From time to time you come across somebody saying Curriculum trumps Pedagogy – or is it the other way around? I’ve heard both. Usually the speaker is pretty confident in their assertion. I’ve heard people more or less protest that teaching isn’t ‘just about Rosenshine’ and, of course that can’t possibly be true. ‘Rosenshine’ is really just a shorthand for saying ‘use sensible, effective instructional techniques’ – popularised because he captured it neatly. But, it’s trivially obvious that you don’t just ‘instruct’. You always instruct something. There is no ‘Rosenshine’ without curriculum. Odd that it even needs saying but somehow it does.
The challenge arises because there is a tension between the genericism embedded into any discourse that is aimed at teachers across disciplines – and the need for detailed thinking within disciplines. This blog post is just one drop in the vast ocean of generic discourse about teaching. It wouldn’t be remotely meaningful to write stuff like this if there were no common ideas between subjects. But it has limits – because ultimately you have teach stuff; and the content of what you actually teach is what matters. Any thing generic must be translated into something very specific in the end.
At the same time, you can’t just talk about what you’d like to teach… you have to talk about what students will ultimately learn. Their curriculum is what they experience from their corner of the classroom, linked to what they have already experienced inside and outside it. The way in which a teacher’s ideas about curriculum translate into each student’s experienced curriculum requires us to consider the mechanisms; the pedagogy.
The question isn’t really what trumps what; it’s how we divide our time and energy thinking and talking about the specifics of a subject curriculum and thinking and talking about applying instructional techniques – or the wider idea of pedagogy – in order to maximise the quality of each student’s experienced, learned curriculum.
The Sandcastle Analogy.
Imagine we want to teach children to build sandcastles. There’s a very wide range of possible outcomes. What do we have in mind? What’s the purpose, the value, the role this plays in a wider view of what they need to know and experience? What type of castle do we have in mind? What level of sophistication and difficulty?
We need to devote some time to considering the nature of the castles we want to build. Do we have a shared understanding of ‘castle’ and the way this might translate into sand? At the same time, there are building methods and processes necessary to construct a castle; a sequence of steps is needed, some of which need some practice to gain the confidence and competence needed for the castles we’re building.
If we pitch low and our ‘target castles’ are a bit crap, or widely over ambitious given the time available, then we’re unlikely to get a good result. Crap in = crap out! So we absolutely do need to spend time discussing what our ‘target castles’ will be. We need a sound curriculum plan. But, similarly, there will be a bottleneck in the quality of the instruction: the process of building the castle in steps, the way we engage every one of our class of castle builders in making sense in their heads of what we have in our heads, the way we construct practice and feedback so they are able to improve their building skills, their knowledge of the details, their tacit knowledge of how sand behaves in real life compared to the demo version – etc etc etc.
We’re either saying sandcastle curriculum and pedagogy go hand-in-hand or we’re broadening our definitions of the terms so the overlap is significant.
In different scenarios the time allocation will be different. In some, no question, the curriculum plan needs more thought. More depth, more fine detail, more ambition, more attention to prior knowledge. In others, it will be attending to the instructional bottleneck – ie no matter how good the curriculum plan is, it just won’t get translated into the students’ experience.
In real world scenarios, I’ve encountered both. Where students are not learning as much as they could or standards are low, the curriculum planning could well be the main priority. In others, I can see that the curriculum plan is sound enough – it’s just that not every student is experiencing it, even if some are. Here the challenge is pedagogical. Which do I see more of? It’s hard to say… but I certainly have no sense of anything trumping anything else as a general rule.
There is another way to think of it though. In some ways, anything you can describe as ‘pedagogy’ has curriculum roots. In that sense pedagogy is really ‘applied curriculum’ – it’s not possible to separate it. Here’s an exploration via Rosenshine:
Rosenshine and Curriculum
Sequencing concepts and modelling: Essentially this is all curriculum planning. How we break ideas down into small steps is a core element of curriculum design. What we want students to know and have experienced in the end – together with what they already know – will shape our sense of the steps needed: how big they are, what sequence they go in and so on.
The idea of models and scaffolds is universal but the detail is largely curriculum specific; general ideas only find form in a curriculum area. Modelling in art, maths, history, French, English, science, all need designing as part of curriculum-focused process. What visual or conceptual models are useful? How can exemplars provide models? The same is true of scaffolding. It holds as a general concept -but only has real meaning in a subject specific context. Some general ideas might apply to scaffolds for analytical writing across subjects but what does it look like in detail in history or maths?
Questioning: The ideas about questioning are highly valid in generic terms because the mechanics of running a room with everyone engaged and contributing are general. Asking ‘what have you understood?’ or cold calling are general strategies.
But, of course, the actual questions you ask are nearly entirely curriculum specific. What makes a good maths question, a history question or a Spanish question? What is a good probing or process question in each subject? This is curriculum thinking.
Practice: Practice is a universal concept as is securing a high success rate. However, the nature of the practice tasks is entirely subject specific. What can we do to practise in English, maths, science or DT?
How can students practise independently in these areas? The general pedagogical idea is a prompt – but the delivery is a curriculum-led discussion. E.g the idea of practice applies to every language, musical instrument and every sport – but what exactly the routines for practice are in each case are entirely specific to the endeavour even if we can use similar terms and ideas to describe them.
Review: There are general ideas about the role of retrieval practice in learning that hold true across multiple curriculum areas. But the content of any quiz or assessment or retrieval activity is a curriculum discussion.
What questions do we ask? How can we sensibly fold in review of prior learning with the newer learning to add depth and richness in curriculum terms? Where is it particularly useful for students to have high levels of fluency with recall? Planning a review process is part of curriculum thinking.
This section is downloadable in this pdf- click the link
What I find happens in most schools is that there is value gained from teachers across disciplines having a shared language for pedagogical elements and curriculum concepts. This is where whole-staff, generic CPD has value. However, this only needs to happen at a fairly minimal level before feeding into the majority of time spent discussing the ideas in curriculum teams.
Occasionally I encounter people – in schools and online – where they seem to have lost perspective; they’re spending endless time geekily tweaking their optimal curriculum sequence when, really, they’re planning something they can’t actually deliver; certainly not to every student. Their sandcastle blueprint is immaculate – but will never see the light of day. At other end, you do find situations where the genericism is relentless and painful; where SLT are forcing Art, Maths and French teachers do exactly the same things – because them’s the rules. In the sensible middle ground, there’s a case by case analysis of where the issues and opportunities lie which informs where CPD time is best spent.
If I had one overall conclusion, I’d say it’s that the most common weakness I see is where a teacher finds it hard to engage every student in learning the curriculum they’ve designed. This is true even when the blueprint curriculum seems excellent. At some level, it’s hard for everyone! See The #1 problem/weakness in teaching and how to address it.
Update: Here’s a video I made for #LDeduchat @ChilternTSA that captures some of these ideas: