How to speak truthfully about what it means to be human: a user’s handbook.

The purpose of schools is not chiefly or mainly to prepare children for exams or jobs. Rather, as Ruth Ashbee eloquently explains, it is to teach our children about meaning – about what it means to be human.[1] Through their curriculums, schools are custodians, curators and critics  of the magnificent legacy of human meaning-making. By engaging with humankind’s intellectual and cultural heritage, our children are enabled to join in with the great conversation about what things mean that has been taking place since the dawn of time.

This conversation discusses and disputes if there are reasons why things happen. Life isn’t a completely random and unpredictable series of chaotic events, it isn’t just one damn thing after another; there are, it appears, at least some patterns. Just exactly what is and isn’t a pattern is one of the main subjects of this conversation. Does the sun return after the winter because we have pleased the gods? Is that the pattern? Or is it caused by some other means?  Or is it completely random and unpredictable? Why do people do bad things? Can that be explained? What are the different answers that have been given to that question? Is it the stain of original sin, economic self-interest, demonic possession, psychological disposition, bad blood?

This conversation also expresses these patterns – or frustrating lack of pattern – in various symbolic forms. Sometimes visually, sometimes through story, music or dance. Humans want there to be patterns. We want there to be reason, meaning, coherence, sense. But sometimes things are, despite our deepest wishes, apparently random or meaningless.  One meta-pattern that weaves its way through the conversation is the idea of truth; the idea that our craving for patterns, for reasons, does not give us carte blanche to impose our desires about how we want reality to be, regardless. Pattern making by its very nature has rules that need sticking to, or it ceases to be a pattern. But different patterns have different rules and different vocabulary. So we need to learn how the rules differ depending on how we are looking at things, depending on the kinds of patterns we are looking for. Learning the rules and vocabulary and when they do and do not apply is an important part of learning to participate within the conversation. ‘Truth’ is shaped differently depending on which part of the conversation we are presently involved within. If we are looking for explanations about how flowers reproduce, we will use one type of pattern. If we are trying to make sense of our feelings by painting flowers – we will use others.

This is where different disciplines come in. Disciplines are different ways of making meaning. They are different because they seek to answer different types of questions and therefore do so in different ways. In various talks I’ve given using Neil Almond’s metaphor of the curriculum as boxset,  I’ve talked about renewable conflict. This is, as far as I have been able to find out, an idea from screenwriting. The idea is that if you want to write a successful long running series, you need to make sure it has a conflict at its heart that will never be ultimately resolved. So Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series do not have a renewable conflict at their heart as eventually evil is defeated but Game of Thrones does because the conflict at its heart is about who should rule the realm and how to cope with the woes of nature. Characters can come and go, live and die – and frequently do – but this central conflict endures potentially forever. Now I appreciate that Game of Thrones did eventually come to an end and I am not enough of a fan to know whether potentially that same conflict could fuel a future series, spin off, prequel or whatever. But I think the idea of a renewable conflict is interesting applied to the idea of different disciplines.

For example – and I am not saying that my attempts at formulating the renewable conflicts at the heart of various subjects is in any way definitive – I suggest that these questions could be seen as renewable conflicts for different subjects. See if you can match which question goes with which subject?[2]

  1. Natural phenomena vs evidenced explanation
  2. The past vs evidenced explanation
  3. Human desire to thrive vs physical processes
  4. What is the meaning and purpose of life vs conflicting answers vs impossibility of knowing for sure
  5. Physical competence vs sloth
  6. Creation of meaning/beauty vs taste vs technical competence
  7. Power vs people who want or need something
  8. Creation of something useful vs technical competence


Because education is about meaning, this can lead some people to believe it needs to feel meaningful and fulfilling at every moment along the way. But learning to participate within the great conversation requires learning conventions, becoming familiar with narratives, honing skills and acquiring vocabulary that will all take effort. If we are to understand complex ideas in meaningful, joined up ways, there will be points where components will need to be learnt in isolation. This isolation is but a step on the way to later integration[3], but this step may be perceived as less purposeful or meaningful by the learner. At these points, teachers should frame the meaning for their students.

This framing can be done more or less well. Framing something as ‘this is meaningful because it will help you pass the exam’ may not be entirely false but sells a cheapened, instrumentalist view of education, where proof of knowledge is but a bargaining chip, shorn from its moorings within the discourse of meaning making.  What is more, it can lead to risibly impoverished practices where learning various short cuts and tricks to pass an exam is more important than letting the subject change you, develop you. If I just study GCSE assessment objectives via various extracts of literature rather than by reading lots of different books, I don’t experience the power of literature to change how I see the world. I might be able to describe the effect a text has on the reader but have not been afforded the opportunity for the text to have an effect on me. [4] If I only learn mathematical tricks and tips, I might never experience maths as a powerfully predictive identifier of patterns and relationships but as a series of arcane and meaningless school based rituals. If I can recall historical facts and causes for the periods on the syllabus but don’t know much beyond this, I may never understand how historical argument actually works. Nor will I understand the shades of meaning of such loaded terms as ‘empire’ or ‘democracy’ unless I have at least some familiarity with the diverse historical narratives within which these terms are central.

But none of this means that I should never be taught tips, short cuts or definitions and that every instance of my education must be deeply imbued with ‘Meaning.’  The justified horror of the short-cut, exam-driven education is exchanged for an equally mistaken desire to short cut straight to understanding the big ideas all at once, without slowly, slowly building the necessary foundations. This may at times require patient practice of skills and facts learnt for a time in isolation from the bigger picture within which they can then be put to work to do their transformative work of meaning making.

Teachers can frame the meaning for their students during these times in different ways. A simple disposition of encouragement is fundamental. The enthusiastic celebration of incremental successes is important. So is the acknowledgement of the sense of frustration and powerlessness when things are hard and the reassurance that given time and practice (and possibly better explanation on our part), the fog will clear and success will come.

It is a mistake to try to frame meaning by coming up with far-fetched and outlandish potential future ‘useful’ practical applications of what we are teaching in some desperate attempt to try and persuade our students it is meaningful. Ben Newmark describes the silliness of this well:

‘What often follows is teachers parroting learned consequentialist justifications. In my subject, history, this might be a teacher saying “if you understand that people in the past had different views, then you’ll understand that people today have too and this will mean you get on with people better when you get a job.”  But trying to justify the content of our curriculum by its capacity for practical application is flawed. Beyond basic literacy and numeracy most of what is learned in school is not obviously useful in the wider world without making absurd leaps. This is something many of the pupils I have taught have been acutely aware of. While it can be amusing to try and construct contrived situations that justify the teaching of something pupils regard as obscure, for example, “if you become a baker and your till breaks and you have to work out how much Mrs Jones owes you and you don’t have a calculator, or a phone, and there’s no way you’ll be able to get one then this algebra is going to come in really handy. If you remember it. Which given you only learned it to pass an exam, you almost certainly won’t.”

Worse, by indulging this argument we suggest the only subjects which are important are those with a clear and direct link to practical tasks pupils might do in the future. While some might argue this is actually quite right, curriculum developed on this principle would be radically different to most of those we deliver in schools today. In with using Excel and developing a good phone voice! Out with Homer, Angelou and the irrelevant Renaissance artists!

Do we really want our young people to learn only what is practically useful?’[5]

Meaningfulness is not the same as usefulness.

If education is to be meaningful it needs to result in something deep and durable that lasts beyond the moment. There is nothing wrong with fleeting pleasures or momentary joys but these are not what learning is. To learn something is to be changed in some way that that lasts beyond the immediate. If we encounter momentary joy or fleeting pleasure along the way, so much the better. But it is the lasting change that makes learning purposeful. Learning enables us to see the world in a new way. Whereas before we only saw trees, now we see elms, oaks and sycamores. Whereas before we only saw rocks, we now see granite, limestone and sandstone.  Whereas before we only saw shopping, we now see profit, loss and externalities.  Whereas once we saw ‘one bad apple’, now we see the historical roots of deeply institutionalised patterns of injustice.

As we learn to ‘see’ in new ways, our very selves are changed. Our minds are changed, physically. Some view this power that education has to change an individual with deep unease. The words ‘brainwashing’ and indoctrination’ are mentioned. [6] However deeply we feel this, surely leaving people ignorant is far, far worse. But Lessing’s warning remains. The classic purported antidote to ‘indoctrination’ is to let students exercise some choice over what they learn. But to do this is itself an ideological imposition. It is not a neutral stance.  Children cannot know much of what they don’t yet know so the idea of choice here is somewhat meaningless. An uneducated choice is not an informed choice.

Some knowledge is more powerful, more empowering than others. As Michael Young describes[7], there is a kind of powerful knowledge that enables people to predict, to explain, to envisage alternatives, to think in new ways. There is a strange irony in using our power as teachers to deliberately withhold this kind of powerful knowledge because we believe we know best what is good for children.

What is more, there is something rather sinister in the idea of the learner as consumer, endlessly exercising ‘choice’ over what they wish to engage with, rather than engaging with a tradition that seeks to educate rather than placate them.

As Gert Biesta writes

We go to school, not to get what we already know that we want, but because we want to receive an education. Here, we would expect teachers not just to give students what they know they want or say they want or are able to identify as what they want, but to move them beyond what they already know that they want. We want teachers to open up new vistas, new opportunities, and help children and young people to interrogate whether what they say they want or desire is actually what they should desire. To turn the student into a customer, and just  work on the assumption that education should do what the customer wants is therefore a distortion of what education is about, a distortion that significantly undermines the ability of teachers to be teachers and of schools, colleges and universities to be educational institutions rather than shops.[8]

Education is not always comfortable. Education can confront us with realities we would rather remain ignorant of. Education should provoke, jar, push up against what we want to be true. It is easy enough to think of possible scenarios: the child who has been brought up to think that their country is superior and a bastion of justice and fair play encountering for the first time the evidence of its complicity in slavery and colonialism, the child who believes that their religion believes x or y to be terrible sins, only to learn in school that others within the same religion believe both x and y to be perfectly acceptable, the child who has been led to believe that their freedom of expression is the ultimate good, the child who has only ever viewed the world through the lens of their Guardian reading parents.

For Biesta, the power of education lies in introducing children to things that offer resistance to their desires, ideas and assumptions. Education is the process through which children work through that  which resists them and come to terms with it.

‘From the perspective of the student teaching thus brings something that is strange, something that is not a projection of the student’s own mind, but something that is radically and fundamentally other. The encounter with something that is other and strange—that is not of one’s own making—is an encounter with something that offers resistance.’[9]

If education is an induction into meaning making, then it is right and proper that questions of ‘whose meaning’ are held up to scrutiny and argued over. Schools may be custodians and curators of what they see as the best, the most powerful articulations of meaning from within humanity’s great conversation, but they also need to be both self-critical and open to critique. The curriculum must include the necessary tools to enable this. We need to borrow the idea from the Protestant theology of semper reformandum – always in need of reform.  Any curriculum can only ever share the tiniest fragment of the wealth of human thought so questions about why X has been chosen rather than Y or Z need to be reflected upon and held up for scrutiny. This includes inducting students themselves into the conflicts and assumptions within subjects and drawing their attention to the fact that the curriculum itself is but a partial selection that could have been otherwise. In curating a curriculum, we need to be sure to include those aspects that that give students some power over their own knowledge.[10] We need to draw attention to the parameters of truth telling within each discipline. Without these, students are powerless in knowing if these parameters have been breached. In other words, part of what we curate must include disciplinary knowledge as well as substantive knowledge.

Disciplinary knowledge is knowledge about how knowledge ‘earns its stripes’ and gets to be regarded as knowledge. It is about the rules within a subject that enable truth claims to be upheld, challenged, contested, refuted, superseded or rendered obsolete. Each discipline has its own rules of engagement which govern the kind of questions it is and isn’t possible to ask within a given subject. We need to teach children what those rules are so that children, over time, can join in the conversation about the significance of the content we are teaching them. As Christine Counsell explains:

Disciplinary knowledge… is a curricular term for what pupils learn about how that knowledge was established, its degree of certainty and how it continues to be revised by scholars, artists or professional practice. It is that part of the subject where pupils understand each discipline as a tradition of enquiry with its own distinctive pursuit of truth. For each subject is just that: a product and an account of an ongoing truth quest, whether through empirical testing in science, argumentation in philosophy/history, logic in mathematics or beauty in the arts. It describes that part of the curriculum where pupils learn about the conditions under which valid claims can be made, and associated conventions such as what constitutes evidence or argument in that subject.[11]

If we want children to appreciate that there are such things as truth claims rather than just a myriad of conflicting opinions, if we want them to see truth-seeking as an ethical endeavour that lies at the heart of human meaning-making, then we need to share with them how ‘truth’ works. This is particularly important when children encounter ideas in school that offer resistance to cherished assumptions.  As Michael Fordham outlines here (in the context of teaching issues such as racism and colonialism):

‘When we teach pupils things that can be uncomfortable for them to hear, it is normal in the classroom to get some pushback. Sometimes this even comes from parents. Questions such as “how do you know?” or “isn’t this just your opinion?” mightjustifiably be asked; more worrying still are those who think this but do not say it. When it comes down to it, what are our answers to these questions? To my mind, these answers must be based on truth, evidence and reason.’[12]

Different subjects have different ways of looking, of explaining which is why trying to teach generic skills of ‘observation’ or ‘explanation’ are misplaced. How we look in art is very different from how we look in science. Explanations in history are different from explanations in maths which are again different from those in geography or music. We need to be able to look at the world in all these different ways and know what we are doing, what assumptions we are making, when we do so.

If we want to nurture critical thinkers who have the requisite powerful knowledge, then we have to respect these subject boundaries, even when it is inconvenient. If we want to induct children into the various truth quests that each subject embodies, then we need to resist the temptation to marshal truth claims in one discipline to bolster cherished beliefs in another. Totalitarian regimes are infamous for violating this essential pre-condition for truth telling, for example, warping science to fit with religious convictions or history to fit with political ones.

While it is easy to cast aspersions on the ‘false news’ of Totalitarians, it is harder to keep away from doing so ourselves when it involves matters we care passionately about. For example, plastic pollution is an obvious scourge of our time and learning about how and why plastic ends up in our oceans and on our beaches, why this is problematic and how communities have responded are all appropriate subject matter for a geography curriculum. Campaigning against plastic pollution is appropriate subject matter for citizenship.  But not for geography. History, geography, science, are disciplines for establishing truth; disciplines don’t prescribe the ‘ought’, i.e. what we do about them, only the ethical ‘ought’ of truth-seeking itself.  PSHE, assemblies, citizenship, and school councils are places where schools engage with the products of those disciplines and build moral sensibility for individual and collective action.[13]

As I write, a statue of the 18th century slaver trader Edward Colston has just been toppled by protestors in Bristol. It is entirely appropriate within the context of history lessons to seek to answer enquiry questions such as ‘What was the legacy of the slave trade on the city of Bristol?’  Discussing arguments for and against direct action against contested monuments is completely appropriate within a citizenship lesson, but not within a history lesson. (Should the question be asked during a history lesson, the teacher might think it really important to engage with this question in the moment but should clearly signal that history as a discipline does not have the right tools for engaging with moral questions and that they are taking off the ‘glasses’ of historical discourse and donning the glasses of moral philosophy in order to discuss the issue.) What is important to note here is that in order to debate the moral issue in an informed way, the requisite historical knowledge is necessary. A decolonised curriculum is of necessity a knowledge-led curriculum (though a knowledge-led curriculum is not necessarily a decolonised curriculum). Any UK secondary school history curriculum that does not include detailed enquiry into both empire and slavery is an airbrushed curriculum. The establishment of truth in history depends on scrupulous efforts of avoiding ‘presentism’, the ahistorical and anachronistic judging of the past by contemporary standards. There are plenty of 18th century figures who stand in judgment over the pernicious and morally repugnant practice of slavery. These are the voices that should be heard in history lessons.

If the purpose of schools is to teach children about how to speak truthfully what it means to be human, then the conversation must encompass the breadth of humanity, especially those voices it is more convenient to ignore or suppress. It must tell the truth about shameful failings, obfuscations, denials, vested interests and inconvenient facts. And do so in ways that respect each tradition of enquiry and the distinctive way in which it pursues the truth.


[1] Ashby Ruth (2020) Why it’s important to understand school subjects – and how to begin to do so in Sealy Clare (ed.) the ResearchED Guide to the Curriculum.  Woodbridge: John Catt. . p41

[2] science, history, geography, RE, PE, the arts, politics, technology.

[3] Christine Counsell’s highlights the tension between isolation and integration in her chapter Better conversations with subject leaders in Sealy Clare (ed.) the ResearchED Guide to the Curriculum.  Woodbridge: John Catt.  p104

‘All curricular thinking amounts to either isolation or integration of components. Observing any moment of teaching, this is what we see – the (temporary, artificial isolation and/or integration which makes components functional in a larger set of journeys.’

[4] I have paraphrased and stolen this sentence from Christine Counsell’s chapter p108




[7]  Young M and Lambert D (eds) Knowledge and the Future School. London: Bloomsbury

[8] Gert Bietsa. European Journal of Education, Vol. 50, No. 1, 2015

[9]   Gert Biesta in Phenomenology & Practice, Volume 6 (2012), No. 2, pp. 35-49. Giving Teaching Back to Education: Responding to the Disappearance of the Teacher  file:///C:/Users/pc/Downloads/19860-Article%20Text-48221-1-10-20130620.pdf

[10] David Lambert ttps://




[13] I am indebted to Christine Counsell for these last two sentences which she shared with me in a Twitter exchange as I sought to understand the role of disciplinary knowledge.

How to speak truthfully about what it means to be human: a user’s handbook.

Building a curriculum with firm foundations

Something that has always bemused me is the opposition that arises whenever it is suggested that what children learn in the foundation stage should prepare them to be ready for year one. The standard response to this is that the foundation stage is important in its own right and does not exist as a warm up for what comes later. It is there, so it is said, to lay the foundations for future successful learning in terms of child development rather than any specific content.

The passionate advocacy of the foundational role of the prime areas of communication and language, personal, social and emotional development and physical development for all future learning is something I would also champion. Abundant research finds that a strong foundation in the prime areas by the time a child is five is essential if a child is to thrive academically. Without these essentials in place, further learning will be drastically impeded. So any curriculum development that undermines the building of these firm foundations is foolhardy at best. Rushing to build the superstructure before the foundations are secure is a doomed enterprise: foundations being, er, foundational.

However, it is perfectly possible to assert this, and assert it vigorously, while at the same time thinking about the kinds of specific content which might provide a context within which the prime areas can be developed, content that might also be foundational for later more specific learning. It is a false dichotomy to think that it is a case of either promoting the prime areas or having a curriculum that includes specific knowledge and skills that will be built upon in the rest of schooling. Considering the latter does not necessarily undermine the former. It could, of course, done badly. Generally I’m against doing things badly.

For example, there are many concepts in geography where future understanding will be greatly strengthened if this can be built on prior experiences gained in the Early Years. For example, a child who has played with mud, sand and water in the mud kitchen will more readily understand concepts such as erosion and permeability than a child who has not has these first hand experiences. The concept of trade begins with role playing in a shop. Map work needs solid understanding of spatial relationships, and whether or not the revised Early Learning Goals for maths include shape, space and measure, the Early Years curriculum needs to include them as they are foundational for later geographical understanding. (They are foundational for later mathematical understanding too and should form part of any Reception curriculum, whether or not there is a corresponding Early Learning Goal.) Population and the complex idea of population density begins with a firm understanding of conservation of number. Understanding the concept of atmosphere needs foregrounding in experience of power of the wind, of talking about the weather, the sky, looking at clouds. Experiencing lots of different kinds of plants, flowers, trees, mosses, ferns, cacti, seaweed, pondweed, fruits and grains builds firm foundations for understanding the diversity of vegetation. Understanding the crucial role that water plays in our world is supported by experience of water tray play, freezing, evaporation, exploring puddles, rain collection as well as trips to whatever is local, be that a pond, a river or the sea.

Seeing a mountain might be an everyday occurrence for some settings and a logistical impossibility for others, but we can all read stories with a mountain setting and look at pictures and videos of mountains, deserts, marshes, rivers, jungles, the North Pole, the South Pole. We can all look at globes and maps and begin to learn about climate, learning that the poles are very cold and the equator very hot, and they we live in between the two. Don’t underestimate the role of small world either. It may or may not be easy to visit a farm, but everyone can experience small world farm animals, or play with tractors, or the Arctic or a jungle.

Apparently during a recent Ofsted inspection of a nursery, the inspector asked how the setting was preparing the children to be future geographers. Now I fully understand how different this line of questioning is and how at first glance one might be tempted to answer (at least in one’s head) with a rather rude response, as of course the prime areas are everybody’s first (or prime) concern and we are used to thinking about our provision in those terms. However, now that the question has been posed, why shouldn’t we also think about how the environment we provide, the things we talk about, the trips we go on and the books we read can play a part in building firm foundations for understanding the world? Why shouldn’t we think about what foundational geography might consist in? So I would suggest should any Early Years professional or geography leader be asked about how Nursery provision ‘prepares children to be future geographers’ they direct the questioner to the sand and water trays, the mud kitchen and the building blocks.

Physical geography and science are rather easier to think about in this way as they involve concrete things you can touch. (And hats off to the Reception class I visited last week which had a tuff tray full of root vegetables including what I though was an enormous, leafy, soil-encrusted carrot which I then learned was actually a sugar beet!) Foundational RE can use artefacts. Visitors and visits are easier for some locations than others. Stories of course are crucial here, and again small world play can reinforce what has been talked about or experienced first-hand.

History is necessarily more abstract in that the past is, by definition, not here right now. The familiar activities of thinking about one’s own development from babyhood (done sensitively of course with regard for those children whose early life is not typical) are central, but we don’t have to stop there. Just as with geography, there are historical concepts we can begin to lay the foundations of understanding for. Encountering kings, queens, princes and princesses in stories and in role play lays the foundation for understanding what monarchy means. Castles, knights, armour and shields may or may not be easy to see on a school visit, but we can all tell stories featuring these and provide role play opportunities to give children opportunities to use the new vocabulary they have learnt. Concepts such as democracy and government begin with personal, social and emotional development. Can we always get our own way? Why do we need rules? What do we do when two people want different things? Or the same thing but there is only one of them? Voting for things, talking about fairness, respect and tolerance are all essential pre-requisites for later historical understanding (as well as being important in their own right, of course).

Stories play a vital role in making the abstract past immediate. If we want young children to understand the world, we need to tell them stories that take them beyond the familiar, whether in time or in space, so that their world expands beyond what is immediate. So stories about notable people and events from the past need to feature in our Foundation Stage curriculum. Where there are places locally we can visit, then visit them, but not everybody is in a place to do this easily. Everybody can invite in an older person to talk about what it was like in the past (you know, the olden days, the 60’s). We can all easily share art works of people and places from the past.

None of this necessarily involves a particular pedagogy. I’m no advocate of a wholesale ‘in the moment’ planning way of doing things, but I can’t see why a well-resourced environment with knowledgeable adults couldn’t do ‘in the moment’ and simultaneously think along these lines. Yes, the prime areas are prime, but they can be expressed within contexts that expand our children’s worlds. I don’t know and have never visited @Oakwood Foundation, (nor know the extent to which they use in the moment planning), but I’d suggest having a look at their inspirational Twitter feed to see children who are being exposed to the wonder and variety of the world. Recent photos include children looking at photographs of various buildings from a ‘Beautiful Yorkshire’ book then using blocks to build a variety of impressive buildings (science, history and geography right there), some beautiful spider pictures after a child was curious about spiders (the setting has a collection of spiders in plastic blocks) and I will always remember being blown away by the fantastic art work the children did based on blood – red cells and capillaries galore.

The role of adults here is of course central, not just in planning the environment but in their own knowledge and understanding of the world.[1] If you want to extend children’s understanding about spiders, then you will have to know at least something about spiders. During an inset day looking at our Foundation Stage curriculum at my previous school, we spent time expanding our knowledge of wolves (since we were about to do some work based on fairy stories featuring wolves). This was not because we were going to have specific lessons on wolves, but so that we could extend children’s learning because we knew lots about them. Otherwise it was easy to limit our interactions to saying wolves were fierce. As a result, we found out, among other things, that wolves only live in the northern hemisphere. How easy it would be to show children a globe and explain that wolves only live in the top half ‘which we call the northern hemisphere’ but not the bottom half, ’which we call the southern hemisphere.’ Then another time that penguins live here ‘the South Pole, in the southern hemisphere’, and polar bears in North Pole, in the northern hemisphere.’ We made sure we knew the name of where wolves live, what their babies were called, how many babies they usually had, what different colours of wolves here are. We thought about the technical language used to describe wolves, that they have fangs and snouts and paws, that they were hunters, carnivores, predators. As a result, our own ability to talk about wolves was richer and more fluent. Then we did the same for other topics. Of course you can’t be an expert in everything a four year old might want to talk about, but you can do what you can, and that isn’t a reason for not doing it at all.

Since children build upon what they already know, it we want children later in their school careers and beyond to be able to think critically about population density, fair trade, sustainability and so forth, we need to ensure they already know the essential pre-requisites without which they will not be able to understand these more complex concepts. Some of this knowing will be the embodied knowing that comes from playing with sand or water. Some of it will be through listening to stories. Some of it will be through visits or listening to visitors. Some of it will because our teachers tell us about it. Lots of it will be reinforced through role play or art or music.

Curriculum development therefore should not start in year one, with the foundation stage cut off and isolated, detached from the rest of the school. We don’t call it the detached stage after all. Yes it has a unique focus in providing those essential foundations of child development upon which later learning will be build, and this should always be at the forefront of our minds. But that does not preclude also thinking about how our provision, our curriculum, prepares (lays a foundation) for what comes later in other ways as well. The two need not be in opposition. When a builder builds foundations, the kind of foundations are determined by what comes later. Light buildings have shallower foundations than tall or heavy ones. You don’t use raft foundations for skyscrapers or pile foundations of a one storey house. The foundation exists and is shaped by what comes next.





[1] Yes of course they also need to know about child development. Of course. That’s fundamental.

Building a curriculum with firm foundations

Curriculum planning: KS2 history

Part 4 in our series of blogs to help primary school teachers plan a coherent curriculum. As with the previous blogs, it is written with the assumption you are using the English National Curriculum, though it is still really useful if you don’t.

Credit as always goes to the author of these pieces Victoria Morris @MrsSTeaches . Details for how to get Victoria to help your school with curriculum development are available in part 1.

Part 1, on geography KS1 is here.

Part 2, on geography KS2 is here.

Part 3, on history KS1 is here.

Key Stage 2 History

In contrast to KS1, the majority of the areas of study for KS2 are stated explicitly. However, there are some choices that will need to be made before you can decide on the specific content you will teach in each unit, and place them in a logical sequence.

  • Select an ancient civilisation for in depth study (one of Ancient Sumer, the Indus Valley, Ancient Egypt or the Shang Dynasty of Ancient China)
  • Select a contrasting non-European society (one of Early Islamic Civilisation c.AD900, Mayan civilisation c. AD 900, Benin West Africa AD 900 – 1300)
  • Select an aspect of local history (depth study or study of change over time)
  • Select an aspect or theme in British history that extends beyond 1066 (depth study or study of change over time)

If your school is an academy or free school, you have slightly more flexibility, so you could select two examples from one of the lists, omit an objective, select two aspects that are later than 1066, or change the focus of some of the units. If you choose to do this, make sure that you can justify why this is best for your children’s learning.

The following are the factors I would suggest you take into account when making these choices of unit:

World history

  • Your pupils’ backgrounds. This could be either to reflect their countries of origin, for example by selecting Early Islamic Civilisation in a school with a significant proportion of Muslim pupils, or to promote diversity by selecting a contrasting culture.
  • The range of continents and countries represented when you consider the units you have selected as a whole – ensure you provide your children with knowledge of the most diverse range of cultures possible (considered in conjunction with choices in KS1 & in geography too)
  • Links to the geography curriculum. For example, Ancient Egypt would provide opportunities to apply knowledge of rivers and deserts if these had already been studied in geography.
  • The opportunities each study would afford for developing understanding of key concepts. Clare has developed a list of these (for history: civilisation, culture, empire, invasion, monarchy, tyranny, rebellion, oppression, democracy, society, community, taxation, source, evidence, chronology. Some of the geography concepts are also relevant to the study of ancient civilisations: trade, settlement and resources). (Developed from the list originally mentioned in this blog

British history

  • Are any of the useful examples provided in the National Curriculum particularly relevant in your locality?
  • What are the most significant aspects of history in your locality? (places, people, events or changes over time)
  • Are any of the British pre-1066 areas of study particularly significant in your locality? If so, you may decide either that this justifies an additional depth study, or that you will select a contrasting period from post-1066 for the local study.
  • Links to the science curriculum. Did any scientists live in proximity to your school? Were any scientific discoveries made nearby? If so, a study of their life and achievements could be enriching, particularly when combined with a trip to their house or a museum.
  • Are there any major gaps in the units of study you have already selected? The aspect of British history extending beyond 1066 is an opportunity to rectify this.
  • Links to UK geography. What region of the UK have you selected for the depth study and is there a significant aspect of British history linked to this region?
  • Themes that will help children to better understand how daily life has changed over time, and that are relevant to their own lives – houses and homes, school, transport, communication, toys, technology, jobs. Are any of these under-represented in your curriculum?

The introduction to the KS2 National Curriculum for history provides a useful description of what the curriculum should look like as whole, so it’s definitely worth reading closely (even though it’s tempting to go straight to the bullet points to see exactly what you need to teach). This states that teachers should combine overview and depth studies, so it’s important to ensure that you have included both across the key stage. While the examples provided in the National Curriculum are non-statutory, it’s worth considering whether any of these would be suitable for your setting, if only because there are likely to be more resources available for these units.

In order to select a clear focus for each unit, as there are limits on the time available, you could consider the following:

  • Use both the list of key concepts and themes referred to above – which ones were significant in the period of time being studied?
  • Fully exploit local places of interest
  • Look for opportunities to build on knowledge from previous units. For example, if you taught children about farming in Anglo-Saxon Britain, include farming, crops and food in your teaching of Ancient Greek life for comparison.
  • Check the wording of each objective carefully:
Unit Focus specified in NC
Stone Age to Iron Age Changes in Britain (so must involve an overview of the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age in order to compare)
Romans Roman Empire AND its impact on Britain
Anglo-Saxons Settlement in Britain

Separate from the next objective

Anglo-Saxon and Viking struggle for England Invasion

Spans the period from approx. 790AD to 1066

Ancient Civilisations An overview of where and when the first civilisations appeared AND a depth study
Ancient Greece Greek life AND achievements AND influence on the western world



There are two different ways you could choose to sequence the units you have selected:

  1. Chronological sequencing starting with the earliest period of time in Year 3.

Advantages – could help children develop a good understanding of chronology, which is one of the aims specified in the National Curriculum.

Disadvantages – the youngest children study the periods that are furthest in the past, with the least concrete evidence available, making them the most difficult to imagine.

  • where there are links with geography and science, sticking rigidly to chronological sequencing in history can result in less than ideal sequencing in other subjects, or useful links being lost (since science units are year group specific).
  1. Place units of study in particular year groups based on cross-curricular links and the complexity of concepts taught within them.

Advantages – maximising opportunities for building on prior knowledge and integrating new knowledge into larger concepts.

Disadvantages – more difficult to develop secure chronological understanding, so the ways in which you will do this will need to be planned for. For example, you could create a school timeline including all the periods of time that are studied, start units by identifying how they relate to previous ones, and provide opportunities for children to practise ordering key people and events from all the periods they have studied so far.

Earliest suggested year group units should be included in, so that knowledge is built cumulatively (this is not essential, just how I would ideally do it):

Year group When unit could first be included:
Year 4 Achievements of ancient civilisations (after the water cycle and rivers as all of these civilisations were built around rivers)

Romans (before volcanoes so that children better understand example of Pompeii; after overview of ancient civilisations)

Year 5 Ancient Greece (after science on forces, earth and space; complex concepts more suited to UKS2; builds on Romans even though it was earlier)
Year 6 Stone Age to Iron Age (alongside or after evolution and inheritance in science so that children have a good grasp on the lengths of time involved when studying prehistory; after the Romans as Roman invasion was end of prehistory)


Additional things to take into account when sequencing:

  • If possible, it would be useful for the units on the Anglo Saxons and the Vikings to come after the Romans so that these three are in chronological order. This way, children would be following the story of Britain before 1066 from beginning to end. However, these units could be placed before the Romans if necessary.
  • Depending on your choice of local study and post-1066 British history units, these may be best placed in Year 3, where they can build on knowledge of the more recent past that children began to develop in KS1.
  • If you selected early Islamic civilisation, it will be important to sequence this after children have learnt the basics of Islam in RE, and in particular about the life of Mohammed.
  • Links to geography. For example, trade, settlements and natural resources are key geographical concepts that are particularly relevant to the study of ancient civilisations. Will you sequence these units before or after children learn about these aspects of human and physical geography?

Unit Checklist

Does the unit include:

  • A geography lesson to orientate children to the place before learning about its history?
  • Opportunities for children to identify connections, contrasts and trends over time? For example, recognising that historically people have settled near water.
  • Historical enquiry questions? For example, ‘Why was the second Roman invasion of Britain more successful than the first?’
  • Opportunities for children to revisit and build on prior learning? For example, if studying the Stone Age to Iron Age after the Romans, children should revisit what they know about the Roman invasion of Britain when they learn that this event marked the end of prehistoric Britain.
  • Opportunities for children to develop secure chronological understanding? For example, regularly ordering people or events from all the periods of time they have studied so far.
  • Links to other subjects, particularly geography, science and RE, where these links enhance children’s learning. For example, children could learn about ancient Greek discoveries relating to the earth and space, such as Aristotle proposing that the Earth was a sphere and the proposal of the heliocentric model of the universe, if they have already covered this in science when learning about ancient Greece.



Curriculum planning: KS2 history

Curriculum planning: ks1 history

This is the third in this series of blogs helping you plan your primary curriculum from Victoria Morris @MrsSTeaches. This one is about ks1 history. You can catch up with the previous two on ks1 and ks2 geography here and here.

I think Victoria’s work here really exemplifies what the phrase ‘the curriculum is the progression model’ means. Curriculum planning is a long game; we lay foundations which others build on. For example, Victoria suggests  if you read Room 13 in key stage 2, you might want to do some light touch work on the dissolution of the monasteries because this will lay the foundation for understanding the history of Whitby Abbey, as well as being valuable in its own right. It would certainly help children no end in when studying secondary school history if they already understood what terms like monk and monastery mean, and have some idea that there was this big argument between the church and the king way back when.

I remember studying the Lady of Shallot with a very capable group of year 6’s, but being slowed down by having to explain terms such as knight which we could have made sure was introduced via small world play in the Early Years then built upon in ks1. I also had to explain about barley and why is was bearded, but that’s a point for addressing via the science curriculum. People who have heard me talk about the curriculum will have heard my anecdote about asking  rural eduTwitter for wheat to show year 1 in October (assuming that harvest took place when we have harvest festivals) and being educated that I was a couple of months too late. Then some kind soul somehow finding some and sending a large box of assorted cereals to school, much to the consternation of the school’s admin officer.

I  would never advocate doing something ‘for Ofsted’ but it is the ability to be able to articulate this kind of  coherent curricular thinking that I assume Ofsted are looking for when they do their deep dives.

ks2 history out next week.

Over to you, Victoria.

Key Stage 1 History

The National Curriculum specifies four very broad areas of study for KS1. As these objectives are so open, there are multiple ways that they can be translated into units of work when planning the curriculum. Each objective will be considered in turn, with suggestions about how to select units of work, and how they could be sequenced.

When making these choices, the following factors would be useful to take into account:

  • What will be studied in KS2 and KS3, as the KS1 curriculum needs to provide a good foundation of knowledge for children to build on later. You may want to consider planning the KS2 curriculum before you plan KS1, and if possible contact local secondary schools for details of their KS3 curriculum.
  • Any gaps that may exist in children’s general knowledge when considering the KS2 curriculum you have planned. For example, as the KS2 curriculum mainly consists of periods before 1066, children may not have an understanding of what knights were and features of castles, which they will probably come across in stories.
  • The texts you plan to teach across the school and the background knowledge needed to access these. How crucial is understanding the background knowledge to the plot? For example, when reading Room 13, a brief explanation of the dissolution of the monasteries to help children understand the history of Whitby Abbey would be useful, but it’s not necessary for them to have studied this in depth. However, if you intend to study Street Child, it would be important for children to have background knowledge of the Victorians in order to access the text.
  • The history of the local area – which figures were important in the history of the area? Did any significant events happen locally? Are there any significant buildings, historic sites or local industries? Thorough research here will help you select topics that are meaningful to your pupils and that can enhance children’s understanding of local geography too.
  • Themes that will help children to better understand how daily life has changed over time, and that are relevant to their own lives – houses and homes, school, transport, communication, toys, technology, jobs.
  • Promoting British Values and children’s moral, social, emotional and cultural development, as well as adding to pupils’ understanding of diversity. For example, selecting the nurses Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole as significant individuals to study could provide rich opportunities for children to both develop empathy, and their understanding of how the nurses’ different backgrounds affected the opportunities that were available to them.
  • Note that there is no requirement to select only one unit of study for each of the four bullet points, so if you have time you may choose to select two or three examples to teach some of the objectives.

Changes within living memory

The guidance in the National Curriculum is that these should be used to reveal aspects of change in national life. The broad themes listed above (home, school, transport, communication and technology) provide a useful focus for this area of study. When selecting which one(s) to focus on, consider those that are most relevant in your local area. For example, if your school has moved to a new building, changes in school life over time may be a good choice, or if there have been significant housing developments, changes to the size of the town and type of housing being built would be relevant. Opportunities for trips and visitors may influence your decision, for example if you have a local dockyard museum, canal or steam railway, changes in transport may be a good choice.

A unit of work on this objective could either track a theme, such as communication, through the decades from the 1920s to the present day, teaching about communication before the telephone, when telephones were commonly used in ordinary people’s houses, the introduction of the internet, ending with the wireless devices and smartphones we use today, and identifying how these changes impacted on people’s lives. Alternatively, life in a particular decade could be contrasted with modern life, looking at several themes such as homes, transport and communication.

Events beyond living memory

The National Curriculum specifies that these should be significant either nationally or globally. Suggestions are the Great Fire of London or the first aeroplane flight, although these are not statutory. Again the history of your local area can help to guide your choices – for schools in London, the Great Fire seems like a logical choice. Alternatively, you may wish to choose an event that is linked to one of the areas included in your geography curriculum.

Another suggestion in the National Curriculum is learning about events commemorated through festivals or anniversaries, for example learning about the reasons why we mark Remembrance Day each year. Themes that are not covered within other objectives could help with your decision – if you aren’t covering transport elsewhere, the first aeroplane flight may be a good way of filling that gap. Finally, consider any gaps in the KS2 curriculum. Are there any events that children will not have learnt about, that you consider are essential for children to know before they leave Year 6? This could be an opportunity to include these.

Lives of significant individuals in the past

The individuals you select must have contributed to national or international achievements. The important thing is that the people you select enable you to compare aspects of life in different periods. This indicates that the pairs of individuals you select should be separated by time.

This objective can be used to ensure that children have sufficient understanding of the features of periods that will be studied later, or that will be useful to provide background knowledge for reading or for local study in geography. For example, if there is a significant amount of Victorian history in your local area, you may select an aspect of Victorian life to study in KS2. In this case, comparing Queen Victoria with another monarch would support more in depth learning about the Victorians later. As a considerable number of classic children’s books were written or are set in Victorian times, comparing the life of a Victorian author with an author from a different period would enable children to access these texts more confidently.

Alternatively, you could select individuals whose lives provided opportunities to build on knowledge in other areas of the curriculum. For example, if the lives of explorers were selected here, that would provide opportunities to reinforce world geography knowledge such as continents, oceans and North and South Poles.

Significant historical events, places or people in your locality

You may want to make this choice last, so that you can choose an aspect or aspects of local history that does not already fit within one of the above three objectives. What have you chosen for your KS2 local history study? Think about what children will need to know to be able to access this unit of work. Would it be beneficial to select a unit that would provide children with useful background knowledge in KS1? Or is there another significant aspect of local history that children will not have the opportunity to study in KS2?

Suggested sequencing

As a general principle, learning should be sequenced so as to move from concepts that are ‘closer’ to children’s experiences in Year 1, to learning about more abstract concepts that are further in the past in Year 2. If you choose to do this, a logical way to sequence the objectives would be to cover changes within living memory and local history in Year 1, with the more complex changes beyond living memory and comparison of significant individuals’ lives in Year 2. However, the way you choose to sequence the units you have chosen is completely dependent on the particular places, people and events you will be teaching. For example, if you have chosen to teach both changes to transport within living memory and the first aeroplane flight, you may decide to start with the first aeroplane flight and then track changes chronologically to the present day. Or if your local study focuses on a Tudor house, this would naturally precede learning about the Great Fire of London. Additionally, links to geography and science may influence your decisions about sequencing. For example, learning about the Great Fire of London is enhanced by children having an understanding of the properties of materials, so it would be useful to place this unit after Year 2 science on materials.

Unit checklist

Does the unit include opportunities to:

  • Identify similarities and differences between ways of life in different periods?
  • Develop children’s understanding of chronology?
  • Find out about the past from different sources of information?
  • Ask and answer questions (following lines of enquiry)?
  • Revisit and build on prior learning and key concepts (monarchy, source, community, chronology)? For example, remembering and ordering the names of previous monarchs studied before introducing a new monarch, or remembering the order in which significant events occurred, adding new events studied to the chronology previously learnt.
  • Develop a thorough understanding of what is important about your local area, and how it has changed?




Curriculum planning: ks1 history

Curriculum planning: ks2 geography

Last week I shared Victoria Morris’  (@MrsSTeaches) fantastic blog advising how to plan ks1 geography.  Over 1770 people have already viewed that one, so I guess it fills a need. Here is part two which focuses (somewhat unsurprisingly) on ks2 geography. Like its predecessor, it assumes you either have to or want to base your curriculum on the English National Curriculum. Particular thanks to @EnserMark for his help for this one.

We hope to get ks1 history up here next week.

If you’d like Victoria to help you with your curriculum, please see last week’s post for details

Key Stage 2 Geography

As there is considerably more content in the KS2 curriculum, I have chosen to focus on the elements that affect how units could be chosen and sequenced. My not having mentioned certain objectives, or parts of objectives, does not indicate a lack of importance – it is because they would clearly warrant a unit of their own (such as rivers or energy). But this guide should not be seen as a comprehensive description of every element needed for a good geography curriculum, but guidance about how to sequence concepts logically and ensure learning builds progressively across the key stage.

In contrast to KS1, the KS2 geography curriculum offers a greater element of choice as to how it is covered. There are more options where particular regions and features can be selected for in depth study, and these decisions should be made while taking into account the principles outlined in the KS1 guide (your pupils’ backgrounds and those represented in the local area, the level of diversity your pupils are exposed to, the human and physical features present in the local area, and the history topics and English texts you have selected). There are also multiple ways in which the objectives could be grouped in order to build units of study. However, there are some considerations that can help you to create a structure within which to make these decisions.

Regional studies

There are choices to be made regarding regions selected for in depth study:

  • understand geographical similarities and differences through the study of human and physical geography of a region of the United Kingdom, a region in a European country, and a region within North or South America

As in KS1, there is the option to combine the study of a region of the United Kingdom with using fieldwork to observe, measure, record and present human and physical features of the local area, or to select a contrasting region of the UK. However, note the difference in language – region indicates study of a larger area than just the town or county in which your school is located. There are nine regions of England (London, South East, South West, East of England, East Midlands, West Midlands, North East, Yorkshire and the Humber, North West) as well as the other countries in the UK.

A region in a European country, and a region within North or South America also need to be chosen. In addition to the possible reasons for making these choices above, it is important to note the aspects of physical and human geography that are specified in the National Curriculum. You may want to select particular regions that contain several of these features, in order to provide opportunities for children to reinforce their learning. For example, Texas includes three different biomes – desert, grasslands and temperate deciduous forest – and Italy contains a mountain range, three volcanoes and the River Po, which is significant to agriculture and industry.

Alternatively, you may find that once you have selected examples of the physical features, there are significant locations in Europe, North or South America that your pupils will not have otherwise met, that you wish to choose as a focus for regional study.

The United Kingdom

You will have already selected a region of the UK to study in depth, either in conjunction with or separately from the study of your school’s local area.

However, there is a considerable amount of locational knowledge relating to the UK, which will need to be taught over more than one unit of work if children are to understand and remember all the concepts listed.

How can you divide the UK locational knowledge into smaller units of work?

  • As there are four countries of the UK and four year groups in KS2, one suggestion could be to have each year group focus on a different country, learning about all the key features listed (counties, major cities, geographical regions, human, physical and topographical features and land use patterns) in that country.
  • Alternatively, to allow for more revisiting of places in England, you could allocate Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to Years 3 – 5, as well as allocating one or two regions of England to each of the four year groups. This would provide children with more opportunities to practise identifying major cities and counties of England on maps so that they can remember what they have learnt in the long term.
  • You could map the different UK locations that are met throughout the key stage (eg. in history topics, as settings in key texts, referred to in any other foundation subject learning, visited on residential trips or through links with other schools) and allocate some time to identifying the features listed in the curriculum for that place.
  • When you teach the local area study in history, consider taking the opportunity to link this with aspects of the geography of your local area, covering the requirement in the geography curriculum for children to identify how aspects of UK geography have changed over time. For example, if you are teaching the history of immigration to the East End of London, you could link this with changes in the Docklands over time, the geography of the River Thames and land use patterns in the area.
  • Ensure that you are fully exploiting local places of interest that can enhance learning in the foundation subjects, and at the same time use these to develop children’s understanding of the geographical features of the local area and how these have changed over time. For example, if your school is within visiting distance of the home of a scientist who is significant to the KS2 programme of study, allocating some time to the history and geography of the location can provide rich cross-curricular learning opportunities.
  • When you plan for units on physical features such as rivers and mountains, ensure that you include examples that are significant in both the UK as a whole and in your local area. For example, children should know that the River Severn (whose source is in Wales and estuary in England) is the longest river in the UK, but could also learn that the River Thames flows through London, which is the capital of England, and that the Firth of Forth is the estuary of several rivers and is near Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland. This is an opportunity to revise knowledge of the countries and capitals of the UK from KS1.

Links to Science

As in KS1, there are links to be made with the science curriculum. Part of the Year 4 study of states of matter includes learning about evaporation and condensation within the water cycle, so it would make sense to combine the science and geography aspects of the water cycle within one unit of work in Year 4. As rivers form a part of the water cycle, a logically sequenced curriculum would include rivers either later in Year 4 than the water cycle, or in a subsequent year group.

The physical processes of mountain formation, volcanoes and earthquakes all require knowledge of the structure of the earth, which it seems logical to teach after children have learnt about the science of rocks in Year 3. In addition, having an understanding of metals and changes of state is useful in this topic (as the earth’s core is made of molten metal and magma is molten rock), and these are taught in Year 5 materials science, so teaching mountains, volcanoes and earthquakes together late in Year 5 or in Year 6 maximises the opportunities to build on these scientific concepts.

Climate zones and biomes

The remaining elements of physical geography, climate zones and biomes, can be linked with the following locational knowledge objective:

  • identify the position and significance of latitude, longitude, Equator, Northern Hemisphere, Southern Hemisphere, the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, Arctic and Antarctic Circle, the Prime/Greenwich Meridian and time zones (including day and night)

The Earth is split into three climate zones – polar, temperate and tropical – by the lines of latitude (including the Equator and Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn). These divide the world according to annual temperature and precipitation. Knowledge of lines of latitude also includes understanding that the Equator splits the Earth into the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, and that the Artic and Antarctic Circles are in the polar zones.

Biomes are distinct biological communities that have formed in response to a shared climate. It is important to note that biome is a broader term than habitat, as a biome may include many different habitats. Credit: There are several different ways of classifying biomes, so it’s important to choose which one you will use as a school. A suggested list is: taiga, tundra, temperate deciduous forest, scrub forest, grassland, desert, tropical rainforest, temperate rainforest.

Key features of biomes to teach are the annual temperature and precipitation data (including seasonal change), and how these affect the types of vegetation and animal species found there. Due to the link with habitats, ideally this unit should be taught after the Year 4 science on living things and their habitats. Knowledge of how climate relates to the living things that make up a biome feeds logically into the Year 6 science objective:

  • identify how animals and plants are adapted to suit their environment in different ways and that adaptation may lead to evolution.

So ensuring children have a secure understanding of climate zones and biomes before this science is taught in Year 6 would ensure that they are fully prepared for this new learning.

The remaining elements of the locational knowledge objective – lines of longitude, the Greenwich/Prime Meridian, and time zones – can be taught either later in the same unit, or as a separate unit later in the key stage. Although for convenience time zones often follow national boundaries, they roughly correspond to the lines of longitude, of which the Prime Meridian is the most significant, as it marks 0 longitude. There is a link to Year 5 science on day and night – whilst it is not essential to teach time zones at the same time as this science knowledge, it would certainly make sense to have taught the basics of why we have day and night before teaching time zones. Therefore, this unit should ideally be sequenced after Year 5 Earth and Space science.

Table showing the earliest suggested year group in which to teach specific units, in order to achieve logical sequence of knowledge:

Year group When unit could first be included
Year 4 Climate zones/biomes (after Living things and their habitats science but before Adaptation in Year 6)

The Water Cycle (linked with science)

Rivers (after the water cycle)

Year 5 Lines of longitude/time zones (after Earth & Space science)

Mountains, volcanoes & earthquakes (after materials science)


World Locational Knowledge

In order for your children to have a thorough knowledge of the world’s countries (including their environmental regions, key physical and human characteristics and major cities), you will need to plan for plenty of opportunities for retrieval practice and introducing new countries. A useful way of providing additional chances to learn about the world’s countries could be to plan to include lessons that orientate children to countries that feature in other subjects. For example, when learning about the Ancient Romans starting with a lesson on the location and geographical features of Italy, and then following this with a lesson on Greece before learning about the Ancient Greeks, would give children a good understanding of the geography of the Mediterranean.

Aidan Severs (who blogs and tweets as @thatboycanteach) has produced a comprehensive list of questions to ask about places you study, which can be used to help teachers identify the content to include in these ‘orientation’ lessons.

Unit Checklist

Does the unit include opportunities for:

  • Locating places on maps, globes and in atlases?
  • Using mapwork skills (including compass points and grid references)?
  • Fieldwork where possible? The Royal Geographical Society have produced some useful resources to support schools with planning for fieldwork.
  • Regular retrieval practice? For example, labelling countries, cities and geographical features learnt on maps, identifying features learnt on maps or aerial photographs of places or labelling key vocabulary on diagrams.
  • Deepening children’s understanding of key physical (climate zones, biomes and vegetation belts, rivers, mountains, volcanoes and earthquake) and human (types of settlement and land use, economic activity including trade links, and the distribution of natural resources including energy, food, minerals and water) features?
  • Deepening children’s understanding of important geographical concepts? Clare Sealy has created a list of the main concepts that should be taught in primary geography: atmosphere, climate, continent, landform, terrain, environment, resources, biome, fertile/fertility, vegetation, settlement, population, region, trade, development, sustainability, diversity. (Developed from the list originally mentioned in this blog
Curriculum planning: ks2 geography

Curriculum planning: ks1 geography

Having not written a blog for 7 months, I am now posting a guest blog! But it’s really great and should be really useful for those of you thinking about revamping your geography curriculum. This piece has been written by Victoria Morris (@MrsSTeaches) who works at St Matthias School in Bethnal Green, Tower Hamlets, where I was headteacher until recently.  The process we went through to plan out curriculum started with me sharing the principles with the staff team (see this). Teachers then planned the geography curriculum for their year group. After that, Victoria checked it and revised it so that all aspects of the geography National Curriculum were taught and links between topics were really clear. We then shared the final version during an INSET day. Although if we had had this blog before we started the whole process, that would have saved us an awful lot of time. So don’t do what we did! Involving class teachers is good, but get them to use Victoria’s guidance from the start.

The blog that follows is not the curriculum as such but guidance to help you plan your own. It assumes you will be following the English National Curriculum, though I reckon it is still useful if you are an academy in England or in  a school outside England as though you don’t have to follow the NC, it will still give you some pointers so whatever you choose to cover is at least as comprehensive. Victoria has build on the great work the teaching team did and made it even better, by her painstakingly methodical work and because she also taught herself an awful lot of geography along the way!

We should also acknowledge the support  and guidance we got from Andrew Percival (@primarypercival) and the staff at Stanley Road Primary in Oldham and Jon Hutchinson  (@jon_hutchinson) from Reach Academy Feltham and Mark Enser (@EnserMark) with designing our curriculum.  Though this piece is all down to the wonderful and very talented Victoria.

Ks2 geography guidance will be posted next week and then history the week after that.

Guide to the Primary Geography Curriculum: Key Stage 1

by Victoria Morris

I’ve been lucky enough to spend the first half of this year reviewing our geography and history curriculum, and writing the scheme of work that details the knowledge to be taught in each unit. As part of this process I’ve done a lot of research and reading on the subject content, and greatly improved my subject knowledge, particularly in geography. While doing so, I’ve thought a lot about what the ideal curriculum would look like – what would be the best way of systematically developing children’s knowledge and skills so that they master the KS2 objectives by the time they leave in Year 6? I’ve written some of my thoughts into these subject guides in the hope that they may help other teachers who are in the process of reviewing their curriculum.’

The guide is written on the understanding that your school is teaching the English National Curriculum 2014, and is mainly concerned with how to select content that will ensure you cover the National Curriculum content across each key stage, as well as suggestions as to how the objectives can be grouped and sequenced in order to create a coherent, logically sequenced curriculum. What are you teaching, when, and why?

As the objectives in the Key Stage 1 geography curriculum are mainly fixed and explicit about what children should know and be able to do, the choices that need to be made are mainly regarding the order in which the objectives will be taught, how far they should be broken down into smaller steps, and how many times they should be revisited across the key stage in order to ensure that children remember what they have been taught. (One of the criteria relating to Impact under Quality of Education in the 2019 Education Inspection Framework is that “over the course of study, teaching is designed to help learners to remember in the long term the content they have been taught and to integrate new knowledge into larger concepts.”)

Small area studies

However, there is one objective which requires decisions to be made before you can create a definitive list of the geography that you will be teaching in Key Stage 1:

  • understand geographical similarities and differences through studying the human and physical geography of a small area of the United Kingdom, and of a small area in a contrasting non-European country

First, what will your small area of the UK be? It would seem to make sense to combine this study with the following objective:

  • use simple fieldwork and observational skills to study the geography of their school and its grounds and the key human and physical features of its surrounding environment

In that case, the small area of the UK would be the local area of your school.

Alternatively, you could separate these two objectives, choosing a contrasting area of the UK to study in addition to the surrounding environment of your school. This would be particularly important if your pupils have limited experience of different environments – if your school is in a city, studying a rural or coastal area would be an important addition to your children’s cultural capital.

Secondly, which contrasting non-European country will you choose? There are several possible bases for making this decision:

  1. A location that reflects the background of a significant proportion of the school population or a significant ethnic minority group in the local area. For example, if your school is an inner-city one with a high percentage of Bangladeshi Muslim pupils, studying an agricultural region of Bangladesh could be a good choice.
  2. A location that adds to the pupils’ understanding and appreciation of diversity by providing cultural as well as locational contrast.
  3. A location in a continent that does not feature in Key Stage 2, so choosing it for study in Key Stage 1 will ensure that your pupils have sufficient understanding of a range of countries around the world. I would suggest waiting until you have decided on which locations in Europe and North or South America you will teach in Key Stage 2, as well as the history units you will be teaching. Plot these locations on a world map – is there a continent or country that is not represented, but which you feel it is important for the children in your setting to have experience of?
  4. A location that links to an area of study in a different subject – a history topic or a text that is being used in English. Just be careful that if you make the decision for this reason, the location you select has sufficient learning potential (you’re not sacrificing the geography for the sake of the link).

Whichever reasoning you base your decision on, make sure that you choose an area which includes the physical and human features that are studied in this key stage, since the original objective specifies comparing physical and human geography.

Physical features: beach, cliff, coast, forest, hill, mountain, sea, ocean, river, soil, valley, vegetation, season and weather

Human features: city, town, village, factory, farm, house, office, port, harbour and shop

Suggestions about sequencing

Now you know what needs to be taught, how will you organise this into units of work? What is a logical way in which to sequence these units?

  • identify seasonal and daily weather patterns in the United Kingdom and the location of hot and cold areas of the world in relation to the Equator and the North and South Poles

The first part of this objective (seasonal weather patterns), links to the Year 1 science objectives on seasonal change, which include the requirement to observe and describe weather associated with the seasons, so it would make sense to teach them together. Consider organising this into four short blocks across the year – one for each season at the appropriate time of year – so that children can experience what they are learning about first hand. Remember that there’s a second half to this objective which will need to be slotted in later.

When sequencing the remaining objectives, it would seem to make sense to start with those focused on the UK in Year 1, and gradually widen out to cover the more abstract world locational knowledge in Year 2 (although this sequence is not essential). The following is a suggestion as to how to split the objectives between Year 1 and Year 2:

Year 1 (in no particular order)

  • use simple fieldwork and observational skills to study the geography of their school and its grounds and the key human and physical features of its surrounding environment
  • understand geographical similarities and differences through studying the human and physical geography of a small area of the United Kingdom
  • name and locate the four countries and capital cities of the United Kingdom and its surrounding seas
  • use world maps, atlases and globes to identify the United Kingdom and its countries
  • Identify characteristics of the four countries and capital cities of the United Kingdom

Year 2 (in no particular order)

  • understand geographical similarities and differences through studying the human and physical geography of a small area in a contrasting non-European country
  • name and locate the world’s seven continents and five oceans
  • use world maps, atlases and globes to identify the United Kingdom and its countries, as well as the countries, continents and oceans studied at this key stage
  • identify the location of hot and cold areas of the world in relation to the Equator and the North and South Poles

Of course there are many ways of grouping the objectives into units, which will depend on the location of your school, the backgrounds of your pupils and the history units you choose to teach.  Also, keeping in mind the need for children to regularly revisit and have opportunities for retrieval practice, it will be important to continue to reference and build on knowledge initially taught in Year 1, throughout Year 2. You may also decide to introduce children to the seven continents and five oceans in Year 1, or to split the study of the school and its grounds into two units, with more in depth fieldwork taking place in Year 2 when children have developed a better understanding of measurement and statistics.

Geographical skills and fieldwork

Geographical skills and fieldwork should be included in each unit, with the level of challenge gradually increasing throughout the key stage. As with the locational knowledge objectives, it is vital that prior learning is regularly revisited and built on, so there should be several opportunities throughout both Year 1 and Year 2 for children to practice using compass points to describe locations on maps for example.

When introducing new human and physical features, and new locations, following this routine would be a good way of ensuring that children’s map skills are developed well:

  1. Identify in photographs
  2. Visit in real life if possible
  3. Identify in aerial photographs
  4. Identify on a map (OS map symbols)
  5. Locate on a map of the UK or the world
  6. Describe its location in relation to other places or features studied
  7. Locate in an atlas

This sequence could be gradually developed throughout the key stage, so that by the end of Year 2 children are able to do all of the above confidently.

The unit on seasonal weather patterns provides a good opportunity for developing fieldwork skills by recording temperatures and measuring rainfall. Additionally, the unit of study of the school grounds and the surrounding environment should mainly consist of fieldwork. If you have chosen to study a contrasting area of the UK as well as the school’s local area, additional fieldwork could be carried out on a visit.

Opportunities for retrieval practice

Including an ‘orientation lesson’, which looks at the location of places that are important, using the list of activities above to explore it fully, at the start of each history unit, could be a useful way of providing children with opportunities to revise previous locational knowledge, use their geographical skills, and introduce them to a wider variety of countries.

Additionally, looking carefully at the texts you have chosen to teach from a geographical perspective could provide some useful opportunities. This may be using ‘orientation lessons’ as described above, or it may be identifying human and physical features in illustrations or using knowledge to create a clear picture of a setting. It’s worth noting that while vegetation is on the list of physical features, if plants or trees have been planted by people, such as flowerbeds in a park, they are in fact human features. Illustrations or mentions of different features in stories could help to provide children with plenty of examples (and non-examples) so that they develop a really secure understanding.

Ks2 guidance to follow next week.

If you would like Victoria to have a look at your curriculum or to help you develop it from scratch, then contact


Curriculum planning: ks1 geography

Eat your data raw!

Far be it from me to position myself as the queen of healthy eating. However, even I know that heavily processed food is less good for us than food in its natural, unprocessed state. Whether raw food is really better that cooked food, I very much doubt. However, let’s run with the raw=good, processed=bad metaphor when applied to the wonderful world of school data.

I think the grip that excessive marking had on our schools is finally beginning to wane. At a recent event I was at for early career stage teachers, I asked how many people worked at schools where heavy duty marking was still the norm. About half the room put their hand up. Last year it would have been at least two thirds, if not three quarters. At our open days about marking, our approach seems less revolutionary now to most who attend and more about tweaking their own approach. Just anecdotes, but maybe signs that more sensible time are on the way. Data however, that’s a different matter. How long before the Teacher Workload Advisory Group on Making Data Work. has any impact?

I’ve written before about how we have attempted to strip back our approach to data.  We’ve stripped it back even more since then, and I’m still not quite convinced we’ve stripped it back enough yet. So I eagerly sought out any workshops on data at ResearchEd Kent yesterday, attending excellent sessions by both Becky Allen and Ben White.. I also reread Tom Sherrinton’s blog about the futile quest to ‘measure’ progress. This is my attempt at a synthesis/summary: a smoothie, if you like, of wholesome data goodness.

Processed food is easy to prepare; pop it in the microwave and ping. And the product is pretty uniform. But that ease and uniformity comes at a price to its nutritional worth. Binders, stabilisers, emulsifiers and preservatives are added to the basic ingredients; salt and sugar are added to make it all palatable. The more the basic raw ingredients are mucked above with, the more their essential goodness is compromised.

Raw, unprocessed food, on the other hand, is much more likely to be high in fibre, low in sugar and salt, and free from various kinds gunk. But it doesn’t come conveniently ready to cook. The individual ingredients are stubbornly individual. Transforming them into a meal will take work and each ingredient needs different work: some need peeling, some chopping, some blanching.  The resultant meals are likely to vary somewhat, even when using the same ingredients.

For years we have consumed highly processed data. Data has been aggregated, averaged and spreadsheetified into a highly reportable, easily consumable product. Contrast this with the messy business of trying to report progress when all you have is as assortment of raw data which you can only describe.  Governors and that host of others who would seek to make us accountable are used to being able to swallow down data purée without having to chew; no wonder they turn their noses up at the prospect of roughage-heavy, honest-to-goodness data wholefood.

Flightpaths, graphs and charts often the illusion of certainty, of rigour. They are (relatively) easy to understand. They blend complex individuality into homogenised simplicity; progress in art can be compared with progress in RE or maths or history. Yet this consistency is a consistency in meaninglessness. This is fake rigour, delusional certainty, but oh so deliciously tempting! Who wouldn’t want the sweet taste of certainty, of ‘sciency’ looking graphs, rather than unpalatable messy reality? No wonder we keep on swallowing those blue pills.

The links will take you to better analysis than I can do here, but processed data is bad for us because:

  • Progress isn’t linear. It happens in fits and starts. We might wish it to be otherwise but wish fulfilment is not a good basis for policy.
  • Any attainment measure is an approximation with a margin of error. Yet we imbue data with spurious accuracy.
  • This margin is magnified when ‘measuring’ progress. This is because progress relies on two measures of attainment, both with margins of error. The concomitant statistical ‘noise’ is therefore deafening
  • Even standardised assessments taken across many schools are unreliable because the stakes attached to these tests will differ from setting to setting and class to class. Children do better when they know the test is really high stakes. So schools which (sensibly) downplay the significance of tests are likely to get lower scores.
  • Schools often set ‘off the peg’ tests that don’t match with what they’ve taught. Unsurprisingly, children do less well on stuff they haven’t been taught. This is therefore an exercise in utterly futility.
  • These pointless tests are very expensive, wasting money that could be better spent elsewhere.
  • Teacher assessment that results in grades is notoriously unreliable.
  • Accountability pressures such as linking performance related pay to data amplifies this unreliability.
  • Trying to compare progress in different subjects is a fool’s errand. Progress in writing is different from progress in science. Reducing it to a number because you want to compare things easily is statistically illiterate. [1]
  • The same is true of trying to compare progress of different age groups.
  • Processing and aggregating all this data is very time consuming. It adds to teacher workload. Its very meaningless makes that work all the more irksome.
  • Unless your school is enormous, analysis of results by groups is statistical nonsense, even if the data made sense. Which it doesn’t.
  • Bu the time children have done these assessments, it’s too late to help them. They are a post mortem rather than an x-ray.
  • And none of this this anything to actually help any child learn anything any better – at best it helps managers allocate scarce extra resources at the chosen few. These ‘few’ will probably not include the most disadvantaged as they won’t look like a safe bet for improving progress scores. This is immoral.

So what’s this raw data you mention?

Instead of highly processed rubbish, what will really help us is limited amounts of raw data, by which I mean the results of highly focused tests/quizzes/assessments that tell you something really specific about what each child can or can’t do. For example, a times table quiz, a check of which sounds a child knows, a multiple choice quiz from a recent history topic, an analysis of a ‘cold write’ for a small number of highly specific grammatical features, a fitness ‘bleep’ test, a test of reading fluency. These kind of assessments are ‘granular; they check how much a child has learnt about a small, specific component of whatever they are learning: the fine ‘grain’ of learning. Such assessments might be reported as a simple test score or percentage. What must be resisted at all costs is aggregating all these results in some sort of statistical blender to make one score. That makes as much sense as putting your starter, main course and pudding into a blender in the hope of making a great tasting meal.

With raw data, you can see where the gaps are and go on to do something about them. There is little point in collecting data in the first place, unless you have a plan to use it in some way to do something as a result beyond reporting it.  In fact, as Becky Allen cautions, think about what you want to do – support those whose reading is less fluent, for example – and then collect data that enables you to pinpoint who those children are. Becky goes on to suggest that there is other raw data we could collect that would really help us deploy those precious extra resources to those who most need them.  Instead of CATS tests, year 7’s should start the year with a series of assessments that will pinpoint those with obvious barriers to progress in secondary school.   For example, a simple handwriting task so that schools can then intervene with those whose handwriting is poor or laborious, tests of times tables and number bonds, reading fluency tests. Then in addition to these, support to help those whose attendance or behaviour is poor or who do not do their homework[2]. For all of these, raw ‘live’ data is readily available and useful.  Throw in a test of phonics and substitute analysis of time spent on independent reading for homework and this list makes perfect sense of primary schools too.

I’d add in a bit of benchmarking, checking how we are doing compared with other schools in case we are deluding ourselves that things are fine when they’re really not. We are using comparative judgment for writing and star reader and star maths standardised assessments. Accelerated reader enables us to track how much independent reading children are doing and support those not doing enough.

When it comes to reporting to governors, local authorities, MATs or Ofsted, you will not be able to pull out a conditionally formatted, high processed chart with neatly aggregated data. All you will be able to do is talk about how you know which children are not doing as well as you want them to and what you are doing about it. Which is exactly what Sean Harford says we should be doing. Not that we do things ‘for Ofsted’ but it sure does help when they talk sense.

Unfortunately, we are still obliged to report certain things that make no sense whatsoever, so here we do what we have to, possibly signalling our disapproval along the way. For example, since we still have to report on the impact of pupil progress on our websites, headteachers might like to consider doing this (look at the end).









[1] Although Deep Ghatura would argue otherwise. Maybe I should say that how we do things now is illiterate but there may be another way.

[2] Ben White’’s blog outlines various things they ask pupils about homework which yields really interesting information.


Eat your data raw!


Stephen’s got ADHD.  He’s such a lovable child, but impulse control is not his strong point. His family have taught him that he must take revenge – physically of course – if crossed. This isn’t the most school-friendly of combinations. Paul is in the same class. His dad is in prison for unspeakable things and his mum deals drugs for a local criminal overload. Once, a rumour got out that she had grassed on someone and reprisals were about to take place before the rumour was quashed. Paul is understandably hyper-vigilant, always scanning the horizon for potential threats. He too has been told to hit back should his honour be in anyway besmirched. Paul and Stephen don’t get on. Stacy comes from a chaotic family. The school is working on her conflict resolution skills, but there is some way to go. Things can escalate very quickly. Terry’s oldest brother is in prison for gang-related violence.  Another brother was stabbed in a reprisal attack, and subsequently stabbed someone else in return. So Terry is now earmarked by the rival gang as their next victim. He too, is hyper-vigilant and understandably prone to over-reaction. Abdul has had to move house due to his brother’s drug related gang activity. The police have warned his family that the other gang see them all as potential targets.  Theo is presently living in a refuge since his mum fled domestic violence. He is mostly quiet and withdrawn, but can lash out when feeling threatened. These children are all in the same class.

The school works hard to meet the needs of these children. There is a learning mentor, work on conflict resolution, liaison with agencies, visits to CAMHS for some, all the usual stuff. In the classroom, a careful seating plan, the warm but firm boundaries, the support from a TA and a skilled teacher all work to ensure that most of the time, the children feel safe enough and calm enough to learn.  In the playground there is lots of space and lot of staff and lots of things the children like doing.  The more competitive games need careful supervision. The presence of little children helps – they bring out the protective instinct and staff get to see a more nurturing side sometimes.

Transitions between class and play, or PE, or music or assembly – these are hard. It’s one things scanning a classroom or even a playground, it’s quite another keeping your eyes on an entire line of children in a twisty turny narrow corridor with multiple sets of fire doors, even with a teacher at one end and a TA at another. The teacher has a lining up order, of course, to make sure the more volatile children are separated from each other. But the class like to chat in the corridor, and that means the line bunches up as friends congregate. There is overtaking, and faster people mistakenly bumping into slower ones. If you’ve got high levels of cortisol in your blood and someone bumps into you, you might over-react and attack. Retaliation might then follow. Friends might get drawn in to the fray.

Everybody knows that the corridor is the once place you might get away with an insult or crafty push. You can always say it was an accident. If something did go wrong at playtime, the corridor is a good place to get your revenge. So the stressed ones are on their guard, uptight, coiled up and ready to react, or plotting to avenge their honour in the two minute walk back to class.

Daniel is autistic. He likes rules. If someone overtakes him, or anyone else for that matter, he will take the matter into his own hands and put them back – sometimes physically – in the ‘right’ place. Sometimes he remembers he mustn’t do that and just shouts at them instead. Often this results in an altercation.

These are unpleasant for everyone. It takes at least half an hour to calm everybody down until they are ready to talk about what happens, and another half an hour to establish what went wrong. Time during which those involved, including those on the periphery, aren’t learning and staff aren’t teaching.

Yet this was all so avoidable.

When the school introduced silent corridors, these stress-ridden, hyper-vigilant children could relax.  They felt safe. Because they had to walk in single file, one behind the other, in a set order, there was no bunching, no bumping. No more having to scan your classmates in case someone is ‘cussing’ you. No more worrying if someone is going to get their own back from a problem in the playground. No more holding in your anger at a perceived sight only to vent it in the seconds when you enter the teacher’s blind spot as you round a corner.

The adults were in charge again.

In a different school where not quite as many children had such stressful lives, Susie might have enjoyed strolling in from play, chatting to her friends. She’s calm, well-behaved and doesn’t need the reassuring presence of an adult in order to resolve any problems. However, when the rules change and she isn’t allowed to talk to her friends for a couple of minutes during transitions, she gets it. It’s only two minutes after all, and it’s so much easier for the others. She’s a compassionate child. She willingly accepts this very minor restriction, even when she forgets one day and receives a minor sanction.

This is why we introduced silent corridors. Not in some power-crazed attempt to coerce children to bend to our will, but as a well thought out response, a reasonable adjustment to a high level of need. If your school doesn’t work day in, day out with those kinds of needs (and obviously the above has been fictionalised to a degree – the reality is actually even more challenging), then maybe it seems weird to you. I’m sure you have other challenges I know nothing of and do things I might feel not understand.


What’s all the fuss about a knowledge-rich curriculum? part one

Here’s part of my talk from yesterday’s ResearchED,  A word of warning though, if you are a regular reader of my blogs, it is very similar indeed to my previous post ‘Mutual Misunderstandings’ although now with pretty pictures added. This blog talks about what knowledge is and features the first part of my intended talk. I massively ran out of time during my talk, so rushed through the bit on understanding somewhat breathlessly.  I will put that section into another blog in due course.

I was having dinner with a headteacher friend who told me how much my name was reviled by some of her colleagues because apparently, as an advocate of a knowledge-rich curriculum, I was in favour of bombarding children with facts in boring lectures and was only interested in teaching to the test.  This is frustrating, because it’s so wrong, and might lead to people missing out on the wonders of knowledge-rich goodness! So to put the record straight…

The first misunderstanding is to think that that when we speak of knowledge, we only mean acquiring facts.  That’s not the case at all. Knowledge can be divided into declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge.

knowledge isnt facts

Declarative knowledge includes concepts and rules as well as facts and will allow us ‘to recognize things, make judgments, classify things, discriminate differences and identify similarities.’[1]

So for example, it is declarative knowledge that lets us recognise a tree as a tree, judge that it is a mighty fine tree, or an old tree, classify it as a Horse Chestnut, discriminate how it is different from a Sweet Chestnut and identify how both are similar, being examples of deciduous trees.


Procedural knowledge is knowledge that produces action, that enables us to do stuff. It is goal directed, whereas declarative knowledge (the kind of knowledge that includes, but is not limited to facts) just sits there waiting to be of service. It doesn’t of itself result in any action.  Procedural knowledge actually enables us to do things. Most obviously, it involves motor behaviour; learning to play the guitar or catch a ball are both forms of procedural knowledge.  To throw a ball, you don’t need to also know the physics behind it, you don’t need factual knowledge of how it all works. You need to build motor memory and that is a form of knowledge learnt through paying attention and repeated practice. But procedural knowledge isn’t only about muscle movement, it also lies behind enabling us to use declarative knowledge.  Solving an equation or balancing a chemical reaction, both involve turning declarative understanding into procedural knowledge.

dec vs proc

To use an analogy, in football, its no good just having strikers who score goals, you also need players who can assist the striker, players who set up the opportunities for the striker to  do their thing.

assist striker.PNG


Of course we want knowledge to be put to work, to use declarative knowledge to do actual stuff, it’s just that you don’t get to do the stuff  unless  you have the requisite declarative knowledge in the first place. Yet the fear is that the knowledge-rich brigade are only interested in the declarative side of things. This fear is misplaced. The knowledge-rich crew simply value declarative knowledge as a crucial part of the learning equation – alongside procedural knowledge – and want to liberate it from its imprisonment in the dungeon at the base of Bloom’s taxonomy, derided as somehow objectionably  ‘lower order’, looked down upon in condescending fashion by the haute bourgeoisie of the ‘higher order thinking skills’ clique.


Instead, we want to champion the absolutely vital place it holds as enabling all further thought.  Instead of Bloom’s triangle, how about we have Sealy’s Funnel?

sealys funnel

Synthesis and evaluation – what we might call creativity and critical thinking – are only possible once vast amounts of knowledge have been understood.  Far from being ‘lower order’, knowledge is our precious  cognitive capital. with critical thinking its dividend.

Christine Counsell talks about the curriculum as needing a hinterland which nurtures and sustains the city. in the same way as a city needs a vast area of land surrounding it to provide it with the water, food, fuel and people it needs to thrive, so creativity and critical thinking rely on extensive and wide ranging knowledge.


People sometimes refer to the ability to do such things as acquiring skills rather than procedural knowledge. The word ‘skills’ however, is particularly problematic as it is used to mean several different things. For example, it is used to describe dispositions such as resilience and behaviours such as collaboration, it is also used to describe things such as inference and problem solving, which traditionalists are more likely to see as different kinds of disciplinary knowledge, and then again it is used for procedural knowledge. Knowledge-rich advocates positively embrace procedural knowledge and also are happy to endorse dispositions and behaviours such as collaboration and resilience, though might argue that there are plenty of opportunities for encouraging both within an ordinary maths or PE lesson.  The fault line lies  with the so-called generic skills such as problem solving, or explanation.

skills 3 ways

troub;e with generic

Knowledge-rich advocates argue that while things such as problem solving or explaining or observing are important, they are not generic skills.  These terms imply different things in different subjects. ‘Explanation’ in history has a different meaning than ‘explanation; in science for example. Even something apparently straightforward like ‘observation’ means something different depending on whether you are doing something in an art lesson or a science lesson. What is worthy of observing will differ.

For example, if I ask a bank robber ‘why did you rob the bank?’ I am expecting a moral or psychological explanation and not a logical one. I would not expect the answer ‘because that’s were the most money is.’  That’s not the kind of explanation I’m expecting.


Explanations in history and science are very different.

sceince vs hisotriy

Similarly, close observation drawing differs depending on whether its a science or an art lesson.

science vs artthe knowledge vs skills debate is an argument about the extend to which skills are transferable from one context to another and not about whether or not these  ‘skills’ are important.

k vs s




[1] From The Unified Learning Model, Shell , D et al  chapter 4

What’s all the fuss about a knowledge-rich curriculum? part one

Mutual Misunderstandings- the hidden lives of tweeters.

I love Twitter, and I’ve learnt so much since I joined it a mere 4 year ago. Yet recently, I’m getting tired of having the same old arguments going round and round the same territory, with people seeing to talk past each other, using the same word to mean different things.  For example, take the word ‘engagement.’ To one person, this is obviously a great thing – who wouldn’t want their pupils absorbed in their learning? For this person, the opposite of engagement is disengagement, and surely nobody wants their pupils disengaged.  Yet for another person ‘engagement’ means something completely different. For them, it is shorthand for an approach to education that they reject; one that thinks the content of what we teach is inherently boring to many pupils, so therefore needs to be dressed up in ‘fun’, thereby tricking pupils into learning. For this person, anyone advocating ‘engagement’ has woefully low expectations of children and is short-changing them with fun ‘edutainment’ instead of substance. For such people, the opposite of ‘engagement’ is learning. So if these two people, with their different definitions of engagement have an exchange of views on Twitter, it will appear to each other that the person they are arguing with is advocating either disengagement or baby-sitting.

I had my own experience of this recently. I, in all innocence, used the word ‘delivery’ in the context of teaching. To my mind this is a perfectly harmless word. If pushed, I’d maybe link it to how Santa delivers eagerly awaited presents to excited children. (Yeah, all my lessons were that great…) But apparently ‘delivery’ is some sort of evil trigger word, with connotations of ramming pipes into the throats of geese and pumping them over full of grain in order to make fois gras.  It signalled my moral depravity. Yet I was just using it as a synonym for ‘teach.’

Each brings their own prior learning to the table. One person remembers their own terrible school experience of dull, dreary, soul crushing lessons that all but extinguished any desire to learn and is motivated by their resultant burning conviction to ensure their lessons breathe light, life and passionate interest into those who experience them.  The other cringes as they remember their earlier exhausting attempts to dupe pupils by disguising the learning with some complicated, ‘fun’ activity and subsequent relief when later on, they just started teaching directly and found that a much better way of arousing a passionate interest. No wonder they don’t agree. Both are fighting an enemy the other cannot see.[1]

This morning, I read this very interesting interview with Dylan Wiliam.  One of the bits that really got me thinking was this.

‘any teaching should start from what the learner already knows…teachers should ascertain this, and teach accordingly. The problem is that even with a new and unfamiliar topic, after 20 minutes teaching, students will have different understandings of the material, which the teacher needs to know about. What you call the curse of knowledge is part of that—we assume something is easier if we know it.’

Which resonated with something I’d read earlier this week by Harry Fletcher Webb about how when we teach adults, we often forget that they too, just like children, build on what they already know and sometimes form misunderstandings because connect the new stuff we are teaching to their prior knowledge in a faulty way. [2]

It seems rather pompous to say that when we tweet, we are seeking to ‘teach.’ Yet I certainly engage with Twitter in order to learn and indeed I have learnt an awful lot. And yes, sometimes I hope what I say will help other people learn. I am sure there are many reasons to go on twitter, to be entertained, for banter, for company, to show off, for that self-righteous thrill of point scoring, but also to be inspired, to learn things and to share what you have learnt with others, hoping that some may find it useful;  it’s that last reason that motivates me to write blogs.

As a teaching medium, Twitter has its drawbacks! A strict character limit, the torrent of ‘interruptions’ to one’s line of argument when all and sundry can comment, the conversation lurching off in bizarre directions, massive disputes about who actually, if anyone, is the teacher, who is worth listening too, the distraction of other threads, for you as well as anyone else…actually when I think about it, it’s amazing I’ve learnt anything from Twitter yet it has been incredibly powerful in my own learning.  Mainly because Twitter points me to blogs which have fewer of the shortcomings listed above and where I can learn from people I have chosen, by my act of clicking, to learn from. [3]Yet many of the people I engage with don’t have blogs and obviously not everybody who I interact with reads my blogs (the fools!)

All of which is a long prelude to what comes next. The more I argue over the same ground again and again, the more I am aware that I am being misunderstood. I am saying words which to me have a clear and obvious meaning yet they’re being taken to mean something quite different. I also know this works the other way around too and I completely misunderstand what other people are saying. For example, someone says ‘child-centred’ and, building on my prior experience, I imagine the crazy excesses of having to teach via an integrated day and how much more everybody learnt when I stopped doing that and actually taught children stuff. When they might mean something quite different. (Or they might not, that’s the problem, it’s hard to tell). It’s so easy when arguing with someone to imagine the worst possible version of what they are espousing, and the best possible version of what you are arguing for. If they do the same, that’s a recipe for more heat than light. The hidden lives of our prior experiences make mutual misunderstandings inevitable.  Human nature exacerbates the problem, with people falling into ‘in-crowds’ and ‘out-crowds’, retweeting and sub tweeting and eye rolling and argument by GIF. I believe some people even DM catty messages to each other about third parties.

However, today the better side of my nature is on the bridge and what follows is simply an attempt to genuinely help people understand what those of us who are advocating ‘traditional’ teaching mean. Or possible clear up what we don’t mean. Probably, the social media bubble being what it is, I am preaching to the choir but hey ho.

First of all, that word ‘traditional.’ The scope for misunderstanding this word, (and its rival ‘progressive’) is immense. There was a great blog this week about just this problem. If people had a bad experience of very formal education, the ‘traditional’ tag is like a red rag to a bull. But take heed, the word does not imply that everything back in the olden days was rosy and we should bring back the cane, sit four year olds in rows and bore children into a stupor. It’s used in contrast with the term ‘progressive.’  Progressive sounds so lovely, who doesn’t want to be progressive? But here, ‘progressive’ does not mean ‘the opposite of regressive’ but is rather a description of a philosophical tradition in which the writings of such people as Rousseau, John Dewey and Jean Piaget are foundational. For a fuller description, see Greg Ashman here.  Summarising self-proclaimed progressive Alfie Kohn, Greg Ashman describes progressive education as one where students help to direct the curriculum, students seek and find their own answers, a focus on intrinsic motivation that eschews coercion and the drawing of a distinction between knowledge and understanding in order to focus on the latter. Traditional education, by way of contrast believes that teachers are experts in their subject and therefore they should design the curriculum and teach it explicitly. Traditional teaching believes that there is a ‘tradition’ of knowledge that students are entitled to.[4]

The second misunderstanding is that when we speak of knowledge, we only mean acquiring facts.  That’s not the case at all. Knowledge can be divided into declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge. Declarative knowledge includes concepts and rules as well as facts and will allow us ‘to recognize things, make judgments, classify things, discriminate differences and identify similarities.’[5] Procedural knowledge is knowledge that produces action, that enables us to do stuff. It is goal directed, whereas declarative knowledge (the kind of knowledge that includes, but is not limited to facts) just sits there waiting to be of service. It doesn’t of itself result in any action.  Procedural knowledge actually enables us to do things. Most obviously, it involves motor behaviour; learning to play the guitar or catch a ball are both forms of procedural knowledge.  To throw a ball, you don’t need to also know the physics behind it, you don’t need factual knowledge of how it all works. You need to build motor memory and that is a form of knowledge learnt through paying attention and repeated practice. But procedural knowledge isn’t only about muscle movement, it also lies behind enabling us to use declarative knowledge.  Solving an equation or balancing a chemical reaction, both involve turning declarative understanding into procedural knowledge. There is so much more to knowledge than just facts (as useful as they are).

People sometimes refer to the ability to do such things as acquiring skills rather than procedural knowledge. The word ‘skills’ however, is particularly problematic as it is used to mean several different things. For example, it is used to describe dispositions such as resilience and behaviours such as collaboration, it is also used to describe things such as inference and problem solving, which traditionalists are more likely to see as different kinds of disciplinary knowledge[6], and then again it is used for procedural knowledge.

The third misunderstanding is to think that traditionalist teachers are only interested in knowledge rather than understanding. Again this is quite wrong. What traditionalist teachers assert is that it is impossible to understand something unless you know something about it. This is because understanding, properly understood, is simply having lots of well organised knowledge that is connected together. I wrote about this recently in my previous blog so I won’t repeat that again here.  Understanding is literally made out of knowledge. So it is possible to know something without understanding it but it is not possible to understand something without knowing it. This diagram by Efrat Furst explains it well.

understanding model efrat Furst

The fourth common misunderstanding is to think that therefore, traditionalists think that lessons should be formal lectures where the lecturer does 99% of the talking, the learners role in the process inherently passive. This is not the case. The kind of explicit instruction most traditionalists favour – and like anything it is a broad church, so there will be differences in emphasis – is highly interactive.  It will involve questioning not just of the few eager clever clogs but of everybody present, through strategies such as ‘cold calling’, using mini whiteboards, individual exercises interspersing the teacher explanation. It might involve discussing things in pairs or even doing a short bit of drama. In a maths lesson, it might well involve children using manipulatives. What is more, it does not preclude the use of other ways of sharing the information other than a teacher talking (though this will be the most common way). A video clip might be used if it is a more effective way of explaining something – for example, an animation of the heart beating might well be a better way of explaining the role of the heart and lungs in the circulatory system than just a verbal description. Who wouldn’t show the clip of Commander David Scott  dropping a feather and a hammer at the same time on the moon to show that without air resistance, objects fall at the same rate.

Traditionalist teachers also follow up the explicit teaching phase with ‘shed loads of practice’ – gloriously shortened to SLOP. If learning is to stick, long term, it needs to be practised over and over, to the point where it becomes automatic and can be recalled without conscious effort. Some of this practice might even involve tightly planned opportunities to ‘discover’ aspects of what is being taught, for example, variation theory can be used to devise the kind of deliberate practice that helps learners notice patterns, similarities and differences. However, there would always be some sort of teacher commentary at some point to draw attention to things that might not have been noticed.

The final misunderstanding I am going to cover is the erroneous belief that traditionalist teachers adhere to a crude ‘transmission’ model and don’t realise that learners build – or construct – their learning on what they already know. Of course traditionalist teachers do believe they have a tradition worth sharing (or transmitting, though the word lacks nuance).  Whereas while traditionalist teacher eschew constructivist teaching, they are well aware of constructivist learning theories. Learners build on what they already know and construct meaning out of the connections formed between their established and new learning. See the point about understanding above. Efrat Furst explains this in more detail here.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that traditionalist teachers are more concerned about prior learning than progressive teachers because of the pivotal role prior learning plays in whether we understand or misunderstand something. Misunderstanding occurs when we connect bits of knowledge together in the wrong way. For example, if we know that addition can be done in any order so 2+3=5 and 3+2=5, when we learn about subtraction, we think that this also can be done in any order so think that 5-2=3 and 2-5=3. We’ve made a false connection between our new knowledge and our existing knowledge.

This is why questioning and other forms of formative assessment are so important to try and ascertain that the right connections are being made and to address misconceptions as soon as possible, before they become too established.  It is also why traditionalist teachers use explicit teaching that breaks knowledge down into very small sub steps to minimise the risk that wrong connections will be made. Traditionalist teachers are really aware of the ‘curse of knowledge’, the difficulty ‘experts’ have in realising how complicated something really is and therefore overwhelming students working memories by trying to teach too much at once. Indeed, in what is probably the ‘purist’ form of traditionalist teaching, the Direct Instruction method designed by Engelmann, concepts are meticulously broken down into minute sub steps, carefully explained and regularly practised so that the new learning has the best possible opportunity to connect to prior knowledge in the right way.

Aren’t labels funny. My husband swears he is a social constructivist, yet he does all this stuff. Maybe when we label ourselves or others, that is more about the group of people we want to belong to (or not belong to), more about the kind of people we believe ourselves to be.

[1] I’m not saying that there are not also honest to goodness, downright disagreements where people understand perfectly well what the other is saying. Such disagreements are (I think) often disagreements about what each other values. Possibly.

[2] Well that’s not quite what Harry said, but it’s how I connected it to what I already knew!

[3] Though I also click on people I am pretty sure I will disagree with too. Sometimes even with an open(ish) mind!

[4] Thanks to Andrew Old for this way of explaining it

[5] From The Unified Learning Model, Shell , D et al  chapter 4

[6] With each discipline determining what is meant by the term, so terms mean different things in different subjects. ‘Explanation’ in history has a different meaning than ‘explanation; in science for example. Even something apparently straightforward like ‘observation’ means something different depending on whether you are doing something in an art lesson or a science lesson. What is worthy of observing will differ.

Mutual Misunderstandings- the hidden lives of tweeters.