Designing and developing a subject curriculum

Written by: Ed James | Published:
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Drawing upon his experience supporting a number of middle leaders with the development of their secondary history curriculum, Ed James reflects on some of the key discussion points and effective approaches

Curriculum is a hot topic in education at the moment, not least due to the Education Inspection Framework (Ofsted, 2019).

So it was a pleasure that more than 15 NPQ history teachers signed up for one-on-one academic tutoring with me (a former head of history) as part of Ambition Institute’s Expert Middle Leaders programme.

In academic tutoring conversations, we have developed teachers’ ideas about curriculum intent through the process of long-term planning, informed by Education Endowment Foundation research on effective implementation (EEF, 2019). This article shares some reflections on these conversations, and wider learnings about history curriculum developments.

So, what have I learnt from tutoring secondary history teachers across England, as they embark on a two-year curriculum development programme?

The why

Start with a purposeful and motivating vision

The first thing I asked our middle leaders to draft was a vision for their subject. All my tutees came with impressively clear ideas, but writing an effective vision was not easy – they had to balance their beliefs about the purposes of education with the need to motivate others in their context.

There are several purposes of education which our educators juggled: transmission of “powerful knowledge”; wishes for students to progress academically and into the world of work; and to build character and good citizens.

Our history teachers tended to prioritise Michael Young’s idea of “powerful knowledge” (Young et al, 2014) as a foundation for progression and empowered citizens. Many shared that they want their pupils to understand, engage with and succeed in the world around them. But they also believe that to achieve these wider outcomes, a knowledge-rich curriculum comes first.

This also represents a rich strain of thinking in the history teaching community. The Historical Association and writers including Christine Counsell and Michael Fordham have long promoted these ideas.

An effective vision also needs to motivate others. Teachers were clear that teaching powerful knowledge is motivating for pupils. The more they know about a subject, the better pupils are likely to understand it, engage with it and succeed at it.

When consulting their departments, they found this message resonated with history teaching colleagues – perhaps unsurprisingly given the strong identity of the history community – though sometimes a challenge was supporting non-specialists teaching history to provide a knowledge-rich curriculum, as they had to simultaneously develop their subject knowledge and plan rigorously.

Some teachers also found it challenging being managed by non-specialists who demand generic approaches to history, or ones that fitted within a wider humanities department.

The what

As ambitious as the national curriculum, but include pupil interest and keep it historical!

Having framed a vision, our middle leaders needed to consider how this influences what they teach. I asked them to consider two categories: domains and concepts.

Domains

Domains are the substantive matter taught – the subject knowledge. Together, the domains need to convey the totality of the curriculum. It is therefore important that they do not overlap, otherwise it is unclear whether the domain portrays the complete picture. From our conversations, it emerged that two effective ways to divide historical domains are by time and geography, e.g. Medieval England 1066-1509. My cohort was thoughtful and ambitious in terms of date ranges (reaching back to Roman times and forward to the contemporary era) and geography (balancing local history, traditional curriculum elements and world history to provide windows and mirrors for their pupils).

Interestingly, few teachers explicitly used the history key stage 3 national curriculum to benchmark what they were teaching, but most found its domains helpful to quality-assure their own curriculum.

It was also a helpful push to remind them that history is expected to cover the entire date range by the end of key stage 3, which means it is not necessarily invalid to teach domains related to the GCSE material as some pupils will never access these again. But I emphasise the word related – it is unacceptable, in my view, to narrow the secondary curriculum just because there is a GCSE examination; this is likely to be demotivating for both pupils and teachers.

Concepts

Concepts are the recurring ideas across the domains that make the content historical. For example, the sub-domain of Victorian England might be approached by both history and English teachers. Where an English curriculum might explore this sub-domain through studying the genre and characterisation of a Victorian novel, a history curriculum employs chronology, change and continuity, causation, interpretations and significance.

Nearly all teachers used these well-established concepts in history education. But sometimes, the middle leaders deprioritised some concepts in favour of others to meet their vision and their pupils’ needs. These could be historical themes like politics, power, or ideology; inclusion and diversity; and democracy, the rule of law and life in modern Britain.

Finally, we checked that, when taken together, these domains and concepts covered the important content and ideas outlined in the teacher’s vision, while providing windows and mirrors. A reflection on this, then, is that effective domains and concepts are grounded both in the universal – what makes great history education – and the specific – the needs, backgrounds and interests of the pupils and their teachers.

The how

Begin with the end in mind

Finally, I asked the middle leaders to define end-points and a progression map, to detail a student’s journey from year 7 to 11.

To establish end-points, the teachers and I reflected on what their visions, domains and concepts would look like for the ideal year 11. It was exciting, seeing a portrait of high expectations taking form. This usually started with a conceptual understanding first, and then consideration of how pupils could apply this. For example, how might they apply their knowledge of cause and consequence to local history and the recent election? A final check here was that the end-points fully described the vision of the ideal year 11.

Having established the end-points, next I asked the tutees to break them down. Here, the stems “to know that” and “to know how to” were useful in making them specify the declarative and procedural knowledge required.

In my view, semi-specific end-points were optimal. For example, “to know the main historical periods 1066-present day for Britain and Europe, their chronology and key turning points”.

Too vague, and you cannot specify the knowledge (e.g. what date range, what geography?). Too specific, and the cognitive load is raised too high, and the detail overwhelms the vision. But a “just right” end-point gives a full account of what we believe an ideal pupil should know and be able to do at the end of year 11, while giving other teachers the space to pick it up and interpret how it is reached, given the specific pupils in front of them.

These granular end-points provided one end of the progression map. History teachers then needed to go away and map these backwards from year 11 to 7. For me, two key considerations here needed to be that the golden threads of the vision run backwards from year 11 coherently, and that the end-point of year 7 is not too large a jump from what pupils can do at the beginning of the year.

The role of the tutor

So, what have I learnt about history curriculum development from this experience?

We used an active ingredients approach to quality-assure different elements of the curriculum planning. Pre-submitted material and planning were useful to provide an agenda and purpose for each tutorial. But equally important was expertise and knowledge of history education; the national curriculum and its domains; and the anomaly that it was conceived as a five-year curriculum but then made an optional subject for years 10 and 11, making curriculum coherence particularly tricky. Model schemes of work were also invaluable to demonstrate particular curriculum development points.

  • Ed James is a learning design fellow at Ambition Institute and a former history teacher. Ambition Institute is a graduate school for teachers, school leaders and system leaders, serving children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Visit www.ambition.org.uk

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