What is curriculum implementation?

My latest book is the second in a three-volume series on the subject of curriculum design.

Whereas Book 1 was about ‘intent’, all the planning that happens before teaching happens; Book 2 is about ‘implementation’, all the teaching that comes next…

You can find out more about Book 1 here and read a free summary here.  You can also take a look inside Book 1 on Amazon.

You can find out more about Book 2 here – and preview the contents – and you can take a look inside Book 2 on Amazon.

Book 2, as I say, is about curriculum implementation.  So, what, exactly, is curriculum implementation..?  Well, here is my quick(ish) guide…

What is curriculum implementation?

At the time of writing, curriculum design is a hot topic in England’s schools and colleges, thanks at least in part to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate. In 2019, Ofsted – the Office for Standards in Education which inspects state-run schools and colleges in England – published a new Education Inspection Framework (EIF).

Although teachers and education leaders in England cannot ignore Ofsted (to do so would, in my view, be foolish rather than brave because inspection outcomes matter in all sorts of ways), we should never forget that Ofsted are not why we do what we do. As teachers and leaders, we do what we do for our pupils and students and if we do what is right for them, acting with integrity at all times, we should have nothing to fear from Ofsted.

Nor are Ofsted the reason for my series of books on curriculum design – indeed, the manuscript for Book One began life long before Ofsted consulted upon and published its EIF – although, perhaps shamefully, in the final draft of that book I ‘borrowed’ Ofsted’s 3I’s of intent, implementation and impact as a means of articulating the curriculum design process.

Having said this, the new inspection framework does, I think, provide a logical way of thinking about curriculum design and its focus on ‘the real substance of education’ is to be commended.

We will examine what the EIF means for curriculum design in more detail in Chapter Four but for the purposes of this chapter, let’s focus on how Ofsted defines ‘implementation’…

In the schools’ inspection handbook, Ofsted defines implementation as the way in which “the curriculum is taught at subject and classroom level”.

Accordingly, during an inspection, Ofsted will want to see how teachers enable pupils to understand key concepts, presenting information clearly and promoting appropriate discussion, how teachers check pupils’ understanding effectively, identifying and correcting misunderstandings, and how teachers ensure that pupils embed key concepts in their long-term memory and apply them fluently.

Further, Ofsted will want to see if the subject curriculum that classes follow is designed and delivered in a way that allows pupils to transfer key knowledge to long-term memory and if it is sequenced so that new knowledge and skills build on what has been taught before and towards defined end points.

We will unpack those two paragraphs in a moment.

In the further education and skills inspection handbook, Ofsted argues that teachers need sufficient subject knowledge, pedagogical knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge to be able teach learners effectively.

Effective teaching and training should, Ofsted argues, ensure that learners in further education and skills settings know more and remember what they have learned within the context of the approach that teachers have selected to serve the aims of their curriculum. Consequently, learners will be able to apply vocational and technical skills fluently and independently.

In both schools and FE settings, Ofsted says that inspectors will want to see evidence that teachers use assessment to check pupils’ understanding, and they will evaluate how assessment is used in a school or college to support the teaching of the curriculum, but – crucially – not in a way that substantially increases teachers’ workloads. By including reference to the report of the Teacher Workload Advisory Group, ‘Making data work’, which recommends that school leaders should not have more than two or three data collection points a year, Ofsted implies – I think – that it will expect schools to follow this advice or have a solid rationale for not doing so.

In short, Ofsted’s definition of effective curriculum implementation is high quality teaching which leads to long-term learning.

So, let’s unpack those ingredients…

How the curriculum is taught at subject level

Here, we might consider how curriculum plans are written to ensure the subject is taught in a planned and sequenced manner, and in a way that ensures all teachers within a department are consistent in the content they deliver, as well as in the broad pedagogical approaches they apply to teach their subject.

It might help to consider the following questions:

What makes our subject different to other subjects on the timetable? For example, how do scientists think, as distinct from mathematicians? How do scientists speak, read and write? How is this explicitly taught to pupils?

What shape does the subject curriculum take? Is it linear or spiral? What does progress look like in this subject? Can it be extrapolated by assessing pupils’ knowledge and skills at two points in time? Or is it more complex than this? Can some skills be observed? What about knowledge, how do you know when pupils have acquired it securely and can apply it in a meaningful way? Indeed, can you know this?

What form do the key concepts (end points or body of knowledge) take in this subject? For example, are they worded as big questions, ideas, concepts, values, behaviours, facts, or skills? Or a combination of all these and more?

How do these key concepts develop other time? Do they get reinforced each term and year? Do they get built upon and added to as pupils progress through the curriculum and as subject content is returned to with increasingly complexity? How are explicit links made between what pupils already know and can do, and what they need to learn next?

Is the subject content the same regardless of which teacher a pupil has? What value judgments are made about what knowledge and skills are most important and which aspects of the subject can be dropped? Are such decisions made as a department or by individual teachers? Is subject content taught in the same or broadly similar ways by all teachers in the department? For example, where appropriate, do all teachers use the same presentation slides, textbooks and worksheets? Do they all use the same schemata or aides memoire?

What cross-curricular links are made? Do subject teachers work with other departments to identify commonalities and themes where relevant? Do subjects liaise on their sequencing to maximise the potential to support each other’s delivery? When maths is needed in science, do science teachers use the same mathematical methods as maths teachers? Do all teachers ensure they teach tier 2 vocabulary in ways that do not contradict other subjects but that make explicit the differences that exist in the meanings of, say, command words such as ‘analyse’ between subject disciplines?

How the curriculum is taught at classroom level

Here, we might consider the way curriculum plans are translated into practice by individual teachers. In so doing, the following questions may prove useful:

What does our subject-specific learning environment, including classrooms and corridors, look and sound like? What makes the teaching of this subject different to the teaching of other subjects? How is the learning environment organised? What do all classrooms contain? How are the walls used? What layout is optimal? How is the space utilised including the use of displays to aid learning? What of the social environment? What do interactions look like and why? Does the way the classroom is run mirror expectations in the subject field? Are explicit links to the subject discipline made?

What rules and routines are particular to this subject? How are they articulated, reinforced, enforced? In subjects with a practical element, such as design and technology, engineering, and construction, how are health and safety taught and high standards upheld?

What does the teacher do in this subject? What is the balance between teacher-led and pupil-led activities? What do teacher explanations look like in practice? How does the teacher make use of modelling and thinking aloud? How do they make their subject expertise explicit to pupils so what is invisible to the novice learner becomes visible?

Is pair and group work used in this subject? How and why? What guidelines are established? How and how often? Are they routinely upheld? Does self- and peer-assessment and feedback feature in this subject? How is this managed?

What does assessment look like in our subject? What is assessed, by whom, when and how? How is feedback given? What is done with it?

How teachers enable pupils to understand key concepts

Here, we might consider the ways in which teachers articulate the end points or body of knowledge to be learned in their subject discipline. In so doing, we might pose the following questions:

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 or intended outcomes? Do key concepts feature in knowledge organisers or unit summaries? 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 our subject discipline routinely – and unobtrusively – assess pupils to ensure they have understood the key concepts they’ve 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 etc.) 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 and moves them towards independence.

The following questions may be helpful here:

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 forward and one step back?

Do teachers check their pupils’ understanding of these key concepts routinely and regularly and use the information this gleans to adapt their teaching pace and style?

How teachers promote appropriate discussion

Here, we might consider how class discussion and debate are managed. As such, the following questions may be of use:

When are classroom discussions 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 or college curriculum? Do these rules help pupils to comment on others’ 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, and are reluctant speakers helped to develop confidence and resilience over time? Is there a safety net to catch pupils when they fall? Do discussions help pupils to make progress? Are discussions and question-and-answer sessions 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’s 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 requisite key concepts to enable them 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 and used 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 avoid overloading it with too much information at once.

As such, here we might consider the following questions:

How do teachers in each subject discipline ‘hook’ pupils and gain the active attention of their working memories? How do teachers ensure pupils focus on the curriculum content they need to encode and avoid unhelpful distractions?

How do teachers pitch learning so that it falls within pupils’ struggle zones, meaning it is hard and requires thinking, but 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 we are to achieve long-term learning. If 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 the following questions:

How and how often do teachers return to prior learning to keep it active and accessible? What do teachers 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.

How are pupils helped to apply prior learning in different ways and in different contexts so that learning becomes transferable? How do teachers help pupils to 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 newfound knowledge and skills – to do something with it beyond sitting exams. As such, we should ask:

How are knowledge and skills 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? Do teachers articulate the purpose of learning in each subject and each topic, because with purpose comes motivation?

How the subject curriculum is designed and delivered in a way that allows pupils to transfer key 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 individual teachers’ discretion.

One way to do this well is to adopt a progression model such as the one I outlined in Book One in this series 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 following:

In what order is subject content taught and how is the subject curriculum 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. Each teacher must know the plot arc of the whole book and must understand how their chapters fit in, how they will develop character, theme and plot. They must ensure their chapters are also consistent in both language and tone.

The current state of curriculum planning in some schools and colleges reminds of an old parlour game called Consequences whereby the first player writes a word or a sentence, folds the page (if it’s a single word, they follow guidelines such as ‘write an adjective to describe a man’ followed by ‘write the name of a man’ and so on; if it’s a sentence, they usually write freely but leave the last word or so of their sentence visible for the next player to see, onto which they can adjoin their sentence) and passes it on to the next player who adds a sentence of their own, folds the page and passes it on to the third player and so on. At the end, the paper is unfolded, and someone reads the story aloud. Invariably, it is nonsensical but amusing. Our curriculum is in danger of being nonsensical if we do not do more to remove the creases and ensure greater continuity – and there is nothing amusing about that.

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

In Book One in this series, I articulated a six-step process of curriculum design. Having articulated the broad vision and purpose of each subject curriculum, the process began by setting the destination. In other words, the act of planning a curriculum begins at the end. What do you want pupils to know and be able to do at the end that they didn’t know and couldn’t 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 or body of knowledge 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.

In further education and skills settings, implementation is also about…

How learners apply vocational and technical skills fluently and independently

Here, we need to recognise that the application of some practical skills can be observed and assessed. We also need to be mindful of the fact that some vocational qualifications are not built to support teaching for long-term learning. For example, some qualifications allow you to teach something, assess it, then move on and never return to it.

Here, I would caution against using the qualification specification as your guiding star. Of course, we need to teach the specification to enable learners to gain good qualifications that will open doors to future success, but the qualification is not the be-all and end-all of an FE college education. Rather, we need to do what is in the best interests of our learners and prepare them for the next stage of their training, employment and lives. This means keeping all the plates spinning throughout the course regardless of whether those plates will be assessed again as part of the qualification. If something was worth teaching and worth learning in the first place, then it must not be allowed to gather dust in our learners’ long-term memories; rather, it must be kept alive and accessible so that our learners can apply that learning in college, in work and in life.

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