Great Books Curriculum

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Curriculum Shorts (Some short musings about curriculum)

With all the talk of curriculum coherence and sequencing and people furiously creating logical progression models and maps there is another way to go. In the United States in particular there is a liberal arts tradition of great books curricula. These programmes run alongside the main curriculum or, in an admittedly dwindling number of liberal arts colleges, are the main focus of studies.

The great thing about these programmes are in terms of sequencing, chronology takes care of all your potential problems. You can start with the Epic of Gilgamesh and end with One Hundred Years of Solitude… well this is where the arguments start. What books to include? The books are drawn from the novel, philosophy, science, plays, it includes great essays and poetry, short stories and speeches, journalism and provocations. There is no reason to assume that the approach couldn’t take in pictures, music, experiments, films, artefacts, buildings, manifestoes, historical events and great people…

The coherence comes from the chronology, the conversation of time but also through the method of teaching. The books are read at the same time in small groups of students who then discuss the work. A teacher creates the conditions for a Socratic dialogue where questioning and disputation, and critical faculties are to the fore. Each student will then write an essay about the book or a number of books they have read.

Mortimer J. Adler the Editor- in-Chief of ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica’ and the ‘Great Books of the Western World’ thought that Great Books programmes were an essential part of a high school education suggesting with so many years in education going to waste all children before the age of eighteen should have studied a great books curriculum.

The fun comes in deciding what the great books might be…

A Broad and Balanced Curriculum

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Curriculum Shorts (Some short musings about curriculum)

A broad and balanced curriculum for every pupil is a necessary part of a rich education, what should it mean in practice?

The most obvious places where the aims of ‘broad and balanced’ take second place to ‘pragmatic narrowing’ are during the stress times of education provision – when exams are taken. Around the ages of ten to eleven and thirteen to eighteen, many pupils find their overall curriculum experience is narrowed. Firstly pupils might find the timetable is restricted and/or their extra-curricular provision is reduced by the need for revision classes in subjects they are deemed to need ‘catch-up’ sessions or have their learning ‘reinforced’. This ‘narrowing’ can take place after school, at weekends and/or in the holidays.

The timetable reduction can see pupils spending most of their time studying Maths and English in years 5/6, studying the Ebacc in years 9/10/11 and studying 3 A levels in years 12 and 13. This means a number of pupils spend seven years of their schooling studying a ‘narrowed’ curriculum.

Added to this, in a number of primary schools, many subjects are blocked together in ‘topic’ or ‘project-work’ which means, in practice, the subjects aren’t studied in particular depth, especially if there is a paucity of subject expertise in the school. This can continue, in some schools, into key stage three, though most, I suspect, teach subjects. But some subjects are only studied fleetingly. Can a ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum be achieved by grouping some subjects on a carousel? Half a term studying a subject, followed by another, then another? Often the fate of design and technology, this can also effect the ‘expressive arts’ and ‘humanities’ and other subjects. Instead of being broad and balanced this is little more than tick-box ‘taster’ provision which can affect take up at GCSE.

The Ebacc at GCSE is a narrowing from broad and balanced. It skews a pupil’s experience of education away from the arts as ways of seeing the world into a narrower view of what an ‘important’ education looks like. Schools can resist this by ignoring it, schools that believe in a broad and balanced approach should encourage children to take a wider approach to choosing their options which might mean enabling children to take one or more arts option, technology, languages and humanities… the thought of having to choose between, say, music and drama, geography and history, German and Latin, for some children at the age of twelve or thirteen is an extraordinary choice. Some are not encouraged to choose even one art. Sometimes subjects such as RE and PE find themselves making very different choices as to how to provide input at KS4. For some children Btecs also narrow their focus into mainly vocational routes. But ‘don’t worry,’ the refrain might go, ‘we have a large extra-curricular offer’ but this offer, as I pointed out above, can be narrowed by competing ‘revision classes’.

And A levels… just three… this is as narrowed as we get. Some are considered to be ‘facilitating subjects’ and are therefore more important than others. And which combination are you taking, is that right for your future career?

A school that wishes to offer a ‘broad and balanced curriculum’ needs to take a lot on board. What is the balance between the timetabled curriculum and extra-curricular? What is the offer during ‘stress-times’ when exam provision threatens to absorb too much of a pupil’s, and their school’s, focus? Should schools ignore the Ebacc ( a gentle revolt against the government aim of 90% of pupils taking ‘it’)? How could schools ensure that key stage five is broader and more balanced? And should primary schools move further away from topic and project-based learning?

How to Teach Your Curriculum

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Curriculum Shorts (Some short musings about curriculum)

Pedagogy, ‘the method and practice of teaching’ (OED) was all the rage a few years ago. The all-singing-all-dancing ‘outstanding’ lesson as defined by lesson observation tick-lists was the elusive elixir that could be sprinkled throughout a school to ensure great outcomes for all. Thankfully this mirage has been exposed. The focus on performative teaching and, short-term, shallow, learning as exemplified by a mini-plenary every twenty minutes and the ‘lesson plan pro-forma’ distracted teachers and their managers from the really important role that long term, thoughtful, curriculum design has on helping ensure a successful education.

Now that there is a welcome discussion occurring in many schools about curriculum design, will there be a shift of focus away from pedagogy? Will the ‘how’ of teaching be left to the individual teacher as long as they are seen to ‘implement’ the ‘intended’ curriculum?

If you listen to some people’s ideas on this, summed up by the phrase ‘we all teach knowledge’ you could be lulled into thinking that pedagogy is not something to worry about. As long as the content is being taught, it really doesn’t matter how. But it does, it really matters. Whether it is through the insights from cognitive psychology, the nature of the subject being studied, the disciplinary knowledge, and the values that form a school’s and/or department’s ethos, the way of teaching the content of a curriculum needs to be thought about at the same time as the sequencing and selecting of the knowledge being taught.

It’s not just the what, when and where, curriculum design also needs to address the how.

And also the why…

Collaborative Curriculum Design

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Curriculum Shorts (Some short musings about curriculum)

One of the best things about being an independent-minded teacher is that you can sit in meetings, smile and nod away at all the latest initiatives, work out how to pay lip-service to them and, then, when the classroom door closes go about your merry business in the usual way. The potential for mavericks to do it their own way is huge. Which is why some more martinet managerial types will try a variety of means to make sure that the ‘awkward-squad’ are bought to heel. Lesson observations, scripted lessons, book checks, planning checks, interviewing pupils, all these measures and more might be used to bring the radical into line.

The awkward teacher, even when told to go chapter-by-chapter from a text book, can go off-script as soon as that classroom door is closed. They don’t do this to be a bad teacher, they do it to be a better one. The text book is not good enough, the scripts are poor, they, alone, have the key to the kingdom of knowledge for their kids and the absolute belief that they can unlock the wonders of wisdom.

Instead of seeing these teachers as awkward, curriculum design is where they can come into their own. Good curriculum design is a collaborative affair. A wise school invests in giving its teachers time to work together to create curricula in which they all have a say in. What knowledge, when, how to teach it, what children should be producing, how to assess it. How to review it, change it, tweak it… all this is part of the continuing, unfinished, project of good curriculum design. The creativity of the teaching staff, absorbed in creating a joined-up curriculum for their pupils, ensures that the curriculum has buy-in from the teachers and that they can take responsibility for its successes and any any problems that might be found en-route. When the maverick closes the door, they could still go ‘off-piste’ but they are more aware of how and where they fit into the ‘whole’ and how essential it is that ‘they pass the baton on’ in a way in which others are allowed to run with it.

Collaborative design is an essential part of successful curriculum planning.

Curriculum Coherence

Curriculum Shorts (Some short musings about curriculum)

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A curriculum should make sense. At first this might seem to be an obvious statement, who, after all, would pursue a curriculum that did not? And yet it is possible to end up with an incoherent curriculum if various factors are not in place.

Firstly the planned curriculum needs to be ‘joined-up’, there needs to be a sense of how it all hangs together like a well-crafted narrative. Secondly, each teacher teaching the curriculum as planned needs to be aware of this narrative, the parts of it that they are teaching and how this fits into the overall structure. Thirdly, the pupils need to understand this narrative, they need to be able to sense an underlying logic to the curriculum, and engage with the unfolding narrative. Fourthly, assessment should be used to ascertain how well the narrative is being understood and also help to communicate and embed the narrative. Ofsted sum this up as: ‘intent, implementation and impact’.

A curriculum is not joined-up if teaching is completely autonomous. It is not coherent if, for example, there is ‘teaching for exams’ and all other parts of the curriculum are given less focus – where, maybe, key stage three is little more than a stop gap rather than an essential part of the narrative. The narrative doesn’t hang together if a child is not able to express a degree of coherence about what they are learning, if they can’t see the wood for the trees – perhaps where information doesn’t fit into a schema. Assessment won’t work if it is all about progression statements that bear no relationship to what is being studied and when.

To ensure curriculum coherence is an ongoing task, but one that needs to be grasped, each subject area needs to have enough freedom to be true to each discipline but also needs to be guided by the school’s overriding ethos and values. Overall curriculum coherence, at the school level, must not suffocate teaching but should allow it to breathe freely through an understanding of an overall approach which is adaptable enough for each subject area to be taught wisely.

 

Interleaving and Curriculum Design

Curriculum Shorts (Some short musings about curriculum)

Interleaving two or more pieces of curriculum content that are deliberately chosen as they juxtapose well and/or offer interesting viewpoints and perspectives, and arguments can work really well. When I teach drama I interleave the three practitioners Brecht, Stanislavsky and Artaud. I start by looking at how each has a different view about truth and its representation and then look at how their ideas compare and contrast theoretically and practically. As they are studied alongside each other, pupils get a much richer view of ‘theatre’, but also are clearer in their minds about what each, individual, practitioner’s style is like and why.

Think of this in art:

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Interleaving in this way enables pupils to compare and contrast earlier and later works by the same artist or works by different artists in the same or contrasting styles. In literature, poetry can be compared to prose, or two poems juxtaposed. In government and politics perhaps Tom Paine can be read alongside Edmund Burke. In maths multiplication alongside division? The lessons could be spaced apart in chunks of two or three, or alternate lessons. As pupils become more secure in the knowledge of what they are studying they could then compare and contrast in the same lesson. Or the lessons could begin ‘inductively’, in that the works are presented alongside each other and the pupils learn to differentiate, looking for commonalities and differences from the off.

This is a very interesting way to interleave lessons as it allows pupils to develop their abilities to discriminate. In the case of the theatre practitioners they developed their abilities to decide which style they liked best and why. These qualitative judgements they were beginning to make enabled them to look at their own work more critically. In arts subjects, certainly, it is necessary to know when something might be good, not so good and why.

The important thing to remember is, with all curriculum design issues, is this a suitable way to learn the subject being studied?

Curriculum Design and Spacing

Curriculum Shorts (Some short musings about curriculum)

‘Spacing’ is a really useful way to improve learning and retention. Basically it means delaying before you re-study something. The opposite would be ‘blocking’, where a topic is learned over a period of a few weeks. This is a curriculum design issue as, often, teachers and departments design their curriculum around half-termly chunks.

This tends to mean that by the time, say, the class get to their mock GCSE-exam in a given subject the vast majority of pupils have little recall about the knowledge they ‘learnt’ in the first Autumn half term of year ten. Teachers then arrange extra classes after school, half term holiday catch-up classes, Easter cramming sessions, etc. Pupils are more stressed, as are their parents and teachers neglect their family and social life to squeeze a couple more percentage points from their charges.

Instead of learning and finishing an area of study in ‘convenient’ half-termly chunks, spacing the information over the duration of a course makes sense. And means less panic at the end of the course when it becomes clear that pupils have no longer forgotten a lot of what they were taught.

The way I make sense of this is to think of a rehearsal timetable for a school play. If the budding thespians just did scene one for a few weeks, then moved to scene two etc. when it came to the dress rehearsal it would come quite clear that most of the little divas had forgotten scene one but remembered most about the last scene they rehearsed before the ‘dress’. This is why a director of a school play tends to use spacing in order to structure the rehearsal schedule. (see diagram)

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If you think of each rehearsal as, perhaps, a two or three-week chunk of lessons, you can see how a rehearsal timetable model can help us think about designing a curriculum with spacing in mind. I would suggest this works best with some sort of conceptual connectivity; see my next post on interleaving and my previous posts on breadth vs depth and the spiral curriculum for suggestions as to how this might be achieved.

Spiral Curriculum

Curriculum Shorts (Some short musings about curriculum)

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In his book, The Process of Education, Jerome Bruner wrote that:

‘A curriculum as it develops should revisit… basic ideas repeatedly, building upon them until the student has grasped the full formal apparatus that goes with them’

This idea was central to the spiral curriculum. It should also be central to any knowledge-rich approach to education today. In every subject there are ideas, concepts – foundational knowledge upon which a subject studied is built. (Some examples: Empire and Colonialism, Revolution, Drawing, Painting, Sculpture, The Novel, Poetry, Sauces and Gravies, Particles, Cells, Staging, Physical and Mental well-being…) Some of these might be argued about, and should be, but the point is ascertaining what are the organising principles around which a subject curriculum might flow. These ‘basic ideas’ recur.

If we think about painting in an art curriculum we know it covers a lot of different techniques, tools, paints, styles, eras, artists, etc. and each time we revisit ‘painting’ we learn more about painting as a whole as well as the particularities of painting being taught at the time. It would be ridiculous to teach painting all at once and never return to it. By returning later the learning is reinforced and, if we take into account forgetting as a way of forging better learning, it seems sensible to keep returning and building upon what was done before rather than leaving it so long as to render it completely forgotten or so lost in the midsts of time as to be difficult to resurrect. ‘We do painting in the Autumn term of y7′ doesn’t really cut it.

By spiralling around, we return, but when returning we build upon previous knowledge and expand the pupils’ repertoire, their knowledge.

What are the organising principles, ideas, concepts, precepts, the foundational knowledge in the subject that you teach? A knowledge-rich curriculum can be built around these, ensuring good retention, good thinking, ‘joined-upness’, good progress and a curriculum in which the central narrative(s) and tenets are clear.

T-Shaped Curriculum

Curriculum Shorts (Some short musings about curriculum)

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The T-Shaped curriculum idea can be thought of, quite simply, in this way: the horizontal line of the T represents breadth and the vertical, depth.

The concept is prevalent in design education and also in other ‘progressive’ scenarios with breadth sometimes representing employability and/or multiple intelligences and the vertical as subject expertise. The horizontal line can be seen as transferable skills and the vertical as knowledge and experience. 

Without overcomplicating it, and instead by sticking to the competing notions of breadth and depth, it can be a useful concept can be when thinking about curriculum design. For example, in his book, A Short History of Europe, Simon Jenkins writes:

I disagree with syllabuses that maintain history is better taught in depth rather than breadth. Depth should follow breadth, for without it history is meaningless. Without awareness of the timeline of human activity, individuals become dissociated figures on a bare stage. Those who cannot speak history to one another have nothing meaningful to say. Context – which means a sense of proportion – is everything.

A knowledge-based curriculum could easily become a list of facts, but if a knowledge-rich curriculum is sought then one of the things that can enrich knowledge is knowing the context in which items of knowledge can sit. This context can be extremely broad and, yes, it can cross subject-boundaries (think of the context of modernism, or renaissance, for example) it can be concept-oriented, values-driven or a number of other ways in which we make meaning. Without the breadth, depth can be left bereft.

What is the balance needed between depth and breadth? The answer is context-dependent.

The Socially-Mobile Curriculum

Curriculum Shorts (Some short musings about curriculum)

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The thought that the only thing keeping the unwashed hordes from taking up positions at the highest echelons of society is a knowledge-rich curriculum is, somewhat, ludicrous. The idea that by learning a smattering of Latin, the history of kings and queens, Darwinian theories, and iambic pentameter the offspring of the poor downtrodden masses will find themselves in positions to Lord it over the rest is unlikely. Firstly, it hasn’t happened ((yet…) perhaps the lack of a growth mindset is what keeps the revolution at bay…) Secondly, if the theory is actually right, that curriculum will result in social mobility, then the curriculum has to be used strategically… in other words if the hoi-polloi are to receive their socially-mobile knowledge-rich curriculum then the fruit of the loins of their lords and masters need to have a curriculum that positively disadvantages them.

Unto the rich shall be the knowledge-poor curriculum.

Unlikely.

I wrote here about how the myth of social mobility drives many an education aim.  

Social-mobility cannot be the aim for curriculum.