How to plan a well sequenced and equitable curriculum

This is a version of an article written for SecEd Magazine and is the fifth 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 continues his look at how we can plan learning including sequencing the curriculum and promoting equality and equity

I am lead lecturer on an initial teacher training programme and, as I was writing the programme last summer, it occurred to me that some of the course content would be useful, not just for those new to the profession, but for all early career teachers and indeed seasoned professionals in search of a refresher.

And so, over the course of nine articles I am sharing my ITT journey with you in the hope that it provides some useful opportunities to reflect on your own professional practice and encourages you to try out some new strategies in your classroom.

The first article explored all those strategies and techniques that 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. I shared, too, three steps we can take to improve our students’ learning.

In the third article, I explored a teacher’s roles and responsibilities in ensuring that learning happens. We must identify needs (starting points, prior knowledge/skills, misconceptions, and misunderstandings), we must plan learning (an ambitious, broad, and balanced curriculum which is well sequenced), we then we must facilitate, assess, and evaluate learning. We focused on identifying needs through initial and diagnostic assessments.

And last time, I began to examine planning learning, whether that takes the form of curriculum planning, writing schemes of work, or – if helpful in the early stages of our careers – producing individual lesson plans.

I suggested that, if we looked at the features of effective teaching discussed in article one and worked backwards, treating them as success criteria, then 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.

Last time, I focused on the first two features from this list. Let’s continue our exploration now and explore ways of ensuring our plans are sequenced and that they promote equality and equity…

3, Sequenced planning

Once we have planned ambitious curriculum content, and ensured sufficient breadth and depth, we need to lay our curriculum out in a logical order for teaching.

Some subject disciplines are linear, some are not. Each subject takes a different shape and thus the sequence will be different too. But whatever the sequence, we need to make sure that our curriculum is progressive – in other words, that it builds on prior knowledge and builds towards our ambitious end-points.

We need to make sure that it also “bakes in” increasing levels of challenge, ever-more complex schemata, and keeps prior knowledge active. I will talk more about retrieval practice in the next instalment of this series (article six) so let’s park that for now and stick to sequencing.

Sequencing our curriculum, then, is about organising ideas so that what we teach today builds upon what we taught yesterday and towards what we teach tomorrow, as well as preparing students for success in future assessments and, of course, in life.

Sequencing is also about keeping as many plates spinning as possible – not allowing prior learning to decay over time, but continually activating it and adding to it.

And, as I say, sequencing is about increasing the level of challenge over time, like peeling back the layers of an onion, revealing more complexity and more connections.

One way to sequence the curriculum is to identify threshold concepts. The advantage here is that these concepts are, by their very nature, progressive – one enables access to the next and so on. Students must therefore master each concept in order to move on to the next.

Threshold concepts also facilitate – indeed necessitate – retrieval practice. You must return to earlier concepts each time you move on, thus activating prior knowledge and keeping it alive.

Progress looks different in every subject and not all learning can be connected. Sometimes, we teach one concept and then move on to another unconnected concept. We cannot therefore always extrapolate progress over time. But every subject does involve progression and so we can identify those common elements that we return to throughout a year or course of study and use these to help us sequence our curriculum over time.

Once we have sequenced our plans, we can use them as a means of assessing progress… but more on that later.

4, Planning that promotes equality and equity

Once we have planned an ambitious, broad and balanced, and logically sequenced curriculum, we need to make sure it works for all our students. This is, I think, about providing equality then equity.

Equality is about giving all students, irrespective of their backgrounds, starting points, and additional and different needs, access to the same curriculum. To do otherwise is to deepen existing differences and disadvantages.

In practice, equality means not dumbing down or reducing the curriculum for some students. But equality is not enough.

Not all students start from the same point and thus to offer the same diet to all is to perpetuate existing differences.

And so, we start with equality but then we ensure equity by doing more for those who start with less. In other words, we support those students who struggle to access our curriculum by using adaptive teaching approaches and additional intervention strategies.

The crucial point to remember is that the adaptations we make should not be open ended – to continue to adapt the curriculum and our teaching throughout a student’s schooling is to perpetuate learned helplessness and to prevent students from becoming independent and competing fairly with their peers. Rather, adaptations should be reduced over time and students should be helped to become more independent.

According to Standard 5 of the Teachers’ Standards (DfE, 2011), adaptive teaching is when teachers “adapt (their) teaching to respond to the strengths and needs of all pupils”. Specifically, adaptive teaching requires teachers to:

  • Know when and how to differentiate appropriately, using approaches which enable pupils to be taught effectively.
  • Have a secure understanding of how a range of factors can inhibit pupils’ ability to learn, and how best to overcome these.
  • Demonstrate an awareness of the physical, social and intellectual development of children, and know how to adapt teaching to support pupils’ education at different stages of development.
  • Have a clear understanding of the needs of all pupils – including those with SEN, those of high ability, those with English as an additional language, those with disabilities – and be able to use and evaluate distinctive teaching approaches to engage and support them.

In short, whereas traditional differentiation focuses on individual students or small groups of students, adaptive teaching focuses on the whole class. It is, in effect, the difference between teaching up to 30 different lessons at once, matching the pace and pitch to each individual student and providing different tasks and resources to different students, and teaching the same lesson to all 30 students, and doing so by “teaching to the top”, while providing scaffolds to those who need additional initial support in order to access the same ambitious curriculum and meet our high expectations.

Unlike traditional forms of differentiation which can perpetuate attainment gaps by capping opportunities and aspirations, adaptive teaching promotes high achievement for all.

In fact, according to the 2015 PISA results (OECD, 2016), “adaptive instruction” is one of the approaches most positively correlated with student performance. It is second only to ensuring students are from wealthy backgrounds.

Adaptive teaching in practice

In practice, adaptive teaching starts by ignoring students’ formal target grades and telling them there is nothing to prevent them from achieving top grades if they work hard enough. Then linking those grades to students’ future life chances, selling the benefits of good qualifications.

Next, we set the bar high. We use grade descriptors to determine the standard of work we expect from students. We are sure to model the very best work but, in so doing, we deconstruct examples of excellence “live” in front of students so they can see how to get from where they are now to where they need to be, rather than presenting them with “one I made earlier”.

In other words, we make our subject expertise visible through thinking aloud. We explicitly teach frameworks and memory aids such as mnemonics to remember key information and make sure the development of study skills such as self-quizzing and revision are also planned and explicitly taught, first in a domain-specific way then as transferable skills.

Next, we make sure all our feedback is specific and challenging and that every time feedback is given, students are afforded lesson time to process it, question it, and act upon it. Their progress, however incremental, can then be celebrated and made visible. We never compare a student with other students in the class, but rather we compare each student with their earlier self, making clear where students are now, how far they have come, and what their next steps should be.

Most importantly, we make sure every student in our class completes the same task. We don’t differentiate tasks according to “ability” nor produce differentiated resources or questions – we make sure every student is required to complete tasks and answer questions that demand critical thinking.

Every student should work towards the same goal. But we should also provide differing levels of support depending on our students’ starting points and additional and different needs. For example, though they all answer the same essay question and are assessed against the same criteria, we might provide additional cues to some students to help them get started or give some students stem sentences to kick-start their thinking.

However, even with the best curriculum plans and the most effective adaptive teaching strategies, some students will still require additional support in order to achieve equity, and through this, inclusion.

The most effective additional interventions tend to be brief, frequent, delivered by well-trained staff, embodying high expectations and following the same rules as timetabled lessons; they tend to be closely connected to what’s happening in class, and not open-ended, instead targeted at specific gaps in students’ knowledge, skills and understanding.

Next time

In article six, we will complete our list of features of effective planning. In article seven we’ll turn our attention to curriculum delivery: how to translate these plans into classroom practice.

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

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