Curriculum | A note on curriculum choices

This is one of a series of forgotten, half finished blogs that have sat in draft for a while, rather neglected. Hopefully, some of them will prove useful as I tackle them one by one. I usually start (and never get around to finishing) a blog when several teachers get in touch to ask a similar question, and this was one of those blogs.

Teachers often get in touch to discuss curriculum. Sometimes, subject leaders will share maps where they want to remove a component of the curriculum, but are not as sure about what they want to replace it with. For them, that particular component has been deemed as useful; it jars, or doesn’t seem to serve a purpose to the same extent that the remainder of the curriculum might do so. To take English as an example, it might be a book they no longer wish teachers to teach, or a unit that feels outdated. They want to start again. They have some ideas in mind, but have yet to make a final decision.

Often, these decisions are made over summer, when we have pause to look over the last year and what was chosen to teach, or with fresh, well-intended, September eyes, ones that poke holes in what came before because it feels like a fitting time to want it To Be Better. As a result, the pace with which we make decisions around curricular choices can sometimes perpetuate a false state of urgency, and so such decisions are often made in isolation by the subject lead. Schools are time-poor environments, and an inevitable outcome of this decision speed in schools is that such decisions might be made quickly because well, they need to be made before the holiday/half term/next unit to teach. The decision is then maybe more likely to be informed by a partial view of where that particular book, poetry collection, written form has been perceived as no longer fit for purpose, particularly in regards to the bigger picture of the subject level curriculum offer overall. Education can sometimes appear as a profession with an absence of milestones- as an antidote to this, we like clean, quick decisions that provide the false sense of resolution to a problem.

When I refer to the bigger picture, I’m not referring to the curriculum map, sitting in a folder, on a wall or gathering virtual dust on a shared drive somewhere, but the bigger picture of those who contribute to the curriculum within a school. When choices are made around curriculum, it seems unfortunate that this is not a collective endeavour: that those who taught what are about to remove are provided with the time and space to explain what jarred; why it wasn’t a fit; what didn’t quite meet the need of the curriculum offer as a whole. Perhaps teachers of later content will be able to specify what feels lacking once they reach that point in the student journey; particular concepts or knowledge that feel either untouched or tentatively handled, that students were not as prepared as we might hope to tackle such complexities.

Maybe a conversation might take place around articulating the need itself: why is this point feel less useful? When it was originally implemented, did it do what it would set out to achieve? Where did we think more meaningful connections were made, and why was this not fulfilled? At times, it may be that in our rush to eradicate and start anew, it might be more effective- messier, but more suitable- to interrogate what is already there to make it better. Pulling out one Shakespeare text for another might feel clean and crisp, but in doing so, are we disregarding our well-meant intentions that originally put it in front of students to begin with? In the same breath, if the hope is that our curriculum should demonstrate diversity of voice, be that race, gender, context, locality, authenticity to discipline, applicability to the world outside of the building, it is neater and tidier for us to put in something else, as opposed to a consideration that diversity of voice always existed and Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley, Blake, Dickens simply wrote alongside those voices, and we can make them a little louder than they may have once been.

To further consider these contemplations collectively as a department, it might be that the need hoped to be addressed is identified first of all. Whether our curriculum fails to deliver in respect to drawing through conceptual understanding over time, that students fail to experience particular form, even our own boredom as teachers- and this happens more often than we may want to admit. Whilst wanting to establish that curriculum is done can be danger of thought, our temptation to change before seeing the outcome of previously work is equally precarious when making such choices. More on evaluation in a moment.

So, a choice is made collaboratively. That this will be swapped out. It has been taught for a sustained period of time, and we can confidently say that it did not achieve what we hoped it would do. It was too much for Year 8- they needed foundational thinking around gender first of all. It was too simplistic for Year 9, when they needed to consider morality as more than just behaviour and consequence. It lacked connection- not a single teacher can remember referring to it in future study, when they draw back to the richness of specific texts or speakers and make explicit that yes, we have see this character before- just within a different name. Yes, we have seen this concept before, but this writer has manipulated it to tell a new narrative. What next?

Then together, we make choices for what would fulfil the need. Not what works for another school, in another setting, but what will work for us, and the students and community that we chose that text for, but it didn’t quite work. And when they are executed with care, the conversations that then ensue not only develop our curriculum, but us as professionals, and the knowledge teachers carry into the classroom. It is ikely to be highly debateable as to what might be more appropriate, more challenging, more interwoven or more lavish of knowledge than it’s predecessor. Perhaps teachers discuss our own degree specialisms, drawing back to university dissertations, or a book they read last year, or a poem that might bring this idea to life, or an article last week that contextualised the realistic nature of such a theme. Through this discourse, it allows us all to consider the rationale behind removing something and putting another in its place, and how it will serve us better as teachers as they articulate subject to students.

Now there is an intention, then is the time to think over what is needed to implement to make it a modification. Do all teachers know this aspect of the subject specialism well? Are we well versed to teach mythology, childhood literature, linguistics, the Gothic, a text based in 1944 Germany- and if not, what expertise exist within the team to support this or develop materials? If not, where might we reach to for support to ensure we are prepared? Such knowledge gaps are inevitable, a natural consequence of the variance of degree courses, but it is the recognition of what is an expected barrier that enables us to ensure that it doesn’t become the reason we decide what to teach.

Finally, it is useful to consider how this process might be evaluated once implemented, and planning what successful execution looks like for us to ascertain to what extent it is effective. Too soon, first time around, and there is a danger of ripping out and replacing with more of the same, over and over again. To follow leading principles of evaluation, perhaps it would be most suitable to have conversations around how connected this replacement feels, how representative, how fitting for the need that we originally identified- even how maybe it doesn’t meet that need, but provides other aspects, corners of the curriculum that are of equal value, and were not immediately apparent at the point of planning. Then later, it is returned to, once other components are being taught, and teachers can look back with students to make connections and deliberate over just how strong those connections are (more on this here).

Whilst reviewing the choices that others have made around curriculum progression can be a fascinating pursuit, there is sometimes a risk of being distracted by the what, that planning and implementing meaningful choices at a local level can become heavily overlooked, when this is a core component of developing curricular knowledge for every member of a department. These choices act as a consequence of invested, collective debates that drive us all forwards as professionals.

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