Designing your subject’s curriculum

Written by: Jemma Sherwood | Published:
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Are you a middle leader charged with creating your department’s curriculum and schemes of work? Jemma Sherwood offers five things to consider when undertaking this vital task

Schools in England have a lot of control over their curricula. Although we all aim for the same final point, generally determined by the exam specification, the path taken to get there can vary hugely from school to school. The absence of centralised schemes of work brings a complex mix of implications, positive and negative.

Departments are free to design a path through the content that is right for their mix of students, but the quality of these schemes can vary depending upon the experience and thought processes of those creating them. I would contend that even the best of teachers is sorely limited in their ability to make long-term progress with large numbers of students if they are constrained to a poor scheme of work.

Teacher training focuses on lessons: how to teach your subject and how to manage a class. I am not aware of any ITT that covers curriculum design, yet after only a few years in the classroom, heads of department face exactly this job. Without outside influence I expect there are many heads of department who keep an old scheme of work, or bring one from a previous school, without knowing whether or not there is something better.

Here are five points to consider when designing or redesigning your curriculum, each one serving as a starting point or an area for discussion.

Is the pathway well thought through?

Modules in subjects rarely exist in isolation. Knowledge builds upon prior knowledge in many instances and some subjects, such as maths, are almost entirely hierarchical. When designing a scheme of work for a module (or indeed an entire subject), start by considering the end-point, be that next month or year 11, and work backwards. What is prerequisite knowledge for each topic? What areas from one topic have parallels in, or complement, another topic?

Make sure content comes in the best order so that you and your students are able to make links and build strong mental schema. Deciding the “best order” is often a topic of conversation, so don’t do this in isolation – talk to colleagues, especially those more experienced, and spend time thinking about it as a department. Research what others are doing – there are many excellent blogs out there and if you don’t know where to start, find teachers of your subject on Twitter and go from there.

What do you need to turn from implicit to explicit?

We as teachers draw on a wealth of subject knowledge and a huge background of examples when we think about our subject. Nuance is easy and conclusions seem obvious. Have you ever stopped to consider how much of your implicit knowledge the students do not have?

My subject is maths, so I’m going to choose that as an example: when converting from m/s to km/h I know that there are 1,000m in 1km and 3,600s in 1h. I also know that you would cover many more metres in an hour than you would in a second, which tells me to multiply by 3,600 and that, since a kilometre is longer than a metre, you would cover fewer in the same time, which tells me to divide by 1,000.

There is a lot of implicit understanding there which means that this calculation can be extremely difficult for many students. I therefore need to build time into my scheme of work to explicitly cover all the prerequisite understanding and eliminate misconceptions. If I assume all students have this understanding, or if I gloss over it, then I am going to allow those who inevitably don’t to fall behind.

How can you stop students forgetting?

With more terminal exams, less coursework, and more formulae, dates and quotes to memorise, you could be forgiven for thinking that many of your students do not stand a chance.

The refrain of “But I taught you that last year” and the awful habit of students leaving revision to the last-minute need to become things of the past. If our students cannot remember something we taught them previously, then it is possible we haven’t built in sufficient opportunity for them to remember.

Two well-evidenced ways of reducing forgetting are distributing practice and regular, low-stakes testing. Distributed practice is spacing practice out, allowing students to meet a topic or elements of a topic regularly rather than in one block at one period of time. This means you devote lesson or homework time to practising previously learnt material at intervals, reducing the chance of your students forgetting.

Low-stakes testing encourages retrieval practice: allowing students to forget and then forcing them to retrieve the previously learnt material from somewhere in their minds. It has been shown that retrieval practice is an effective way of making something that has been learnt stick for longer.

Low-stakes tests can take many forms: a quick quiz, an online quiz, classroom questioning, any sort of activity that makes a student think for themselves and try to remember something.

How will you assess and monitor what students have learnt?

A good scheme of work goes hand-in-hand with assessment. Consider the following: how frequently do you want a summative assessment? If this happens, say, half-termly, do you want students to be tested solely on the content they have covered that half-term or do you want to test previously learnt content too?

Testing on only recent content increases students’ chances of success which can build their opinion of a subject, but might allow them to forget previous content. How will you prepare students for assessments so that their success is not left only to their varying internal drives?

How will you monitor and assess during lessons and how do you know what can be done by individuals? Some subjects lend themselves to mini-whiteboards or quick quizzes on factual recall. Some subjects involve more qualitative assessment (such as the quality of a paragraph in an essay or the nuance of phrasing in a language) – how will you assess and improve upon this quality without creating a ridiculous, onerous marking workload?

How will you create consistency within the department?

In a department of two teachers, collaboration and consistency is potentially easier than in a department of five or 10. Now I’m not talking about turning everyone into clones of each other here, but rather making sure that everyone understands the aims of the curriculum, and working at improving everyone’s teaching together.

Are some teachers not covering content in enough depth, rushing ahead and not giving students plenty of time to practise and repeat? Are some teachers struggling to revisit prior learning?

It is important that all students, no matter what class they are in, get the same opportunities to maximise their learning and their chances of remembering. Make sure your departmental meeting time is devoted, as much as possible, to talking about your subject and how to teach it, rather than admin that can be done over email. It’s hard to do if you’re not used to it, but the more you try, the easier this will become.

Aim to create a culture of support and development in your department, where teachers are happy to both give and receive advice rather than closing their classroom doors. We all have something useful to contribute and we can all learn from each other.

Bonus point

Treat your scheme of work as a working document – make changes when there is evidence something isn’t quite right and use feedback from teachers and students to improve it. I have yet to find a school that couldn’t get better. Keep your aims focused and your path fluid.

  • Jemma Sherwood is head of maths and a Specialist Leader in Education currently working in Worcestershire. She tweets as @jemmaths


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