Signposting the hinterland: practical ways to enrich your core curriculum.

Working with several schools on curriculum development over the last couple of years, a regular challenge has been to resolve the tensions that arise from having finite time and the inherent need to make a selection of  material to teach from all the possibilities that swirl around.  What to cover? What to leave out?  How much detail to go into? What level of contextual background to include?

Christine Counsell describes how she found the concepts of core and hinterland extremely useful in this area in her superb blog from 2018.  She suggests that the hinterland is as important as the core, especially if we view it as providing essential context to support the overall narrative of our core curriculum, rather than additional clutter.   It’s a powerful set of ideas to frame the choices we have to make in curriculum design.  I see hinterland as occupying two dimensions beyond the core:

  • increasing depth: niche details about a particular area of study that deepen and enrich the core.
  • increasing breath: wider surveys across the domain of any curriculum area that help to locate any specific core element within a wider frame.

How do we do deal with these aspects in practice?  Here are some ideas:

Big picture overviews

I often feel that it is helpful to provide orientating frameworks for all aspects of the curriculum where you present information that says ‘here is the a whole set of knowledge and ideas we might explore… we are going to focus here and here but the rest is out there to think about too.’  This might be:

  • a widescale timeline orientation in history that helps to locate the period we’re about to study

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  • a broad overview of a whole range of mega-cities to establish broad themes before we zoom in on our Lagos case study
  • an overview of the works of Shakespeare before we begin to read Romeo and Juliet with a broader understanding of its significance – and the same for Dickens.  Dickens wrote all of these books….. but we’ve chosen A Christmas Carol because…
  • a timeline of musical genres through samples from Purcell to Handel, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Fitzgerald, Franklin, McCartney, Marley and Bjork – something we reference repeatedly as we explore our chosen composers in more depth

Stories and case-studies.

This is where we go deeper, weaving stories and characters around the concepts we’re dealing with.  This can be thrown in spontaneously as often as possible alongside the the stories and case-studies that are planned explicitly.  Here’s a flavour:

  • The story of Democritus playing with sand and water and formulating the concept of ‘atoma’ – signposting the overlap between philosophy and science in the develop of ideas about matter.
  • The story of Robert Evans, amateur astronomer, who has the record of discovering 42 supernovae visually – a story told brilliantly in Bill Bryson’s A Brief History of Almost Everything.  Evans’ method links to the nature of supernovae as an exploding star- they appear where previously they could not be seen.  His story links the wonder of our existence to the wonders of the universe.
  • The story of the Wallace Line discovered by Sir Alfred Wallace in 1859, separating two zones of flora and fauna – linking to ideas about evolution in isolated environments  and the concept of ‘biogeographical boundaries’,  feeding into the fascinating story of Darwin and Wallace’s respective contributions to our understanding of natural selection.
  • The story of the last Dodo and how its stuffed remains were destroyed in a fire in an Oxford museum in 1755, signposting the issues around extinction and changing attitudes to conservation.

Sometimes these can be anecdotes, told with enthusiasm and the art of a story-teller. Sometimes they can emerge from reading a planned text – where the core conceptual ideas we’re focused on emerge from the hinterland of the story being told.

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Open tasks that sample the hinterland

Notwithstanding Christine Counsell’s point about ‘clutter’, which is a legitimate risk,  I’m a big fan of using occasional home-learning tasks to broaden or deepen the scope of our core delivery, signposting the hinterland as we go whilst giving students some responsibility. This involves setting up structured research tasks that send students off into the subject’s hinterland to report back to the class, bringing a wide range of examples and reference material into play, to draw on as appropriate in weaving our curriculum narratives.   This gives them a degree of choice – which clearly needs guidance – and invites them to explore the curriculum territory for themselves in a productive manner.  I’ve seen absolutely superb examples of this over the years:

  • Exotic plants or animals, researched and studied, each student reporting on the evolved features adapted for various purposes through selection – often introducing surprising specimens you’d never heard of yourself.
  • Famous or lesser known scientists (or mathematicians, poets, composers, explorers, inventors, artists )- with each student presenting information about who they were and what their contribution to the field has been.  You have a classroom full of hinterland samples, filtered and directed as appropriate, that form the backdrop for your planned core.
  • The ‘meanwhile elsewhere’ idea from history where students select a place in the world and report back on what was happening at the same time as the period being studied in your core unit on England or Europe.  What was going on in France, China or India during the Civil War? Or 1066?  There’s an excellent website dedicated to this idea with lots of examples and downloadable structured guidance.

If report-backs are given structure and modelled with previous examples of excellent responses, the wealth of hinterland exploration that results can be superb.  It’s a gift for a homework activity a couple of times a year and it’s rich material for your overall curriculum if you design it to be so.  My son once did a fabulous study of his chosen river – The Nile. It taught him a great deal as he tracked its progress from the source to the sea as was required by the structure of his task.   His class must have been rich in great river stories that year.


Responding to events and questions

At all times, teachers have the opportunity – and something of a duty I’d say – to bring current events into the classroom or to respond to questions from students when gaps in knowledge emerge.  I explored this in a post about Vietnam and Muhammad Ali.  Sometimes you just have to down tools, abandon the plan and spend time talking about the issues that come up.  Who was Muhammed Ali?  Well, let me tell you?  What’s this about ‘the Iron Lady’? Let me explain.  What is fire? Ok – it’s a bit off-topic but it’s a great question that we can deal with.  Venus is transitioning the sun?  Oh boy, too exciting to pass this up, let’s spend time talking about what we’re seeing and what the scales involved are.   So, your Dad is always going on about Nelson Mandela and you don’t know why? Let’s discuss what happened during Apartheid in South Africa to give you some background.

This isn’t some burdensome scattergun that holds you up.  It’s part of the matrix – the weave, the backdrop to a great curriculum adding up to more than the sum of its disparate parts. Who knows what connections can be made down the line from these forays off the beaten track?  We can’t be sure – but we can be confident that if we never venture out, the world we create will be a lot less interesting, a lot more confined and make a whole lot less sense.

Overall ‘hinterland’ can feel rather abstract but, if you blend all these elements together, it is possible to make it a tangible, real element of what your curriculum becomes.




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