Mapping curriculum terrain: The beaten track and beyond.

When school leaders and teachers start reviewing their curriculum, there are so many complex considerations.  What to teach and why?  It’s a huge question.

  • At the macro, big picture scale, there’s a need to consider overarching principles and values – because these ideas inform or dictate the decisions that are taken.  Which subjects to teach and with what weighting. What is mandatory and where the choices lie. How to link subjects together into a coherent whole – for what purpose.  In the landscape of learning – where should we go? Where should we spend our time?
  • Within subjects, what the fundamental knowledge is – what must be taught and experienced in order to develop a secure representative exploration of the domain; how knowledge in different forms should be sequenced to maximise the depth and breadth of understanding; what knowledge should be taught in order to match the values and aims of the school – and, implicitly or explicitly, what has to be left out, even if it remains out in the hinterland – there to be referenced or discovered later.
  • And then there is the wider consideration of how the curriculum is enacted; the way knowledge is explained, explored and communicated interacts with the knowledge itself; journey and destination are connected.

In thinking about these questions with various schools, travel/journey and map/terrain metaphors come up all the time.  Physical maps provide us with a good language. Looking at some real maps I had some thoughts about how they might represent some concepts about curriculum thinking.

screenshot 2019-01-12 at 10.25.59

The whole curriculum:  A world of different types of terrain or surface: cities, deserts, seas, mountains.  We can’t be in too many places at once – so where do we go? This depends on the value we place on the knowledge we gain from each terrain.

Knowledge:  Specific places on the map, connected to other places – each path itself a set of places that connect bigger places: big ideas linked via knowledge paths of various kinds.  Places only have meaning as locations if they connect to other places – the sum of many places makes sense as a wider area that we know; wider areas make sense in terms of the orientation relative to other wider areas.   Knowledge has different forms: there is knowing about a place: details you can write about; facts.  And, separately, there is the knowledge of being there – the experience of the place.  Both forms help to make links from one place and other and contribute to forming a rich knowledge about a wider set of places – like a city or mountain.

Subjects:  Types of terrain.  Each one is different in the way we define locations – the types of knowledge.  Cities are ordered; densely packed with definable knowledge points; structured; complex but with linear elements.  Snowy pisted mountains have places that are hard to reach, some definable pathways and very specific ways of getting from A to B;  deserts and seas are different  – requiring entirely different vehicles – but have in common a very open sense of what the routes might be between locations that are themselves harder to define.

Pedagogy and modes of thinking:   The mode of transport in each domain is dictated by the type of terrain – you can’t easily translate from one terrain to another and the capacity to move confidently around one doesn’t necessarily help to move around in another.  Importantly, you can’t meaningfully separate ‘travelling’ from ‘places’.  You can’t travel in a generic sense; you are always in one place or another.  The curriculum means we are always located in a particular knowledge base at any given moment, even if there are certain things in common: cities have things in common but each is a unique place.  Just like novels and poems or periods in history.   However, there is meaning in talking in general terms about how we navigate around each terrain; there is knowledge about the process of knowing:  metacognition.

Memory and schemata:  The more often you go somewhere, the more you get to know it; the more familiar you become with the routes; the details; the experience of being in the terrain.  Your schema is building and your capacity to remember later improves.  I’ve been to Budapest for a weekend, once: I have a vague notion of what it’s like from the little I saw, I know very few facts about the city and I’d be lost without a map. I could tick a box saying ‘I have been to Budapest’ – but I hardly know it at all.   But I know lots about New York because I’ve read about it and been there many times, exploring familiar places and new places each time.  I can find my way around without a map because I know how the transport system work, hundreds of reference points and how they inter-relate and what their wider significance is.

In the case of Budapest, the map is a map of things I don’t yet know, set out by experts who do; people who could guide me, help me get my bearings and give me a sense of what matters – the locations that might provide a good foundation for ‘knowing Budapest’.  In the case of New York, a map is a map of things I do largely know but also of the places I could still explore further.  I know enough about it to evaluate the significance and value of different areas and decide my own paths from A to B as I gather more knowledge. However I still value guidance from people even more expert than me about some of the more granular elements of the map – the nooks and corners and new developments.  My prior knowledge about NYC allows me to assimilate  many more details into my schema than I can about Budapest where my schema is very limited.

Fluency and Expertise  Exploring a terrain like a snowy mountain requires specialist knowledge about the process of navigation, as well as of the places.  At first, it is difficult to get around because the mechanics of linking the knowledge need to be learned – skiing! There are definite paths to follow for most people – those mapped out by experts; those that provide good access to the terrain.  The beaten track is there for a reason – it takes people where they want to go.  With practice, it becomes easier to move from A to B and it’s possible to start using the skill of moving around to go wherever you want.  This is like reading.  As the knowledge of doing it becomes fluent, the possibilities for where it can take you open up. But, at the same time, being more bold with where you go, in turn helps develop the knowledge of how you move around.  You don’t get better at skiing by sticking to green runs.  They’re thrilling at first but soon become too easy and we need more challenging paths to follow – opening up wider vistas.

And then, there’s going off-piste.  Once we’ve mastered the main tracks on the piste-map – we’re ready to head off-piste, to find our own path.  Premature forays into the unknown can be confusing – the off-piste only really makes sense once you really know the on-piste terrain incredibly well.

Hinterland:  Finally, in all terrain, there are places we plan to go to and places that we don’t have time to reach.  We make a selection from the maps that gives us the best chance of knowing as much as possible about where we’ve been and how it connects to where we’v’e been.   But we also know that there is the land beyond – at edge of the horizon but also in the nooks and corners of the terrain we know.  It’s always there – we look at it – we see it’s there; we acknowledge it – maybe even making the odd foray into it but, given time constraints, we’re content that the selection we made is a sensible and the hinterland offers possibilities for another time.   Better to know fewer areas really well than try to have a thin knowledge and experience of more.

There’s a risk of stretching any metaphor too far…

It’s working for me! I’m just getting started.  How about you?



  1. I found your analogy with geographical terrain useful and enlightening for mapping a curriculum. It’s a way of looking through fresh eyes at a challenge of great significance, with our need to anticipate the development of future curricular constantly calling for our attention.

    Certainly, “When school leaders and teachers start reviewing their curriculum, there are so many complex considerations.” But, just as it is a priority that schools require clarity in this area, needing “to consider overarching principles and values”, so too do policy makers need to begin here. The muddle that is education governance is perpetuated because there is no consensus about the values and principles underpinning our commitment to a national view of the service. With future direction currently firmly in the hands of the political classes, it is up to school leaders to work together, especially over what the curriculum may offer young people.

    As an aside, in 2013, in ‘An Aims Based Curriculum: the significance of human flourishing for schools’, co-authors, Michael Reiss and John White, put forward the idea that we begin at a national level to explore the question, what are schools for? I feel this corresponds with your thoughts about principles and values. The fact that we have never meaningfully taken this route as a society has blighted education reform. In the absence of such a debate and with the proliferation of mandated schemes and initiatives, in the culture of oppressive accountability that has developed, school leaders find themselves still in need of advice. Your mapping metaphor offers fresh insight.

    The beauty of the metaphor employed here is the way it relates to the learner as richly and relevantly as it does to that which is to be learned. Just as the curriculum informs us” there are places we plan to go to and places that we don’t have time to reach.” so for the learner, there will be ‘places’ they may never be able to attain. That is not a deficit model of their learning if we help them invest in the idea that the landscape is so expansive that none of us could possibly know it intimately, even across a lifetime. The sense of place is very personal and always open to further expansion. Learners will need help to select from the maps that gives them the best chance of knowing as much as possible about where they’ve been and how it connects to where they’ve been.

    This is a fertile metaphor, worth our time to explore.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dear Tom

    I continue to get so much from your blogs. They really have helped inform so much of my practice as an Assistant Principal in Melbourne. I wondered what your thoughts are about making the transition from the government system to the private system. I am being encouraged to apply for a Principal position at a private school but I have been in the government sector for 20 years and I love it. I know you have experienced both. I am not even sure I am ready for principalship but then again I don’t think you ever feel ready.

    I understand if you are not able to reply to this amongst the many emails you have receive. Again I thank you for the wisdom you impart through blog. So great!


    Liked by 1 person

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