In my previous blog I explained about how memory works, and how teachers can use strategies from cognitive science such as retrieval practice to promote long term learning. After all, the learned curriculum is the only curriculum that actually counts in the end.
The curriculum is the means by which we ensure that all our children get their fair share of the rich cultural inheritance our world affords. A good curriculum empowers children with the knowledge they are entitled to: knowledge that will nourish both them and the society of which they are members. Because, as Angela Rayner, Labour shadow education secretary says, knowledge belongs to the many, not the few.
But if children don’t remember what we have taught them, then even the richest curriculum is pointless. Knowledge can’t empower if it is forgotten. So as well as thinking about what is the richest, best material to put into our curriculum, we also have to structure our curriculum in a way that make remembering almost inevitable. This blog relies very heavily on the thinking of Christine Counsell, so much so I did ask her if it was alright to use her ideas about building a memorable curriculum. She was much more concerned that the ideas got ‘out there’ than to claim ownership of them, but much of what follows is a result of her sharing her vision of a memorable, knowledge rich curriculum with me. The actual examples from different year groups come from me, so if you find the specifics lacking, that’s my fault, not hers.
Schools tend to spend a lot of time thinking about how children are going to learn, rather than what. Then when schools start to think about what they want children to learn – when they start to think hard about their curriculum – they overlook planning systematically how they can build their curriculum so that children remember it.
When I first started teaching there was no National Curriculum, or SATS and no Ofsted. Schools were completely free to teach whatever they liked. Indeed, it was often down to the individual teacher to choose what they wanted to teach. My mother was a primary teacher and her colleague said she didn’t like maths so didn’t teach it. That’s pretty extreme. But it really was more or less up to you. The school I started in was more prescriptive than most – we had maths scheme and a reading scheme which means it was ultra-traditional for its time, but I was still asked what I wanted to teach for my first ‘topic’. Your topic drove the curriculum. The idea was that under the umbrella theme, you tried to find bits of learning from each subject that linked with it. So, for example, I decided for my first topic that I would do ‘the weather’ – actually quite a good topic, as it goes. So we made rain gauges and wind socks and measured rainfall, wind direction and temperature, we learnt about wind speeds and the Beaufort scale in a geography/science combo. We made mobiles with the symbols from weather forecasts. (I think that was art but it might have been DT). We wrote stories about storms. We played percussion instruments to make a storm. RE? well Noah’s Ark, obviously. We didn’t do any history that term. Not in a deliberately planned way, but just because it didn’t fit. Well I suppose I could have done the history of umbrellas or something.
This approach hasn’t completely died out either. Not long ago, some poor year 6 teacher on Twitter asked for help in planning what to teach in history that term to fit with her topic. Her topic was roller coasters. A topic chosen not by her but by some senior manager who decided that since going on a roller coaster was fun, learning about them would be too.
Actually planning a topic like this was quite fun and the best teachers were really inventive and taught good stuff. The rationale behind this approach was that by linking stuff together, it would be more interesting and hence more memorable than teaching a series of atomised, unrelated subjects. Strong links between the subjects was its raison d’etre. The problem was that it was just so arbitrary. It was quite possible for children to do the same topic twice (or even three times) because it was just down to the individual teacher. Whole subjects could be left untaught for term after term after term, just because they didn’t ‘fit’ with the topic, and not because a strategic decision had been made to concentrate on something else. Or, in a desperate attempt to shoehorn a subject into a topic, tenuous links were made. I once joked that my topic that term was ‘tenuous links across the curriculum’. I was chatting to Christine Counsell the other day about this and she told me about a teacher who was doing a topic on colours. Desperate to fit in some history, the teacher plumped for teaching them about the Black Death!
But actually, this emphasis on links wasn’t completely misguided. If we want to build a curriculum that promotes remembering, we will absolutely need to build links in. In fact, we will need to build in those links in a far more systematic and structural way than the ‘topic web’ approach ever imagined. The very bones of our curriculum across the years and across subjects will need to link up in a highly well thought out way, so that knowledge taught in one subject is explicitly reinforced and revisited in a not only in other subjects, but in subsequent years. In this way, key concepts and vocabulary are reinforced because new words and concepts are encountered repeatedly in meaningful contexts. I am calling this way of building a curriculum a 3D curriculum, for reasons which I hope will become obvious.
First of all, vertical links should be deliberated constructed within a subject so that over the years, key ‘high yield’ concepts are encountered again and again. Not only are these concepts practised again and again through retrieval practice while the unit of work is being taught, the curriculum design provides planned opportunities to revisit the concept in subsequent years.
So, for example, let us consider the word ‘tyrant’ and its associates ‘tyranny’ and ‘tyrannical’ in the context of teaching history.
We first meet a ‘tyrant’ in year 1, when our students encounter King John (of Magna Carta fame) and learn that he was (until the barons got him) a tyrant. We don’t meet any tyrants in history again until in year 5 when we encounter Dionysius of Syracuse (the definitive tyrant) where his tyranny is counterpoised with the democracy of Ancient Greek city states. While its quite a stretch to expect that children will remember the word ‘tyrant’ from 4 years previously, it provides an opportunity to remind students about the Magna Carta and how power is limited in Britain. Then in year 6, we can compare Hitler with Churchill. By now, we also know the adjective ‘tyrannical.’
Alongside this, we need to develop horizontal links between subjects in a year. These are the sort of links we loved back in the old days of topic webs. In year 3 students learn about rivers in geography and the importance of the river Nile when learning about the history of Ancient Egypt. In year 4 we learn that Vikings invade England, microbes invade bodies and about invasion games in PE.
Important grammar concepts, such as nominalisation – so important for academic writing – are also addressed when children write a non-chronological report or an explanation about something they have learnt in another subject. For example, children are taught that rather than writing that the Nazi’s invaded Poland we teach it is more effective to write about the invasion. Instead of saying the French were defeated we write about the defeat of the French and later about the opposition and resistance of the French.
Finally, we need to map out the diagonal links. That is to say, links that join concepts across both year groups and across subjects. So when in year 3 children learn in RE the story of the Exodus and encounter the brutality of Pharaoh they are reminded that he is behaving like a tyrant – a term they learnt in history in year 1! To give another example, the word ‘source’ is the place where a river begins when studying the River Nile in year 3, but is also the person or book that provides information for a news story or for historical research when we discuss primary and secondary sources in later years. In English in year 6, students revisit our beloved word ‘tyranny’ when they encounter the Warden in ‘Holes’ and her tyrannical regime. A later study of the biography of Harriet Tubman affords the opportunity to describe slavery as being a form of tyranny, but of one group of people who ‘rule’ over another.
Each time a concept is encountered within a different context, not only is the concept more likely to be remembered, the understanding of that concept becomes more nuanced.
What is really important is that this revisiting is done in a deliberate, planned way and not as an inconsequential aside along the lines of ‘remember when you learnt about plants’ without explicitly reminding the students exactly what it is about plants that you want them to link with what they are learning now. So for example, explicitly revisiting the different types of plants that grow in different biomes when learning about adaptation. References to previously studied content need to build on or develop previous learning, as well as strengthening students’ ability to remember the terms. None of this should be ad hoc. These links form the bones of the curriculum. That’s why we can talk of the curriculum as the progression model.
I’m not saying building such a curriculum is easy. Primary school teachers are not used to knowing what children have learnt in foundation subjects in previous year groups, let alone which key concepts might provide fruitful opportunities for development. In other words, which key concepts really are ‘key’. Indeed, in my experience, most primary schools are only just beginning to map out the kind of knowledge they think children should be learning, let alone thinking about the route map of key concepts within and across years and subjects.
Yet imagine the incredible head start our children would have if they arrived at secondary school will a sophisticated understanding, grounded in different contexts of the following concepts that I’ve lifted from our knowledge organisers: I’ve tried to give the word in its nominalised form where possible but obviously we need to make sure they know the other words in the ‘family’ too.
(Primarily from history) Ruler, king, monarch, monarchy, reign, democracy, election, tyranny, dictator, opposition, resistance, rebellion, invasion, conquest, triumph, parliament, government, tribe, emperor, empire, defeat, occupation, exploration, taxation, civilisation, citizen, culture, state, military, conflict, alliance, treaty, coalition, surrender, warrior, poverty, flee, exile, hostility, community, migration, persecution, oppression, liberation, neutral, eye-witness, source, archaeologist, expedition, navigation, exploration
(Primarily from RE) Creation, gratitude, compassion, victim, sacrifice, sacred, pagan, monotheism, polytheism, immortal, salvation, forgiveness, incarnation, prophet, liberation
(Primarily from geography) Climate, weather, temperature, erosion, fertile, irrigation, meander, crop, trade, settlement, environment, abundance, scarcity, resources, habitat, adaptation, population, predator, prey,
(Primarily for science) Flammable, conductor, insulator, dissolving, soluble, solvent, evaporation, condensation, pitch, volume, circuit, particle, reversible, irreversible, extinct, orbit, reflection, reproduction, sexual, asexual, friction.
This list is self-evidently far too long. We are only at the beginnings of building our 3D curriculum.
I gave a talk partly based on this blog at the conference at Reach Academy last Monday and someone asked me the very sensible question, am I talking about Isabel Beck’s tier two words? In case you haven’t read her work (and you really should, it’s all about vocabulary), Beck divides words into 3 categories; tier 1 are everyday words like table, cup, house; tier 3 words are technical, subject specific words such as photosynthesis or glacier; tier 2 are where we find words that provide a more precise or mature ways of referring to ideas they already know about. For example, knowing the word benevolent as well as kind or fortunate as well as lucky. See here for more. Tier 2 words are the words teachers should really concentrate on, argues Beck, because they lend a sophistication and maturity to communication that many child may not encounter at home and hence need explicit instruction.
While I agree with this, I think the key concepts we need to build a 3D curriculum from a set I’m going to call tier 2.5! I’m still reflecting on this but I think the key concepts we need are ones that although often grounded in a specific subject domain (so tier 3) are also used in a metaphorical or loser way outside that domain (so tier 2 possibly?) For example, meander has a very specific – in fact tier 3 – usage in geography yet is useful word to use to describe thoughts or route through shopping malls. It’s probably not quite rich enough to from part of the endoskeleton of our curriculum, though ideally all our teachers will know that in year 3, children learn about meanders so that should the occasion occur where meander would be a useful verb, they will explicit reference river bends in their explanation.
Looking at my long list, it seems that the humanities afford more words able to be co-opted for use in other domains, whereas science vocabulary is more likely to be hyper-specific and domain bound. I also note that most of my history words tend to be about power and a fair few geography words about economics. I’m not sure if that’s by lefty bias coming into play or not? But since power and money are such powerful drivers, it is no wonder that words which formally mean one thing in once context – empire, for example – are pressed into service to describe more the commonplace human interactions of the power crazy. English teachers, I presume, would look on that long list of words first encountered in history lessons and be delighted to think that children would come to English lessons already with an understanding, albeit in a very specific context, of the word; an understanding is exploited when authors use words figuratively. This is much less likely to happen with scientific words such as isotope. There are however still links to be made: coalition/coalesce for example.
Much of the detail of this approach is still tentative. I welcome comments.