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Designing a primary knowledge-rich curriculum: Where we’ve been, where we are, where we are going

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Cottenham Primary School’s (CPS) 2015 Ofsted inspection resulted in a ‘requires improvement’ rating, necessarily leading towards a refocused vision for the school. In 2016, James was invited to a series of meetings that encouraged his focus on the school’s curriculum, specifically on building a knowledge-rich curriculum. With much of the conversation around knowledge-rich curricula largely centred on secondary schools, we made the decision to study the content and pedagogical knowledge that primary teachers needed in order to successfully implement a knowledge-rich curriculum at Cottenham Primary School. The school earned a ‘good’ rating in 2017, and we began this study shortly thereafter.

Knowledge-rich curricula are based on the belief that ‘… some knowledge is more powerful than others, that this is knowledge which should be in the curriculum and that all pupils have an entitlement to it’ (Moore, 2013). This entitlement places subject knowledge at the forefront of teaching and learning and requires educators to acquire expertise across subject domains. Berliner (Berliner, 2004) suggests that experts codify knowledge so as to be able to draw on it again, and it is through this codification that teachers grow their pedagogical content knowledge (PCK). As CPS advances a KRC, we embrace the opportunity to learn about the type(s) of support needed to develop expertise across the multiple domains that primary teachers are expected to know. In this article, we share CPS’s experience in designing and implementing a knowledge-rich curriculum over three terms (September 2017 to May 2018).


This study is informed by design experiment methodology, an iterative process in which a new iteration is informed by the findings of the last. Design experiments ‘… aim to determine how valued pedagogical goals might be achieved in the inherently complex and dynamic environments of real classrooms by identifying factors that enhance or inhibit the effectiveness of a research- or theory-based instructional intervention’ (Bradley and Reinking, 2011). Data sources for this study include teacher and senior leader interviews, classroom observations, school documents and teacher focus groups. While we are not yet at the point of generating a theory that explains our broader aims of designing and implementing a knowledge-rich curriculum, we approach this research with the purpose of building ‘… greater understanding of a learning ecology – a complex, interacting system involving multiple elements of different types and levels – by designing its elements and by anticipating how these elements function together to support learning’ (Cobb et al., 2003). What follows is the story of where we’ve been, where we are and where we are going, based on our overarching goal to design and implement a knowledge-rich curriculum at the primary level.

Where we’ve been

When we began studying the knowledge-rich curriculum at CPS, we had a sense of what we wanted it to look like, but it was just that: a sense. Without clear guidelines for primary schools, our teachers and leaders were essentially building the plane as they were flying it, which is not to suggest that our expectations were not purposeful. Rather, we recognised the design research as an auditing tool that would support us in changing course or revising plans on an iterative basis so that we did not get too far down a path if it was not productive in helping us to meet our aims.

All observed lessons in Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 were representative of a similar structure. Lessons began with either a refresher of what was learned in the previous lesson or with a short low-stakes quiz on what was learned. Regardless of which the teachers began the lesson with, both were present in the lesson. In most cases, quizzes were completed on individual whiteboards. Once the quiz was complete, children were asked to respond with the answers either individually or chorally as a class. Following the refresher and quiz, teacher input of new knowledge occurred, and then children were provided with time for independent work. The refresh, quiz, input and entry to independent work occurred within 20 to 25 minutes in all classrooms. In addition, the staff adopted techniques from Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion (Lemov, 2015) to support children’s knowledge retention. Although introduced to staff at the beginning of the spring term, they were consistently used by most teachers almost immediately, and both teachers and children noted the effectiveness of the techniques in supporting retention and increasing motivation.

Teachers credited this lesson consistency to the time the senior leadership team (SLT) devoted to team planning. Each week, the staff were given at least one afternoon devoted to common planning time. During these sessions, teachers developed and/or utilised knowledge organisers. Knowledge organisers are ‘… the “go to” documents outlining the essential knowledge that the teachers will be covering across a unit of work including dates, key personnel, vocabulary, definitions, and other contextual or technical information’ (Kilsby, 2016). Knowledge organisers served as an essential planning tool for the teachers, allowing them to build their own subject knowledge while researching the essential concepts to include for parents and carers to have access to on the school’s website.

Where we are

We discovered that by placing such a heavy emphasis on how teachers were delivering the KRC, we inadvertently removed a significant amount of text from the hands of children. There was very little evidence of children having access to text across the school day. Hirsch, a proponent of the KRC, notes that children must develop deep knowledge of both the ‘word and the world’, and in so doing will build greater reading comprehension abilities (Hirsch, 2003). As such, we are overlaying the primacy of reading within the KRC. This shift led us towards several initiatives, including: (1) use of high quality, informational text to support children’s subject knowledge across the topic areas; (2) implementation of a literature spine (texts that all children are entitled to read, or to be read to, from Reception to Year 6); and (3) a focused approach to the teaching of vocabulary. We will study each of these initiatives in depth throughout the 2018–2019 school year.

Where we are going

Young notes that ‘Real educational change will always be slow because the learning involved in acquiring real knowledge takes time and can challenge the deepest identity of learners’ (Young et al., 2014). Although we made a significant amount of progress toward realising our aims of a knowledge-rich curriculum, there is still much work to be done – not the least of which is sustained professional development for all members of staff, expressly related to subject knowledge that will support nuanced and responsive teaching of the school’s long-term plan. This must be balanced, however, with the fact that the creation and implementation of the knowledge-rich curriculum has led to quite a bit of ‘new’: new content, new pedagogies, new school culture. We must be careful to only add what our staff have the capacity to learn and enact.

While we made much progress over the course of this school year, the knowledge-rich curriculum will continue to evolve. As it does, we will continue to study the advancement, and adjust accordingly. With this, the next phase of our research will necessarily include children’s progress as a means of addressing the ‘so what?’ questions that emerge from a curriculum overhaul. We approached the KRC as building blocks, starting with an overarching vision and then adding pieces to the design as we uncovered a need. In doing so, we have learned that a curriculum is a dynamic endeavour, one that is never truly complete.



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