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?

Conclusion

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:

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

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

A) Explaining concepts.

B) Highlighting and resolving common misconceptions.

C) Providing analogy and metaphor.

D) Drawing out links with prior/future learning.

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

F) Giving feedback.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Consolidation is an opportunity to build fluency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions and caveats:

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

References:

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

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

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.

You can find out more about LCT here: https://legitimationcodetheory.com

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. 

Maton, K. (2013) Making semantic waves: A key to cumulative knowledge-building, Linguistics and Education 24: 18–22, page 13.

So what?

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?” 

Tentative thoughts

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.”
  • “ensuring relevance.”
  • “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:

  • Blog on curriculum intent by Heather Fearn
  • Section on ‘intent’ in the handbook
  • 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.

So what?

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.

References:

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

yV4XXIt is difficult not to sense the paradigm shift taking place in relation to the school curriculum. Building on the work of the national curriculum review of several years ago, the growing adoption of evidence-informed practice (drawing on cognitive science and sociology), and the latest Ofsted inspection framework, there is momentum behind what some refer to as the ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum.

The terminology is imperfect; it almost invites criticism from those who, with some justification, are sceptical of what might appear to be the latest educational fad. However, whatever our unease about the label, the evidence supporting the adoption of knowledge-rich practices is not easily dismissed. A good synthesis of which can be found in Dylan Wiliam’s (2018) book ‘Creating The Schools Our Children Need’.

But despite all the blogs, tweets and conferences blossoming with fertile debate about the importance of knowledge, and its foundational relationship with skill, there remain significant blind spots in the system that must be addressed.

Location, location, location

Some of these gaps are locational. For example, one might wonder how many of the audience at educational conferences have not already heard numerous assertions from keynote speakers about the important role played by knowledge in the curriculum. However, while there are undoubtedly many who are ‘in the loop’ in this regard, we must also remember that the curriculum conversation is not evenly distributed.

In part this is because our school system is complex and uneven. People, and thus schools, are not distributed evenly through these isles. There are around 25,000 schools in England, staffed by around 450,000 teachers. Not all enjoy the same access to the curriculum conversation: access to CPD and support can differ according to location. For example, it can be easier to find professional development in London than it is in Cumbria. At a recent conference in Manchester the speaker was shocked to find a group of school leaders from Devon were in attendance. They explained that it was sometimes necessary and more cost effective for them to fly the length of the country to attend CPD.

The implications of this, however, are less about one-off conferences and more about everyday access to the curriculum conversation, without which teachers can easily become isolated. In some cases whole schools can become isolated, which can be a limiting factor in entry to professional discourse and the development of curriculum expertise. Collaboration and partnership is one means of addressing this problem.

What do teachers gain from working in partnership? It’s the subject meeting they can attend on a Wednesday afternoon. It’s the school they can visit so you can observe an expert colleague in action, or perhaps to offer their own expertise and support. As much as anything collaboration provides the opportunity for subject leaders and teachers to discuss, debate and refine how they think about the curriculum and how it is enacted. I was privileged to be a part of a long standing professional subject network and saw first-hand the benefits it brought. So too did Ofsted, who wrote a best practice report on it a few years ago.

Temporal

It’s also important to sustain these conversations over time. A one-day conference event can provide a useful weathervane as to the direction the educational winds are blowing, sometimes serving as a powerful impetus for change or means of checking your thinking. But they don’t always reveal the granular level of detail necessary to put meaningful change into practice. We’ve seen some of that in recent months; there are plenty of us speaking at conferences advocating the importance of knowledge in the curriculum, but what does that mean if you’re a head of maths, as opposed to a head of music? Or if you work in a primary setting, as opposed to a secondary school? This isn’t to say people shouldn’t attend such conferences – they can be vital – but whatever insight is gleaned must be deepened and sustained over time.

Developing deep understanding through professional development takes time. We risk a lamentable irony here if we accept the notion that development of pupils’ understanding requires careful sequencing over time but fail to apply the same logic to the development of teachers and leaders. We know that the most successful CPD is not a one-off (Weston & Clay 2018). It has a temporal quality, chasing key threads over time as we deepen understanding and improve practice. Again, this can be achieved through deliberate networks and partnerships.

Relational

Which brings us to the third of our blind spots: our relationship with knowledge itself. As suggested above, our relationship with knowledge is not identical to one another. In fact, the way we select, discuss and use knowledge is inescapably an expression of what we consider to be the basis of what is/not legitimate (Maton 2014). The scientist who is able to explain how photosynthesis works understands something about how knowledge is deemed to be legitimate in science. The artist who explains why they consider the works of Jackson Pollock to be more than random paint splatter knows something about how knowledge is deemed to be legitimate in art. This is the work of disciplines – the tacit rules through which legitimate knowledge, and legitimate knowers, are established. The way in which knowledge is legitimated within each subject is not necessarily the same. Maths is different to History. RE is different to design & technology, and so on.

This poses possibly the greatest challenge to curriculum development. In order for there to be productivity and accountability it is expedient to have ‘leaders’ – those who establish the practices which should/not exist within the school and are accountable for the impact of such decisions. Where practices and decisions depend on knowledge that is not highly specialized, or where specialized knowledge is required and has been effectively developed, this need not be an issue. However, it can be problematic when those making key decisions lack the specialist knowledge necessary to do so. But is it realistic to expect school leaders to have expert specialist knowledge of every curriculum area? Probably not.

This is why middle leaders play an important role in schools in relation to the curriculum. Indeed, Ofsted (2019) noticed during their curriculum research that in some secondary schools curriculum quality was strong because of highly skilled middle leaders, rather than because of school leaders’ curriculum expertise.

So, does this mean that senior leaders are no longer important in the brave new curriculum-focused world? No, quite the opposite in fact. We know that within-school variation tends to be greater than variation between schools (Thompson 2020). This means that, in curriculum terms, most schools are likely to have subject areas where there are highly skilled teachers and practices are effective, and others that are less so. If left to their own devices this situation is unlikely to rectify itself and variation will continue. Leaders need to lead in order to address this. But what action should be taken?

Leaders can improve or exacerbate the issue, depending on what they do. Given what has already been said about the fundamental differences between subjects in how knowledge is structured and legitimised it is crucial that leaders don’t fall back on unhelpful generic practices if these undermine the subject itself. Clearly there are some issues where practice and pedagogy can be generalised without compromising the integrity of the subject. For example, managing behaviour in the classroom does not necessarily require tailoring to the knowledge-structure of the subject.

However, we might want to think twice about insisting that all subjects in a school share a common scheme of work template, or assessment structure. After all, your maths teachers might prefer to use a highly granular approach detailing the specific and consistent steps all pupils should follow in a given order. This might look different on a page to the geography scheme of work in which teachers may have flexibility over things like the case studies they use to draw out and exemplify particular knowledge. Moreover, a history scheme of work might, for example, feature columns in which particular substantive and disciplinary knowledge is outlined. In technology this distinction might be less useful.

None of this means that subject leaders and teachers should be left to flounder. Rather it means that leaders need to think carefully about where generic intervention should be deployed, and where subject specific support is necessary. It may well be that this sort of awareness is in itself a type of domain-specific knowledge that leaders must develop. As Tom Rees suggests, “An implication of domain-specific leadership is that school leaders should develop deep educational expertise in areas such as curriculum or teacher development” (Rees 2020). My guess is that collaboration and partnership are more likely to yield the development of such knowledge among leaders.

Also, given what’s already been discussed above, notions of ‘support’ and ‘development’ should take into account spatial and temporal factors. E.g where can this subject leader/teacher/department get support? Over what period is this support required and available?

In concrete terms this might be about looking to national subject associations and experts. Equally, it might be about joining or establishing regional subject networks. And it may well be about ensuring such partnerships endure over time so as to support ongoing development and curriculum renewal. Such relationships might also be achieved at whole school level through formal partnerships across schools.

Theoretical

Underpinning all of the above is theory. We should embrace this. Some people mistakenly take the word ‘theory’ to mean mere speculation, as if it is equally likely to be wrong as right. The assertion that knowledge is intrinsic to learning is not dogma or ideology – it’s the product of rational dialogue between theory and data. Ofsted’s research summary captures much of this (Ofsted 2019). Does that mean it’s an immutable fact? No. But it’s not necessarily guesswork either.

The idea that knowledge is not structured the same way across the curriculum, and thus requires some specialist understanding, is not mere supposition either. It’s a theoretical position underpinned by empirical evidence (Bernstein 1996). As such, we ought to have some other compelling theoretical position if we are to ignore this. That’s different to the somewhat tiresome refrain of “in country X they do something different, so the knowledge-rich curriculum must be the wrong approach”. Looking at what’s going elsewhere without understanding the underpinning theory tells us much less than we might think. We end up looking at surface features and missing the foundational thinking (or lack of). It’s a bit like going shopping without a shopping list: you’ll come back with something, but it probably won’t come together too well.

Too often people rail against what they consider to be a ‘knowledge-rich fad’ because they’ve mistaken it to be a matter of pedagogy, reduced to cliches about rote learning or uncritical memorization. Or, they reject ‘powerful knowledge’ because their understanding presupposes power is derived from the origins of knowledge (which is ironic given Young’s thesis is quite the opposite). Or, they advocate strongly for what they consider to be powerful knowledge because of its origins (usually born of a conflation with cultural capital or cultural literacy). Whether rejecting or advocating ‘powerful knowledge’ we ought to understand what it means.

By making theory more explicit we make it easier for us to have meaningful and productive debates about curriculum content and structure. This doesn’t have to be intimidating. As Christine Counsell demonstrates so well, curriculum theory can made accessible and relevant for curriculum planning at macro level as well as within the classroom. I had the pleasure of watching her speak to a group of leaders a week ago. The session was inspirational because she communicated it well, and also because it was built on compelling theory.

We simply have to get better at theorising about the curriculum if we are to talk about it with confidence.

Partnership

Despite the challenges outlined above there is much to be optimistic about. There is fundamental and positive change taking place in our education system, not least of which is the rightful positioning of curriculum as at the forefront of the work schools do for the common good.

However, it is increasingly clear to me that in order to deliver on the promise of this paradigm shift, partnership within and across schools is now the essential condition for success.

The means of developing curriculum expertise outlined here is specialized, it is geographically distributedand it is sustained over time so that the curriculum is constantly debated and renewed to reflect the best that we know. This ongoing dialogue between professionals is democratising in that it is open to all educators, whether a head teacher or an NQT. It is ethical – it is undertaken in the best interests of children, inducting them into ways of seeing the world that are both built on and broader than their own experience of the world. This might resonate with Ofsted’s agenda, but this is not the primary reason for this work.

It is difficult to imagine how such a dialogue can exist without deep and sustained partnerships. More than ever, it is essential that leaders at all levels seek to establish the sorts of collaborative relationships that will allow the curriculum blind spots identified above to be resolved.

If you are in the fortunate position of enjoying a good degree of curriculum expertise in your school or department, spare a thought for the school – perhaps not too far from you – that is not as well placed. Does your responsibility extend only to your pupils, or might we take a collective step forward on behalf of all young people?

What are you doing within your school, or group of schools, to build high quality curriculum collaboration?

How are you leveraging this to do better by the pupils in your school and elsewhere?

 

References:

Bernstein, B. (1996) Pedagogy, Symbolic Control & Identity: theory, research & critique, Chapters 3 and 9. London, Taylor & Francis.

Maton, K. (2014) Knowledge and knowers. Routledge.

Ofsted (2019) Education inspection framework: Overview of research.

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/807641/Research_for_EIF_framework_100619.pdf

Rees, T. (2020). 2020. A new perspective for school leadership? https://www.ambition.org.uk/blog/

Thompson, D. (2020). Are we looking in the right place to improve attainment? https://ffteducationdatalab.org.uk/2020/01/are-we-looking-in-the-wrong-place-to-improve-attainment/

Weston, D. & Clay, B. (2018). Unleashing Great Teaching. Routledge.

Wiliam, D. (2018) Creating the Schools Our Children Need: why what we’re doing right now won’t work, and what we can do instead. West Palm Beach: Learning Sciences International.

Dedication to a problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Subject-level problem solving

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

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

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

Domain knowledge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life after vision

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

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

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