Curriculum is a knife and fork

Curriculum is a knife and fork.

The unique tools

It is really difficult to eat peas with just a knife.

It is really difficult to cut steak with just a fork.

In order for the nutritious diet presented on our plates to be transported, ingested and digested efficiently and effectively we need both knife and fork.

Without the steadying influence and firm grip of the fork on the base of the plate, the cutting edge business cannot happen.

Without the razor sharpness of the knife, the fork is a blunt and unwieldy implement for precision work. 

Together, they work beautifully but they are different. A knife is not a fork and a fork is not a knife.

Eating the meal would not be better or easier if you had two knives or two forks instead of one of each. 

Having individually unique but complementary tools to do a specific job is what makes the knife and fork such a successful pairing.

The knife does not try to be the fork. The fork does not try to be the knife. 

The current curriculum conversation

There is much discussion and debate around the importance of understanding the specifics of individual subjects. The importance of teacher subject knowledge and the importance of ongoing debate and refinement about what we understand to be an exceptional curriculum within each subject area are highlighted almost constantly.

I love reading these discussions and debates. I have devoured work by colleagues in multiple books, blogs and articles, and my practice and understanding has been improved immensely by interacting with the work of colleagues from across the sector who are specialists in their curriculum areas. That is one of the joys of the teaching profession. There are so many intellectual gifts to be given and received within all our practice but especially within the discussions around curriculum development. 

Curriculum and Development Interplay

One thing I rarely read though, is the interplay between curriculum design and child development, age and stage. 

Conversations abound around subject specificity, curriculum content, sequencing, spacing, interleaving, domain specific knowledge, substantive and declarative knowledge, the list of all the aspects to consider is almost endless but that is all knives. The cutting edge precision of curriculum design and a sharp focus on subject specificity doesn’t always include enough focus on our curriculum forks. And we know that if you try to eat with just a knife, you’re not going to get very far.

Age and stage knowledge, experience and expertise across all years in the primary sector may be considered a specialist domain in itself but it is consistently the poor relation in the seduction that is the razor sharp intellectual knife of subject specialism curriculum content discussion. 

Although there are beginning to be one or two out there, I would love to find a significant number of books or blogs or articles which highlight overtly and specifically the need for this delicately balanced and informed duet between what constitutes the beauty and wonder of individual subject disciplines but at the same time champions that these need to dovetail precisely with the understanding, needs and developmental stages of children across the primary key stages. Believe me, I’ve looked.

An example of interdisciplinary interplay

Take for example, History. 

When we talk about events from hundreds of years ago with very young children, we need to recognise that these children may yet to have a secure grasp of numbers beyond twenty or may still confuse the sequencing of last week, last month, last year, tomorrow and yesterday; they may not even know the days of the week or the months of the year. When we plan an ambitious History curriculum we need to be mindful not only of what knowledge children are likely to remember but what they are likely to genuinely be able to make sense and meaning of and to understand. 

Similarly in subjects with a reliance on physical skill and dexterity such as PE, DT, Art (and not forgetting writing), we need to recognise the importance not only of curriculum content which allows for the stimulation of intellectual curiosity and development, but also the nailing down of skills which allow access to ways in which to engage with the curriculum and present their work. By that I mean opportunities to learn and practise (for example) cutting, sticking, using a ruler, holding and using different writing and art tools correctly, developing gross motor skills such as balance, coordination, strength and then the finer skills and hand strength for developing writing stamina. 

It could be argued that many of these are contained within an individual subject discipline –  cutting within DT or Art, and using a ruler within Maths or Science. However, the reality is that in curriculum time allocation at primary, it is unlikely that there will be enough practising of these to allow for true mastery if left solely to be addressed in single subjects. In many schools there may only be an hour a week for DT, and in some schools where subjects are “blocked” and taught every other half term then there is no specific time allocation in which these can be developed.  

Equally if we are translating and championing approaches within the delivery of our curriculum which work well with older children such as the use of knowledge organisers and booklets then we need to recognise that these layouts need even more thought in primary, as young children may yet need to secure the knowledge and skills needed to read any text, navigate a table, chart, Venn or list. 

The basics and the breadth

There is also an assumption that developing these skills is the preserve of EYFS. To think the need for consideration of these begins and ends within foundation stage and that on the first day in year one or even in year three or five or six that all children are skilled and capable in these areas is at best shortsighted and at worst, a disregard for the very necessary aspects of practice, rehearsal and development which are required for ensuring children are not just intellectually stimulated but also capable in  what I’ve come to think of as, ‘curriculum access skills’, the basics which children need to master which may not feature in discussions about individual subject specificity but are very necessary for being able to access and interact within a curriculum. However you rarely see ‘cutting’ being championed in a ks1 or ks2 curriculum alongside rich knowledge but these skills would be immediately apparent should they be missing from a child’s skill set at the point at which they began to attempt an interaction with the demands of a KS3 curriculum. 

In the rush to add intellectual depth and breadth we are running the risk of front loading knowledge to the detriment of other key developmental aspects upon which we rely when we are asking children to interact with our curriculum. Not only this but we are potentially not giving sufficient depth of thought to the wider picture of how best to ensure skill and knowledge acquisition for those children who are not yet fluent in reading, writing and basic skills. 

Considering how children learn

If we reflect on what we know about cognitive load theory and what we also know about how children acquire new knowledge we know that there is a limit to what children of any age can process at any one time. We need to be mindful then not only of the potential for cognitive overload brought about by the rich individual subject knowledge we are teaching but also by the cumulative effects of all aspects of task design we are presenting which draw on many other subjects in which young learners are still novices. In the Primary setting, by the very nature of their age, our learners are novices in all of the individual subject disciplines. Whenever they encounter any new knowledge within the curriculum, it is introduced not necessarily on a firm foundation of general knowledge and mastered skills from across the individual disciplines, but within a wider interdisciplinary novice landscape. 

Examples of the interdisciplinary novice

For example, children who are still securing the very basics of reading and transcription (which is not just within EYFS but for many,  well into KS1 and for some, early KS2) there are significant cognitive resources required just to hold the pencil correctly, orient the text the right way, hold the pencil in an efficient and accurate grip, recall the appropriate phonic knowledge to write and then to recall the correct formation of letters, inclusion of finger spaces and keeping their writing in a straight line. And that’s before they’ve even begun to write, ‘London’ for their work on the great fire. Add into the mix that they are still novices in social interactions, routines, norms and life in general and the load soon stacks up. 

We need to be mindful therefore of the interplay of being novice in multiple aspects of the curriculum and analyse our planned Primary curriculum knowledge to evaluate not just what we want to be covered within individual disciplines but also to analyse upon which other pillars of subject disciplines that knowledge and associated skills will draw from; we need to ensure that the pillars of interdisciplinary interplay are level so that our novice learners are able to secure new learning without experiencing overload and its inevitable patchy understanding.  

When we are looking at ambitious knowledge and the sequencing and progression models for curriculum content we need to align these therefore with the parallel progression in pre requisites which may come from other subject areas. For example, if we are talking about the History of Ancient Egypt, have children got sufficient Geographical knowledge to understand the relative distance away of Egypt or its climate, location and physical features such as desert and rivers? Do they have sufficient mathematical knowledge to understand the concept of the chronology and dates? Have they grasped the concepts of “changes over time” and that Ancient Egypt is not full of smartphones, cars, electricity and supermarkets? Are they proficient enough in reading to be able to access the challenging texts we intend to use and is their understanding of the key vocabulary deep enough to go beyond the recall of learnt definitions but within an overall broad and rich commitment to developing  all tiers of vocabulary? Is their transcription speed, stamina and fluency up to the demands of the tasks we are intending to use within that area of curriculum study and do they have sufficient understanding of the wider History Curriculum to be able to place Ancient Egypt accurately within Ancient rather than Modern? There are so many interdisciplinary considerations within the teaching of individual subjects at Primary level, and the organisation of primary schools with their opportunities for this type of cross curricular work are ideally placed to develop these. 

The specialist primary domain

Within any individual subject at primary, we cannot ignore the interplay between subjects and the deep understanding of these connections which is needed by primary teachers; this is why primary practice is a deep and complex domain in its own right and a very necessary complementary branch of knowledge to that of the individual subject disciplines. 

We need to recognise this interdisciplinary novice status and also recognise the 

need for being vigilant and deliberate in our focus on aspects of physical or social development which need constant revisiting and developing alongside the breadth and depth of individual subject knowledge at primary. Fail to do this and we’re potentially in a situation where we are saying that knowledge trumps development. We need to be as strategic about ensuring any individual subject curriculum content aligns with development and understanding cross curricularly at primary, as we do about how individual subjects are planned and sequenced.  

Specificity, generalism and expectations

But this is not about low expectations or low aspirations for children or a curriculum. This is about recognising that curriculum content, if carved at primary into subject specialisms, runs the risk of accidentally causing some skills and knowledge from our beautifully crafted curriculum to fall between two stools. In the rush to secure subject specific knowledge or stuffing the curriculum with great swathes of information in the name of “depth and breadth” and a focus on sleek specialism, we negate the importance of the albeit clunkier and less attractive but nevertheless important aspects of generalism. 

There is also the importance of recognising that a broad and rich curriculum is not necessarily always a well retained curriculum. 

It is obvious that all subjects have their basic concepts without which any future development within the subject will stall. For Mathematics it may be seen as counting, place value and being able to calculate accurately and efficiently within the four operations. For Reading it is accurate decoding and comprehension. What primary needs to do is to focus on anchoring these key areas. In the seductive narratives around curriculum design and the false conflation of “more challenging, intellectual and aspirational” with “best” there is the potential for the solid building blocks of basic concepts to be cast aside in favour of depth, breadth and challenge.

If we strive to over complicate and over stuff our curriculums, not only will there be less time to practise the cross curricular interdisciplinary skills, there will be less time in which to secure fluency, automaticity and deep understanding of basic concepts. 

The expert domain of teaching basic concepts

Teaching basic concepts really well to novices is another specific knowledge and expertise domain in itself. Understanding the small steps, modelling, potential misconceptions, vocabulary and scaffolding required to introduce young children to very abstract concepts is complex and challenging and needs to be the focus of “subject knowledge development” for teachers in primary. For example, getting children to understand that squiggle on a page representing the sound they can hear (but not see) of the phoneme related to the grapheme “s” or that a sound which is abstract can be represented multiple ways such as in fish, enough, photo. These are complex and challenging concepts in their own right which need securing before we look to depth, breadth and intellectual rigour. This is a reason why cross phase experts such as Mark McCourt who have a deep understanding of how their subject develops from early years through to Post Graduate (he himself having taught all age groups) are the experts to whom we need to look when discussing individual subject disciplines. It is not enough to simply draw from an expert subject knowledge domain without drawing too from an expert age and stage practitioner domain. 

 Broad, and rich can imply a “more is more” approach. What this can lead to is a curriculum stuffed with intellectually challenging material which doesn’t necessarily align with age, stage, development or understanding. Rather we need to focus on a core curriculum for each subject which I was reminded of in a recent blog I read by @Suchmo83 where he outlines the need for,  “The A4 Curriculum”. 

The three prongs of the primary curriculum

If we are to use our knives and forks effectively, we need to recognise that we need to adapt the curricular diets for different stages of learning and development. We do not need to overload the plates of our primary diners with a subject specialist secondary curricular approach. We need to draw on the curriculum expertise and skills of our subject specialist colleagues and then prepare the primary curricular diet with expert primary practitioners who are adept at recognising the essential interplay necessary within different subjects.

Just as a fork has three prongs, so there needs to be a consideration of more than one element when thinking of anchoring the primary curriculum. 

The first prong is that of subject knowledge. 

There does need to be an ongoing discussion with subject experts about the subject specific knowledge we want to ensure our children both encounter and remember.

The second prong is that of the recognition of age and stage and the interdisciplinary novice status.

We need to ensure that basic skills such as cutting, sticking, measuring and physical  development are encountered and developed with strategic regularity. Alongside this we need to develop a deep understanding of the interplay between subjects at primary and the effect that being a novice in many will have on the success of their interactions with the individual subjects.

The third prong is that of the purpose of primary education and the recognition of the unique state of childhood.

In the rush to prioritise subject specificity and to front load our curriculum with this, we need to also recognise that primary is a unique phase and should not be a mini secondary. We need to revisit what we want primary experiences to look and feel like. We need to be clear what the experience of interacting with our individual school’s global primary curriculum offer will look and feel like once it is enacted.  When we envisage or imagine primary schools they are often a merry blend of colour, play, song, creativity, movement, laughter and joy. Our curriculum designs and contents needs to allow space and frontloading of the important business of play, playfulness and being a child. Our third prong therefore needs to ensure that these are anchored in our curriculum design and structure. 

There is no second chance at a primary experience. 

There is no other point in their education where children will get the chance to explore the interconnectedness of the curriculum alongside the sheer number of opportunities for simply being a child. In the rush to become an aspirational individual subject driven curriculum we are potentially ignoring the importance of simply being in a supportive and rich primary environment with its potential for enjoyment and exploration of everything from song, movement and sand to running, sticking and stories. 

This does not mean that the experiences we provide cannot be deep, challenging and rich in knowledge, informed by expert practice but that we need to step back and check the overall primary landscape.  What do we want for the younger learners in our system? Does knowledge trump all? Or, do we want that blend of knowledge, age and stage appropriateness (and the understanding of the cross curricular interplay of these), alongside the recognition of the unique state of childhood?  Or do we want just knowledge? 

How and when do we make specialism overt?

Is it important that a child of 5 or 6  or 7 understands that they are, “In a History lesson and learning History and this is how History works”? 

Or, is it more important that it is the teacher of that lesson who understands the unique nature of history and has drawn on a carefully planned and sequenced curriculum which takes into account: the age and stage and relative novice status from the other contributory subject disciplines, deep subject specialist knowledge, specialist age and phase knowledge, and has planned something which will ensure that the child is utterly absorbed and engrossed in their endeavours and has produced a lesson which the child will rush out of school to tell their adult what a wonderful day they had? 

Is it important that that History lesson includes a consideration of the need for young children to move, to not be seated for extended periods of time, the need for them to practise basic interdisciplinary skills, and to be able to laugh and to interact and to be playfully immersed in the important business of being introduced to the world through an age and stage appropriate approach? 

This is not either a rallying cry for a potentially weak and diluted homogenous approach to primary curriculum design nor a call for a topic-based approach. Each setting will know which parts of their curriculum lend themselves to meaningful link making and which would benefit from being a stand alone subject. It is also important to recognise that these links may change from term to term depending on the units of work being covered and that that in itself is one of the joys, beauty and challenges of responsive primary curriculum design. Where units or subjects from different areas of the curriculum serve each other in their understanding, deep and well-designed links can strengthen and enhance the learning within the curriculum. Equally, there are some subjects and units which benefit from a “stand alone” approach. This knowledge of curriculum content and design is another example of a specific knowledge domain in which it is primary teachers who are the true experts. 

Curriculum as a knife and fork

This three pronged fork approach which anchors the curriculum diet in primary is different from the precision steak knife curriculum of secondary.

Neither one is better.

Neither one is right on its own.

Without the three prongs of primary, securely anchoring the initial experiences, knowledge and skills with which children leave primary, the sharp precision of the secondary curriculum knife will be skidding around the plate.

We need therefore in primary curriculum design to recognise that our approach to curriculum is and should be different.

Not better. 

Not deliberately tribal in its difference, but to be the fork to the knife.

And just as the knife needs to know what the fork is doing to work in efficient synchronicity, so too do primary and secondary need to understand each other’s complementary and unique curriculum approaches. 

If we are to ensure that our carefully curated curriculum diets are of optimum nutritional value, we need to start looking at how we hold and use our curriculum cutlery. 

It’s time to set the table. 

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