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.

 

I recently read that you can’t actually see the Great Wall of China from space with the naked eye. I’m not sure where I first came across that myth, but I’ve spent a good number of years believing it to be true. Fortunately, astronauts have done me a service by venturing into space and returning with this important clarification. You can, though, see where there are dense clusters of habitation, identified by vast expanses of light that are visible from space. Here it is the collective mass of light, rather than any individual lamp, that we observe. Sometimes you have to climb above it all to get the right perspective and see how it all fits together.

Which provides a rather forced link to what I’m writing about in this piece – namely what a zoomed-out view might reveal about what is going on in our education system at the moment. From up close we often see individual instances of change in policy and practice in schools. But, like the earth viewed from space, what does it look like if we observe the whole? What sense might we make of it all if we look at its organising principles and not just its constituent parts in isolation? To help me with this analysis I’ll be drawing on Legitimation Code Theory once again.

What has caught attention in 2019?

This is not an exhaustive list but things that seem to have been particularly prominent in the curriculum and assessment discourse of 2019 include:

  • The new Ofsted framework
  • Focus on the curriculum
  • The Early Career Framework
  • The ITT Framework
  • Cognitive science, including cognitive load theory
  • The importance of memory and building fluency
  • The curriculum as the progression model
  • Powerful knowledge
  • Knowledge organisers
  • Cultural capital
  • Comparative judgement
  • ‘The best that has been thought and said’
  • Subjects
  • Domain knowledge

 

This isn’t to say that any of these things are ‘new’, but it does feel like some of these have picked up more traction in the past 12 months. So, what, if anything, is it that underpins these? Is there a single thing we might point to as the reason why attention has drifted towards these in particular?

You might conclude that it simply illustrates the power of the Ofsted framework to dictate the educational agenda, and in some ways you’d be right. I have no doubt that a good number of schools have picked up on the fact that curriculum now matters a great deal more during inspection. It’s also fair to say that Ofsted’s framework encourages schools to think about how they support pupils to retain knowledge over time – resonating with, or even reflecting, the growing interest in cognitive science.

But I don’t think this explanation is sufficient on its own, in part because Ofsted’s new framework is as much a symptom of the shifting paradigm as it is a cause of it. For example, the removal of Levels in the latest national curriculum set a course towards viewing the curriculum as the progression model (or at least should have done). And its reference to Matthew Arnold’s oft-quoted ‘the best that’s’ been thought and said’ was 5 years before Ofsted adopted it. Moreover, many schools and writers were already beginning to challenge what had become the established practices, bucking the trend towards genericism and a skills-based curriculum in favour of subject specific knowledge and expertise.

What else might be at play? There are those who would characterise it as a resurgence of ‘traditionalist’ teaching in reaction to what had been a dominant ethos of ‘progressivism’. I wouldn’t wish to tell advocates of this debate that this is wrong; a number of people identify their values and approach in these terms.

But I know of many people who say the dichotomy of traditional vs progressive doesn’t resonate with them. For example, Michael Young’s ‘powerful knowledge’ is not easily reduced to one of these, meaning those who have adopted Young’s theory might struggle to see their own philosophy within this binary.

Getting at the underlying principles

I think something more fundamental is taking place. To understand it we have to take a look at where we were a few years ago. In 1999 the government said this:

“The function of education above all is to ensure that all pupils respond as individuals, parents, workers and citizens to the rapid expansion of communication technologies, changing roles of employment and new work and leisure patterns resulting from economic migration and the continual globalization of the economy and society.”

There are two really interesting things here. Firstly, the rationale for education from government was instrumental – it was about creating the means through which people can be economically successful. Secondly, it explicitly positions this as being at the level of the individual, suggesting that education might respond differently to all people as individuals. Together, this creates a philosophy in which education is validated based on how it is useful to the individual.

This was of course the era of PLTS and ‘personalised learning’. In making decisions about what to include in the curriculum teachers were encouraged to place a premium on individual pupils’ preferences and local contexts, adapting the curriculum as necessary to engage pupils. Coherence, content and commonality were, to some extent, less highly prized than the unique contexts, experiences and interests of the individual.

Compare this to what is said in the current national curriculum:

“The national curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the essential knowledge that they need to be educated citizens. It introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said; and helps engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.”

In this rationale we see education recast as being about access to knowledge, not necessarily on the grounds of its economic utility, but in terms of social and cultural entitlement. This has, to some extent, changed the conversation around social justice & education – its conception looks quite different compared to what was written in 1999. The notion of entitlement to knowledge runs through the latest national curriculum, the new ofsted framework and what seems like a growing part of the sector. It was also captured in Ben Newmark’s wonderful blog a few months ago.

What we have here, I tentatively suggest, is a change taking place in the underlying code of education. Or at least, that appears to be the direction of travel – it doesn’t mean everyone is one the same page or that everyone agrees with it, but it is what is happening (I think).

Paradigm change – code shift

“In each social field, actors cooperate and struggle, both for more of what is viewed as signs of success and over what defines success. In other words, actors’ practices embody messages concerning what should be the dominant measures of achievement within a field – they are ‘languages of legitimation’. Put another way, LCT highlights that there is more to what we say or do than what we say or do.” (Maton & Chen 2019)

According to Legitimation Code Theory (LCT), discourses inevitably involve a tussle for legitimacy. LCT uses the notion of ‘codes’ to explore the organising principles through which particular practices gain legitimacy.

The previous paradigm of education, during which many of today’s leaders of schools and policy will have cut their teeth, was primarily based on a ‘knower’ code. In the struggles and decisions that inevitably face teachers and leaders, legitimacy tended to be based on the person. It didn’t necessarily matter which order things were learned, or indeed what was studied, as long as by the end pupils had developed the requisite skills and perspectives (or grades!).

To some extent the same could be said for teachers too. Innovation was encouraged on the basis that in and of itself this was virtuous because it would yield new approaches which may (or may not) be successful but would nonetheless develop the teacher. This is not to say that innovation is bad, just that it’s questionable as to whether it is inherently always the best bet (there may be more effective strategies one could use rather than seeking to do ‘the next big thing’).

For example, teachers were encouraged to do ‘brain gym’ and to consider the ‘learning styles’ of individual pupils and adapt their teaching accordingly. When we look at back now and cringe at how pervasive this unevidenced approach became, we might want to consider not just the lack of evidence of its efficacy but also recognise it as a product of its time: a paradigm which legitimized practices based primarily on the knower. You can see some of the same in the rush that took place towards highly differentiated activities and objectives. Even if learning styles had not been a dud, what exactly was it that we wanted pupils to learn through the various ‘kinaesthetic’ tasks teachers planned, and how did this relate to what was coming next week/month? This typified the tendency towards the search for an ‘approach’ rather than a deeper concern with the ‘what’ of curriculum and how knowledge should be sequenced over time.

In terms of leadership, the dominant narrative was one of leadership attributes. There were certain attitudes and dispositions that successful leaders had, and these formed the basis of much training at both middle and senior leader level. Throughout this period we saw a reduction in the importance placed on subject knowledge, after all the argument often went that ‘a good teacher can teach anything’.

 

The emergent code – knowledge

If we compare all that to where we are now and connect the dots we can begin to see a different picture emerging: a knowledge code. In this new paradigm knowledge itself is seen as being of greater importance. We can see this in the classroom and elsewhere. For example, schools using insights from cognitive science to help pupils remember content over the long term, and the very notion of the ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum.

This means that the subject knowledge of teachers is being given higher status in many schools. A number of leaders have told me they’re now asking more questions at interviews that probe candidates’ subject knowledge.

There is a growing sense, too, that progression through a subject should make sense in terms of the subject itself, and its knowledge structure, not just in relation to generic assessment criteria or competencies. This means ensuring the curriculum is coherent over time and reflective of the knowledge of its root discipline. This requires subject specialists to be given the support and flexibility required to teach their subjects with fidelity. I’m seeing more schools grappling with how best to make this happen. I sense a return to prominence of the subject associations may be one manifestation of this in the years ahead.

The same knowledge code shift seems to be taking place elsewhere too. Tom Rees’ work at The Ambition Institute is exploring the domain knowledge of leaders and challenging the established notion that successful leadership is rooted mainly in particular skills and dispositions.

It’s easy to see how the growing focus on evidence-informed practice fits within the knowledge code. Whereas previously innovation for innovation’ s sake had been lauded, the new paradigm tends to assert that ‘what works’ is more important. Whether ‘what works’ happens to be centuries-old pedagogic practice, or the latest insight from cognitive science, what matters is that which carries the greatest weight of evidence.

This is not to say that the paradigm shift from a knower code to a knowledge code is inherently for the better. The observation I make here is intended as a dispassionate analysis rather than a validation of either position (if this is possible).

Also, it’s important to say that the two positions are relational – a matter of more/less rather than either/or. There is always knowledge, and there are always knowers, so this analysis is not the application of another blunt dichotomy. It is about highlighting a change of emphasis.

 

So what?

I think it’s important to recognise the apparent drift towards a knowledge code. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with it or accept it as some sort of universal truth but being explicit about the changes taking place might help us to consider where we, and our colleagues, are in relation to it. This is essential if we are to reduce unhelpful friction.

“Code shifts can have profound implications, such as rendering previously successful actors unable to continue to succeed.” (Maton & Chen 2019)

There will be people for whom this code change runs counter to their experience, views and instincts. This is not to say that such people simply need ‘educating’ to accept the new paradigm but it’s difficult for teachers, leaders and policy makers to mediate between different perspectives if they don’t understand where people are coming from. And mediate we must. There are crunch points where one can observe a code clash in action. For example, twitter tends to be a battlefield of sorts, strewn with the bloodied 280-character comments of those who displayed a preference for the wrong code in the the wrong thread at the wrong time. I wonder too if the code clash can be seen in some of the reaction to Ofsted’s new framework (which seems firmly rooted in the new paradigm). Thinking about how we and others relate the dominant code might help us to reflect more on the principles and how we might respond constructively.

At system level the code shift is likely to signal specific requirements and repercussions. For example, are all schools sufficiently stocked with subject specialists across the curriculum? We know they’re not, largely as a result of the current recruitment and retention crisis. Policy makers must tackle this, as well as funding, if schools are to receive the resources they need in order to deliver in the new paradigm. One can see how, within this code, the organisational structure of multi academy trusts might be a useful lever to aggregate and direct subject specialist expertise to where it is needed. Or, beyond MATS, how collaborative groups of schools of any structure might achieve the same.

Schools will also need to be wary of how the new paradigm might be interpreted on the ground. In particular, to guard against a reductive enactment of its constituent parts. There are likely to be new problems encountered by a system that drifts too far or too fast in any given direction, with proxies being used in place of deep understanding. For example, I have written previously about my concerns regarding how ‘cultural capital’ has been conflated with other theories and the problems this causes. There is work to do to ensure that ‘knowledge-rich’ does indeed lead to a rich curriculum and not a distorted and reductive reflection of it.

Most importantly, the emergence of a knowledge code need not mean that the knower should not be considered. There may well be aspects of a school’s local context that should inform the curriculum pupils study. Leaders and teachers will need to weigh this up and be explicit about when, how and why this is best done. Plus, it would be odd not to consider how we might develop the skills, attitudes and dispositions of pupils. The evidence on growth mindset and character education suggests development of the knower should continue to be a concern of schools: the knowledge code paradigm need not be the stuff of ‘empty vessels to be filled.’ Greater emphasis on knowledge does not require that we abandon the knower. This means thinking about whose knowledge we are teaching, how pupils locate themselves within the curriculum and where it is appropriate to make links to pupils’ own experiences. There is always knowledge and there are always knowers – we must consider how they intersect.

 

In summary

So, that’s my take on what we’ve seen going on in 2019. I don’t think the direction was set this year but it certainly feels like the code shift has firmed up. If you’ve found yourself wondering what’s been going on in 2019, and how the pieces fit together when viewed at scale, I hope I’ve given you some food for thought. From what I’ve seen in 2019, what you know is becoming more important. I wonder what 2020 holds…

Maton, K. & Chen, R.T-H. (2019) Specialization codes: Knowledge, knowers and student success. In Martin, J.R., Maton, K. & Doran, Y.J. (2019) Accessing Academic Discourse. Routledge, Oxon

The secondary school sector is alive with discussion about shortening of key stage 3, not least because Ofsted’s new framework requires inspectors to take a closer look at this practice than they had previously. However, if we park Ofsted inspection for a moment, this debate is interesting because it gives us a good example of how we might use the work of Bernstein to reflect on the issue of what we include and, by extension, exclude from the curriculum.

As Bernstein explained, “Curriculum defines what counts as valid knowledge.” Furthermore, he said, “how a society selects, classifies, distributes, transmits and evaluates the educational knowledge it considers to be public, reflects both the distribution of power and the principles of social control.”

Bernstein’s analysis was centred on two key elements of power and control: ‘classification’ and ‘framing’. The concept of classification is concerned with boundaries between curriculum contents, for example the extent to which contents might be restricted to particular subjects on the timetable. “Where classification is strong,” Bernstein said, “contents are well insulated from each other by strong boundaries.” Where classification is weak boundaries between contents are blurred.

Framing is about the nature of control of the way knowledge is transmitted, essentially the pedagogy. For example, in some education systems the way knowledge is transmitted is more up for grabs than in others.

An argument you sometimes hear in relation to the key stage 3 debate is that shortening it allows for extra time at GCSE and, therefore, affords more time for pupils to focus on the content they need to learn in order to achieve well in the exam.

As Bernstein noted, debates in education tend to focus on the ‘approach’ rather than on the underlying principles of the problem. I wonder if we might yield insight into something more fundamental if we thought about it slightly differently and use a little theory to help .

In Bernstein’s ‘Class, Codes and Control’ (volume 3) his examples of classification in the school curriculum tend to refer to boundaries between subjects. But I wonder if we might apply the same notion of boundary to explore the demarcation of content within a subject: in this case the boundary between key stages 3 and 4.

For example, it would make sense for the boundary between key stages 3 and 4 to be weak. After all, in most subjects the content in key stage 4 represents some sort of deepening and/or broadening exploration of the same subject studied at key stage 3. However, our system incentivises us to view the contents of each key stage as being bounded in some way. This is interesting because it tends not to flow from the nature of the subject itself but rather from the structure imposed by our macro curriculum and management structures and the exam system.

So, in one sense those people who conclude the notion of key stages is arbitrary are absolutely right. In which case, you might argue, that shortening key stage 3 is of no consequence – it’s the same stuff, right? Only, it’s not quite as simple as that.

The nature of our exam system tends to mean that the pacing and pedagogy at key stage 4 are strongly determined by the course itself. This means that what Bernstein terms ‘framing’ is often stronger at key stage 4 – teachers and pupils have less options available to them in terms of the pace, detailed content and means of transmission. Framing tends to be weaker at key stage 3. So, there is a difference in framing between key stage 3 and key stage 4. This makes key stages 3 and 4 feel rather different from the perspective of pupils.

What I think is particularly interesting here is that many teachers I’ve spoken to have tended to bemoan the highly controlled pacing and prescription at key stage 4 when compared to what feels like the relatively weaker framing of key stage 3.

Moreover, I suggest (admittedly with no evidence) that this difference has become even more marked with growth of what Christine Counsell refers to as the language of ‘markscheme-ese’ at key stage 4, unfortunately reducing the taught and learned experience in some classrooms to a relentless focus on exam question types etc. This is not to say that stronger framing is inherently a bad thing, but in the context of content and pedagogy that has often seemed to be driven by exam practice questions rather than the beauty of the subject, I think the factors that shape framing at key stage 4 can be problematic.

Given this it might, therefore, be expected that the teaching profession would jump at the chance to return to a full and rich key stage 3 where framing is weaker and less driven by external evaluation criteria. But this is not necessarily the case. And that’s interesting, I think.

Is this a reflection of the belief that key stage 4 curriculum content is deemed to be superior in some way? Maybe. But I don’t often hear that argument. The argument I most often hear is the one I mentioned above: that more time at key stage 4 is likely to lead to better GCSE outcomes.

Let’s think about that again, though. What we’ve just done is, to some degree, to draw a boundary and insulate key stage 4 from key stage 3. Is this helpful? I wonder if it’s the imposition of these sorts of boundaries within subjects that sits behind some of the barriers pupils face in the classroom, because they form a disconnect in the logic and narrative flow of the subject (for example, between KS2 and KS3 too).

As an alternative, might it be possible that a full rich key stage 3, which is not strongly bounded from key stage 4, is exactly what pupils need in order to be successful at key stage 4? This is worth thinking about on a subject-by-subject basis. See @MrMountstevens recent twitter thread on this in relation to history.

There’s something else interesting going on too – the implicit assumption that curriculum value is derived from exam results. In our system, content classified as being GCSE is often seen as being of much higher status that that at key stage 3. This is an understandable position for people to take, but it is not without problem. Firstly, until such time as the national reference test dictates otherwise, at pupil level comparable outcomes means that, even if there was a sudden improvement in pupils’ overall standards next year in a given subject, the distribution of GCSE grades would remain broadly the same nationally. Secondly, school level progress 8 is a zero-sum game. For some schools to gain others have to decline. As it stands there is no end-game in which all pupils and schools leave with the top grades.

None of this is to say that results don’t matter – of course they do. But the question we might ask is what else matters too? What about those pupils who don’t leave with the top grades, or those who do not continue with the subject into KS4? Is it all for nought? That’s not to say for a moment that schools or teachers should lower their expectations of pupils.

Rather, it is a collective challenge for us to grapple with what we consider to be the aim(s) of our curriculum. In part this has already been decided by our representatives in government via the national curriculum. And as such we should take seriously what our curriculum choices say about the value we ascribe to those curricular standards. With what degree of reverence do/should we hold the content outlined in the national curriculum?

Whatever the curriculum issue we are grappling with (eg whether or not to shorten key stage 3, how many subjects pupils should study, or how many lessons we allocate to particular subjects in Year 7) we need to unearth and understand the principles that are at play.

The curriculum decisions we make are both structured and structuring. They are shaped by a range of factors, such as the pressures of our accountability and exam systems but in turn the decisions we make can feed back into this system and sustain it. The choices we make say something about the validity of that content. We need to think carefully about the message we want to convey back to the system, back to our pupils.

Bernstein’s notions of classification and framing give us the tools and language to think more deeply about how we structure the curriculum, particularly in terms of how we create boundaries between content.

A theoretical consideration of the boundary between KS3 and KS4 may unlock more meaningful insight than the sometimes superficial approach-based arguments about whether or not a full or short KS3 is preferable. This blog is not so much a pitch for either side of the debate, but a plea to make explicit the underlying principles.