Curriculum development: Two key questions

Written by: Stephen Rollett | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Teachers talk a lot about pedagogy, but often neglect to discuss the curriculum and how it translates into their lessons. Curriculum specialist Stephen Rollett looks at how we can have high-quality conversations about what we teach...

The education spotlight has turned firmly on the curriculum as a result of Ofsted’s new Education Inspection Framework (EIF). That is something we welcome because the content of our lessons – what we actually teach our students – is at the heart of education.

But it also presents us with challenges about how we think about and develop the curriculum, not for the sake of Ofsted inspections, but in the best interests of our students. Happily, getting the latter right will also help with the former.

Knowing the right questions to ask is a good starting point. And here are two essential questions which will help you to evaluate what you do and inform high-quality curriculum conversations with colleagues.

What should we teach?

This might seem self-evident. After all, the national curriculum is there to tell us what pupils should learn, right? And with Ofsted saying that academies should also teach a curriculum that is at least as broad and ambitious as the national curriculum, you might be forgiven for thinking that curriculum content takes care of itself. But that is not so.

The national curriculum is not really a curriculum at all; it is a collection of high-level outcomes. In other countries these might be more accurately described as “standards” rather than a curriculum. This is significant because it reminds us that the national curriculum does not provide the granular detail of a curriculum in the truest sense – it outlines the destination but not the journey.

Take this example from the key stage 3 national curriculum for music: “Play and perform confidently in a range of solo and ensemble contexts using their voice, playing instruments musically, fluently and with accuracy and expression.”

What are the components that give a pupil this ability? What do they need to know? What type and quantity of practice is required? How should this be structured over time, building on what children have learned in key stage 2? How does it relate to what pupils might go on to study at GCSE and beyond?

So much dialogue in schools about teaching has tended to be about pedagogy. Of course pedagogy is important, but we cannot afford to focus only on how we teach at the expense of what we teach.

Here is something to try: watch a lesson with a colleague and then at the end ask them to share their thoughts on what you have both seen. In my experience this typically turns into a conversation about pedagogy. Your colleague might focus on how engaged pupils were by a task, the style of questioning the teacher used, perhaps the teacher’s adherence to school policies. These are all potentially worthy of comment, but they do not dig into the curriculum.

Encourage conversation about the curriculum. When you are watching colleagues teach try to see the lesson as a glimpse of the curriculum in action. If pupils are struggling with something, ask yourself whether this is only because of the pedagogy, or whether it might be because pupils have not previously learned an essential curriculum component. If so, what might that be?

You now have the beginning of a truly useful conversation that goes beyond a generic list of quality indicators and starts to look at the content itself. In the same way that an archaeologist painstakingly scratches away at the earth, be a curriculum archaeologist – unearth the detail of what has been taught and critically evaluate its composition to build a picture of what is and what is not working.

What order should we teach it in?

If we misunderstand the steps along a curriculum journey, or fail to see them as steps at all, the likelihood is the path will be incoherent and pupils may even end up at the wrong destination. So, some thinking needs to be done to plan coherently how the detailed content of the curriculum is built sequentially over time in order to arrive at those top-level outcomes.

You should place a premium on quality long-term planning. In a system where teachers have been encouraged to focus on planning at the level of the individual lesson it is perhaps unsurprising that some curricula are a little disjointed. The internal logic of an individual lesson may be sound, but how does that lesson speak to what happened last month or what is to come next year?

We use the phrase “big picture” a lot in education but it can be unhelpfully absent when it comes to the curriculum. So, when thinking about teaching, rather than seeing lessons as standalone events try to view them in relation to what came before and what is yet to come.

Imagine watching a whodunnit television series in which each 60-minute episode has internal coherence from beginning to end and yet the identity of the murderer is revealed in the very first episode. You would probably feel the plot sequencing had gone awry.

The same error can sometimes be seen in curriculum planning, where the order of what pupils learn is not carefully considered over time and gaps are not addressed.

As curriculum expert Christine Counsell has written, the curriculum carries a distinctively narrative quality (Counsell, 2019). The stories our curriculum tells must be coherent across long periods of time, across key stages, even across transition from one school to another.

In practical terms, you might start in subject teams, mapping out the curriculum on a piece of paper, whiteboard or computer, from start to end. You might begin with those top-level objectives in the national curriculum, checking to ensure they are covered and tracking the key threads.

These threads can be pulled down through the curriculum by asking: what will pupils need to know/be able to do in order to know/do this? Working back in this way, teachers can gain an oversight of the long-term development of the key concepts that underpin the subject.

And it works the other way too. What do pupils know/can do when they arrive with us? By asking this we can make sure we also build on what has come before. For example, how well do you know the requirements of the key stage 2 national curriculum in your subject? Do you know which aspects your local primary schools do well, and where pupils tend to have gaps?

Keep it simple

These questions might appear superficial at first glance, but in fact they make up two of the most important tools in your curriculum armoury. And you will need those tools to hand regularly. The curriculum is not a job to be done and ticked off – it requires constant renewal, evaluation of how well it is working, knocking off the rough edges, and restructuring or reordering as it becomes clear how it might be improved.

There are, of course, many other questions you might ask about the curriculum. But as a starting point you cannot go far wrong if you put curriculum content and sequencing at the centre of your thoughts and discussions. 

  • Stephen Rollett is a curriculum and inspection specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders.

Further information & resources

  • Senior Curriculum Leadership 1: The indirect manifestation of knowledge: (A) curriculum as narrative, Counsell, April 2018:
    http://bit.ly/2kTltPJ
  • ASCL PD is holding a workshop – Curriculum: 10 questions you should ask – in Leeds in December, in Birmingham in February and in York in June. For details, email pd@ascl.org.uk


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