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Curriculum development through dialogue: A broad and balanced process

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Much has been written about the curriculum as a product, but less about what qualifies as a broad and balanced process of curriculum development. We offer here our reflections on what that process should look like, from our experiences of leading change at whole-school and subject level. We did not set out with a fully formed plan when we started to make changes, but our approach evolved over time, with dialogue giving rise to much of that evolution. We make no claim to have established an ideal curriculum, but we are able to reflect on the following stages through which our work has gone so far and to recommend them to others:

  • Stage 1: Leaders reflect on the status quo and accept that change is needed
  • Stage 2: Leaders engage with expert thinking about curriculum design and share their findings
  • Stage 3: Leaders broaden the dialogue and plan ahead for further change

Whole-school curriculum development – Jonathan’s perspective

When I took on the responsibility for the school curriculum, I was daunted by my lack of relevant knowledge, so I started to read. My initial forays into the evidence base were not particularly well-directed or extensive, but I gained the important insight that students would never develop sophisticated thinking without a strong knowledge base (Willingham, 2009).

Suspecting that our curriculum did not always deliver this as well as it could, I spent half a day off-timetable with subject leaders, attempting to share my enthusiasm for a knowledge-rich curriculum and encouraging them to engage with expert thinking in their fields. I asked them to produce a subject knowledge outline to identify precisely what they wanted students to know after each stage of their studies. There was no compulsory format, but I provided suggested headings of declarative and procedural knowledge.

Reading the outlines that were produced by each department brought home to me the sheer range of differences between them. I was confronted with criss-crossing spectra between declarative and procedural knowledge, hierarchical and cumulative progression and other characteristics that I could not name. Unclear as to how to make these documents the springboard to further development, I began to read from further experts, more extensively this time. I considered the power of the curriculum to promote social justice, establishing the entitlement for ‘students to acquire knowledge that takes them beyond their experience’ (Young et al., 2014, p. 10). I also received a reminder, which resonated with my own reflections, that each subject is unique, with its roots in ‘a distinctive quest for truth’ (Counsell, 2018). I realised that I would need to pursue further dialogue, talking individually to each head of department to ask the curricular questions that were in my mind.

The curriculum analysis meetings that I held with each subject leader gave me the chance to increase my own understanding and to model the conversations that I wanted to take place within departments. There was no script for these meetings and the dialogue took its own course, but I did share a list of questions for consideration in advance, addressing issues of intent, implementation and impact.

The meetings challenged some of my own preconceptions. For example, Helen spoke positively about intelligent interdisciplinarity, which I have always been inclined to undervalue. I also gained an insight into important curriculum development work that would otherwise have remained invisible to me. I hope that the meetings stimulated heads of department to think in more depth, and they certainly spurred me on to think about the next areas of change, such as assessment.

Subject-specific curriculum development – Helen’s perspective

Prior to the whole-school curricular focus, my view was of a curriculum handed down through documents such as the National Curriculum and exam specifications. As head of science, a subject for which these documents are relatively detailed, my initial reaction on being asked to consider curriculum development was scepticism; how much design is possible when so much is prescribed?

Jonathan’s introduction to a knowledge-rich curriculum challenged this view. Over time, further discussion and reading have transformed my thinking, illuminating the benefits of ‘ensuring that all students always have a secure knowledge platform, allowing them to reach the next level’ (Sherrington, 2018, p. 20). Knowledge must precede understanding and application, which in turn enable further acquisition of knowledge. For example, a complex scientific process such as electrolysis cannot be properly understood without secure knowledge of key terminology (e.g. ion) and the processes involved (e.g. oxidation).

In collaboration with the heads of biology, chemistry and physics, I drew up a subject knowledge outline for science, but became increasingly convinced that our curriculum did not prioritise knowledge to the extent that it should.

In response, I set out to identify what knowledge students are entitled to. This forced me to clarify my thinking on the meaning of scientific knowledge. I moved from a dichotomous view, where facts are separate from skills or procedures (practical techniques or methods), to one that unites these as aspects of core scientific knowledge (Walker, 2018). Defining this knowledge clearly for teachers and students will help to ensure that all students have the same entitlement, without compromising teachers’ autonomy over pedagogy.

Detailed knowledge summaries for each Key Stage 3 topic were developed through department-wide discussion. We aimed to convey the wonder and power of science by introducing core scientific themes, whilst ensuring a strong and coherent foundation of knowledge to underpin Key Stage 4 study. Knowledge summaries will be shared with students and parents, and regular, low-stakes retrieval practice will encourage assimilation and recall.

The curriculum analysis meeting with Jonathan was a valuable opportunity to clarify my thinking through discussing our work to date, as well as possible challenges and next steps. Subsequent departmental conversations have considered topic sequencing and identification of areas where a lack of coherence might confuse students. We are seeking to optimise our schedule so that knowledge can be securely built up. So far we have focused on the declarative elements, with procedural knowledge being next on the agenda, alongside deploying pedagogical strategies to encourage long-term memory and developing knowledge-focused assessment.

Looking ahead

Our work on curriculum is not over. In fact, we see no prospect of ever reaching this holy grail, not least because each time we engage in curricular dialogue it throws up more things to do. Therefore, we argue that putting this kind of dialogue at the heart of a school’s culture is the best way of future-proofing its provision. Ongoing conversations between staff at all levels have enabled curriculum improvement to develop its own momentum, and they must continue to be afforded the time and status that they deserve if our work is to come to fruition.

References

Counsell C (2018) In search of senior curriculum leadership: Introduction – a dangerous absence. In: The Dignity of the Thing. Available at: https://thedignityofthethingblog.wordpress.com/2018/03/27/in-search-of-senior-curriculum-leadership-introduction-a-dangerous-absence/ (accessed 1 February 2019).

Sherrington T (2018) What is a knowledge-rich curriculum? Impact 4: 18–20.

Walker R (2018) The nature of school science knowledge. In: The Fruits are Sweet. Available at: https://rosalindwalker.wordpress.com/2018/02/12/my-redbrum-talk-the-nature-of-school-science-knowledge/ (accessed 14 February 2019).

Willingham D (2009) Why Don’t Students Like School? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Young M, Lambert D, Roberts C et al. (2014) Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

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