Designing Curriculum: Values, quality, preferences – and sofa theory.

Sofa Theory: 

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Ever bought a sofa? It can be a complicated process.  It might be possible to write down a list of qualities you would like: comfortable, contemporary-looking, ‘well designed’, sturdy, ‘high quality’ material, a colour coordinating with the living room, ‘stylish’, ‘good value’.  Of course this all presumes that the basic criterion to ‘be a sofa’ will be met.

The problem is that lots of potential sofas would fit the idealised description and, in any case, this ‘intent statement’ for your sofa is meaningless until you can find a real actual sofa that meets the criteria.  In truth, it’s often much more productive to shop around and see what is out there.  There are more sofas in the world than I can imagine or that I’ve ever seen.  My own ‘blank sheet’ design capability for sofas is poor – but I know what I like when I see it.  If you give me a selection of sofas to choose from, I find that I have some pretty strong preferences; some I rule out immediately and others I’d want to test.  You need to sit in the sofa to know some of its qualities and then you begin to weigh up competing choices.  Perhaps the more stylish-looking sofa is actually far less comfy than the more functional design.  Perhaps the price-to-quality ratio is the deciding factor. Perhaps the modern office-chic look I prefer in the showroom is not really appropriate in the context of the specific sitting room where it will be sat on.

Ultimately I need to decide which combination of factors matters to me the most  – because it seems I can’t have it all.  You only get to buy the one sofa.  And, to make things more complicated – there’s two of us making this choice and we need to agree!

Once I – sorry ,we – have made our choice, we can tell our story; we know the thought process; we can articulate a rationale – but the choosing came first.

I think this is how curriculum design often works in practice – and no bad thing.  I hope the analogy is clear.  How do we know for sure which elements of the big knowledge domain are those we love; what we really value, what is truly great, what might work best in our school, what the possibilities are – until we’ve seen what’s out there?  I would argue that a blank sheet of paper is not the place to start.  You start with what you have and then compare it to what other schools and schemes have to offer.  This is where your values and preferences find form – away from the waffly vision-speak of your values statement and rooted in the detail of specifics.   You can write your intent statement (if you really need one) later… but, if you ask me, that is really not the place to begin.

Let’s see what this means in practice.  I’ve got examples of real curriculum choices made in primary foundation topics, in KS3 History and KS3 English to compare.

Let’s go browsing!

First – a huge caveat.  A curriculum is not a sofa. It’s WAY more complicated – perhaps a better analogy would be a house of furniture, fixture and fittings. In these examples I’m sharing screenshot images of much bigger documents – with links to sites where you can explore the detail.  Please don’t judge the snapshots alone; look at the detail. Take your time.  The snapshots just illustrate the range of approaches, signposting what might lie beneath.  Crucially, many aspects of a whole curriculum might not appear on one image but might be described fully elsewhere – so please don’t jump to too many conclusions and take this in the spirit it’s intended.

Primary Curriculum

Cornerstones  A popular primary topic scheme.  Lots of primary schools use topics to weave foundation subjects together – instead of teaching discrete subjects.  Topics can be based on all manner of themes. Sometimes topics link just a couple of subjects; sometimes all subjects spin off a central topic spine.   Which topics? Which sequence? How do they maintain subject coherence over a key stage?  These.  are all big questions. Cornerstones provides a menu of choices with high quality booklets and resources to support them – but schools can choose their own selection.  Here’s what one school has chosen:

Cornerstones.pngSt Matthias, Clare Sealy. 

At Clare’s school, they don’t do topics. They teach through subjects in blocks of varying lengths,  making links here and there as they feel appropriate.  Their website contains an impressive, full week-by-week curriculum plan. It shows how the reading and the foundation topics reinforce each other.  The science topics follow a clear spiral.  You can also see how one-off events puncture the flow from time to time – curriculum is a rich tapestry.

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East Whitby: Simon Smith:

Simon is well known for his extraordinary passion and knowledge of children’s literature – especially picture books.  It’s clear that this is a strong feature of his school’s curriculum, possibly uniquely so given Simon’s unique and awe-inspiring knowledge.  East Whitby also has a project-based learning approach as an element in the curriculum.  On their one-page summary you can see that projects are nearly all framed as questions:  What was life like in WWII?  What are the wonders of the world? Could we stay on Mars? How have diseases changed the world?   They sound so appealing!  Each project has an ‘end point’ that gives a feel of the type of learning process that might be involved:  Setting up a veg garden; publishing an international cookery book;  Day of the Dead fiesta; presentation to SLT about access to free clean water to reduce plastic waste.

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Reach Feltham; Jon Hutchinson

The Reach Curriculum is a remarkable piece of work, following an explicit ‘knowledge-rich’ philosophy that runs from Reception to Year 13 in the MAT, supported by very detailed booklets and teaching materials.

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Samples are available on the website linked below for an outward-facing KS2 initiative called ReachOut.  The current focus is on History and Geography. The overview shows coherent planning across both subjects from Y3 to Year 6 and the booklets are astonishing in their scope and detail with built-in reading, questions and tasks.

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KS3 History

In response to my last post Curriculum Review at KS3: Some common issues., Hugh Richards  (@MisterHistry) offered some further questions and then, along with some fellow History tweeters, offered his model.  Here they are – in one-page summary form.  No two the same, each reflecting some very specific choices and preferences but with some common goals in terms of balancing breadth and depth, a strong focus on British history and adding some niche individuality.  Also, the common approach of communicating the curriculum through the enquiry questions come through strongly.  The variations illustrate some of the scope of the choices history teachers need to engage with.  Daunting perhaps – but also pretty exciting.

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Hand-written due an absence of a computer.  A thing of beauty!

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KS3 English

South London Secondary:  Draft.

This is a work in progress, so there’s no further link.  But, having worked with the HoD in question, I can vouch for the earnest exploration of competing priorities and perspectives, working hard to provide a curriculum that engages and challenges the students in that very specific context.  There’s a blend of traditional canonical texts with more modern examples, lots of language development woven in – not all shown here – and a unit focused on speech-making.  I always feel this model illustrates how each part needs to be evaluated in the context of the whole.

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Turton School:  

Turton has been working on their Trivium-inspired curriculum for four years. Read headteacher Sam Gorse’s blog about it here:

They’ve just published a website where all the curriculum narratives have been linked together – it’s an exceptional piece of work.

In that context, the English curriculum plays a part in a bigger whole. This image captures the essence of text selection but there is more besides. It takes a deliberately chronological approach across KS3, mixing whole texts and extracts. Ambitious and inspiring in equal measure I would say.

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English and Media Centre. 

Again, following a challenge on twitter, Richard Long pointed me to his blog about his school’s investment in the English and Media Centre curriculum;

This led me to the impressive EMC materials. Feast your eyes on this:

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  1. Great blog, Tom. So important to make well-informed decisions about curricula, as every school’s needs are different. Please see Mel Moore’s blog in response, which gives up-to-date information about the Cornerstones Curriculum and the new primary curriculum management tool. Be really good to know what you think.


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