Curriculum Triage

Curriculum Triage

In the world of the medic, the process of triage is well understood. It involves performing a rapid assessment of a patient, swiftly identifying the presenting problem alongside a basic history and ascertaining the patient’s current physical and psychological condition. It is worth noting at this stage that during the triage process it focuses on those “vital signs”, the most important indicators of physical health – blood pressure, pulse, breathing rate and temperature. This is not the moment for an in-depth discussion of a stubborn wart or ingrowing toenail.

In a large-scale emergency situation, triage is carried out in a different way. In this situation, multiple patients are categorised by the speed at which they need to have medical treatment.

In both situations, in the one-on-one of an emergency department, and also in the large-scale situation, decisions are made about the relative importance of presenting elements, and the likely impact if nothing is done.

In the triage system, the wart or the ingrown toenail are things requiring attention but not immediately; not requiring multiple interventions; and not to be prioritised over other more pressing areas.

And this is what we need to do with our hugely bloated, overstuffed curriculums. We need an urgent curriculum triage.

In the Ofsted research reviews for Mathematics, it specifically says children should not be rushed through content and that core knowledge, (the “vital signs”) is what is ultimately impactful,

“A focus on core knowledge in younger year groups can be achieved by focusing on depth over breadth, covering fewer core topics but in more detail.”

And “Pupils should not be rushed through content.”

This is echoed in many other familiar edu soundbites which all add up to the sentiment of, “Do less and do it really ruddy well.”

It is simply a fact that not all objectives are created equal. Not all objectives neatly drawn up on our curriculum documents actually have equal weighting. Just because most can be distilled into similarly pithy one sentence statements, doesn’t mean that there should be parity when it comes to our curriculum time.

But rarely do our curriculum documents enable us to triage.

Rarely do they scream, “Quick, over here!” “Do this before you do anything else!” or “Don’t worry about the curriculum toenail; leave that for now!”

They don’t indicate where we need to work at speed and with multiple pieces of equipment and specialist staff to stabilise a situation and get those vital signs functioning effectively and where other things can be left in the waiting room for a few hours with the vending machine and a copy of the People’s Friend for company. 

The fact is that in the rush to ensure that we have everything we could ever possibly want to cover in our curriculum, by adding in ever more elements or approaches or content, we have inadvertently obfuscated the vital signs. In our additive curriculum model, often obsessed with championing ever more complex and intellectually challenging content, where the emperor of our curriculum documents expands their hinterland empire through ever more breadth, we have created a potential for a negative effect, cluttering and clogging the curriculum system which leave us gasping for air, bilious, panicked about coverage, and horribly bloated.

This obfuscation is choking and stifling the inhalation of the curriculum oxygen – those elements which are fundamental to success within an individual subject and across all subjects.

When we look at some of the individual objectives from the national curriculum such as:

Year 4: Recall multiplication and division facts for multiplication tables up to 12 × 12

Year 4: Find the area of rectilinear shapes by counting squares

It is clear that not all objectives are created equal. Not all are hewn from the same core content stone. But nowhere is there specific guidance which says which elements of the curriculum are the vital signs. Which are those elements which need urgent attention, constant vigilance, regular observation and progress charting? Which are the elements which if they are askew or missing will set off the curriculum bleepers?

For those in charge of planning the curriculum, time needs to be taken then to triage the curriculum and communicate this to staff. This is especially important in primary where teachers are not subject specialists in all the subjects they teach. Colleagues need the vital signs for each curriculum subject mapping, charting, explaining and then given permission to focus their practice on securing these.

Sadly, often published resources do not articulate this vital signs approach. Even the more popular resources have a “curriculum of coverage” approach rather than on a well triaged curriculum system which states explicitly what MUST be the focus and why, and then how to adjust units or sequences to ensure that these vital elements are stable, secure and mastered. Often when using pre published schemes, the duration of these units implies that all objectives are created equal. Often the same number of weeks or days is given over to the rectilinear shape objective as it is other elements which actually require much longer, and which need revisiting with almost metronomic regularity within the curriculum in order to ensure they are secure.

In the emergency department, or indeed on any ward in a hospital, regular “obs” are conducted. These observations of vital signs alongside the emotional state of the patient are noted and acted upon by staff. All staff are clear what these vital signs are and the course of action to take should there be any concerning readings. In our teaching we also need to build in strategic “obs” of our vital signs – regular retrieval, revisiting, interleaved and spaced practice woven in deliberately to ensure that the vital signs are still functioning well, as without them, no other curriculum content will make sense. Just as if a temperature spikes out of control or there is a heart arrythmia these are warning signs for the medic, so too do we need to be vigilant to our curriculum vital signs and be ready to intervene.

We need therefore to return to our curriculum documents, to think what are the vital signs for each subject and each year group. What are the absolutely core aspects which must be secured and regularly revisited through low stakes “obs” and subsequent actions in order to ensure curriculum health? Have we triaged our curriculum for the life-giving elements or is it stuffed full of ingrown toenails and stubborn warts?

We need to triage our curriculum into three elements:

  • Those skills and knowledge fundamental to success in the subject without which it would not be possible to make any further progress. The “building blocks” for each year group in that subject.
  • Those skills and knowledge which serve to add detail to specific aspects of the subject e.g., details specific to a unit of work which are high on interest and context but have little intra or inter subject transferability and do not affect making future progress.
  • Those skills and knowledge which illuminate the subject further and add depth, breadth and challenge

Work on curriculum triage is as important as work on initial curriculum content design but it is all too often a missing element of regular curriculum conversation. All too often it is assumed that everyone knows the vital signs and what to do, when in actual fact it is the great “unhad” curriculum conversation; the deadly assumption that the curriculum content design itself is a well-stocked medicine cabinet of cure alls.

We need to be clear therefore about what for each year group and each subject are our vital signs and then we need to be vigilant, agile and responsive in our teaching of these, as without them our curriculum will ultimately die a death. We need to ensure that we breathe life into our curriculum through teaching centered around the curriculum vital signs and have the courage to know how and when to respond and to triage our teaching appropriately. This is not to say we forget about that toenail in the waiting room though, they still need to get seen, just not with the same urgency or for as long as those curriculum vital signs.

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