I’ve written a lot of blogs while on maternity leave, none of which have made the cut to be published, so addled with baby brain most of them have been abandoned to the archives pretty quickly. However, with the return to work a week away and inspired by a brilliant #BrewEdHackney event and some excellent training from Martin Robinson (@Trivium21c) these are my thoughts on curriculum, with enormous thanks to what I have learnt from both Martin and Clare Sealy.
At #BrewEdHackney Clare Sealy drew attention to something that’s been bothering me for a while: how much do we actually know about what happens in the years before or after the year we’re teaching? Sometimes I think that the curriculum can wrongly seem like a giant game of ‘My mother went to market… A list of things to remember that’s constantly growing, each teacher adding a bit more in. However, if as teachers we only join the game half way through, facilitating children to remember is a very difficult thing to do. Also, when you play this game the more random the list becomes as a result of individual’s imaginings the harder it becomes to remember. With no overall purpose to mother’s trip to the market there are no sensible links between the things she bought. How difficult does that make the list to remember?
My husband and I have a joke that if I go to the shops hungry I end up leaving with guacamole and Party Rings. Although this only happened once, it is worth thinking about. If I go to the shops or ‘mother goes to market’ with a recipe in mind it’s much easier to remember what’s been bought and much easier to make something that’s more nutritious and tasty from what’s brought home. There are links between the ingredients.
‘So how does all this musing about grocery shopping link to the curriculum? I hear you ask’…. Good question. Martin Robinson talked about the importance when planning a joined-up curriculum of ‘always passing the baton on’ from teacher to teacher. What is true of groceries is true of knowledge. Every bit of ‘stuff’ (as Martin Robinson called it) that we add to our trolley has to have something else it can relate to in a logical narrative to aid learning, just like shopping with a recipe in mind.
It seems obvious but in Primary schools where the curriculum is time pressured and its design is often done either by individual subject leaders or by individual year group teams the baton changes have become clunky or dropped completely. In Clare Sealy’s 3D Curriculum she talks about designing the curriculum with vertical, horizontal and diagonal links, ones that help make sure that children revisit things, augmenting and adapting their schemas all the time, making progress. This model keeps the baton moving all the time. After all, we want children, by the time they leave year 6, to become efficient shoppers and have collected enough ingredients that they can put together a whole recipe, better still that they can put together several recipes using multiple ingredients in multiple ways (linking facts, knowledge and examples to build understanding). In fact, as I was reminded by Martin Robinson, children’s creativity comes from engaging with rich knowledge. Only if we teach good recipes and get children to be experts in produce will we end up with a truly talented chef: a learner so adept at juggling all his knowledge and understanding that he starts to come up with new ideas altogether.
So how can we make this work? Take this example, last year I taught a year 5 class I had also taught in year 3. How much easier was it for me to develop Year 5s understanding and enthusiasm for Viking Mythology, when looking at stories set in the icy hell of Jotunheim, because I could draw on their experience of having read Robert Swindell’s ‘The Ice Palace’ in Year 3? How much more memorable was it and how much better was their vocabulary as they drew on the memory of another frozen land? The truth is ‘a lot.’ Delving into the memory of Ivan’s journey made the new learning feel like it was tethered to something and therefore it would be remembered. From our study of Odd and the Frost Giants to this video https://www.literacyshed.com/jotun.html, remnants of Ivan’s journey from the Ice Palace haunted their work but were equally built on with new information. Progress had been made.
Now we are not all fortunate enough to have taught the same class twice nor do I believe it’s good for children necessarily to have the same teacher too many times but it takes me back to Clare Sealy’s vertical and diagonal links, Martin’s baton or, as I like to think of them, recipes.
Take a theme or an idea let’s say ‘adventures in snowy lands’ How much greater would the learning have been if my year 5’s memory of ‘The Ice Palace’ in Year 3 had been tethered to having read ‘The Princess and the White Bear King’ in Year 2? How much greater would the learning have been had they gone on to look at ‘Shackleton’s Journey’ in Year 6? Could they then revisit these experiences when they come to study Hardy’s ‘Darkling Thrush’, or Robert Frost’s ‘Desert Places’ or Sonnet 97 at secondary school?
For good teachers establishing the horizontal links across a year is a natural step often rooted in using good quality texts that link to humanities or science learning. However, in a world where there has been pressure for middle leaders to try to prove their individual worth, joined up thinking between subjects has been relegated to a foot note, the baton dropped while middle leaders have been so focused on proving their impact scrutinizing work or plans, commenting on differentiation or learning objectives and giving feedback to staff. How many (to save precious time) have abandoned the curriculum documents in favour of giving their class teachers a bought or free scheme of work which inevitably, at least one teacher will say they can’t fit in to the timetable
So how can middle leaders possibly have the time to plan a joined-up curriculum? The answer is that they don’t have to do it. Middle leadership isn’t and shouldn’t be about schemes of work, paperwork, scrutiny and feedback. It should be about inspiring others and teamwork. A curriculum with what Martin Robinson calls ‘a logical narrative’ is a collaborative process that is far more concerned with inspiring teachers than monitoring them. I was always taught as a leader that you are only as strong as your weakest team member but it is absurd in education to think like this. Every school has teachers (or indeed cover supervisors and HLTAs these days) for whom a nice printed scheme of work will help ensure that the subject gets taught but as teachers we wouldn’t give our struggling students the answer sheet just so they finish the work so why do it with our teachers? It shouldn’t be any different to getting the best work out of the children. The best curriculum is the one teachers build themselves when they are inspired.
An inspired teacher will build a year full of horizontal links and this is good bedrock for a joined-up curriculum. Schemes of work often mask what in the curriculum are simple aims, more easily achieved by doubling up and making links. I believe teachers equipped with the National curriculum rather than a scheme of work can fit far more into the time they have. In my first job, I worked under a fearsome deputy head who insisted that we always went back to our old ring-bound copy of the curriculum. He vigorously tapped it in almost every staff meeting and this has really influenced my planning and subsequently my leadership. Revealing the curriculum to staff in such a way that inspires them to plan creatively is when middle leaders can really say they’ve had impact. Do not get me wrong. Don’t throw out the schemes of work completely. Used properly and dipped in and out of for the really good resources they are an important time saving tool for teachers and Middle leaders should be able to identify the good ones. However, insisting teachers follow them slavishly without establishing the logical narratives is a fool’s game that will almost always result in timetable overload and rushed shallow lessons.
Imagine then a curriculum planning session where each teacher comes with the ‘shape of their year’ set out. Harnessing all the passions, enthusiasm and knowledge they are looking forward to developing over the year. Then as a team, with middle leaders suitably armed with the expert knowledge of their subject’s curriculum, you start to check the vertical links for each subject. Tweaks can then be made as a team establishing new ones and strengthening existing ones as teachers share their ideas and add new texts, not just for their own year group but the years that lead up to it. Just like a relay team practising those baton changes, staff start to invest in weaving in the knowledge points of the curriculum. They gain understanding of the bigger picture, seeing where ideas are revised and revisited and, to bring me back full circle, knowing what happens from year to year.
So how can you start to ‘shape the year’? Firstly, I think you have to identify good quality texts, or knowledge that children will spend time getting to know. It’s the ‘stuff’ or ‘Grammar’ as Martin Robinson puts it (some of this will indeed come from schemes of work) The curriculum can then be built around small projects that engage with this knowledge. Within that, you need to plan explicit opportunities for rhetoric. The rhetoric is how children communicate what they have learnt, essentially your writing and speaking opportunities. Ensuring that there is a wide variety of these, where children will get to publish completed written work in different styles relevant to different subjects and using subject specific vocabulary is vital to establishing those high standards. Once you’ve shaped the year and identified your vertical links you can then dig down into the detail and start thinking about what the vocabulary journeys look like in those themes (another blog subject for another day)
I’ve mocked up what it might look like when you’ve finished – just looking at a few year groups.
The main learning is text or project based but commonly linked to humanities or science learning. Writing (rhetoric) opportunities are in italics. Vertical links or common recipes are indicated by the coloured dots. (See key at the bottom)
I cannot stress enough that this just an example. Firstly, I built it without any collaboration. A true version of this sort of curriculum will harness the texts and projects that your teachers are passionate about and that fit with the aims of the humanities and science curriculum. The texts and projects I’ve chosen might not work for everyone. Secondly there is more to this than I can put on one document. Things that happen at certain times of the school year need to be factored in as your team puts it together and how you arrange your timetable is also really important (but that’s a whole different blog for a whole different day.) However, I hope this visualisation helps to make my ramblings about groceries clearer. One important thing to note is that I didn’t start with all my recipes. They have changed and adapted several times as I’ve gone along (I’m also fairly certain in a collaborative process my science leader would have a few things to say) but hopefully a curriculum like this would mean that no child left school with only guacamole and Party Rings.