A curriculum for the curriculum: laying the foundations for an effective and continuous subject led curriculum development model

We all know how important a quality curriculum is. Ashbee describes it as “the core business of schools”. If you visited my school, you would see Kofi Annan’s “Knowledge is power. Information is liberating” proudly displayed on many walls and windows. As I said, we all know how important a quality curriculum is. We also know that curriculum work is never finished. Like most aspects of school life, the curriculum will never be perfect. So, what are we aiming for? What’s the goal?
I think framing the narrative around curriculum this way unhelpful. In his book ‘Atomic Habits’, James Clear suggests that “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems”. Rachel Ball wrote an excellent blog based on this, specifically looking at goal free leadership within schools. This got me thinking about a goal free approach to curriculum development. If the goal posts of curriculum are always moving because the curriculum is never finished, then aren’t curriculum goals unobtainable? What if, instead of goals, we establish a system that creates, develops, nurtures and challenges effective curriculum leadership – at all levels? A system where the continuous improvement of the school curriculum is an ever-evolving bi product of an effective system, rather than an ambitious (and unachievable) goal.
This sounded more realistic, but again, not something that could happen overnight. All schools must start somewhere. And each school’s starting point is of course determined by its context: staff expertise and experience, the community it serves, it’s vision and values etc. the context determines the paths you forge on the journey you will take (but of course, with no end!)
In our context, we needed an effective curriculum for the curriculum that led to the design, implementation, and continuous review of a high-quality curriculum development system. One where the desire to always strive for better burns within each of our staff members and permeates through everything we do.
So what did we do first? We mapped a journey for all of our key stakeholders. An overview was important so that the training of our specific groups (teachers, subject leaders and SLT) didn’t happen in silo. These groups all needed to speak to each other so that we all moved in the same direction and our leaders felt empowered to lead from the front.

A curriculum for the curriculum: an overview of our CPD programme for terms 4 and 5

Whole school

Before:

  • A week prior to each of the CPD sessions, all teaching staff received a course reader. Each course reader included a summary of the prior week’s session, core reading + questions on this to inform discussion at the start of the session, a selection of wider reading and any relevant YouTube clips and podcasts for staff that preferred this method of knowledge accumulation.

During – a typical CPD session:

  • Each session started with a ten-minute discussion in subject teams based around the key reading for that week. Questions were sent out a week earlier so that staff had time to prepare quality answers to better support a high-quality discussion.
  • Then a summary of our journey so far
  • Followed by what we would be learning about in this session

Before a look to future sessions. We felt this was important to show staff where they were going and the relevance of this session as the next step in the journey

  • After setting the context, we explored the theory underpinning that session – the ‘why’
  • We then looked at how this might look in practice: Concrete examples and non-examples – the ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘how not’
  • We finished with a reflection task to do in departments underpinned by a set of key questions from the session
  • Each session is delivered live, but also recorded for any staff member that missed it or wants a recap of the content

After the session:

  • Each department has a one-hour timetabled CPD session each week. In these sessions, subject leaders would lead a continuation of the discussion based on the reflection questions from CPD. These discussions are recorded in a departmental curriculum reflections document. These are useful for: any staff member that missed the session, any senior leader to inform discussions with subject leaders, and subject leaders for future curriculum planning. It’s also vitally important that staff can discuss what curriculum theories and approaches look like for them in their subject. This isn’t a one size fits all approach. We recognise the importance of giving staff time to explore curriculum implications properly within their subject context. What works in science might not work in drama or history after all…
  • These sessions can also be used for co planning, depending on the nature of the CPD session. More on this to follow…

Whole school CPD sessions – a concrete example: 5. What do we mean by ‘hinterland’ and why is it important?

To set the scene, teaching staff received their course reader for this session immediately after the prior session, meaning they had a week to digest the key reading and reflect on the questions that formed the first ten minutes of our hinterland session.

The key reading from the course reader was Josh Vallance’s ‘Core and hinterland – what are we really talking about? And the key questions staff needed to consider in preparation were:

  • What is the difference between core and hinterland knowledge?
  • How does Sealey define hinterland?
  • What two ways does Vallance claim hinterland is important?
  • What role does hinterland knowledge play in our curriculum?

These questions were then discussed at the start of the session in department groups, before individuals were cold called for their contributions with the rest of the teaching staff.

Over the last few sessions we have explored:

  • What makes a knowledge rich curriculum
  • We then looked at selecting the appropriate core and substantive knowledge that met this definition
  • Before placing this knowledge in a logical sequence, or narrative as such, in order to maximise learning – as we know that stories are cognitively privileged…
  • But how to we ensure that students can make meaning from this sequence?
  • How do we make sure that the curriculum sequence doesn’t just become a list of facts, processes and procedures to remember?
  • How do we deepen understanding, make meaning and avoid a shallow approach to curriculum design?
  • This is where the decisions we make about hinterland knowledge are crucial…We then recapped what we had learned about so far and how it related to the current session

Following this, the aims of the session were shared:

  • The definition of hinterland knowledge
  • The purposes that hinterland knowledge might serve within our curriculum
  • Concrete examples of hinterland at work in history, English and science

We then looked at where we were heading as a group by looking at the curriculum system overview slide (see above). Following this, we got into the key theory that underpinned our session. This was based on Josh’s excellent blog and other experts in the field of hinterland knowledge. Firstly, we explored a concrete definition of hinterland from Hill and Howard’s ‘Symbiosis’:

  • The elaborations, embellishments and flourishes that we use to frame the core knowledge
  • May include narratives, metaphors, anecdotes or analogies we use to reinforce meaning and provide texture to core knowledge
  • It must pay service to core knowledge and not distract students away from what we want them to learn.

I like to think it is all of the knowledge that helps us to understand the core and substantive knowledge. It’s the knowledge that helps bring the core knowledge to life.

We then explored a concrete example vs a non-example using Jonathan Grande’s analogy about Poggio the Humanist.

Concrete example: Jonathan Grande uses the story of Poggio– a humanist –  from Greenblatt’s ‘The Swerve’ – to flesh out and deepen his student’s understanding of humanism. Without Poggio, his students could define humanism, they could probably have a good go at explaining what a humanist did – but it’s the rich hinterland in Poggio’s story that really deepens their understanding and brings the core knowledge to life.

Non-example: Humanist scholars revived the interest in and study of classical texts and ideas in western Europe. Many humanist scholars sought out long-lost and long-forgotten classical texts in European monasteries.

In order to give staff a deeper understanding of hinterland, we looked at a few more examples from Adam Boxer and Clare Sealy:

We then provided staff with a summary of the session before giving them their reflection questions to discuss in their department CPD the following week.

  • What role does hinterland play in your curriculum?
  • Look back at the unit you sequenced last time – what knowledge can help bring this content to life? (deepen understanding and make meaning)
  • What opportunities are there to explore hinterland further in your curriculum?
  • What parts of your curriculum are crying out for hinterland to help deepen understanding and make meaning of the core?
  • What are the barriers to the planning of relevant/appropriate hinterland in your subject?
  • How can you overcome them?

Subject leaders then recorded their department’s thoughts in their curriculum reflection documents.

Co-planning: as above but with some tweaks…

As you can see from the curriculum for the curriculum outline I shared above, the latter stages of our curriculum based CPD centred on collaborative planning in departments. The sessions followed broadly the same structure as their predecessors, but with some adaptations:

  • Sharing examples of best practice from subject leaders: during our first sessions on curriculum mapping and unit planning, I asked subject leaders to share their best practice. Firstly, so staff experienced a different voice and face to mine, and secondly to showcase how all of the theory we had learned over the past weeks could be implemented successfully and effectively.
  • Review weeks: our sessions on curriculum mapping and unit planning were followed by a review week. This is where each department brought what they had done so far and shared with staff from other departments. This was very much the only time that I thought using a carousel was acceptable. Firstly, because staff got to share best practice and take ideas back to their own teams. And secondly, because it gave our staff the opportunity to showcase excellence and speak with confidence and pride about what had been achieved in their department so far.

Subject leaders

As a school, we meet our subject leaders fortnightly. These sessions were similar in structure to the whole school sessions but delivered through the lens of curriculum leadership. Each week, our subject leads were given key reading about curriculum development in their subject, with a series of reflection questions. For those interested, we took the subject specific chapter from:

  • Huh – curriculum conversations between subject and senior leaders (Myatt & Tomsett)
  • The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to coherence (Myatt)
  • Curriculum – Theory, Culture and the Subject Specialisms (Ashbee)

And then more generally for co planning purposes:

  • Chapter 1 from Responsive Teaching (Fletcher-Wood)

We ensured that the co planning sessions on curriculum mapping and unit planning were planned and delivered in advance of the whole school sessions. This is so that our subject leaders were given the opportunity to prepare and lead with confidence.

Intent writing

Controversial opinion – I think that writing intent statements is a useful exercise. Done thoughtfully and properly, they can really help leaders think deeply about their curriculum offer. It can encourage leaders to think about the aims of their curriculum, what is taught, what isn’t and why, which order knowledge is taught in to optimise learning, what the key concepts are that weave everything together etc. Again, perhaps this isn’t for you or your school. Perhaps you are lucky enough to have a robust curriculum with well established aims and leaders that know it like the back of their hands… but this was right for our school at this moment in time.

Firstly, I asked subject leaders to think about the aims of their curriculums and that those aims should be ambitious. To inform these, we used Ashbee’s four moral arguments for ambitious curriculum (cognitive, socio-economic, democratic, and intellectual). I then asked them to think about how their curriculum lived our school vision of “helping every student to climb their own personal mountain to the best universities and careers”.

I then asked them to think deeply about the key concepts/themes that thread knowledge together and build meaning in their subjects. This was built on the work we had done on interweaving and the nature of knowledge – the distinct ontology and manthanology within each subject discipline. How is knowledge constructed, built and accumulated in their subject?

After this, subject leads worked on writing a narrative and rationale for their curriculum. This wasn’t extensive (no more than two sides of A4), and they commented on how useful this was in making them think deeply about their curriculums, their structures, sequences and purposes.

I asked our subject leaders to have these discussions with their teams. This was to ensure that all teachers had their voices heard, ensuring every teacher had ownership of the curriculum.

SLT

Senior leaders were asked to complete the same reading and reflections as the wider staff body. This was to ensure that the school moved together in the same direction. We had more to learn, regardless of our position or role within the school. In addition to this, we had a 20 minute slot in our weekly SLT meetings to discuss the weekly key reading through the lens of SLT. Essentially, what could we do to better support and enable our subject leaders to lead effective curriculum development in their departments? Two major themes came from these discussions:

  1. What do we want our curriculum to achieve in our context? In an ideal world, we would have discussed this prior to the work our subject leads did on their own intent statements. However, the discussions I had with our subject leaders really helped inform the SLT discussions. We used the same approach as our subject leaders, leaning on Ashbee’s 4 moral arguments for an ambitious curriculum and our school vision and values. Again, the discussions here were more important than the outcome – we had a shared and agreed understanding as a team about what we wanted from our curriculum and how to support our subject leaders in enabling this at a classroom level.
  2. We really should know more about the curriculum in each of the subject areas… how could we ensure that the curriculum in each subject was ambitious and rigorous? How could we support our subject leaders to develop the most effective curriculums possible? We couldn’t do this without a solid understanding of what was going on in each subject. As a result, I booked in a 60 minute 1:1 conversation with each subject leader to discuss their curriculum. These discussions were informal, with the main aim being to find out as much as possible about each subject and what we could do as an SLT to support the development of the curriculum in each subject. This was one of the most enjoyable experiences as a senior leader so far. it was such a privilege to talk to each leader, to see them talk with such passion, pride and expertise about their subjects. Discussions were not scripted, and flowed naturally over topics such as curriculum aims, tweaks being made, what was working, what wasn’t and why etc. We talked about gaps in knowledge and expertise, implementation in the classroom and the impact on student learning so far.

I made notes during each discussion and sent a summary to my SLT colleagues. This ensured that we were better informed about each subject and were better able to support and challenge our subject leaders in their curriculum development. Moreover, the discussions led to some fascinating common themes and areas for development for our subject lead mastery programme next year.

What are our next steps?

  • As part of our line management meeting structure next year, 20 minutes of each meeting will be dedicated to curriculum discussion and learning walks to see the curriculum in action
  • We have added three curriculum review cycles to our academic calendar for next year. These will involve all departments and will include: a discussion with the subject leader and teachers in the department, learning walks, book looks and student interviews (watch this space for blog on this next year!)
  • Fortnightly sixty-minute co planning sessions in departments. We are fortunate to already have these built into the timetable next year

Hopefully we have taken the right steps to ensure that we have began to establish the foundations of an effective and continuous curriculum development system for our context. We know we have a long way to go and of course, we always will. Whilst the goal posts of curriculum development will always be moving, refining a system that always strives for the best for our community is the best action we can take.

For anyone interested in a more detailed list of reading included in each of our course readers, please see the table below. It is filled with the most informed and inspiring curriculum voices out there!

SessionKey & Wider Reading
1. Curriculum – what is it?Key reading: Curriculum – what are we really talking about? (Josh Vallance)Wider reading 1: Closing the disadvantage gap – curriculum as the lever (Dr Dan Nicholls)  
Wider reading 2: A curriculum summary: what is it and what do Ofsted say? (Alex Gordon)
Wider reading 3: Senior Curriculum Leadership 1: The indirect manifestation of knowledge: (A) curriculum as narrative (Christine Counsell)
2. Knowledge rich – what do we mean?Key reading: An introduction to knowledge – rich curriculum theory and thinkers (Jonathan Mountstevens)
Wider reading 1: Knowledge rich – what are we really talking about? (Josh Vallance)
Wider reading 2: What is a knowledge rich curriculum? Principles and practice (Tom Sherrington)
Wider reading 3: The three best arguments against a knowledge rich curriculum (and why I think they’re wrong) (Jon Hutchinson)
Wider reading 4: What’s all the fuss about knowledge rich curriculum? Part 1 (Clare Sealey)
3. What do we want students to be able to know and do?Key reading: Disciplinary (and substantive) knowledge – what are we really talking about? (Josh Vallance)
Wider reading 1: knowledge: independently necessary or collectively sufficient? (Michael Fordham)
Wider reading 2: “Reach out and touch knowledge” – Analysing curriculum in science with Legitimation Code Theory (Ruth Ashbee)
Wider reading 3: Taking curriculum seriously (Christine Counsell – in Impact)
4. Sequencing – how is knowledge accumulated, built and applied?Key reading: Sequencing and coherence – what are we really talking about? (Josh Vallance)
Wider reading 1: Ramble 9 – #teamboxset (WARNING: GAME OF THRONES SPOILERS) – (Neil Almond)
Wider reading 2: Vertical, Horizontal, Hierarchical, Cumulative, Integrative, Discursive (Ruth Ashbee)
Wider reading 3: Building curriculum coherence (Mary Myatt – in Impact)
5. What do we mean by Hinterland and why is it important?Key Reading: Core and Hinterland – what are we really talking about? (Josh Vallance)
Wider Reading 1: #6 This week in history – why the hinterland is core (Jonathan Grande)
Wider Reading 2: Core and Hinterland: What’s what and why it matters (Adam Boxer)
Wider Reading 3: Signposting the hinterland: practical ways to enhance your core curriculum (Tom Sherrington)
6. Making it stickKey reading: Interleaving: are we getting it all wrong? (Mark Enser in TES)Wider Reading 1: What is interleaving and why does it work? (Inner Drive)Wider Reading 2: Wider reading 2: Schemas determine what we learn (Sarah Cottingham)
Wider Reading 3: How to embed retrieval practice into your school’s curriculum (Inner Drive)
Wider Reading 4: Bjork’s desirable difficulties (Durrington Research School)Wider Reading 5: Strengthening the student toolbox: study strategies to boost learning (Dunlosky)
Wider Reading 6: Generative Learning and reflective teachers (Durrington Research School)
7. Curriculum co planningCore Reading – Curriculum Mapping: Planning smarter: rethinking the short, medium and long term (Adam Boxer)
Core Reading – Co Planning units and sequences: The one about Co Planning: something for everyone (Mason Davies)
Wider Reading 1: Modelling Curricular Thinking: Inspired by Ben Ranson (Adam Boxer)
Wider Reading 2: Curriculum | creating the conditions for collaborative planning (Kat Howard)
Wider Reading 3: Collaborative curriculum design and professional growth (David Weston)
Wider Reading 4: Collaborative lesson planning as a positive ‘dissonance’ to the teachers’ individual planning practices: characterizing the features through reflections-on-action. Sally B.  Gutierez
Wider Reading 5: The Impact of Collaborative Curriculum Design on Teacher Professional Learning Dina Drits-Esser and Louisa A. Stark
Key and Wider reading examples from each of our course readers

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