How to plan an ambitious, broad and balanced curriculum

This is a version of an article written for SecEd Magazine and is the fourth instalment in a 9-part series.

In this series, Matt Bromley reminds all teachers of key practical lessons from the ITT programme he delivers. This time he looks at how we should plan learning, including ensuring ambitious, broad and balanced curriculum planning

This series has been inspired by my experiences as lead lecturer on an initial teacher training (ITT) programme.

As I was planning the programme over the summer, it occurred to me that much of what I intended to cover was useful not just for those new to the profession, but all early career teachers and indeed many seasoned professionals in search of a refresher.

Thus I am sharing my ITT journey with you in the hope that it provides opportunities to reflect on your own professional practice and encourages you to try out some new strategies in your classroom.

The first article in this series explored all those strategies and techniques expert teachers have in common. In particular, I shared 10 characteristics which I believe all expert teachers exhibit.

In my second article, I focused on the application of theories, principles, and models of learning, considering the why how and what of our values and behaviours as teachers and how they influence our practice. In other words, what actions do we commit to taking on a day-to-day basis. I also shared three steps we can take to improve our students’ learning:

  • Create a positive learning environment to stimulate sensory memory.
  • Make students think hard but efficiently in working memory to encode information into long-term memory.
  • Plan for frequent retrieval practice to activate and add to prior learning.

And last time, I began to explore a teacher’s roles and responsibilities in ensuring that learning happens, including identifying needs (starting points, prior knowledge/skills, misconceptions and misunderstandings), planning learning (an ambitious, broad and balanced curriculum which is well sequenced), facilitating, assessing and finally evaluating learning.

In the last article, we focused on identifying needs through initial and diagnostic assessments. This time, we examine planning learning, whether that be curriculum planning, writing schemes of work, or – if helpful in the early stages of our career – producing individual lesson plans.

The features of an effective plan

If we look back at the features of effective teaching I shared in the first instalment of this series, and work backwards, thus treating them as success criteria, we might conclude that the features of an effective plan are as follows:

  • It is ambitious
  • It is broad and balanced
  • It is sequenced
  • It promotes equality and equity
  • It is a means of assessment
  • It embeds retrieval practice and modes of feedback
  • It gradually hands ownership to students
  • It accommodates a variety of learning activities
  • It is shared with and understood by students

So, what do each mean in practice? In this article we will focus on the first two features and then, over the fifth and sixth instalments, we will finish the list.

1, Ambitious planning

In order to ensure our planning is ambitious, we need – I think – to start at the end. In other words, we need to identify the success criteria of our curriculum. We need to ask: what knowledge, skills and understanding do we want students to acquire by the time they leave us and why are these important?

If we start planning where students are now, there is a danger we might “dumb down” or reduce our expectations in light of this knowledge. But if, instead, we start at the end – with what success looks like – then we are more likely to plan an ambitious curriculum and set students on a path towards excellence.

In practice, we might start our planning process by identifying the knowledge, skills and understanding we want students to acquire by the time they complete the curriculum by considering the requirements of the national curriculum, the assessment objectives, and learning outcomes of the qualifications we are delivering in key stages 4 and 5, or the qualifications that will follow on from what we are teaching in key stage 3, and by considering what aspects of our subject we want students to retain and use in later life.

On the latter point, we might ask ourselves what knowledge and skills we think will prove most useful to students in their lives – what are the non-negotiable aspects of our subject which are the hallmark of effective teaching? What do we need students leaving us knowing and being able to do in order to consider our teaching a success?

When identifying end-points, it is also helpful to consider where students go next. Do students go on to study our subject at a higher level, say in post-16 settings or at university? If so, what units or topics, concepts and ideas, and knowledge and skills will provide the most solid foundation for them?

We can’t teach it all, but we can cover the essentials in sufficient depth so that students can better process and understand additional subject content in less time and/or independently. And the “essentials” include not just subject knowledge, but also the study skills and independent learning skills students need in order to learn effectively and self-study in our subject.

So, we might also ask ourselves: what are the threshold concepts that will enable students to continue their study of our subject at a later time and by themselves? What knowledge do they need in their long-term memories and what connections need to have been forged in order for students to have sufficient prior knowledge to be able to understand and process new information in our subject discipline?

Then we might ask ourselves: what skills do students need in order to continue learning by themselves? Do they need to be able to take notes effectively, to engage in self-quizzing, to conduct online research, to monitor their own progress and give themselves feedback, and so on? If these skills are needed, we need to include them in our ambitious plans and then explicitly teach them and assess their development over time.

When planning an ambitious curriculum, it is worth bearing in mind the Pygmalion Effect – also known as the self-fulfilling prophecy. The higher our expectations of students are, the better they are likely to perform. Likewise, the higher students’ expectations of themselves are, the better they will do. The opposite is true, too: the lower our expectations, the worse students will perform.

So, we need to think big and aim high! We need to hold our nerve and not try to make it easy for them. Of course, not all students will achieve the same outcome. But if we do not provide them with an equal opportunity to do so, we can be sure that they won’t.

I am not suggesting we offer all students exactly the same learning experience, but we should start from the basis of offering all students access to the same curriculum and not dumb-down.

But the way we then teach that curriculum will differ depending on students’ individual needs – we’ll explore this further next time.

2, Broad and balanced planning

Once we have planned an ambitious destination for our students, we need to ensure that our curriculum offer is both broad and balanced.

At a whole-school level, providing a broad and balanced curriculum is about offering as many different subject disciplines as we can for as long as we can, thus keeping students’ options open and providing a rounded education. Then it is about making sure that every subject discipline is given sufficient space on the timetable to be taught well.

But here we will focus on what “broad and balanced” means to individual teachers planning lessons…

At a subject level, a “broad” curriculum, is one which covers a sufficient breadth of subject knowledge – what we might call curriculum coverage – in order to ensure students are prepared for the next stage of their education and do not leave school with problematic knowledge gaps.

A “balanced” curriculum, meanwhile, is one which covers each aspect of our subject discipline in sufficient depth so as to do justice to it. In other words, we avoid skimming the surface of too many topics or ideas and thus leaving students with insufficient understanding, and instead cover fewer, but carefully selected threshold topics in greater depth and make connections across related concepts.

As I said above, we can’t teach it all, but we can do our best to make wise and informed choices about what we teach and how much time we allocate to it. Rather than teaching the topics or texts we enjoy the most, or with which we feel most comfortable (i.e. have taught many times before and therefore don’t need to plan), we should set out to teach the subject knowledge, skills and understanding our students need the most and then cover those with breadth and depth. This is often referred to as the T-shaped curriculum.

We can also make sure we plan frequent retrieval practice so that students can activate, use, and add to their prior knowledge, thus building ever-more complex mental maps or schemata which make thinking faster and more efficient.

So, in practice, we might usefully ask ourselves: where does the balance lie between breadth and depth? What range of topics must we cover in order to fully prepare students for the next stage, but what needs to be covered in depth and detail to enable true understanding and avoid superficial learning?

Sometimes a diagrammatical representation of the schemata we want students to develop provides a helpful starting point for planning. We might start with the core concepts then build out, making connections between related ideas. Or perhaps we might enter the text from the national curriculum or qualification specification into word cloud software to identify the words/concepts which appear most frequently, focusing on the subject-specific vocabulary. This might help identify the most important ideas and threshold concepts in our subject and lend focus and shape to our planning.

Next time

Next time, we will continue working through our list of features of effective planning and explore ways of ensuring our plans are sequenced and promote equality and equity. Then, in the sixth instalment, we will complete the list and explore ways of ensuring our plans are a means of assessment, embed retrieval practice and modes of feedback, gradually hand ownership to students, and accommodate a variety of learning activities.

Follow Matt on Twitter @mj_bromley for more teaching tips like these.

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