Curriculum design in 2023

I was recently contacted by someone who had read my previous blog posts about my own curriculum design journey. They said it was a breath of fresh air and wanted some advice. I immediately felt a glow of pride that someone had liked what I had written, but also incredibly guilty that I had not added to my blog for what feels like an eternity.

I stopped the blog because I became disillusioned and a little disorientated with the task of curriculum design. The education space was swimming with mind-boggling terminology and a lot of people telling each other how it should be done. Books popped up all over the place, all with great advice, but often contradictory. I simply felt that I didn’t want to add to the maelstrom.

However, I am now a couple of years wiser and fell that i can now add something to the conversation, even if it is to share the many mistakes and blind alleys that I blundered down in my mission to create an incredible curriculum for our pupils.

I now believe that curriculum design can be exciting and invigorating for a school and its staff if managed in an agile and minimalist manner. I have been fortunate to have spent time over the last few years working alongside professionals from outside education, designing apps, memory games and much more and have started using more agile management approaches in some aspects of the way we manage the development and quality assurance of our curriculum. We also use good old post it notes and flip charts when it is appropriate.

Over the next few weeks I am aiming to describe what I think a curriculum should look like, try and simplify all the language that is flying around and offer ideas for processes that will help schools develop and nurture their curriculum.

1. Visualising your curriculum

I don’t expect people to agree with everything I say, but do hope that by making my approach clear, people can at least use it as a counterpoint to their own vision.

I see the curriculum as a well maintained garden. At first glance it is well organised and purposeful (because all schools are already doing a great job). However, when you spend more time tending to the garden and investigating you will start to notice weeds growing or plants taking over their area of the garden. There will be wild spaces where new things appear, and unloved spaces that need revamping. At certain times of the year different parts of the garden thrive and at other times they wilt and all but disappear

It has been said many times before, a curriculum is a living thing, it is never finished. So, much like a garden, you have to step back from time to time and marvel at all the wonderful things going on rather than focusing on just weeding or moving the lawn. Then, happy in the knowledge that the bigger picture is in good order, set about tackling those weeds and installing a new water feature!

A curriculum is a living thing.

2. Finding out where you are and where you want to go

So let’s start investigating your curriculum. I will assume that if you are reading this, you are still in the throws of designing your curriculum or are going through a reassessment of where you are.

If I were to start the process again, I would begin by doing two things. I would want to work with staff to establish what our curriculum approach was going to be. I would then want to look at current planning and teaching sequences through this lens to establish what is really happening in the school at the start of the process. From this point, you can then make sensible action plans to work on subjects, pedagogical approaches and resources that are clear priorities. I call this, low hanging fruit.

2.1 Your curriculum approach

As a school, you may already have a clear idea about how you want to deliver your curriculum and what is important to you. However, I will try and list the things that I think you should consider and would end up being the criteria which I would use to assess the curriculum design or intent. At my school, we then have these elements defined at the start of each teaching sequence and periodically review the success of our approaches and fidelity of our schemes of work. I will discuss how we manage this process in another blog and share our ‘speed dating’ quality assurance methodology and our more old-school staffroom overview meetings.

Our teaching sequences currently have the following overview sheets at the start.

I will try and explain how we got to these in the next few posts, but for now I will list the main areas I would consider when trying to evaluate a school’s curriculum. These are not in order of priority.

  • Fidelity – does the sequence follow the knowledge overview/s that the subject lead believes are being followed?
  • Memory friendliness – does the teaching sequence take account of cognitive load, spaced repetition etc?
  • Classroom Pedagogy – are teaching sessions well designed so that children are thinking about the learning to enable them to reach the endpoint successfully?
  • Time – is the sequence realistic and achievable in the time that is actually available to teach the unit?
  • Adaptation – is the learning adapted so that all children can meet the expectations? E.g using technology to aid access to difficult texts or the composition of writing.
  • Knowledge First building toward achievable endpoints – if children already know the core knowledge they are then able to access the learning in the lessons and make links between knowledge to build up a strong schema ready for the endpoint of the unit and beyond.
  • Display and celebration – are displays and other opportunities to share and celebrate children’s work planned in?
  • Cultural capital, community links and developing aspirations
  • The National Curriculum – does the sequence achieve or help achieve the required elements of the National Curriculum? Useful when you realise you have far too much content, as you still have to meet the NC requirements.
  • Outdoor learning – are some activities better outside?
  • Reading – are their opportunities to use reading lessons to give children opportunities to widen their schema and build on their knowledge.

So, if you are looking at changing your curriculum or simply want to have a fresh look at an already established curriculum, you will need to first have conversations to establish your position on all the areas above. I will endeavor to write an article about all of these areas in my subsequent blogs. I will probably start with something around curriculum language and the many descriptors used for knowledge and skills.

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