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.
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.
-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)