What’s the Big Idea?

Recently I’ve been doing a lot of reading and thinking about curriculum design – it is one of the topics du jour after all. Knowledge is ‘in’, constructivism is ‘out’ and higher order thinking skills are weeping quietly in the corner. Knowledge organisers, multiple-choice quizzes and spaced retrieval practice clock-shaped templates are being created and shared a go-go (“because Rosenshine”).

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a believer. But I can’t stop the niggling fear that the current buzz around cognitive science is dangerously reminiscent of assessment for learning – probably the most influential and misappropriated idea in the last 20 years of education. One of the originators of AfL, (the least offensive reduction of the concept was its cute acronym) Dylan Wiliam, borrows the phrase ‘lethal mutation’ to describe how the essential tenets of a principle or theory can become so distorted through reductionism and misapplication they all but kill the potential for impact. I once received feedback from a lesson observation with a headteacher who was going through ‘the checklist’ and said, “I thought you weren’t going to do any AFL but then I saw you used the lolly sticks so I was able to give you the tick for that.” I’m hopeful that as we shed the straight jackets of ‘two stars and a wish’, traffic lights and individualised target cards – whipping posts made all the more damaging by their pale imitations of the original research findings – we don’t throw the taxonomy out with the hierarchy.

For this is where a lot of the current enamour with knowledge seems to be stemming from. Bloom got it wrong! Tear down the pyramid! There is certainly compelling research entering the education world from cognitive science to convince us to stop trying to teach ‘thinking skills’ – as though ‘analysing’ was something you could learn to do just as you learn to write. We are beginning to share an understanding that the verbs from the higher layers of Bloom’s taxonomy are not ‘transferable skills’ and can only be utilised as metacognitive strategies within the rules of a domain – in other words, to think critically you have to know something to think critically about. There isn’t time or space here to delve into the influential work done by Daisy Christodoulou and others dispelling many more of the education myths that are thankfully beginning to look a little less entrenched in the landscapes of our pedagogies – suffice to say I’m a paid-up subscriber of the knowledge-rich movement. The cause of my concern lies in observing an increasing trend in using knowledge as curriculum.

When designing a curriculum, I think it’s essential to start with the purpose. This is the fun part – this is where you attempt to pull together the personal philosophies of all stakeholders. I suspect there’s more common ground to be found here than not. Can we agree that we hope to develop young people who are equipped and confident to interact successfully in the world?

Next, I believe we need to identify the powerful knowledge we think will best support critical thinking in each discipline and then teach both that knowledge (using evidence-informed practice – enter Rosenshine et al.) and the metacognitive strategies needed to identify the deep structures of problems related to each discipline.

What does this look like in the classroom? Firstly, teachers need to be secure in their understanding of the unique characteristics of each discipline. What makes history different from science? Geography can neatly be taught with English as ‘topic’ – this is great for timetabling but why might this be doing learners a disservice? This leads on to identifying the big ideas of each discipline, the ‘grand schema’ and all the interconnected schema that hang from it.

We know a schema develops as understanding grows – it can’t be taught – so now we need to agree on the knowledge content and the sequencing that we believe will work best towards building those schema for our pupils. This is your judgement call. The national curriculum sets out the minimum entitlement for state school pupils and offers a suggested framework – but it’s in no way the only way. For every choice, ask yourself: why this knowledge; why now?

Prioritise coherent narratives along subject discipline lines. I’m indebted to Clare Sealy’s blog posts on 3D curriculum planning, types of knowledge and Neil Almond’s blog on a boxset approach to curriculum design which have help tremendously to clarify and refine my thinking here. Differentiate between declarative and procedural knowledge and look at the progression of that procedural knowledge. Planning progression into the curriculum makes tracking pupils’ progress organic and authentic: they’re on track (meeting the demands of the curriculum) or they’re not on track. No more ticking boxes for each objective, plotting ‘flight paths’ and pretending we’re measuring progress – the ‘next step’ is the next lesson.

Pedagogy. What is your collective understanding of the best approach to teaching this careful curation of powerful knowledge? Not everyone is ready to plunge into direct instruction, however a skilful sharing of Roseshine’s Principles of Effective Instruction will likely find common ground with even the most ‘prog’ amongst you. Knowledge organisers, multiple choice quizzes, retrieval practice tasks are all promising tools in the master’s hands but they are not the goal in themselves. Seeing colleagues sharing their attainment/progress assessment tasks entailing completing a partly filled KO at the start of a new topic and then again at the end may be classifiable as a measure of learning – if we are to be content with recall of information as the marker of a good education. I think our children deserve more.

I would suggest the addition of layers of enquiry strategically placed throughout your curriculum. I’m using ‘enquiry’ here to mean ‘questions’ rather than the pedagogy of inquiry-based learning. In our context, for example, instead of simply structuring the science curriculum into the three disciplines, we identified an overarching question that we felt captured something of the essence of each one. For biology we chose: ‘Will there always be life on Earth?’ Concurrently we broke down the national curriculum topics in each key stage and looked for links where sub-threads could be drawn together and identified three sub-domains running through the specified biology content which we are calling: ‘What is life?’ (covering classification in Y1, Y4 and Y6), ‘How do living things work?’ (covering all life systems except reproduction – all YGs) and ‘How do living things survive?’ (covering habitats and food chains; threats to life; life cycles; reproduction and evolution – all YGs). Each year group has agreed-upon fertile questions that drive the learning in each area. The learning objectives then very naturally transformed into small steps to be explored as children work towards answering the big question. We repeated this structure across the whole science curriculum. But we didn’t stop there.

We believe that by tracing vertical disciplinary narratives throughout our science curriculum, sharing the ‘why’ with staff, children will grow secure and accurate schema that link to the big ideas of science. But we need to hold our approach up to scrutiny. Dylan Wiliam said ‘everything works somewhere’ and John Hattie went even further suggesting ‘everything works’. Change has got to be worth the struggle. How will we know if our children are getting anywhere near that goal of ‘equipped and confident to interact successfully in the world’? That mission statement has to be more than words. This is where I shyly slide my laminated poster of Bloom’s taxonomy back across the table.

Let’s punctuate our children’s learning journey with well-crafted opportunities for critical thinking, now that we have a deeper understanding of what that actually means. The EEF report into metacognition and self-regulation was extremely positive about the gains available to children who have been explicitly taught to think about their learning. Again, this has to be done with deep understanding of the cognitive psychology behind it. Transferring knowledge to solve problems is extremely challenging. There’s a reason those parts of Blooms taxonomy are represented so small!

An example that we could consider building into our curriculum might be asking Year 5 children to consider the problem ‘Will the water in our taps run out?’ Modelling the thinking process is key. I know that the children can draw on their knowledge of groundwater from Y3 rocks, the water cycle from Y4 states of matter, water management systems from Y4 and Y5 geography and separating materials from Y5 materials – but do they know that that is what the deep structure of this question is asking them to do? Do they have a model to generate ideas and pull them together into common areas? And do they know how to present their response? Which genre model learned in English will support this task? Have they had the ‘writer’s voice’ modelled sufficiently to set the right tone?

Problems that share the same deep structure (visible to the expert teacher) but different surface structures (contexts) have been shown to pose high levels of cognitive challenge to learners even within a single domain. As well as teaching knowledge, we must plan how to teach students to recognise the deep structure of problems, as it is only then that they will be in a position to start putting all that glorious knowledge to any kind of meaningful use.

Of course, the sea this boat floats on is literacy (no pun intended!)…but that’s another blog for another day.

Published by teachertaylors

Primary teacher in an international British curriculum school.

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