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Designing curriculum in a primary school

Written By: Robbie Burns
13 min read

This case study was written by Robbie Burns, a primary school teacher and leader. 

As you read this case study, reflect on how the curriculum has been shaped and developed. Take some time to think about how some of these approaches might translate to your own context.

In this case study, I will explore four research-informed principles that I have followed as a year 6 classroom teacher to plan the curriculum for my pupils. For each principle, I will briefly explain the research evidence, how I have interpreted it and then show how this has been translated into my classroom practice. I will be providing examples from two subjects – history and geography – and two units of work – Rivers and The First World War to hopefully demonstrate that the principles that I have followed for curriculum development can be applied to all subjects.

Principle 1: Begin with what your pupils know

This principle, simply explained, is that as teachers we must build all of our teaching on the prior knowledge of our pupils. If we don’t do this, then the learning our children do in our classrooms will not be as effective as it could be. Ausubel (1968) wrote that ‘the most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach them accordingly.’ This is an essential first step for curriculum planning.

With this principle in mind, I began my curriculum planning for these two units of work by making sense of three key documents: the whole school overview for history and geography; planning of topics that had been taught in previous year groups (Year 5) and the national curriculum for history and geography. This was the foundation of my planning.

These ‘three key documents’ might look different in your school. In essence, they are documents that:

  1. Explain the schools rationale, overview and progression for the subject you are planning
  2. Prior learning that your pupils will have done in the subject that you are planning (schemes of work from previous year groups)
  3. The national curriculum for the subject you are planning (the objectives that you need to cover, including those that have been covered previously, should be mapped onto the whole school overview)

Even though I was developing new units of work, I made sure not to assume that my pupils had remembered all the learning they had done prior to year 6 and prepared to cover some of the objectives taught previously that would aid their learning. Every lesson I made sure that there was space for pupils to retrieve their prior learning before we moved on to look at anything new.

Pupil explanation of the water cycle in the context of a Geography topic on rivers in a creative way. All explanations are linked to rivers and use key words from the Knowledge Organiser (see Principle 2).

For example, in our geography unit on rivers, we started by making sense of the water cycle. This objective had been taught in science in year 5, however, because it was essential for an understanding of rivers, I felt it was important to cover it in more depth in year 6 and explain its geographical significance. This was important for two reasons. First, it was important to show my pupils that knowledge in science and geography overlap and have implications across subject divides. This deepened their understanding of the interconnectedness of subjects in the curriculum. Second, it helped my pupils see that rivers are not just a body of water that flows through countryside and city alike, they are part of a bigger more cohesive water process that is connected to all other water on earth. This helped my pupils embed the water cycle in their long-term memory in a deeper way and also helped them make new connections in their understanding of the cycle.

Reflection and action

How will you find out what your pupils already know?

What resources can you use to do this?

What prerequisite knowledge and concepts are needed for your pupils to access the learning that you have planned for them?

This page explains Ausubel’s work in a bit more detail.

Principle 2: Plan with the end in mind

Although it may seem counterintuitive to the previous principle discussed, the next thing I made sure I was explicit about in my curriculum planning was what I hoped every child would learn by the end of the unit. This ‘learning’ I refer to can be broken down into declarative knowledge, procedural knowledge and conceptual understanding. In my schemes of work, I ensured that I was clear about what I wanted them to achieve and how I would go about making sure every pupil could achieve the goals I had set for them. 

Declarative Knowledge – To make sure my pupils were clear about this aspect of the learning for the units of work, I created knowledge organisers that included key facts, diagrams and words. These were planned to be used in every lesson through retrieval practice and short quizzes to help my pupils commit this part of their learning to long-term memory, freeing up more working memory space to focus on the procedural knowledge they would practice in lesson time.

These terms are notoriously slippery, however, these are the simple definitions I use. 

Declarative Knowledge: knowing that something is the case – that B is the second letter of the alphabet, that the River Aire runs through Leeds. Declarative knowledge is easy to verbalise and test or quiz.

Procedural Knowledge: knowing how to do something – read a map. Pupils may struggle to explain how they do it. Sometimes referred to as skill.

Conceptual Understanding/Knowledge: organising ideas that help pupils make sense of the facts, skills and words that they learn in a subject

Retrieval practice is a well-researched teaching strategy to help pupils develop their ability to recall declarative knowledge at speed. It is sometimes called ‘the testing effect’. This blog provides some helpful, easy strategies for you to use.

Procedural Knowledge – To plan this aspect of my units of work, I made sure there was ample time for pupils to practice and apply their declarative knowledge in a variety of contexts. In my rivers unit of work, I made sure pupils could read an OS map and identify rivers in our local area. Alongside the declarative knowledge, they needed to understand map symbols; it was important that they had time to practice doing this. 

Conceptual Understanding – this aspect of curriculum planning is slightly less concrete, however, I felt that it was useless to my pupils to just give them declarative and procedural knowledge without them learning to appreciate the underpinning concepts that make geography, or history, what it is. In geography, I was sure to plan and prepare my instruction to include key words that articulated the organising ideas for the subject (which were included on the knowledge organiser) such as process, erosion, human and physical. In history, I made sure I explained and then taught using words such as significance, cause, consequence and impact. Over time, using these words in my teaching helped my pupils see that in each subject, there are words that help us explain the conceptual elements that transcend the topic being studied.

Reflection and action

What declarative knowledge will your pupils need? Write down everything you think that they might need to know.t your pupils already know?

What procedural knowledge will your pupils need? Write this down in note form.

What are the concepts of the unit of work that you will be touching on throughout your teaching?

Now consider what is ‘essential’ and what is not.

This blogprovides information on how to make and use knowledge organisers.

Principle 3: Break things down into small steps

Because of the limited capacity of our working memory (Miller, 1956), it is important to not overload students with too much new information in a lesson. For pupils to achieve the intended objectives for the unit, it is important to break down the unit into small steps, making sure that each lesson does not include too much new information (Rosenshine, 2012; Sherrington, 2020).

Using my knowledge organiser, scheme of work and an understanding of how much time I could give to the unit within my normal weekly timetable, I broke down what I wanted to teach into manageable chunks and sequenced it in a way that would build understanding over time. I made sure I did not chunk what I was going to teach arbitrarily; it was important to structure knowledge that was progressive over time. For example, in history, it was important to begin with a chronological understanding of WWI before we looked at conscription or the conditions of the trenches for British soldiers. In geography, pupils needed to understand the water cycle before we taught erosion. I then turned these ‘chunks’ of learning into six open-ended conceptual enquiry questions, that we would assess at the end of the lesson. Then, after deciding what declarative and procedural knowledge I was going to teach, I built in conceptual understanding by framing each lesson with an enquiry question (EQ) that we would study. For example, the EQ for the first lesson was ‘What caused the devastating First World War?’. The ‘answer’ to this question was the lesson that my pupils were involved in.

The EQ does not imply teaching methods that use guided discovery. I taught the declarative knowledge explicitly for this lesson and the procedural knowledge of this lesson was rooted in identifying causes and consequences through historical sources that I had chosen. This part of the lesson was heavily modelled and guided. The EQ was then answered in written form at the end of the lesson as an assessment tool to check for understanding.

Reflection and action

Break down what knowledge (both declarative and procedural) will be taught in each lesson. If you find that there is more than one of each in each lesson, break it into more lessons.

Consider how long each lesson will take and how much time in your timetable you will have to teach each lesson.What are the concepts of the unit of work that you will be touching on throughout your teaching?

At this point, you might need to cut out some lessons so that pupils can learn less and remember it, rather than cover too much content.

This process might leave you with a bit of a problem: which lessons shall I scrap? Which bits of knowledge are more important than others. This paper, explaining ‘powerful knowledge’ might help you choose what is most important for your pupils to learn.

Principle 4: Plan curriculum for thinking, not doing

It is not uncommon as teachers to plan the activities of lessons around what will be the most ‘fun and engaging’ thing for our pupils to take part in. This becomes the framework by which we assess whether or not to do a particular activity in a lesson. However, Coe et al. (2014) suggest that this is in fact a poor measure of high-quality teaching. Pupils who are ‘busy’ doing menial tasks that require minimal thinking often means that the maximum amount of progress is not made in lesson time. Building on the previous principles, I wanted to ensure that the activities that I planned would be designed in a way that would aid pupils to think hard and commit new learning to long-term memory.

In geography, I taught a thirty-minute session on the features of a river. The activity recorded in books looked very simple: a labelled, coloured diagram of a river explaining the key features. What was not recorded was that each aspect was explained by me, using both pictures and explanation. I did my own diagram that was identical to my pupils’ under a visualiser and checked for understanding before anything was written down for each feature. I then got them to put what I had taught them in their own words, using key vocabulary that that was included on our knowledge organiser. Although this was very simple, it then led to them creating their own diorama of a river of their choice that they had researched thoroughly. Their diorama had to make sense ‘geographically’; it was a geographical explanation of a key process. This created a rich learning experience for pupils to deepen their understanding of the features of a river. Without the heavily modelled teacher explanations and checking for understanding that I had done in the first instance the dioramas would have been poor quality and would not have embedded the learning from the previous lesson. 

In history, I taught a lesson that asked the question, ‘what were the significant events of the first world war?’. After a previous lesson that taught the causes of WWI, I began this lesson by teaching my pupils the ‘story’ of WWI, which presented information they had learned previously in a slightly different way (embedding prior learning, from the knowledge organiser, further). I made sure they understood the key facts of what happened in each part of WWI and then gave them a task to apply their knowledge: I asked them to consider some further events from each year of the war and decide whether they should include it on their timeline or not. I modelled this carefully, asking them to consider several questions related to whether the events were significant to British people. This lesson ended with a detailed discussion of why different pairs of pupils had chosen to include certain events on their timeline over others. Because they had fluent declarative knowledge of this time period, it meant that my pupils were able to show me the depth of conceptual understanding they had developed throughout the unit of work so far.

Reflection and action

Once you have planned your unit of work. Get a colleague to look over it carefully. Get them to ask you questions about each activity in each lesson. You should be able to justify each one you have chosen, and, be able to explain what your pupils will be thinking and learning during the time spent in lesson. If you can’t do this, it might be worth changing the activity.

The idea of activities that ‘give birth to learning’ first arose in the work of Ernie Rothkopf. Here’s a brief summary of what activities that involve lots of thinking might look like.


Beginning with what your pupils know, planning for the end in mind, sequencing lessons in small steps and preparing for thinking not doing form the basis of my curriculum development at a classroom level. Although these principles do flow roughly in chronological order, it is important to note that at each step, there were things I needed to change, edit and adapt – even midway through the unit of teaching! This draws me to my final point of note in this case study: planning is very important and a lot of classroom mistakes can be avoided by careful thought prior to the lesson, but your curriculum should remain open enough so that you can explore the interesting questions and curiosities of your pupils. To kill their enthusiasm or interest for a particular nuance of history because ‘we’re not covering that in this unit’ would be a travesty. It is this balancing act, between prior planning and knowledge of your pupils, that all teachers must perform. It is certainly never done perfectly but it is well worth the pursuit.


Ausubel D P (1968) Educational Psychology. A Cognitive View. New York. NY: Holt. Rinehart and Winston Inc.

Coe R, Aloisi C, Higgins S and Major L (2014) What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research. London: The Sutton Trust. 

Miller G A (1956) ‘The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information’. Psychological Review 63(2): 81–97

Rosenshine B (2012) Principles of Instruction: research-based strategies that all teacher should know. American Educator. 36 (1) pp. 12-19, 39. 

Sherrington T (2019) Rosenshine’s Principles in Action. John Catt.

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