The curriculum conch

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Written by Shofiquez Zaman, Deputy CEO


“WHAT we teach isn’t some sidebar issue in education: it is education”

- Dr David Steiner of John Hopkins University

We find ourselves in an edu-world  ‘Lord of the Flies’ style lawless limbo land – no more exams (or do we?), remote teaching until Easter and very questionable mass testing. All the normal ‘rules’ and ‘norms’ seem a distant memory right now. Yet teachers, support staff and school leaders across the country continue to hold firm and wade through an ever-shifting unknown world.

We carry on as normal where we can. One such norm we continue to carry on is our discussions on the curriculum. Just like Lord of the Flies, where the conch serves as a symbol of normality and order, our curriculum conch must allow us to refocus on what is most important, now and in the future.

For Forest Gate Community School, our curriculum has served as a fundamental lever in the school’s success, year after year. More specifically, it has been the curriculum understanding held by not just our school leaders, but by our middle leaders and teachers alike.

Let us begin with a series of curriculum related questions:

  • Who should have the greatest understanding of the science behind a school or a subject curriculum? Is it the Deputy Head in charge of the school curriculum? Subject Leaders? Ofsted? Or dare I say, the Education Secretary?
  • How do we define a curriculum and what is considered to be a ‘great curriculum’?
  • How do you define standards?
  • What constitutes ‘knowledge’?
  • What makes an effective classroom practitioner?

When it comes to the discussion of curriculum development, in my experience, the first people to switch off are the main scale teachers, because they see this to be a concern for the subject and school leaders only.

In this article, I am arguing that the understanding of the science behind curriculum development applies to everyone and in particular, our classroom teachers.

Everything starts with our curriculum

In a recent article in @researchED1, Nuno Crato, former Minister of Education in Portugal asserts that everything starts with the curriculum, and this was one of the main reasons behind the country’s leap in PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test scores between 2006 and 2015.

Most often we spend an awful amount of time and money on training teachers ‘how’ to teach more effectively with an assumption that ‘what’ they are teaching is standard aligned. We also train teachers to ‘assess’ more effectively and assume what they are assessing is fit for purpose.

How often do we get our teachers to think hard about what they teach, why they are teaching it and in what order they should teach it? Or do we provide them with a ‘ready-made’ curriculum plan, expecting them to follow it blindly without questioning it?

You will find many schools are at the mercy of exam board publications and their curriculum plans. Schools often surrender their autonomy in designing the most strategic plan for their students to outside organisations. In reality, it should be the school and its teachers who architect their own curriculum given their local context. The curriculum is the cohering element through which teachers and leaders can think deeply and purposefully about learning and improvement.

What is a curriculum?

The definition of ‘curriculum’ is rather contested. According to a recent report by Johns Hopkins School of Education (What we teach matters, How quality curriculum improves student outcomes), curriculum is defined broadly as ‘the means to achieve the goals expressed in the standards.’ Standards are ‘expressions of the goals of student learning…typically aim to outline what we expect students to know and be able to do at different stages of schooling’.

A ‘quality curriculum’, it argues should address the following three questions:

  1. Does the curriculum support effective, research-based pedagogy? (Formative assessment,  feedback, metacognition among others)
  2. Is the curriculum* content-rich (knowledge** rich)? (Specific, cumulative, well rounded, preparatory and rigorous)
  3. Is the curriculum standards-aligned?

Characteristics of an ‘effective’ teacher

So what does all this mean for a teacher on the ground? For this, let us analyse the list below:

Subject Knowledge:​

Effective Teacher:

  • Strives to be the expert in their subject domain; understands how concepts can be differentiated and communicated in simple language to different groups of learners; aware of common misconceptions and knows why, how and when to assess learning.
  • Understands links between other subjects and the real-life world

Ineffective Teacher:

  • Misconceptions are often reinforced due to their poor subject knowledge. 
  • Work given is either too easy or too hard because they do not know how to verify its appropriateness
  • Often blames the students for their lack of understanding
Planning-long term:

Effective Teacher: 

  • Ensures there is a clear strategic plan and standards expected from their students, which they work towards
  • Thinks hard about what they teach, why they are teaching it, and in what order should they teach it in order to achieve the desired standard
  • Builds assessment opportunities  to gauge whether or not students are on track to achieve these standards
  • Revisits key contents to support students retaining key knowledge in their long term memory

Ineffective Teacher:

  • Work given is usually disconnected or ad-hoc and not joined up with a long term plan
  • Doesn’t revisit key contents either because they do not feel the need to do so or they are too busy sweeping through the subject content (there’s never enough time)
  • Specific content students learn throughout the years:
  • is vaguely understood and therefore stated
  • is not cumulative (on an expanding domain), children do not develop both deep and broad knowledge
  • not made interesting
  • does not offer the best preparation for the later studies-loose link between content
  • are not rigorous and therefore doesn’t stimulate students’ minds, leading to boredom and disengagement
Planning – lesson by lesson:

Effective Teacher:

  • Long term plan is adjusted and adapted to ensure local relevance
  • Doesn’t hesitate in changing (an established) plan entirely if this is required for their specific class

Ineffective Teacher:

  • Evidence of little or no plan and (at best) works with a ‘given plan’ (uses textbook, workbook without questioning its relevance)

Effective Teacher:

  • Thinks about how to best deliver the WHAT (chosen content) and this is based on educational research (uses Afl, provides timely and specific feedback, develop strategies to develop students’ metacognition etc) •Adopts instructional teaching strategies such as Rosenshines principles of instruction

Ineffective Teacher:

  • Lesson aim is not made explicitly clear
  • Lesson starter has no clear objective, for example, it’s not linked to assessing and reinforcing previously taught contents
  • Poor introduction and teacher modelling. Too much teacher talk and conflates this with ‘teaching’
  • Very little opportunity for students to work independently leading to not securing their understanding of the content taught. This inevitably impacts the quality of feedback given (if the intention was there to provide feedback at all!) 
  • No or little opportunity for the teacher to assess learning throughout the lesson, this also includes the plenary at the end of the lesson
Assessment and outcome:

Effective Teacher:

  • Teachers can confidently judge the extent of students’ learning and their assessment is laser-sharp!
  • Students make excellent progress. They learn and retain information over time and are able to recall it confidently during key assessment points

Ineffective Teacher:

  • Teachers assessment is highly inaccurate, adversely impacting their (teachers) future lesson plans
  • Students’ learning is adversely impacted due to poor planning, feedback and untimely interventions
  • Student achievement is unacceptably low and most often teachers blame the students for this

Characteristics of an effective/ineffective teacher

Quality first teaching is, therefore, the most important lever in raising standards. Good teachers take ownership of curriculum planning and its effective delivery.

School leaders’ burden of responsibility:

The burden of responsibility is upon school leaders and in particular the Headteacher. Therefore, the following must be understood and acted upon:

  1. ‘quality curriculum improves student learning’
  2. ‘The cumulative impact of high-quality curriculum can be significant’ (effect of high quality long term plan)
  3. Quality curriculum is a cost effective school improvement lever because an ‘effective curricula on average costs no more than a weak curricula’
  4. There needs to be a shift in priority and culture in the way many school leaders view curriculum planning and its implementation
  5. Schools should use ‘quality curriculum as an anchor for school improvement’ because the impact is magnified by matching it with professional development

Gone are the days when subject leads used to plan their schemes of work and then it all gets forgotten, resulting in a disconnect between what we had planned and what we did in the classrooms.

“Truly understanding curriculum and its connection to standards and assessment is complex and time-consuming work. If school leaders and their leadership team members do not understand the curriculum deeply, they will not be effective in supporting teachers to do the same.”

Our work on the curriculum development started back in 2014 with the announcement of assessments without levels. This led us to address curriculum planning and its effective delivery, initially with Senior and Middle leaders, extending it to school teachers. This was when the Dynamic Progress Reporting (DPR) was born, which took our curriculum implementation to a whole new level.

DYNAMIC PROGRESS REPORTING explained in 2 minutes

All the while, our educational landscape keeps shifting. I know that with the resilience that defines our profession, we will carry on. And as we do, we must continue our crucial work on our curriculums. We must centre this work around staff development and subject expertise, for practitioners at every level. And like Ralph in Lord of the Flies, our curriculum conch will serve as an unshifting symbol of order and clarity. Because that’s what our teachers need and that’s what our students need.