Connecting a curriculum: threads and echoes

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the importance of coherently constructing a curriculum. Mary Myatt at Research Ed Durrington was eloquent on the importance of coherent curricular thinking while Christine Counsell’s recent blog series on curriculum design and leadership has been a leading light. Counsell’s conceptualisation of curriculum as ‘one narrative over time’ has been a constant refrain as I have been working on changes to the KS3 curriculum in my department. At the 2018 HA Annual Conference I was also struck by Jason Todd’s insistence that connecting this narrative through ‘strings’ over time is vital to providing a coherent big picture for students that struggle the most.

As I have progressed through the planning process (still at a relatively early stage) I have been struck by the lack of attention I had previously paid to big picture connections and have found myself searching for language and metaphors for the different types of connection that I want to draw. This is a tentative attempt to express that thinking.


1. Threads

 These are connections to prior knowledge that need to be drawn directly and explicitly for the students. This is because they form vital context for making sense of the lesson. The relationship between what they will be learning and this prior knowledge is direct and needs to be drawn directly.

e.g. In order to understand issues around the legitimacy of Elizabeth I students need to know that her mother was Anne Boleyn and the circumstances surrounding Anne’s marriage to Henry VIII.

Appropriate approaches:

-Recall test

-Questioning of students in order to draw out prior knowledge

-Clear teacher explanation of necessary knowledge

I see threads as being primarily, although not exclusively, related to substantive knowledge.


2. Substantive Echoes

Michael Fordham’s writing on the importance of substantive concepts is instructive here. We want concepts like democracy, feudalism and empire to resonate throughout a curriculum, gaining new and deeper meaning with every new encounter with successive substantive examples. This aspect of planning is often the worst impacted by the lack of time, understandable pragmatism and cobbling together that we all know can be a barrier to holistic thinking. These connections need to be planned for but are not as direct or as straightforward. Planning for them requires a consideration of how and why the meanings attached to them have subtly shifted or changed completely. They will likely not be as obviously necessary in order for students to access the material in an individual lesson but their cumulative impact is to help form a holistic understanding.


3. Disciplinary echoes

If we want to create a truly powerful curriculum then disciplinary concepts remain vital. For example, it has been somewhat concerning to hear of some schools seeking to provide a ‘substantive base’ in the earlier stages of KS3 in a way that is artificially detached from the conceptual thinking intended to come later. Quite apart from the danger of teaching a factual metanarrative without cultivating a sense of the interpretive process, I would argue that taking this approach reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of how to design a curriculum powerfully. As Counsell argued eloquently in chapter 6 of What Should Schools Teach (2018) we must ‘ensure that substantive and disciplinary knowledge work to serve one another’. Rather than privileging of one over the other, an understanding of the mutually enriching nature of this relationship is crucial. Just as with substantive concepts, we should aim for the disciplinary aspects of the curriculum to echo over time, gaining resonance with every new encounter with fresh substantive knowledge.

Consider the following sequence of basic enquiry questions (which would likely sit across a whole key stage or more):

Why did the Peasants Revolt happen in 1381?

Why did the Earl of Essex rebel against his monarch in 1601?

Did one bullet cause World War One?

Was World War Two caused by Adolf Hitler?

As a student progresses through these questions their understanding of the disciplinary concept of causation will be deepened through the process of answering them. They will explain, link and prioritise causes in a way that is familiar to any history teacher. However, crucially, it is not the case that they are progressing up some kind of generic ladder in doing these things. Rather, their answers will be determined by the vastly different social, economic and political structures inherent in each topic as well as distinct patterns of events and actions of individuals. An answer to one of these questions may not look much at all like the next. Through this relationship the disciplinary concept gives coherence to the substantive knowledge, helping to reveal the context in which the question is being considered.

If we pay insufficient attention to either the disciplinary or the substantive dimension then the power of this relationship is lost and this desired resonance over time becomes very difficult. A curricular approach which focuses purely on the substantive dimension will be one awash with threads but with limited resonance. We need to aim for a curriculum in which substantive threads, substantive concepts and disciplinary concepts work together in increasingly powerful ways over time.


-Counsell C, ‘History’ in Standish and Cuthbert, What Should Schools Teach: disciplines, subjects and the pursuit of truth (2017)

Available here:




Interleaving at GCSE: the spaces between

At the beginning of the year I blogged about the approach that my department has taken to curricular sequencing at KS4. This is an approach which is based on the cognitive science principles which have been recently popularised by the Learning Scientists, among others. Their information on interleaving can be accessed here. Our rationale is as follows:

  • To adopt an approach which takes account of the increased amount of content at GCSE as well as the longer duration of time over which the students will be asked to remember the material. Interleaving allows repeated revisiting of the different modules of a GCSE course and will support retention.
  • To adopt a curricular approach to teaching history at GCSE which seeks to emphasise and make connections between topics. This means deepening substantive and disciplinary knowledge in purposeful ways. While this is being done in the context of a 3-year KS4, this is not intended to reduce or replace the vital place a strong KS3 should occupy. Rather, this is an attempt to reintroduce and revisit prior knowledge at KS4 in a more targeted way. To borrow the language of Christine Counsell’s recent blog posts, this represents an attempt to see our KS4 curriculum as one narrative over time.
  • To provide opportunities to engage students. Engagement is a significant potential issue with a 3-year KS4, particularly if we adopt an approach that is excessively exam-focused and instrumental. Fuelling and maintaining curiosity and love of the subject must be an important goal. James Woodcock has written recently about the way that the additional content in the reformed GCSEs can mean that there is little time for the depth and enrichment that can help to make topics enjoyable and meaningful.

However, in adopting this approach it is also important to consider the following potential problems:

How do we resist the pull of genericism in our application of cognitive science?

As Christine Counsell has eloquently articulated in her recent blog on curriculum leadership, ‘the object being taught is everything’. We must therefore be considering what value interleaving has in relation to the disciplinary structures of history, as well as to the specific historical knowledge and concepts that we teach at KS4. Purposeless carving up of content is to be avoided! To address this issue we have attempted to sequence the topics in a way that facilitates the connections between them. The sequence therefore serves the goal of increased curricular connectedness. We have attempted to ensure that the subject drives the approach and not the other way around.

How do we ensure that we do not dilute the clarity and coherence of the story in the students’ heads?

The approach could have more negative consequences than positive ones if the student’s grasp of chronology is compromised. We have attempted to address this by structuring the topics so that they follow a roughly chronological order. We have also used relatively large chunks of topics and attempted to find natural stopping points. There are points at which we have sequenced them out of order for other reasons but we are hopeful that this general approach will enhance rather than undermine the students’ sense of the big picture as well as the coherence of the overall narrative.

Picture2-interleaving the spaces

The image above illustrates the way that we have taught our Y9 GCSE cohort so far this year. This should provide an illustrative example of what we are trying to acheive. One of the ways in which this approach can offer benefits over a more traditional one is that ‘the spaces between’ teaching the core material can be used to inform both the preceding and succeeding topics, while also informing the overall narrative. This can include deepening student understanding of material that is not directly assessed in the GCSE exam but which informs this core in important ways. Ideally, this should build on the encounters they have already had with this material at KS3 and earlier. The sequence of lessons illustrated above aimed to introduce both substantive knowledge and substantive concepts which relate to the core topics of study. Below is an attempt to express the thinking behind the sequence of lessons that we taught in the ‘space between’ our core units.

Lesson sequence:

Lesson 1

Substantive knowledge: Luther’s 95 Theses and the development of Protestantism

How this informs the core topic(s): Elizabeth’s Religious Settlement and continuing opposition from both Catholics and Protestants are key aspects of the topic. This provides a context for later encounters with Puritan actions and attitudes as well as an early encounter with the range of difficult religious language and ideas that are required. The role of the printing press in the spread of Luther’s ideas also provides a nice concrete example of ideas that they had previously encountered in Medicine in Britain.

Lesson 2

Substantive knowledge: Henry VIII and the break with Rome

How this informs the core topic(s): It gives an introduction to Elizabeth’s mother Anne Boleyn and to the context of the divorce from Catherine of Aragon which is so important to understanding why Elizabeth’s legitimacy would later be questioned. It also builds on the previous lesson in the sequence by exploring the impact of the religious turmoil in England. Study of the dissolution of the monasteries builds on the material already covered in the Medicine in Britain module in relation to the role that monasteries had played as hospitals/places of care.

Lesson 3

Substantive knowledge: the reign of Edward VI

How this informs the core topic: Edward’s religious policy was extremely influential on Elizabeth’s settlement. Exploring aspects of his reforms such as the Bible in English and reactions to it like the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549 helps to contextualise Elizabeth’s later choices, as well as opposition to them.

Lesson 4

Substantive knowledge: the reign of Mary I

How this informs the core topic: this lesson provides vital context for the start of Elizabeth’s reign. We consider Mary’s marriage to Phillip II of Spain, the Marian burnings and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs as well as the war with France and its financial impact. We also consider this in relation to perceptions of Mary as a female monarch and contemporary ideas in relation to gender. All of this informs later considerations of Elizabeth’s financial situation, the importance of her gender and the issues that she faces in finding an acceptable way forward with religion in 1558.

Generally, I think that adopting this approach has been quite successful. The framing lessons have helped the students to successfully negotiate material that they had struggled with under the old model. This approach has meant that when they encountered a lot of the difficult language or ideas in the Elizabeth topic they were encountering them for the second time with misconceptions already addressed. I also think that it gives the study of Elizabeth a much greater coherence. To study the reign of Elizabeth completely in isolation (particularly the start of her reign) is to never fully understand it. We are planning on using the Western Front/WW1 section of the Medicine in Britain unit to frame the situation in Germany in 1918 in a similar way.

In teaching this sequence I have been provoked into make connections between topics explicit in a way that I did not when teaching them more separately. Exam specifications and concern about what students ‘need to know’ in order to secure outcomes have often obscured this kind of thinking in the past, at least in my own teaching. Even if the interleaving approach described here seems a bridge too far, considering your KS4 curriculum as a unified narrative (something which I think exam specifications and modules play a significant role in discouraging) might be a meaningful way forward.


Planning for memory: Interleaving at GCSE

One of the most notable trends in educational discussion over the last few years is the increased emphasis on the importance of memory. The brilliant work of groups like the Learning Scientists has helped to bring ideas such as dual coding, interleaving and spaced practice into the educational mainstream. This has been sharpened by both the increasing prevalence of the 3-year Key Stage 4 and the increased content amount of content contained in reformed GCSE courses. Schools and teachers are increasingly realising that planning for how and when students encounter and recall knowledge is a vital concern. Key here is the idea of creating ‘desirable difficulty’ and forcing students to revisit material that they covered earlier in a learning sequence, leading to a greater likelihood of that material being transferred to their long-term memory.

My new school have sought to address this issue by adopting a whole-school policy of interleaving topics at GCSE level. I think that this is a far-sighted approach which, if implemented properly, has the potential to far surpass the ‘race through the material and then cram’ model which has predominated at GCSE. As Christine Counsell beautifully articulates ‘we need to move from an intervention model to a curriculum design model’.

As a result I and my department have been giving a lot of thought to what an interleaved GCSE might look like in history and considering the key issues in designing a three-year sequence. My school follows the Edexcel specification and teaches the following modules:

-Medicine in Britain 1250-present

-Early Elizabethan England, 1558-88

-Superpower relations and the Cold War 1941-91

-Weimar and Nazi Germany 1918-39

In seeking to interleave and space these modules successfully, two key issues presented themselves:

  • How could we divide and space the topic without diluting the coherence of each story? As Richard Kennett passionately argued at last year’s SHP conference ‘stories are psychologically privileged’. We needed to make sure that our division of the content did not fragment and reduce the clarity of the stories that we were telling. As a result we decided to use relatively large chunks and tried to find natural stopping points for the changes in topics so that taking up each thread would not be too difficult for either teacher or students.
  • How could we divide and sequence the topics so that the knowledge in the different topics informed the others and linked together?

As we discussed and started to plan the sequences, I began to realise what a deeply exciting question the second one was. Curriculum design is not something that I had ever really considered at GCSE level. Beyond consideration of how the different units informed each other when choosing them, the only model I had ever encountered at GCSE was simply to teach one topic, then the next, then the next. It was as if the exciting curricular thinking which I often saw in KS3 was abandoned as soon as the students entered the GCSE classroom (I cringe to think of how many times my students said ‘I don’t remember any of that’ when reminded of an earlier topic). Designing this sequence has felt like something of a reclamation. It has forced me to think carefully about the detail of how the substantive and disciplinary knowledge we teach at Key Stage 4 is sequenced and links together.

The sequence that we have decided upon is below:



Y10/start of Y11

Picture 2-interleaving

In planning this sequence I have been struck by the many ways in which we will be able to have the topics inform each other. To discuss but a few:

-We have deliberately placed the thematic study early in the sequence. This will help to give the students a coherent chronological overview. We have also used the Renaissance section of Medicine in Britain to frame the start of the unit on Elizabeth I which will allow us to explore the context of Elizabeth’s reign in ways that will inform both Medicine in Britain and Elizabeth.

-We have also placed medicine in World War One before the start of the Weimar and Nazi Germany unit. This will help to frame the shattering human cost and psychological impact of the conflict which is the defining feature of the early part of the Germany topic.

-We have placed the early sections of the Weimar and Nazi Germany topic before the Cold War. This will help us to communicate the roots that the Cold War has in World War Two and also allow us to use the political polarisation of the early years of the Weimar Republic to introduce the political literacy which is so vital to a proper understanding of the Cold War.

-We will study medicine in the Industrial Revolution just before Elizabethan approaches to the issue of poverty. This invites comparisons in how authorities approach problems of public health and welfare, as well delving into the key issue of the ‘deserving and undeserving’ poor and laissez-faire attitudes.

I could go on but I think that the point is clear. The process of planning this sequence has forced me into a genuinely curricular approach to GCSE teaching. That is a very exciting thing.

The challenge now is to translate it to the classroom. So much of the value will come from the specificities of the way that we communicate these threads and connections in the classroom. I am looking forward to the challenge!





Video feedback: an efficient solution?

video-feedback-screenshot.pngThe subject of how to make feedback more time-efficient for teachers and useful for students has been one that has seen real innovation over the last few years. This discussion has been enlightening for me, having previously struggled with the (seemingly) mountains of essays and the borderline unmanageable expectation that I would mark them all thoroughly. The problems are well documented; fear-driven marking policies with little value, large amounts of colored pen with limited student thought in response and the resultant shift in focus away from the core issue: what do students need to do, see or think about in order to progress?

The strategies presented around whole class feedback by the Michaela School are articulated clearly here and there is a wealth of other useful material around (notably here). This method has been widely influential and has been very useful for me this year, resulting in my marking of books taking significantly less time and being more oriented towards student response.

One principle that I have always tried to stick to in giving feedback is to ensure that students respond (and have time to respond) to their feedback. As Dylan William eloquently articulates ‘the first fundamental principle of effective classroom feedback is that feedback should be more work for the recipient than the donor’. I have also always tried (and sometimes failed) to keep in mind his maxim that feedback should always produce thought. Based on these ideas I tended to follow the following process when feeding back extended writing to my students:

1) Students read their feedback (whether typed, mail-merged or written by hand)

2) Students read their work and highlight and annotate what they have done well

3) Students read a model answer (with success criteria) and highlight what it does well. Often this process is modelled or guided by me from the front

4) Students rewrite all or part of their answer and improve it, acting on their feedback

The reason I have stuck so trenchantly to this process is because of the power of students engaging with exemplars of quality, in addition to their feedback, before using these exemplars as well as their feedback to improve their work. Ideally, the exemplar should be used to direct student thought at the specific issues that the teacher has identified. The exemplification is the vital step in showing them what the improvement looks like on the page. The use of visualisers (which I have yet to try) fulfills this function in the Michaela method of marking, with specific modelling and exemplification happening in lesson in response to common failure modes in student work.

At last year’s Schools History Project (SHP) conference I attended Dale Banham’s (excellent) session on teaching Richard and John at GCSE level. After the session I happened to be there when he demonstrated how he was planning to use the simple app Screencast-O-Matic (downloadable here) to capture the screen on his laptop as well as record his voice. It offered the potential to quickly and easily model, with explanation, in a format they could keep and replay. I am generally sceptical of much of ‘edtech’ as it often seems to be a more elaborate way of accomplishing something that can be done with greater simplicity and in less time. However, this seemed like something that could genuinely be transformative in terms of packaging the feedback, exemplars and teacher explanation in one place while also allowing students to go back over it if necessary. It also seemed to offer an efficient way to combine the Michaela method of whole class feedback with my existing emphasis on exemplification and student response.

Below is the process that I have developed for whole class video feedback. I have tried to maintain a focus on efficiency and to make sure that there is minimum wasted time here. There is little point in a solution that adds more to workload and offers only the shiny allure of being technological and ‘21st century’! I would love any feedback here too as I am sure there is much that I could be doing better.

1) I read a class set of extended writing. As I read I note down common issues that I see in the essays that I think need to be addressed in feedback. This is very similar to other whole class feedback strategies.

2) As I read I also use the smartphone scanning app Cam Scanner (downloadable here) to collect examples of where students have not fallen prey to these common failure modes and written particularly impressively. These will then act as my exemplars in the video. I try and link the collection of examples and the identification of common failure modes in my mind as I read.

3) I have a simple PPT template that is already set up. It contains a title slide, list of issues to be addressed and then slides for each of the issues. I then screenshot each of my scanned exemplars and add them to the correct slide (depending on the failure mode they are addressing). I can use coloured boxes and coloured success criteria to quickly set up highlights on the areas that I want the students to focus on within the exemplar (see example above).

4) I then use Screencast-O-Matic to record the screen and my voice as I talk through each of the issues and explain how the exemplar illustrates what it looks like when that issue is corrected. I use a simple headset and microphone (£9.99 on Amazon) to record my voice. Once I am finished then I save the video file and I can share it with my students through Edmodo or email. I could even show them the video in the lesson!

5) The ways that I have asked my students to engage with the feedback have varied and I am still experimenting a little here. I always ask my students to rewrite all or part of their essays in response. I have also used feedback tasks which target particular failure modes and nominated which task I would like students to do. Finally, I have also tried giving the students blank copies of the exemplars and asked them to highlight and annotate what is good about them as they watch the video, ensuring their engagement with the content of the explanation.

I have found this to be a very useful process this year and the feedback from my students has been very positive. It allows me to package the feedback, explanation and modelling parts of the process together. A particular benefit of the approach is that it allows the students to go back over the video and the explanation as many times as they need to. The permanence of the format gives it a real advantage over explanation in class in that sense. It also means that they can go back to the videos during revision if they so choose, as well as meaning that any students that miss the lesson can watch it at home. It is not as flexible or responsive as modelling in class but it does have the advantage of boiling the feedback process down into the period immediately following reading the essays (when it is freshest in my mind). It is also, crucially, not particularly demanding in terms of time and can substitute efficiently for written feedback on every essay in much the same way as the Michaela model. I will be continuing to hone the method and make it more efficient over the next year but I think it has real potential as an effective mode of feedback.

There is an example of my feedback to my Y13 class below. Any thoughts would be welcome!