Curriculum implementation (part two)

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This is the second of two articles on curriculum implementation… read part one here.

In the first instalment in this two-part article, I explained what we might interpret by Ofsted’s assertion that curriculum implementation is the way in which “the curriculum is taught at subject and classroom level”.

Now I would like to complete our definition by exploring the following aspects of implementation as they relate to classroom teachers and teaching and learning. But let me begin by asking you some key questions about your school’s teaching and learning practices.

How teachers enable pupils to understand key concepts

Here, we might consider the ways in which teachers articulate the end-points to be learned in their subject discipline. What are the key concepts? Who decides? When are they taught? How and how often are they returned to and expanded upon? Do key concepts feature in learning objectives? Do key concepts feature in knowledge organisers? Are they used in low-stakes quizzes, hinge questions, exit tickets, homework tasks and so on in order to ensure they form part of retrieval practice activities?

How do teachers in this subject discipline routinely – and unobtrusively – assess pupils to ensure they have understood the key concepts they have taught? Do they return to this to ensure that what pupils know today, they still know tomorrow?

How teachers present information clearly

Here, we might consider what effective teacher instruction looks like in each subject discipline. In some subjects, teacher explanations might be the most effective and efficient means of imparting information whereas in other subjects a more hands-on approach for pupils (such as pair or group work, or problem-based learning) might be preferable.

In many subjects, of course, a combination of the two approaches probably works best because it provides a varied diet for learning activities for pupils.

Where teacher explanations are used, do teachers present information with clarity? Do they explicitly teach the vocabulary that pupils need to know, and do they “front load” their explanations with the key facts or ideas pupils need?

Do teachers made good use of modelling, constructing and deconstructing examples of excellence for pupils, rather than showing “one I made earlier”? Do they accompany these models with “thinking aloud” to ensure pupils are exposed to an expert’s decision-making processes and to ensure they can see that producing work of high-quality is rarely easy and without error – rather it is an iterative process that involves learning from mistakes, taking two steps forwards and one step back? Do teachers check their pupils’ understanding of these key concepts routinely and regularly and use the information this provides to adapt their teaching pace and style?

How teachers promote appropriate discussion

Here, we might consider how class discussion and debate are managed. When are they used? Does the teacher use whole-class, group or pair discussion, or a combination? When group work is used, is this is the best means of promoting discussion and are guidelines established to ensure all pupils are engaged and that no-one gets a free ride? Are roles assigned to ensure each pupil has a responsibility and is accountable to the group for its success?

Does the teacher explicitly teach effective debating skills and is this within a subject-specific context? Are the rules and routines for effective debate and discussion regularly and consistently reinforced? Are these rules the same in each classroom and with each teacher in a department? What about across the whole school curriculum? Do these rules help pupils to comment on other pupils’ contributions without it becoming a personal attack? Are active listening skills taught?

Do pupils know there is no hiding place in the classroom and that they will be expected to contribute? But is the classroom a safe place for pupils to take risks and make mistakes? Is there a safety net to catch them when they fall? Do discussions help pupils make progress? Are they inclusive of all pupils?

How teachers check pupils’ understanding effectively – identifying and correcting misunderstandings

In addition to what I say above about enabling pupils to understand key concepts including through assessment and by routinely returning to concepts to ensure that what pupils know today, they still know tomorrow, it is important that teachers also discover and unpack any misunderstandings and misconceptions that pupils develop. Assessment therefore needs to identify when pupils get it wrong or when gaps remain, and the results of these assessments need to be used to inform the teacher’s planning and teaching.

Accordingly, I would add the following questions: Do teachers ensure that any misconceptions and gaps are addressed? Do they ensure that pupils have acquired the key concepts they need to understand in order to move on to the next part of the curriculum? Do they use this information to inform their planning and teaching?

How teachers ensure that pupils embed key concepts in their long-term memory

Information has only been learned if it has been encoded in long-term memory. Indeed, the educational psychologist Paul Kirschner defines learning simply as a change in long-term memory. Information is encoded in long-term memory (in other words, it is transferred from the short-term or working memory into the long-term memory from where it can be accessed later) when pupils have actively attended to the information.

Pupils are more likely to attend to information if it is stimulating and if it requires them to think – in other words, the work must be challenging. However, as working memory is very small, it is also important that pupils are helped to make good use of that limited space and to avoid overloading it with too much information at once.

As such, here we might consider how teachers in each subject discipline “hook” pupils and gain the active attention of their working memories, then ensure they focus on the curriculum content they need to encode and avoid unhelpful distractions. Next, we might consider how teachers pitch learning in pupils’ struggle zones so that it is hard and requires thinking, but so that it is also within their capability and does not overload their working memories.

How teachers ensure that pupils can apply key concepts fluently

Once information has been encoded in long-term memory, it has been learned. However, this is not enough. If that information is left dormant, it will become increasingly hard to recall later. In other words, pupils may learn something today but be unable to recall it and apply it tomorrow.

Here, therefore, we might consider how and how often teachers return to prior learning to keep it active and accessible, and what they do with that prior learning when they do return to it.

As long-term memory is practically limitless, it is helpful for pupils to do something different with their prior learning each time they return to it, thereby encoding new information in long-term memory.

Likewise, it is advisable that pupils are helped to apply prior learning in different ways and in different contexts so that learning becomes transferable. Teachers might help pupils see connections within and across the curriculum so that they can apply what they learn in one topic to another related topic, or what they learn in one subject to another related subject, and so on.

Above all else, it is important that pupils are afforded the opportunity to apply their new-found knowledge and skills – to do something with it beyond sitting exams. As such, knowledge and skills should be placed within a wider context so pupils can see why that knowledge and those skills are useful and usable both now and in the future. A part of this is articulating the purpose of learning in each subject and each topic. And with purpose comes motivation.

How the subject curriculum is designed and delivered to allow pupils to transfer knowledge to long-term memory

In addition to what I say above about encoding information in long-term memory, it is important that – at a subject level and in long and medium-term teaching plans – opportunities for pupils to engage in retrieval practice activities are baked into the curriculum and not left to chance or to each individual teacher’s discretion. One way to do this well is to adopt a progression model such as the one I outlined in Book 1, which makes use of threshold concepts. A progression model is not only a useful means of assessing pupils’ progress, it is also a way to ensure that concepts are returned to often and are built upon with increasingly complexity.

How the subject curriculum is sequenced so that new knowledge and skills build on what has been taught before

Another advantage of the progression model is that it helps to ensure the curriculum is planned and sequenced. Sequencing is a means of ensuring that curriculum content is taught in a logical order and that concepts are returned to and developed over time.

Here, therefore, we might consider the order in which subject content is taught and how the subject curriculum is taught over time. Is there curriculum continuity, including between the different phases and key stages of education? Do teachers in each year group and key stage know what went before and what follows? In this sense, we might regard the subject curriculum as a novel and each teacher as being responsible for writing one or two chapters of it. Each teacher must know the plot arc of the whole book and must understand how their chapter fits in, how it develops character, theme and plot. They must ensure their chapter is consistent in both its language and tone.

How the subject curriculum is sequenced so that new knowledge and skills build towards defined end-points

Planning a curriculum begins at the end. You should ask, What do I want pupils to know and be able to do at the end that they did not know and could not do at the beginning?

Where you plant the flag is up to you, but the key is starting with the destination in mind rather than starting from where pupils are now.

Why? Because starting from where pupils are now might encourage you to dumb down or lower your expectations. Starting at the end, with “the best that has been thought and said” in your subject discipline, ensures you have high expectations and aspirations and set pupils on a journey towards excellence.

As such, planning and sequencing a subject curriculum means building towards a defined destination, the clear end-points you have agreed upon as a department. Curriculum continuity, therefore, is not simply about building upon what went before, it is also about building towards a shared destination, an aspirational goal.

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