This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in September 2018. You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.
You can access the full archive of my columns for SecEd here.
So far in this series on curriculum design, I’ve examined the likely focus of Ofsted’s 2019 Common Inspection Framework which will evaluate the intent, implementation and impact of the school curriculum.
In part one, I explained that there are three distinct elements to the curriculum: the national curriculum, the basic curriculum, and the local curriculum. However, I’ve also argued that the curriculum is more than this. It is, as the QCA put it in 2000, “everything children do, see, hear or feel in their setting, both planned and unplanned”.
The hidden curriculum, I said, is learning that takes place outside the classroom such as from other pupils as well as learning that arises from an accidental juxtaposition of the school’s stated values and its actual practice.
A broad curriculum, I’ve argued, is one in which there are enough subjects on the timetable to provide, say, linguistic, mathematical, scientific, technological, human and social, physical, aesthetic and creative, and spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. A balanced curriculum, meanwhile, is one in which each subject is not only taught to all pupils but is afforded enough time on the timetable to deliver its distinct contribution.
In short, I’ve argued that we should consider the curriculum in its widest sense – it takes place in and between lessons, in subjects and in extra-curricular activities, and it develops pupils’ skills in a range of areas including in the arts and sport, and – although important – is not solely concerned with the pursuit of academic outcomes.
In part two, I explained that establishing a vision for your curriculum will provide the benchmark against which all subsequent decisions about its content, structure, sequence, monitoring, evaluation and review can be tested.
Having fixed on this vision, the big question is: how do we decide what core knowledge is included in our broad and balanced curriculum? In part three, I said that knowledge is power because information held in long-term memory is essential in helping make sense of new information.
Knowledge is essential for reading comprehension, critical thinking and for closing the gap because children not born and raised in knowledge-rich environments don’t do as well in school because new knowledge and skills have nothing to “stick” to or build upon. One of the aims of our broad and balanced school curriculum, therefore, must be to help the disadvantaged build their cultural capital and this takes one tangible form: vocabulary.
In part four I said we should begin developing our curriculum by exploring the foundational concepts – the knowledge and skills – that pupils will need to have mastered by the end of key stage 4 in order to succeed at GCSE and then consider how we might use these foundations to build our secondary curriculum, starting in year 7 and moving progressively through key stages 3 and 4. Let me now model this process using the example of English language.
Back to the beginning
My starting point is to look at the assessment objectives and learning outcomes and to identify the key concepts upon which success is contingent.
For example, one of the outcomes required for success in GCSE English language is for pupils to be able to “identify and interpret explicit and implicit information and ideas”. I therefore need to ensure that the concept of explicit and implicit meanings form a part of my curriculum from year 7 onwards.
We might start in year 7 by teaching pupils what is meant by the words “explicit” and “implicit”. We might introduce these words, once we have assessed their prior knowledge from primary school, by following Beck’s advice:
- Read a sentence in which the word appears.
- Show pupils the word and get them to say it out loud.
- Discuss possible meanings of the word.
- Identify any parts of the word that may be familiar (e.g. Greek or Latinate roots, common prefixes and suffixes).
- Re-read the sentence with the word in it to detect any contextual clues.
- Explicitly explain the meaning of the word through definition and the use of synonyms.
- Provide several other examples of the word being used in context.
- Ask pupils to use the word in sentences of their own.
Thus, in year 7, pupils will be expected to know that “explicit” means stated clearly, leaving no room for doubt or confusion, whereas “implicit” means suggested though not directly stated or expressed. This will form part of our assessment of the curriculum.
But knowing what the words mean isn’t enough. As pupils travel through our curriculum we need to return to these concepts and teach pupils how to identify explicit and implicit meanings in a range of different texts.
Then we need to teach them how to interpret both explicit and implicit meanings, and comment on why the writer used explicit or implicit language and what effect their choice has on the reader.
Our end goal is for pupils to be able to comment on what a text overtly says and also discern what is implied or suggested – for example, what the writer might have been trying to say.
To arrive at this destination, we begin teaching explicit and implicit meanings from year 7 but do so at different levels of complexity and skill as we return to it, in different contexts and tied to different content knowledge, throughout the curriculum.
We do the same for all the other outcomes in GCSE English language including, for reading:
- What language features to identify and comment on.
- What structural features to identify and comment on.
- How to compare two or more texts.
- How to make references to a text, using quotations.
- What tone, style and register mean and how to identify them in texts as well as how to use them to influence writing.
- What form, purpose and audience mean and how to identify them in texts as well as how to use them to influence writing.
- What is meant by grammatical features and how to use various grammatical features for effect.
- What is meant by sentence structure and how to use different types of sentence for effect.
As we return to these foundational concepts at increasingly complex levels, we could make use of “threshold assessments”, which encourage pupils to move up the reading comprehension “ladder”:
- From identifies – whereby a pupil shows a simple awareness of language, identifies and gives a simple explanation, identifies literal meanings, and shows some understanding of what is going on…
- To explains – whereby a pupil understands language and how it works, for example, they can talk about effects on the reader and use appropriate quotations…
- To analyses – whereby a pupil explains the effects of language, goes beyond the literal, analyses words and sentences, and shows an awareness of different meanings, both implicit and explicit…
- And finally to evaluates – whereby a pupil evaluates the writer’s choice of language or impact on the reader, and offers their own opinion which is supported by appropriate evidence.
Breaking all the rules
Last week, in part four, in my defence of Shakespeare’s “inventive borrowing”, I quoted TS Eliot who said: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.”
The same can be said of pupils: they need to learn the rules before they can break them. For example, to help pupils know how to write a textual analysis, we need to teach them a framework such as PEE (point, evidence, explanation/or exploration) or SQI (statement, quote, inference) so that they can learn how to analyse a text and practise doing so until the process becomes automatic – until they cannot fail.
Once they have ingrained this useful framework, they can develop the confidence to deviate from it and to find their own voice.
As an English examiner I quickly recognise the classes who have been drilled on PEE and use it effectively if somewhat mechanically. They pick up the marks and certainly achieve a grade 5 or higher, but offer formulaic responses. I also recognise the highest performing pupils who achieve grades 8 and 9 because they retain the depth of analysis that PEE promotes but lose the formulaic structure and write in a distinctive manner, offering their own considered opinions.
I make no apology, therefore, for recommending our joined-up, progressive curriculum teaches pupils a series of useful frameworks and formula – what we might call schemata – to help them cheat the limitations of working memory by providing them with cues to knowledge in long-term memory which, in turn, allows them to automate certain processes.
Certainly in English (and other essay-based subjects), the PEE paragraph is a useful starting point and should be taught from year 7 onwards so that pupils are afforded sufficient time before they sit their GCSEs to practise using it in a range of contexts until they can automate it (thus, it becomes second nature and releases space in working memory for thinking about content). Once they have automated it, they can learn to deviate from it (in order to develop a voice of their own).
We can teach useful frameworks – or schema – for writing, too. For example, when teaching pupils how to write for different purposes, we could begin by drilling pupils on the types of text they need to write, what conventions they need to be aware of for each text type (teaching them first to obey those conventions before knowing when and how – and having the confidence – to ignore or subvert them for effect).
For each of these conventions, we should explain how it works, model using it, construct a model with the class, then allow pupils to practice using the convention themselves. Practice is made easier if pupils have mnemonics to rely on…
Mnemonics – a type of schemata – help cheat the limitations of working memory by short-cutting to knowledge stored in long-term memory.
For example, the acronym AFOREST – commonly used in schools – is an easy way for pupils to remember what to include in a piece of persuasive writing. AFOREST takes up little space in working memory but each letter stands for a feature that is stored in long-term memory because we have taught it from year 7 onwards and allowed pupils to repeat their prior learning in order to improve both the storage and retrieval strength of that information in long-term memory.
AFOREST, at least in my version, stands for: Amazing opening, Facts, Rhetorical questions, Emotive language, Statistics, and a Thought-provoking ending.
I recommend we design our curriculum by starting at the end and working backwards. We can do this by using, as a starting point, the assessment objectives and learning outcomes and identifying within them the key concepts upon which success is contingent, then ensure we introduce those concepts in year 7 and repeat them throughout key stages 3 and 4, albeit with increasing complexity.
Next time, having looked forward to the concepts pupils need in order to succeed at GCSE, we will look backwards at what pupils have been taught in year 6 in order to ensure we bridge the gap between primary and secondary school and our curriculum is joined-up at both ends.
Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley