Curriculum matters: Part 7 – the language of learning

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

This is the sixth instalment in a 7-part series. Read part one, part two, part three, part four, part five and part six.

This is the final part of my series on curriculum design. Before I conclude, here’s a recap…

I began the series by predicting the likely focus of Ofsted’s 2019 Common Inspection Framework. We can infer from the content of chief inspector Amanda Spielman’s speeches and from a consultation the inspectorate has conducted, that Ofsted will evaluate the intent, implementation and impact of the school curriculum.

This content now includes Ms Spielman’s most recent speech last week (October 11) confirming that the framework in 2019 will focus on “the substance of education and a broad curriculum” and will include a new judgement (subject to consultation) on the Quality of Education.

In part one of this series, I explained that there are three distinct elements to the curriculum:

  • The national curriculum, prescribed by statute and including core and foundation subjects.
  • The basic curriculum, the requirements in current legislation for the teaching of RE, sex education, careers education, and opportunities for work-related learning.
  • The local curriculum, which schools are free to adopt in order to complement the national and basic curriculums.

However, I also argued that we should regard the curriculum as more than this: it is, as the QCA suggested in 2000, “everything children do, see, hear or feel in their setting, both planned and unplanned”. This unplanned or hidden curriculum encompasses learning that takes place outside the classroom, too.

It is nevertheless important to start the process of curriculum design by articulating a clear vision of what the curriculum seeks to do in your school – and a good place to begin is by defining what is meant by a “broad and balanced” curriculum.

A broad curriculum, I argued, is one in which there are enough subjects on the timetable to provide 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.

I 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. And we should think carefully about how, once we have designed the curriculum, we will implement and evaluate it to ensure it delivers its stated aims and continues to be relevant.

In part two, I explained that establishing a vision for our curriculum will provide the benchmark against which all subsequent decisions about its content, structure, sequence, monitoring, evaluation and review can be tested. A good place to start, I said, is to consider what the school regards as the purpose of education. One answer is this: to produce polymaths – pupils with a well-rounded knowledge in a range of subjects so that they leave school with a solid grounding from which they can build their mastery of a specific field.

Having fixed on this vision, the big question is how do we decide what core knowledge is included in our broad and balanced curriculum? And why, in this internet age, does it matter what knowledge pupils learn?

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.

Put simply, the more you know, the easier it is to know more and so the culturally rich will always stay ahead of the impoverished, and the gap between rich and poor will continue to grow. 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, we learned from Shakespeare’s schooling. In Teaching Shakespeare, Rex Gibson says that “Shakespeare’s schooling provided an excellent resource for the future playwright. Everything Shakespeare learned at school he used in some way in his plays.”

In tackling the design of our curriculum, therefore, I think we can learn a lot from Shakespeare’s experience of school life and the best way to do this is to plan the curriculum content backwards.

In part five I explained this further. We begin 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. We 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.

In part 6, we then considered how to bridge the gap between the primary and secondary curriculums, ensuring that year 7 builds upon the knowledge and skills pupils bring with them from year 6. In other words, we need to make sure transitions between years, key stages and phases of education are smooth and progressive. And we need to make sure that the knowledge and skills pupils bring with them from primary school are consolidated and extended, not disregarded or repeated.

Weaving its way through all of this, and across the curriculum, we need to consider how we will make provision for the development of pupils’ language of learning and language for learning…

The language of learning

One way in which key stage 3 can bridge the gap between the primary and secondary curriculums is to ensure teachers on either side of the divide use the same, or at least similar, language of – and language for – learning.

By “language of learning” I mean the technical vocabulary that pupils are required to learn as part of the curriculum content knowledge. For example, if teachers in primary schools (as stated in the primary curriculum) refer to the word “and” as a “conjunction” but their secondary school colleagues are wedded to the term “connective”, it is confusing for pupils, and year 7 teachers may assume they haven’t been taught, or at least haven’t learnt, what a connective is when their use of the term is greeted with a wall of blank faces.

Likewise, in science, secondary teachers might refer to independent variable, dependent variable and controlled variables when conducting an experiment, whereas primary teachers might simply ask “how do you make it a fair test?” without introducing the technical vocabulary. The concepts are familiar but the language is not.

Of course, there will always be differences in the language used in primary and secondary – some terms will be too difficult or complex for younger pupils to say and use knowingly. However, primary and secondary schools could work together more closely to identify the avoidable differences in the language of learning they use – the unnecessarily confusing and contradictory.

The language for learning

By “language for learning” I mean the vocabulary we, as teachers, use to describe teaching and learning methods and activities. For example, in primary schools teachers routinely talk about WAGOLLs: “What a good one looks like.”

Pupils become confident using this term and certainly know what it means. However, when they transfer to secondary school they’re unlikely to hear it uttered again and may, instead, be confronted with the Latinate term “exemplar”. Some pupils may make the link with “example” and understand its meaning but many – particularly the word-poor who, more than anyone else, need the social and emotional effects of transition to be mitigated – may not be familiar with the word family and may miss its meaning.

Our teaching is littered – often unknowingly – with pedagogic jargon and the teaching terms we use in secondary are often different to those used in primary.

Again, primary and secondary teachers need to work more closely to ensure what they teach and the way in which they teach it – including the language they use and how they operate their classrooms (e.g. what they expect of pupils, what roles pupils are given, how they manage behaviour and use rewards and sanctions, and how they plan transitions between tasks) – is consistent.

Of course, just as content knowledge needs to grow in complexity as is it retaught throughout the curriculum, the language teachers use should also develop. But more needs to be done to smooth the transition and to draw links between the end of year 6 and the beginning of year 7.

A postscript

In March 2018, I attended SecEd’s ninth National Ofsted and Pupil Premium Conference in Birmingham. The keynote speaker, Peter Humphries, Ofsted’s senior HMI for schools in the West Midlands region, provided an update I think worth including here. He told delegates that the 2019 inspection framework will reward schools for having a “bold and courageous” curriculum.

Mr Humphries said: “Amanda Spielman has looked a lot at the curriculum and in the framework in 2019 I think there will be a focus on the curriculum. How well does your curriculum meet the needs of disadvantaged groups, SEND, boys excluded, etc? (She) feels that schools are too focused on how the curriculum prepares children and young people for SATs and GCSEs. From a disadvantaged pupil’s point of view, if all you get is teaching to the test and a focus on examinations, you can see how that might affect you and disengage you. And it’s not just (the case for) disadvantaged pupils.

“Please be assured,” he told delegates, “that if you are bold and courageous to adapt your curriculum and do exciting things you will get credit for it.”

And lo and behold, as this article was being prepared for publication, Ms Spielman made a speech to the SCHOOLS NorthEast conference in which she set out some of the key changes we will see in the new framework (the draft for which will be launched for consultation in January 2019).

Ms Spielman said that the focus will be on “the substance of education and a broad curriculum”. She confirmed that Ofsted is to consult on the introduction of a new judgement for “Quality of Education”. This will replace the current “outcomes for pupils” and “teaching, learning and assessment” judgements. Ms Spielman said the new focus would bring “the inspection conversation back to the substance of young people’s learning and treating teachers as experts in their field, not just data managers”.

She added that Ofsted will also challenge those schools where too much time is spent on preparation for tests at the expense of teaching, where pupils’ choices are narrowed, or where children are pushed into less rigorous qualifications purely to boost league table positions.

Three further inspection judgements will be Personal Development, Behaviour and Attitudes, and Schools’ Leadership and Management. See SecEd’s report on this week’s news pages for more information.

Back in Birmingham in March, Mr Humphries reminded conference delegates of the evidence showing that certain groups of students are more likely to be excluded than others. This too, is on Ofsted’s radar he said. He urged schools to reflect on their own situation.

We can infer from this that Ofsted will evaluate whether or not the curriculum is suitable for pupils and promotes equality of opportunity. This suggests the “hidden curriculum” will be of particular importance, especially the way in which a school manages behaviour and attendance, supports pupils pastorally, and sends positive messages about inclusion and diversity through the words and actions of all the adults in the school.

Mr Humphries also emphasised the key role literacy plays in the curriculum and inferred this would also be a focus of the new framework.

A school’s curriculum is likely to be evaluated for the extent to which it helps close the gap. He told delegates: “We know that literacy is an issue for disadvantaged pupils and it’s sometimes a bit of a surprise that it’s not being addressed more rigorously in schools.”


Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley


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