TPS8: How do I manage a congested curriculum?

#8 in the Teaching Problem –> Solution Series.

The Problem:

This problem was presented as: How do I manage a congested curriculum which seems to leave little time for retrieval practice and consolidation?


The main solutions to this issue, as I see them, are in four categories:

  1. Build around a spine of key recurring concepts and themes
  2. Review priorities in terms of core vs hinterland; big picture vs details.
  3. Plan for spiralling, folding older topics into newer ones.
  4. Develop student agency

1. Build around a spine of key recurring concepts and themes

It’s really helpful to identify a set of very clear key themes and concepts – the big ideas, the fundamentals – that run through your curriculum. Imagine this as a spine that everything else hangs off. Your total priority is to build that central spine rather than to flesh it all out with details – you just try to add as much detail as you can manage. So, for example, in teaching chemistry this might be key ideas about elements, compounds, bonding, energy and kinetic theory, rates of change and some broad categories of materials and their properties. In geography, this might include settlement and development patterns and hazards to human life in different biomes and their economic, social and environmental impacts.

With these core ideas in mind, clearly thought through in your planning, you continually reinforce them, over and over again. Students might forget some details, but they form a good general sense of the core ideas as they encounter them repeatedly. You might not remember every detail of the Cuban Missile Crisis but your wider understanding of the Cold War and power and conflict in the 20th Century has strengthened. You might not be totally secure on the specific properties of aldehydes and ketones but your general ideas about organic chemistry, molecules having different permutations, balancing equations and covalent bonding have developed further.

More generally, thinking about curriculum in terms of foundational knowledge and wider schema building can be instructive:

2. Review priorities in terms of core vs hinterland; big picture vs details.

I’m a big fan of Rich Kennett’s ‘museum curation’ analogy here. Some museums are over-full; so jumbled you can’t work out the significance of any thing. A good museum has a clear overall purpose and rooms that focus on specific areas within that; each room contains only enough artefacts to allow you to get a good sense of the story.. each artefact has some explanatory guidance that links it to the wider narrative. Each part adds to the whole. Good curation involves being bold enough to leave plenty of artefacts in the archives away from public view -because visitors will learn more by seeing less; the story is better told with clarity, not clutter. Sometimes it pays to be utterly ruthless in paring things down to the essentials.

This all neatly links to Christine Counsell’s ideas about Core and Hinterland. The stuff you decide is too much to include as Core can become Hinterland.. you still reference it but don’t go into huge detail. You set out the backdrop of hinterland knowledge within which the core sits. This also links to big picture scene-setting. I’m a big fan of overview introductory lessons or units that allow a wide frame to be established before diving in. What basically happened in the Vietnam War.? Look at a big picture timeline, map, key protagonists, a few major events. Set the scene. Details follow. With a good big picture sense, you can often cover ground more securely and rapidly.

This pair of posts also explore this idea via a map analogy… before you get bogged down in the congestion of details, make sure you have given students a decent wider orientation:

3. Plan for spiralling, folding older topics into newer ones.

Rather than your curriculum being topic after topic after topic after topic after topic after topic…. review the plan to see where earlier topics feed into later topics. This allows you to park ideas in the earlier topics, knowing you will return to them and then provides opportunities for revisiting material in an authentic manner, linking ideas up, consolidating students’ schema as connections are made. If you see this all laid out at the planning stage over months, terms or years, you can be more confident with those decisions about when to move on and what is safe to leave out at any given time. Students mature over time; they can’t nail everything in the moment.. but if, later, you take a fresh look at and older topic, it might then make a lot more sense. I explored this here:

Primary curriculum specialist Victoria (@MrsSTeaches) has written several superb blogs setting out reasons for teaching synoptic units that bring multiple ideas together. Here’s one awesome example:

4. Develop student agency

A final area to consider is that you can’t rely on lesson time as the only time and place where students will cover the curriculum. If you approach this with rigour and intentionality over time, you can train students up to be really very good at using study resources, reading and checking their understanding – in other words, you can train students to be students! With a strong thread of activity and very high expectations, you can develop teaching routines that require and build on students’ work in between lessons. For this to work they must have excellent resources in their hands when they go home – don’t whine about curriculum coverage if you don’t even let students take their books home or ever expect them to read anything. Be very demanding but make it possible.

I often use this as a reference point: imagine you missed a month of a course due to illness.. what resources would you need and what would you need to do to catch up? Well that’s exactly what your students need – all the time, not just because they were missing. If they can see what is coming and what has been, they can develop agency over the knowledge content and use study time to go back over things or get ahead. And you can train and expect them to.

Once students learn the habits needed to study, you can go slowly to establish firm foundations and then speed up much more towards the latter part of a course because students know the process. If you baulk at the idea of explicitly fostering student agency, then you are creating a barrier and making it doubly hard for you and for them.

Five Ways To: Foster Student Agency

It’s common to come across situations where the idea of independent learning is being promoted. However, this can be quite a nebulous concept unless we break it…

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