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Why does curriculum development seem so hard?

Written By: Amelia Walker
9 min read


Up and down the country, many practitioners are being motivated by a renewed focus on curriculum development. One practitioner said to me: ‘This is a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity to look at curriculum from a blank sheet of paper. I’ll probably never get this chance again in my career.’

There can be a shadow side, however, to this energy and excitement. Curriculum is contested. Discussions can be fraught, even conflicted. More mundanely, enthusiasm can quickly dampen as practitioners get bogged down and find collaboration does not return the hoped-for results.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be like this. There’s no magic fairy dust that makes curriculum simple, but there is a major cause of collaboration breakdown, and by tackling this you can guard against significant pitfalls. The solution lies in language.

According to Wittgenstein (1953) ‘Language is a labyrinth of paths. You approach from one side and know your way about; you approach the same place from another side and no longer know your way about’. As a professional, you probably recognise the confusion of having to learn a new organisational ‘language’ when you start a new job. In one organisation I worked for, we seriously discussed writing a dictionary of terms and acronyms for new starters. However, in the main, as you stay within a profession, the core language that you use is the same from one employer to the next.

Curriculum, therefore, has put us in a most unusual position. With curriculum practice having taken a back seat for some years, as a profession, we have lost our common language. Not only do we not share a language for esoteric ideas like ‘operant conditioning’ or ‘legitimation code theory’, but we no longer share assumptions about the middle ground of consensus. Somehow, through losing this collective conversation, we have arrived at a place where all meaning has become controversial.

Should everyone in education agree? Of course not. Debate is essential for a healthy, functioning democratic system of any kind. But we are at a crossroads where we are putting debate at risk because:

1) the language that would enable us to engage in debate is insecure or contested

2) scepticism about the nature of language and reality is undermining our ability to create consensus about the concepts behind the meaning of words.

In her 2017 commentary on research conducted by Ofsted on curriculum in England, Amanda Spielman said:

Apart from the timetable, there was an absence of other tangible reference points to get to grips with the complex business of curriculum planning. It was evident from these conversations that took place between inspectors and school leaders that there is a lack of clarity around the language of the curriculum… It is certainly possible that this ambiguity and lack of shared understanding expose competing notions of what curriculum means across the sector. However, the most likely explanation is that this arises from a weak theoretical understanding of curriculum.

Three years, however, is a long time. Since 2017, enthusiasm for all things curricular has become much more widespread. Schools up and down the country have very busily begun the herculean task of creating huge numbers of knowledge organisers. But this new enthusiasm for knowledge and the curriculum has not necessarily been twinned with an attempt to fill a more substantial gap. Crossing out skills in your planning documents and writing knowledge in its place does not address the underlying conceptual challenges that are created from shifting from a postmodern view of education to an analytical one. As a system, we have papered over weakened plaster.

If you doubt that important questions remain unexamined, then I invite you to try something. Gather a group of teachers and middle leaders from an ordinary school in any English town and ask them this: ‘Can you tell me something that you are confidence is true, to the best of your knowledge?’ There is a very good chance that someone will say: ‘There is no such thing as truth.’ Of course, I assert this on the basis of a small sample size, but I have done this any number of times, and have regularly found at least one person in the room who was openly sceptical that anything could ever be true. I will hasten to add that it has always taken only five clear examples and a very brief discussion for the whole room to conclude that certainly some things are true. Or at the very least, true to the best of our knowledge. However, that initial scepticism was still there.

Why does this matter? It matters because it is no good writing ‘knowledge’ as a heading on your scheme of learning if you can’t agree on the meaning of the word. Part of the meaning of knowledge is that you can’t know something that is demonstrably false. This is not a controversial assertion: it is part of the meaning of the idea. It gets very complicated in the finer details and in the knotty problem of how we get at the truth, or whether we ever can be entirely certain of the truth. However, the presence of truth within the concept of knowledge is basic. Truth is not an optional concept in education.

Equally, knowledge itself is not novel concept, invented by E.D. Hirsch or similar. Neither is the role of memory in education some recent trend. Take this example:

Things arranged in a fixed order, like the successive demonstrations in geometry, are easy to remember (or recollect), while badly arranged subjects are remembered with difficulty. Recollecting differs also in this respect from relearning, in that one who recollects will be able, somehow, to move, solely by his own effort, to the term next after the starting point. (Aristotle translated by Beare, 1941)

This was written by Aristotle at least 2,300 years ago. While some things about our understanding of memory have moved on in the interim (though fewer, perhaps, than you might think), it serves to underline that the role of memory in education is not a passing fad. Many of the conceptual underpinnings of knowledge, skill, character, habit, memory and understanding have roots that are older than our country, language or cities. This conceptual base is also broad: language associated with memory, knowledge and thought is language that appears in psychology, philosophy, biology, computing and neuroscience. These fields cross-reference each other and share classifications and terminology.

Why does this matter? Because these disciplines accept a common core of language and reserve debate for the outer fringes of research or for novel conceptualisations. However, in education in England it has become commonplace for discussion of core language to be greeted with: ‘But that’s just your opinion.’ As Michael Young (2014, p. 7) said: ‘an important aspect of our view of knowledge that is crucial in any discussion of the curriculum is that it is distinguished from opinions or common sense.’ This is true of knowledge. It is equally true of knowledge about knowledge. We need to get past any view that there can be no knowledge about knowledge in order to move forward.

What we need is a consensus. Not on everything, not even on most things, and certainly not on what the purpose of education should be, or the content of the curriculum. All these can remain entirely contested territory. What we need is a consensus on the meaning of a small number of high frequency words and on how the concepts that these words represent relate to each other.

For some, spending time thinking about or discussing what words mean may seem like a waste of time when there are so many other pressing tasks to complete. While it may not be everyone’s favourite exercise, skipping this particular task is a false economy. Many schools are in the midst of curriculum reform, even if interrupted by the pandemic. Curriculum reform is like any other complex task: you will quickly run into trouble if the members of your team don’t understand each other.

For example, suppose you wanted a new scheme of learning. You ask your team to document ‘knowledge’, ‘concepts’, ‘skills’ and ‘vocabulary’, among other things. If you have not established what any of these words mean, then how will you establish a set of criteria to judge whether or not the task has been completed correctly? How will you decide if a word should be written under ‘concepts’ or ‘vocabulary’? How will you decide if a sentence should sit under ‘knowledge’ or ‘skills’? These words are not arbitrary, they are there for a very specific reason, which is that, done correctly, they represent important things about the organisation of ideas and how the human mind processes and stores them. Accuracy is not a nice to have, it is essential. Without it, the scheme of learning is just a bit of paper and not an educational tool.

This is where we get to the rub of why curriculum development can be so much harder than anticipated. As well as being a question of effectiveness, it is also a question of efficiency. If every word you use is open to interpretation, you never get past the first hurdle and into the really important work. I have never met a school that had unlimited time to devote to curriculum. If your time is limited, you need to get straight to the point. Imagine if you had to start every management meeting agreeing whether to speak German or Spanish and then working out the meaning of the words you need using Google. Nothing would ever get done.

Fortunately, the benefit of over two thousand years of conceptual development and a multitude of professionals working in related spheres is a wealth of common practice. The barrier, in my experience, is that this is not handily codified somewhere, ready to drop into training and development. Or at least, it hasn’t been until now.

A group of curriculum experts has been working together on something we have called the Meta-Curriculum Project. Originally thinking it was about curriculum, one of the contributors noted early on that curriculum is properly about what goes in the curriculum. This project is about the language and concepts we possess as professionals that support us to discuss what goes in the curriculum. We are calling this meta-curriculum: thinking about thinking about curriculum. The aim of the project is to codify a framework. What words, concepts and models would a group of educationalists need to effectively collaborate on curriculum? Furthermore, how do these concepts sit in a model of progression? What would you learn first? What would you learn next? What is foundational and what depends on prior knowledge?

This is a work in progress, and we have not yet had the opportunity to test it in action. The project has produced a complete framework and a full suite of materials suitable for CPD which progressively move through the conceptual dimensions of the framework. This will be tested during the academic year 2020-21 in a range of academies and LA-maintained schools. If you are interested in being part of these trials, you can email the project at for more information. The full framework will be published as open access online in the coming months.

The framework is based on answering four key questions, which are worth reflecting on for yourself and with colleagues:

  • What is a complete classification of all the possible things we could teach pupils, and how can these categories be used to underpin a curriculum?
  • How do these categories relate to what we know about how people learn?
  • When embarking on curriculum reform, how can you structure a sequence in which different questions are tackled?
Share your experiences with educators globally by joining the discussion below. How might these approaches be helpful for curriculum design in your context?
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