Why making curriculum decisions collectively is vital (and one way of doing it).

This is part one of a blog series on collective curriculum design. For part two, which includes resources for a unit on Oliver Twist, take a look here.

There’s a huge amount of discussion at the moment about the curriculum: what should be on it; what is excluded from it; what voices it represents; what bodies of power it transmits; whether it is imposed upon, or empowers children. There’s a lot of excitement as people turn to focus more on curriculum, but also some degree of anxiety. As curriculum planning becomes more centralised, there’s some concern surrounding the deskilling of the individual teacher or a lack of autonomy for teachers to make decisions about their own classes.

These concerns are valid and interesting. And I think we’re right to be cautious in really thinking about the implications of our curricula. We want to feel assured that we’ve got it right, that we’ve thought it through, or at the very least we’ve got a clear sense of reasoning behind our decisions. To reach this sense of assurance, we need to make curriculum decisions collectively. Summer Turner writes here that “curriculum decisions and choice of knowledge is not something which can be achieved by one person, or one department or even one school. Just as we serve our local communities, we also serve and are a part of communities of practice.” Not only do I think it’s really interesting to open a dialogue about curriculum, I also think it’s vital to the profession that everyone is involved in that discussion.

Collective curriculum decision making it important because:

  • It ensures teachers are knowledgeable about — and enjoy — what they teach.
  • Collective knowledge is more powerful than individual knowledge.
  • Discussing the curriculum improves subject knowledge and therefore teaching.
  • Continual reflection on the curriculum and its impact keeps it alive.

Here is one way of going about collective curriculum design. It’s a process we’ve worked on across English departments led by the completely brilliant Summer Turner at the Inspiration Trust, and I’ve learned huge amounts from her inclusive approach. For me, there are three levels of curriculum development: as a trust or subject community; as a school department; and as a continual response to students.

What goes in to collective curriculum development.

1. Collective curriculum design as a subject community or trust

It’s great to meet with other individuals across a trust to discuss how a shared curriculum will work across all contexts. At this stage, it’s important that any curriculum plan remains sparse: there needs to be crucial areas of overlap but also space for schools to teach what they decide is right for their children.

Whilst there are huge areas of agreement between schools, I really value the moments we disagree. I’ve learned a lot from discussions between schools about whether we think iambic pentameter is something we think all pupils should know in Y7, and whether we’d rather short, beautifully crafted pieces of writing or longer opinion-based ones.

In her gorgeously written blog, Claire Hill describes this wide-angle planning the “dress pattern” of the curriculum, ready for “skilled specialist to add rich fabrics, to embroider, create patterns, to weave together different threads; to make something beautiful”. I love this way of seeing the first steps of the curriculum. The discussions across a subject community promote exciting thinking about what the end product will look like, and how we can get there.

2. Collective curriculum design as a department

Because of the discussions between schools and in departments (mainly down to the brilliant thinking of second-in-charge Dan Blackburn), our chronological curriculum plan for Y7 and 8 now looks like this:

Our chronological curriculum for Y7 and Y8 (Y9 in development)

It’s worth noting that this chronological curriculum is studied for four hours a week. The fifth hour is reading for pleasure, with a focus on literature by diverse voices across time and place.

To bring our curriculum to life, here’s a breakdown of what we find works:

Discuss the concepts that can be traced through the curriculum.

As Christine Counsell says, “we’re all trying to give children the ability to generalise. Terms like allegiance and sacrifice are understood by the many examples we have through experience and through stories”. Our ‘big ideas’ are these:

Ask the very best questions.

For me, they include:

  • What does excellence look like in ______?
  • How do we get pupils there?
  • What makes ____ amazing?
  • What works with _____?
  • What’s interesting about _____?
  • Have students learned what we want them to learn? How do we know?

Make and remake powerful knowledge organisers.

Debate what really are the non-negotiables all pupils need to remember. Then redesign based on how the students respond and their emerging needs further up the school. If Y10 still don’t understand the difference between verse and prose, break down these terms in Y7 through a redesign of the KO.

Decide the vocabulary and embed it into daily quizzes.

We’ve got a Google Doc to add the high-leverage vocabulary we think is worth teaching. We update it regularly and our daily quizzes will often draw from this vocabulary.

A editable Google Doc for high-leverage vocabulary

Choose an expert to resource it.

Once everyone has had their say on what direction to take, one person is likely to be keen to develop the shared resources. Just like the KOs, be ready to redesign and improve. To see this stage in action, I’ve written about the development of Oliver Twist resources here.

Send out termly questionnaires

At first, I wanted all our curriculum thinking to be done in department meetings. I hoped that an inclusive, supportive atmosphere would be enough to promote critical conversations of our work together. While this is vital, it’s been pointed out to me that not everyone feels the same about critiquing other’s work. So, anonymous termly questionnaires about the impact of the curriculum work well to fill any gaps.

3. Responsive curriculum design.

A lot has gone in to the intended curriculum. But the work has only really just begun. We now need to know the impact of the curriculum and — crucially — make the changes needed for constant improvement. We believe that powerful knowledge is transformative, and it should be shared, not imposed. After all, we are teaching stories and ways for individuals to interact with stories. Our curriculum must give pupils a chance to have their own opinions, and forge their own links with texts. The best essays are the ones where the child has clearly enjoyed the text and puts themselves into. A truly collective curriculum absolutely includes pupil voice.

We track pupil response to our teaching through shared feedback records, and I’ve written a little bit about them here.

To summarise, here’s the main things I’ve learned through a concerted effort to build a truly collective curriculum:

  • Build curricula from three sources: a subject community, a department team and ongoing student response.
  • Ask the really powerful questions.
  • Consider KS3 with the same responsive scrutiny as KS4, but break down the threshold between them.
  • If a trust-wide plan is the foundation, the KOs are the bricks. Review them as a team to build a beautiful building.
  • Then mortar, plaster and paint with sequenced concepts, vocabulary and high-leverage resources.
  • Keep the curriculum alive with regular open discussions. Be prepared to update, develop, reinvent. Be enthusiastic.

This post has been about the processes that go into making curriculum design a team effort. For an example of how these processes work to create a term’s study of Oliver Twist, please see Part 2.

Considering education, schools and books. Elisabeth Bowling, Assistant Principal and Head of English. I tweet at @elucymay.

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