King renounced this popular mandate. Thus, the Frankfurt Parliament ended in failure for the German liberals. On 30 September 1862, Bismarck made a famous speech to the Budget Committee of the Prussian Chamber of Deputies in which he expounded on the use of “iron and blood” to achieve Prussia’s goals: “Prussia must concentrate and maintain its power for the favorable moment which has already slipped by several times. Prussia’s boundaries according to the Vienna treaties are not favorable to a healthy state life. The great questions of the time will not be resolved by speeches and majority decisions – that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849 – but by iron and blood.”
You can see that this extract tends to stay rooted in very context specific terms and content (SG+). Where abstractions and specialist language exist (SD+) they are left hanging, rather than explicated into more everyday language, making it harder for the novice reader to locate their meaning within this piece and to repack into other possible contexts. For example, look at how it mentions the ‘constitution’ in the context of 1848 but does not provide a generalized meaning of this term (definition) in the way that the Oak teacher did in relation to ‘militarism’.
That’s not a criticism of the piece as an account of history, but evidence from LCT suggest that a semantic ‘flatline’ (be it at the top or bottom of the semantic scale) may be less effective at building knowledge than the sort of wave we saw more explicitly in the Oak lesson.
This, I think, is worth considering in the context of remote learning. When we are collating or creating materials are we thinking about how we help pupils to move between abstract meanings and those tied to particular contexts? My hunch – and it is only that – is that many teachers do this intuitively as part of their classroom teaching practice. Thus, the advantage of video instruction, like that done at Oak, may be that teachers are more readily able to deploy the pedagogic practices they are used to because it is more similar to ‘normal’ teaching than, say, setting a series of disconnected worksheets.
Where this sort of approach is not available, or another method is preferred, we might do well to consider how teaching approaches and materials might create these ‘waves’ in order to build knowledge.
Let’s also consider the humble textbook. Some of these do this work very well, moving between the abstract and the context-specific. Others not so much.
In a classroom setting teachers are often skilled at using textbooks, even relatively poor ones, as a tool for learning. Where explanation of a concept or a more concrete example is required, skilled teachers often step in and do this heavy lifting, or they might draw upon a resource or activity which achieves the same purpose.
In a remote learning environment where the pupil has access only to the textbook and no opportunity for the teacher to supplement their understanding, then arguably the quality of the textbook matters even more. And it just might be that semantic waves provide something for us to consider when selecting textbooks or other resources for deployment in remote learning contexts.
However, it is also worth finishing on a wider cautionary note. The argument I’ve made here is that video lessons might provide a medium through which semantic waves can be formed. But this is not inherently the case. Plausibly, a school could direct its teachers to carry out video lessons or live streaming only to find that the semantic profile flatlines in either the abstract or the context specific, limiting the knowledge building potential.
In which case, this serves to further illustrate the point I made at the start. It is not just the delivery approach (instructional videos/worksheets/textbooks etc) that should concern us; it’s the work they are doing which matters most.
How are your lessons, materials and explanations helping pupils to build knowledge by moving between the abstract and the context-dependent?
None of the analysis above is to say that video lessons such as Oak’s are the same as classroom teaching as we knew it before Covid19. But it doesn’t seem a huge leap to suggest that this approach might more closely mirror certain aspects of effective classroom practice than approaches which operate with a very different sort of pedagogy.
This is a very limited (one lesson) sample so I don’t make broad claims, but this evidence from Oak Academy suggests their approach is enabling teachers to build semantic waves. Evidence from LCT suggests this is likely to be beneficial for pupils and is likely to be much more important than whether we characterise it as ‘traditional’, or any other obfuscating label for that matter.
I’ve written previously about why consolidation of prior learning might be an important curricular aim during this period. But the longer this goes on the more likely it is that teachers will need to find ways of introducing new content.
If teachers are finding remote ways of helping pupils to unpack and repack knowledge, including difficult concepts, that’s to their credit and not something we should overlook in this challenging teaching context.
You can read more about LCT and its ‘semantics’ dimension in: Maton, K. (2014) Knowledge and Knowers. Routledge. Oxfordshire
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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?
Following my previous fairly lengthy blogs, this one will be a bit more concise and to the point: learning communities are incalculably precious. They are the ultimate team sport in which common endeavour is rewarded and each of us is taken beyond what we might do, think or master on our own.
Up and down the country that sense of community is burning bright in our schools, lighting the way in these dark times. But that’s not what I’m going to write about here. Others have already written with eloquence and insight about what’s going on in schools up and down the UK right now.
Instead, I want to say a little word about the community of Legitimation Code Theory (LCT), which has provided me with some rays of light in what was, for all of us I’m sure, a challenging week.
The first of these was the LCT Centre’s roundtable on Friday morning. Unfortunately, 4pm in Sydney is 5am here, and a substantial pot of coffee was required! But the opportunity to be involved in a truly international dialogue was worth it indeed. Patrick Locke’s superb presentation took us through his research into changes that have taken place in Australia’s vocational education system. It was interesting to see how teachers’ values, drawn from their fields, influenced their response to increasing marketisation. Something I will give more thought to in the context of the English education system. Sherran’s email afterwards really got me thinking too – how do perceptions of of particular fields as being, for example, ‘innovative’ or ‘forward-thinking’ create code clashes? And at what cost?
The second thing was what prompted me to write this blog. It was an email exchange among the LCT community in which Nicholas West raised the idea of changing knowledge practices as a result of the move to online learning that is taking place globally.
This was a really interesting point because it occurred to me that most conversations I’ve had with people about online learning have been oriented towards pedagogy, not necessarily in terms of the knowledge itself.
What do I mean by that? Well, at its simplest it might mean asking ‘what sort of knowledge are we teaching’? Or, ‘how does moving to online learning affect the type of knowledge we teach’?
Does it, for example, lead to an emphasis on substantive knowledge at the expense of disciplinary knowledge? Please note, that is a question rather than a statement! But it’s a question worthy of consideration perhaps.
Nicholas’ point was directly drawn from LCT theory. He was asking whether there would be a sharper focus on the ‘target’ knowledge the teacher wants students to learn, possibly at the expense of what LCT terms an ‘introjected code’. Essentially, knowledge of the introjected code is knowledge from outside of the field of study that the teacher might put to use in teaching something else.
If all that sounds confusing, think of a teacher’s use of metaphor and analogy. Sometimes our ability to draw on knowledge from somewhere else is an essential part of our practice. For example when explaining the historical concept of causation I used to use the old game of Buckaroo as way of exploring the concept, starting with the game of Buckaroo as a way into the building of tensions before World War One.
Or, often teachers do that really important thing of saying “You remember when we learned about X? Well, this is like that,” or “Well, this is not like that.” Teasing out links, giving reminders of prior learning and signalling the way ahead helps to ensure knowledge is built rather than merely encountered as a two-dimensional object.
Sometimes in face to face lessons you can read pupils’ expressions, or they revel a misconception, and you can adjust accordingly, drawing on some other knowledge to help you explain.
In LCT terms these journeys through knowledge that is/not, associated with a target create ‘autonomy tours’. Evidence from LCT suggests some teachers skilfully traverse pathways of knowledge in this way, drawing on their schema, helping pupils to cumulatively build knowledge.
So, Nicholas’ question struck me as important. Does the move to online learning make it more difficult for teachers to draw together knowledge in this way? With fewer, if any opportunities for interaction, will this affect how we use knowledge? I don’t have an answer, but it’s a good question.
What was great was that the LCT community chipped into the thread with further questions and insight. Dorian concurred with Nicholas, suggesting that how teachers weave in everyday knowledge can be a natural part of face to face lessons – will this continue online? And Mauricio suggested teachers may be cautious about introducing knowledge that is beyond the immediate target out of fear it could be taken ‘out of context’. Jodie and Billy then broadened the conversation to look at implications regarding other aspects of LCT.
Thanks to Karl, Patrick, Sherran, Nicholas, Dorian, Mauricio, Jodie and Billy (and everyone else) for making me think this week. You helped me to see things in ways I otherwise might not and have helped me to grow. That’s community.
So, here’s a little shout out for learning communities. No doubt you’ll be involved in some. Maybe your subject association, your school or trust, or perhaps you’re a part of edutwitter. Maybe right now your communities are helping you to get through each day, or maybe you’re shining a light for others.
Whatever your community is, it matters now more than ever.
In a recent blog on educational genericism, Michael Fordham argued “the more likely that an idea might be relevant to all the subjects, the less likely that the idea might be useful to any individual subject.”
This goes to the core of much practice in schools which has tended to favour the generic over the subject specific. I won’t repeat Michael’s argument here, but it is certainly worth a read if you haven’t already.
What I’d like to do is offer a complementary but alternative take on the issue Michael raises. In short, I share some of Michael’s concern that genericism in curriculum leadership can be problematic. And the challenge for school leaders is that their input into the curriculum life of the school often tends to reside in the generic. After all, it’s a tough ask to expect leaders to be subject experts across the entirety of the curriculum.
That said, I also think leaders can and do play an important role in improving curriculum practice in their schools. Engagement with the work of the likes of Jon Hutchinson, Claire Stoneman, Jonathan Mountstevens, Stuart Lock and Michael himself is enough to convince me of that.
But I wonder if there is value in offering an explicit means of considering how leaders might develop curriculum practice without distorting subjects, exploring how the generic and the specific might be navigated by leaders. This might be particularly relevant in those schools where necessity dictates that leaders drive the curriculum discourse in a school, at least at the outset.
In this blog I tentatively offer one way we might conceptualise how this might be done, once again using Legitimation Code Theory (LCT), and its concept of ‘semantics’, as a tool for analysis.
Semantic gravity & semantic density – setting the scene
LCT’s notion of semantics is concerned with two key aspects:
Semantic density: The degree of condensation of meaning. Knowledge practices with strong semantic density encompass a broad range of meanings. LCT research shows that teachers often move from highly condensed terms (SD+) to more simple terms, reducing the range of meanings as they go (SD-).
For example, ‘revolution’ has fairly strong semantic density. It captures a range of meanings in history alone, as well as in terms of an object that revolves around an axis – like a wheel. But if we moved from revolution to describe ‘mutiny’ or ‘rebellion’, the condensation of meanings is reduced, weakening the semantic density.
Semantic gravity: The degree to which meaning relates to a particular context. Knowledge practices and terms with strong semantic gravity (SG+) relate to specific contexts. Where meaning is less fixed to a specific context semantic gravity is weakened (SG-).
For example, if we return to ‘revolution’, it has fairly weak semantic gravity – it is not tied to a specific context. But if we moved on to talk about the French revolution we strengthen the semantic gravity. We would strengthen it further again by talking about the Storming of the Bastille.
Research in LCT shows that we tend to see movements upwards and downwards a semantic scale, as we move from abstract terms and practices that condense a range of meanings and are not tied to a specific context (SG-, SD+), to more concrete terms and practices which encompass fewer meanings and are tied to a specific context (SG+, SD-).
LCT considers these movements as creating ‘semantic profiles’ (see diagram below). For example, during a lesson it’s possible to plot how teachers’ explanations move as they take pupils from abstract to concrete and back. LCT research suggests that achievement in a field tends to be characterized by the ability to ‘wave’ – to move up and down the semantic profile. In teaching terms this often means unpacking and repacking concepts, exploring abstract ideas and showing their application in concrete examples and so forth.
Firstly, we have to understand that developing curriculum expertise, designing curriculum, talking about curriculum, evaluating curriculum etc are practices concerned with knowledge building. In the example above I suggested how a teacher in a history lesson might move from abstract concepts like ‘revolution’ to more concrete understandings such as ‘Storming of the Bastille’. This shows one way in which knowledge-building takes place (in the classroom in this case). But what if we consider the development of curriculum expertise across a school as an act of knowledge-building?
My conjecture is that it might be helpful to consider it in terms of a ‘wave’ in the way identified by LCT. Schools need to be able to take abstract ideas, the sort of thing you might hear at a CPD event – say, some aspect of cognitive science, or the notion of substantive and disciplinary knowledge – and unpack it so that we know what it looks like in specific contexts, such as a history classroom or a specific topic.
I think much curriculum discourse tends to focus on:
Abstract ideas and approaches (SG-, SD+) that we need to unpack in the context of our own subjects (like this blog, for example!).
Specific examples of ideas, approaches etc (SG-, SD+) in specific subjects that we need to repack in order to understand how they might look at a greater level of abstraction.
LCT suggests a curriculum discourse in a school that exclusively focuses on one of these is likely to be problematic and instead it needs to ‘wave’ between the two. How might leaders help that to happen?
From the school leader’s perspective it can be useful to talk about abstract ideas, such as ‘retrieval’, but these then need to be unpacked within the context of a specific subject, explicated to colleagues in relation to specific examples and enacted in relation to specific curricular aims: this ‘unpacking’ will look different in different subjects, leading to teaching and curriculum approaches that are, rightly, quite different.
If we don’t unpack abstract ideas we get a ‘semantic flatline’. The idea remains in the abstract and it is difficult for teachers to develop an understanding of what it looks in their subject, in their classroom. We have probably all had the experience of being introduced to an idea or theory but not knowing what it looks like in practice. This is a challenge for anyone who is involved in running generic CPD courses.
The reality, I think, is that it is very difficult for senior leaders to carry out unpacking outside of their own subject as they lack the disciplinary knowledge and concrete examples necessary to make it happen. This means the idea is then not translated effectively into the subject (where appropriate), or the subject becomes distorted so that subject practices themselves become geared towards the abstract and generic. In some ways this is what happened to national curriculum levels.
When a leader goes on a course and learns about, say, spaced repetition, they might understandably come back and want to implement it across the school. I wouldn’t want to say to that leader that they mustn’t do this, but I would caution them to recognise that the process of unpacking spaced repetition means it might look different in different subjects, because the contents and contexts of subjects are different. I might also point out this means the intervention might not be universally effective.
Perhaps the solution is for those with specialist subject knowledge – subject leaders and teachers – to do much of the work of unpacking abstract curriculum ideas to ensure integrity of the subject is preserved. It may also be that unpacking a particular theory in a particular subject reveals its limitations and prompts us to consider other approaches instead. A specialist’s eye is likely to be useful in spotting this.
This doesn’t mean there is no curriculum job for senior leaders to do, however. So what might that look like? For one thing leaders can play a vital role in creating the conditions in which subject teachers can discuss, debate and unpack ideas. For example they can support them in joining subject networks and reconfigure training so that it allows for deeper subject understanding, which is likely to be necessary for successful unpacking of educational ideas.
They can do more though as well. They may be well placed to introduce top-level ideas and approaches (which are subsequently unpacked in subjects). Or, as noted above, there will be aspects of curriculum practice in the school that are very context specific – particular examples, resources etc – which, if identified and repacked to a higher level of abstraction, might then be unpacked elsewhere in another subject and put to use. In short, leaders might observe something in one subject and then roll it out across the school. This is where senior leaders can be highly effective, if it’s done well. Except this is hard to do. Repacking might be a helpful alternative way of conceptualising what is being attempted, rather than relying on the fairly blunt term ‘sharing good practice’.
What might repacking look like? Leaders might take an idea or example from one part of the curriculum and rather than simply a ‘show and tell’ exercise, working with specialists to understand its principles, perhaps relate it to relevant theory, and make that knowledge available for staff elsewhere in the school – at an appropriate level of abstraction – before inviting the unpacking of this within another subject.
The problem can come, however, when the idea is not repacked sufficiently and moved up the semantic profile before it is then unpacked in another subject. At worst, it isn’t repacked at all and the concrete example from one subject is shoe-horned into another. Again, this risks distorting subjects.
This is the difference between a leader saying, “I want every subject to use the scheme of work template the maths department is using” and “we’ve explored a range of subject schemes of work, there seem to be different approaches, and these are the principles that underpin them. What do you think would work in your subject? Why?”
In my view school leaders play an invaluable role in shaping the curriculum discourse of the school but the process of unpacking curriculum knowledge and practice may be best done by subject specialists. Leaders can be highly effective in cross pollinating ideas and approaches between subjects when they are conscious of the need for such things to be repacked appropriately, not simply transplanted from one subject context to another.
As one final example, I hear a lot of talk in schools about curriculum concepts like ‘sequencing’ – rightly so. If we put ourselves in the shoes of a leader who is just taking up post in a school where staff haven’t thought too deeply about sequencing before, the leader needs a way of conceptualising how to tackle this. I suggest semantic waves may give us a way of doing this.
Recognising the need to move from the general/abstract to more concrete/practical, and respecting the differences in how this looks across subjects, is perhaps an important step for this leader. In a sense it also builds in a level of accountability. Asking a head of department why they teach a particular thing in a particular sequence, or at a specific time, invites a conversation in which concrete examples can be repacked into more abstract concepts of curriculum design – like sequencing. Where such a rationale doesn’t exist and repacking is difficult the leader might suspect there is work to do to develop subject-level curriculum understanding.
In a nutshell
It’s plausible that all this is simply a convoluted route back to what many leaders intuitively facilitate in any case: movement from the generic to the specific.
I suppose I’m making the case that a degree of genericism can be helpful if that involves the introduction of abstract concepts that are then unpacked within subjects in ways that have fidelity with the subject itself. So, for that reason I don’t conclude that genericism is necessarily always problematic. I do, however, think it is likely to be if we don’t deliberately unpack and repack within subjects. This might be something leaders want to give some thought to.
It might be helpful to make this a more explicit part of how we consider developing curriculum practice. Thinking of this in terms of ‘semantic waves’ is one way leaders might reflect on the building of cumulative curriculum expertise across a school.
Questions leaders might ask to probe how waves build curriculum knowledge:
How are we supporting subject specialists to unpack relevant ideas/approaches/theory in their own subject?
Do we sometimes present ideas in the abstract but not provide time, space and trust for these to be unpacked within subjects? How might we improve this?
When attempting to roll out ideas from one part of the school do we work with subject specialists to repack it to a higher level of abstraction before enabling other teachers to unpack it within the context of their subject? Are we getting at the principles, rather than just ‘show and tell’ stuff?
Where we have a strong subject department, do we know why that is the case? Can we repack aspects of effective practice?
How easy will it be for subjects to unpack idea X in their subjects?
You can read more about LCT and its ‘semantics’ dimension in:
Maton, K. (2014) Knowledge and Knowers. Routledge. Oxfordshire
I am worried. There’s an iceberg ahead. We can see it approaching – it’s been coming for some time – but we mistake it for something it resembles rather than the thing itself. We regard only its surface features and we miss the hulking mass below the waterline.
Just as the classic iceberg metaphor reminds us that what we see above the surface is only a small proportion of the entire mass, I think a danger with much of the focus on curriculum is that we miss the big principles going on beneath the more commonplace talk about specific tools such as knowledge organisers and cognitive science (as helpful as they might be). In this piece I want to take a view from the bridge, outline why I think we’re in dangerous waters, and the course we need to plot to find our way out safely.
The view from the bridge
We’re halfway through the first year of Ofsted’s new inspection framework. It was always going to be a challenging passage for HMS Curriculum. It’s no surprise that we’ve seen some schools reaching for the ‘strategies’ and ‘approaches’ that appear to have impressed inspectors at the school down the road. But, particularly in the curriculum arena, this risks an unhelpful superficiality that steers us towards mimicry rather than embedded understanding and agency.
Meaningful and sustainable change requires a long-term commitment to building curriculum expertise and shared understanding. Just yesterday I read a superb post from Alex Quigley which outlines how difficult it can be to really move staff on in their thinking. It can often seem like a rubber band pulls us perpetually back towards our old beliefs, intuitions and practices.
But what are those currents of thinking that, no matter how hard we steer, seem to pull us back towards the iceberg? If we can see it more clearly we have a better chance of avoiding a collision. I’ve done a little work on this and offer a few tentative insights below.
Beneath the surface
Firstly, I wanted to get hold of some sort of summary of how a sample of schools think about curriculum. If only schools had written some sort of concise statement of their curriculum intent…hang on a minute…
Remember those ‘intent statements’ that lots of schools wrote even though Ofsted didn’t want them? Well, it turns out I could put them to use even if Ofsted won’t. A quick Google search brought up a range of intent statements written by primary schools and secondary schools. I randomly chose 5 primary and 5 secondary (I know, not a large sample, but bear with me).
Using insight from Maton and Chen’s (2016) essay on enacting Legitimation Code Theory (LCT) in qualitative research, I looked at the underlying ‘coding orientations’ of the intent statements. LCT asserts that all knowledge practices, of which curriculum design is one, are inherently concerned with the legitimization of knowledge. This is achieved through two means:
How knowledge relates to knowledge (epistemic relations). What matters is what you know.
How knowledge relates to people (social relations). What matters is who you are.
Strong social relations (SR+) can be seen in statements that emphasise that legitimate curriculum content should be derived from the interests, aptitudes and contexts of pupils. Such statements tacitly assert that particular pupils with particular characteristics, for example their socio-economic background, should learn particular curriculum content.
For example, when describing their curriculum some schools said things like:
“allow flexibility to meet the needs of each student.”
“opportunities to make full use of their skills, qualities and attributes.”
“we discussed our pupils’ backgrounds, life and cultural experiences and this has helped us to design a curriculum that meets their needs.”
Weaker social relations (SR-) can be seen in statements that downplay the importance of personal characteristics and attributes as the basis of content selection.
Strong epistemic relations (ER+) can be seen in statements that emphasise that legitimate content is derived from its relation to other knowledge, usually the specialized knowledge of subject disciplines.
For example, when describing their curriculum some schools said things like:
“knowledge-based curriculum, empowering students to develop an understanding and appreciation of the subjects they study.”
“In maths we follow a mastery approach.”
“we believe that knowing more words makes you smarter.”
Weaker epistemic relations (ER-) can be seen in statements that downplay the significance of specialized subject knowledge and emphasise generic learning goals, such as soft skill development.
It’s important to know that ER and SR are not in opposition to each other. Some schools which emphasised social relations also emphasised epistemic relations, Equally, a couple of schools didn’t emphasise either. Rather, LCT encourages a rounded view that defies false dichotomies. It encourages us to think about relative strengths of ER+/- and SR+/-. Plotting these allows us to identify particular ‘coding orientations’ and compare and contrast and how schools think about the curriculum, at least as far as their ‘intent statement’ reveals. It is also crucial to understand this analysis is relational, not about absolutes. In this analysis, whether a school’s ER is quite as strong as I’ve interpreted it is not the point, it’s about looking at how schools compare, and they compare with Ofsted’s orientation.
What was really interesting was that schools (primary = blue, green = secondary) tended to emphasise social relations and downplay epistemic relations, particularly in the primary phase. In effect, this suggests their rationale for curriculum design was more about matching contents to the perceived characteristics of pupils than about the structured development of specialized subject knowledge. Two schools emphasised both, but the other eight played down the importance of specialized subject knowledge, focusing more on generic learning goals.
But it gets even more interesting when you apply the same analysis to Ofsted’s curriculum thinking. I looked at three of Ofsted’s important documents on curriculum:
Intent criteria in the quality of education judgement
Ofsted’s documents (red dots) showed a much greater emphasis on epistemic relations, expressed through an explicit focus on the structured acquisition of specialized subject knowledge. Quite a different vibe to much of what the 10 schools had written.
I think this very small-scale analysis, if replicated more widely, could help to explain why it feels like there is curriculum collision of sorts taking place. The Ofsted iceberg seems to be built on underlying principles that are significantly different to the way the curriculum is being steered in some schools. That’s about something deeper than knowledge organisers and recall activities.
I’ve written previously about the paradigm shift taking place in the education system and suggested ofsted’s new framework seems to represent more of a ‘knowledge code’ than a ‘knower code’. There are good reasons why Ofsted’s new framework is oriented in this way, partly because it builds on insights from cognitive science, but also because it aligns inspection with the approach taken in the national curriculum: ‘the best that’s been thought and said.’ It establishes subject disciplines as being at the heart of how we select curriculum content, putting important specialised knowledge at the centre of what it means to teach a quality curriculum and making this an entitlement of all pupils.
The analysis of three key Ofsted documents certainly seems consistent with this emphasis on epistemic relations: a knowledge code. However, on the basis of the (limited number of) school intent statements I looked at, it seems some schools are in a different place – perhaps, understandably, where they’ve been for some time: a knower code.
I offer a few tentative observations:
Some (lots?) schools are thinking about curriculum in a fundamentally different way to Ofsted. To use Michael Young’s terminology, it appears as though some schools continue to be working within a ‘future 2’ paradigm which favours generic learning goals over development of specialized knowledge. This is potentially problematic as it risks eroding the notion of curriculum entitlement and equity. Personalizing the curriculum seems intuitively attractive for many teachers, but as Young points out it can come at a cost if it means we don’t take pupils beyond their own experience. Moving some schools beyond this embedded way of thinking is going to take a huge and sustained effort.
Ofsted is not operating in a ‘future 2’ paradigm (whether it is working within future 1 or future 3 is up for debate). There is a premium placed on the development of specialized subject knowledge.
This creates a potential clash.
Schools have to better understand the fundamentals of their approach (and Ofsted’s too).
That the Ofsted framework has been described as being secondary-oriented is perhaps missing the point. It’s less about the framework being deliberately geared towards a particular phase and more about it being concerned with the development of specialized knowledge. It just so happens that this might be more relatable for some secondaries (as my limited study suggests). This is an important distinction as it suggests that secondaries too might find friction with the new Ofsted framework if they do not have a good grasp of the specialized knowledge they want pupils to acquire.
These intent statements might, however, bear no relation to what’s going on in the classroom. But in itself that is interesting and potentially worrying. What would it be like to work in a school where there wasn’t an informed and aligned understanding of curriculum?
What needs to be done?
Teachers must know the stuff of their subject. Schools must make it a priority to give time and support to teachers to discuss, share and develop their sense of subject. This will mean scaling back in other areas. As Alex Quigley reminds us though, curriculum time on its own won’t be enough. We need to consider teacher development and resources too. Some of the best work I’ve seen has been in subject networks which collectively address issues of curriculum, pedagogy and subject knowledge. Access to development through such networks, sustained over time, seems to me to be a good bet and an area where the school system has success in pockets (such as in some Trusts). This needs to be extended.
This will require the funding and resource to make it happen. As Michael Young (2018) points out, a high quality knowledge-rich curriculum for all is a high-resource curriculum. Schools must have the means of realising this ambition.
Schools need to actively consider and shape the underlying beliefs and principles that underpin their curriculum. Some habits of thinking may have to be challenged; to use the old writer’s idiom, they may need to ‘kill their darlings’. Schools need to take this on explicitly to reduce the subconscious drift back to old habits. It’s not about ripping it all up for the sake of it, however, and throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It’s more about clarity.
This doesn’t mean schools need to enact a reductive vision of curriculum or pedagogy. Emphasizing the importance of specialized knowledge does not mean the knower must be ignored, that their needs or talents are overlooked or that the curriculum can’t be engaging for pupils. It is about making sure the subject itself is primarily the route we are following. Again, making this stuff explicit with teachers might be helpful. What is up for grabs? What isn’t?
Ofsted must think about how it supports the system as it acclimatises to a different way of thinking about what should/shouldn’t be included in the curriculum. The problem with a high stakes accountability system is that it incentivises people to reach for quick fix surface features rather than grappling with the underlying issues. Ofsted has to make sure it does not inadvertently go too far too quickly or the gap between it and many schools will simply become too far to bridge. The extension of the transition arrangements for a further year is welcome in this regard. Inspectors on the ground have to be able to spot the difference between surface features and deep understanding.
There is one curious paradox at the heart of Ofsted’s thinking. As I’ve written about previously, the reference to ‘cultural capital’ risks undermining the notion of entitlement to powerful knowledge and usurping it with the imitation of elite culture. This is certainly not Ofsted’s intent but there is the risk that inspectors on the ground confuse the ‘best that’s been thought and said’ with something else entirely (anyone for croquet?!). Ofsted needs to watch this very carefully.
We need a shared way of talking about and thinking about the curriculum, and some models of how the curriculum might be enacted to embody particular principles. It is curious that some schools have gone to the effort of writing curriculum intent statements, ostensibly for the benefit of Ofsted, but have written something that might not actually align well with Ofsted’s conception of curriculum quality. Is this a deliberate act of rebellion or, more likely, is it because there is a lack of alignment and/or clarity in curriculum thinking?
What does curriculum-led school improvement look like? Leaders must have a clearer idea of ‘if I steer the ship in this direction, this is likely to happen.’ This is especially important for schools needing significant improvement.
We’ve got to get all of the above off the pages of blogs and tweets and into conversations in schools. We know the tweeting and blogging world is its own microclimate. How do we take ideas further? We can all help to make that happen by taking these conversations offline too and talking it over at the SLT table or in subject teams etc.
So, there you have it. Some tentative thoughts based on a very limited analysis of ten intent statements and a handful of Ofsted documents! I’m not claiming the evidence is overwhelming, more flagging a potential issue.
It does appear that schools may still need to grapple a bit more with the underlying principles that inform curriculum design, starting with fundamentals about how we select content. My worry is that if schools don’t do this the current of habit will pull them back to Young’s ‘future 2’. That’s probably not good for kids (especially the most disadvantaged) and, with Ofsted’s knowledge-rich iceberg looming, a bit risky for schools too.
Maton, K. and Chen, T-H. (2016) LCT in qualitative research: creating a transition device for studying constructivist pedagogy. In Maton et al (2016) Knowledge-building. Educational Studies in Legitimation Code Theory. Routledge. Oxfordshire.
Young, M. (2018) A knowledge-led curriculum: pitfalls and possibilities. Impact