“Mummy, what’s your favourite dinosaur and how big is space?”
Designing your curriculum.
Having three small children in quick succession, lovingly referred to as the trinity of chaos, I spend a lot of my time trying to answer questions to which I don’t really know the answer. If I’m honest I don’t really have a favourite dinosaur (just don’t shatter the illusion with my five year old as he thinks I love the ornithomimus), and I definitely couldn’t explain how big space was to my ten year old when, aged three, she scared the wotsits out of me at 2am when she woke me to ask me by pressing her eyeball directly against mine.
I also don’t know the answer to where does a goldfish go when it dies, were cave people cold all the time, what time did Roman children go to bed and how many spiders are there in this country altogether. Not an hour goes past where I’m not bombarded with the random musings of my three who, in their own little individual ways, are fascinated by the world in which they live.
And that’s my point.
The world is fascinating.
The world is fascinating but are our curricula?
If we were asked to analyse our students’ curricular diets and look through the lens of everything that’s ever happened in the history of the universe, would we be able to say, and say with pride, “Here, I have considered everything that has happened in the history of the universe and I have chosen this… this subject curriculum to share with you. I could have chosen anything at all and I chose this.”
When we develop a curriculum we are not developing a policy or a document or even a map or a plan. We are reaching out to take our pupils by the hand and lead them into the worlds of our subjects. We are building and shaping their views, their attitudes, their behaviours, their will to study further, their understanding of what and how the world works. We are leading them through the vistas we create and the worlds we have constructed. We are not writing documents, we are creating their worlds. This on first glance my seem overly flowery or romantic but it is a necessary lens through which to view our curriculum if it is to have real power and impact. The impact on memory is relatively easy to plot. The sequencing of knowledge and skill to enact within lessons is actually fairly straightforward, even if more recently it has been overly complicated with a huge helping of often unwieldy and ultimately not particularly useful metalanguage.
What we cannot lose sight of is what we really want our curriculum to create. What is the end of phase child who leaves us going to think of the world? How will they use the knowledge and skills they have acquired to make sense of it? What do we want our curriculum to give them? We can plot the essential components of knowledge and skill easily but what are the wider impacts of our curriculum with which we want to ensure our end of phase child leaves? Have we had the conversation about what we want the end of phase child not just to know or be able to do or understand but how their thinking and values or behaviours may be influenced or challenged by the curricular worlds in which we situate them? Have we talked enough about the purpose of each subject, what it aims to do for each child and then, when we are clear on the unique fingerprint of each subject, do we look at our plans and think, “How does this unit or sequence really serve these purposes and aims?” “How does this unit or sequence help to shape and create this world?” Often there is such a disconnect between what we teach and why we teach it. We can often articulate the “why” in terms of “Well, I need to teach this lesson because the next one relies on this part being understood.” We are generally good at sequencing for understanding but we too often uncouple the “what” we are teaching from the real “why” we are teaching it. Not so that the next lesson can be accessed but because we understand how a particular lesson or sequence or unit is helping to shape that curricular world. That is not to say there are not individual lessons which are just the nuts and bolts of a subject which pupils need to master but alongside these there needs to be a broader understanding of how this lesson will help that end of phase child to gather all of the elements with which we said we wanted them to leave.
We can argue that we are bound by a syllabus or a national curriculum or test content but there is much more general freedom, especially in primary, and universally in HOW we present these worlds to our pupils than we may realise. When we talk about curriculum it is all too often associated with the taught lessons in a classroom. But curriculum is a world. In my training I use a picture of Atlas holding up the world to illustrate this point. A curriculum is not just what is taught in class, it is the whole experience of a child from the first day when their shiny shoe crosses the threshold to the day they leave. It is every assembly, playtime, trip, visit, visitor, speaker, lesson, display, artefact shared or text chosen. It is everything. Our children are making sense of the world not only in the time they are in lessons but in every moment of every day in every context. If we were to walk around our school with our “subject leader” goggles on, what would the day and the building and the site tell us about the curricular world we are creating and shaping?
A focus on an end of phase child and what they should be like by the time they leave requires a clear, shared vision by all involved. How long therefore do we spend aligning our vision for our subjects and ensuring everyone involved understands this destination and how the vehicle of the curriculum can be utilised and mobilised to get that child to that far off fabulous world in the distance? Because, if we don’t all know where we’re going and what we’re trying to achieve overall then it doesn’t matter how great an individual unit or sequence is, it simply won’t have the impact of a coherent journey with a clearly understood end point. It will be a little like that children’s game where one person draws a head and folds over the paper, the next draws a body and then folds, the next the legs and the final one the feet. When you unfold that paper you often find you have an Astro-octo-clown-dog rather than one coherent body. If we are to create our end of phase child, we need to ensure that we have a clearly articulated goal in mind for the final picture to avoid our pupils leaving as Astro-octo-clown-dogs, not just in their knowledge and skill but in their behaviours, attitudes and experiences.
We need therefore to ensure that our approach to our curriculum development bears in mind that we are not writing documents, we are creating worlds. If our worlds are to be navigated successfully they need a clear path and direction of travel which our curriculum sequencing and progression maps can provide. But the map itself, however detailed, is no substitute for real travel, with clear purpose through real places. Our second focus then needs to be on ensuring that not only do we know the route but also the destination and the associated vistas and views. We need to ensure that our curriculum delivery is rich, beautiful and full of things worthy of pointing out along the way.
We want to teach things which in addition to building useful skill and knowledge, help to retain the fascination with the world which very young children demonstrate almost constantly. To very young children, everything in the world is fascinating, everything is a why or a how or a what. We too can benefit from asking ourselves a bit more why and how or what. Why am I teaching this? How do I want my children to view the curriculum world through this lesson, and what do I want them to think?
If we’re to create and shape their curriculum world, what kind of world do we want our children to live in?