Curriculum insights

This article originally appeared in Leader magazine
Spring Term 2 2021

Education Adviser Mary Myatt shares her insights on what works when it comes to supporting the curriculum.

There’s plenty we can do to develop the curriculum but there are some things that could have greater impact on pupils’ learning. To work this out, it’s helpful to draw on cognitive science to provide helpful pointers. Research evidence needs to be treated with caution; it’s not a three-line whip but rather provides us with information about what’s likely to make the most difference to pupils’ long-term learning.

1. Provide challenging texts and materials
First, we know we’re prepared to put effort into material and ideas that challenge us; however, we’re only prepared to do this if we’re working in conditions of high challenge, accompanied by low threat. In other words, we need to be working in classrooms where it’s okay to get things wrong and it’s okay not to know. Professor Daniel Willingham has argued that “human beings are curious, but that thinking is hard”. What we can take from this is that if we make things too easy for too many of our pupils, the learning is likely not to be secure.

What follows is that we should consider offering our pupils texts and materials ‘above their pay grade’. For example, in history, Richard Kennett, a senior leader in a Bristol school, when teaching about the Norman Conquest, provides pupils in Year 7 with extracts from Marc Morris’ book. Their homework task is to read the extracts and answer questions. However, they’re not to worry if they can’t answer them all, because this is difficult work.

What happens as a result of being given this demanding work? All the pupils, some with a reading age below ten, were able to access the work and offer answers. When asked why the class was being given demanding texts, Richard’s response was that in class they were reading and discussing extracts from Simon Schama’s account of the Norman Conquest. His intention was to show the class that while there might be historical events, historians disagree about their significance and impact. So, by taking pupils into the disciplinary discourse normally reserved for A level students, it becomes apparent that they are able to access it.

Similarly, in primary, Year 6 Teacher Ashley Booth, in reading Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, found that a low prior attaining child is able to make sophisticated connections between the captive bird and conditions for some communities during the time of segregation in the United States.

2. Tell a story
The second helpful insight from cognitive science is ‘our brain’s privilege story’. Professor Steven Pinker says, “Cognitive psychology has shown that the mind best understands facts when they are woven into a conceptual fabric, such as a narrative, mental map, or intuitive theory. Disconnected facts in the mind are like unlinked pages on the Web: They might as well not exist.” We also find this insight from Professor Willingham who argues that we know and remember more if we have heard something in a story. This could be a novel, personal account or high-quality non-fiction. Mark Enser has written about how we need to “Tell it like a story if we want children to learn”.

There are several reasons for using a text as the basis for a unit or topic:

  • It is an efficient way of conveying a lot of information – important because we cannot reason or problem solve without foundational knowledge. A text is the most effective way of doing this.

  • A carefully chosen text will provide the hinterland and background context for what is being studied.

  • The written word is denser than everyday talk. It takes effort, in a good way, to unpack this. A text puts appropriate cognitive load onto pupils.

  • Texts contain tier two and tier three vocabulary. These are the words of the academic disciplines and subject-specific domains and the keys to scholarship. If we aren’t using them in classroom talk, our pupils will not have access to them. The paradox is that using a text will up-level classroom talk when big words and concepts are highlighted and discussed in advance of the text, or discussed during its reading or unpacked later. The text provides the vehicle for increasing the demand and level of challenge within classrooms. n A carefully chosen text reflects the domain from which it comes. It’s likely to have expert knowledge underpinning it, and this can be critiqued and debated. This quality of source material cannot be underestimated. It overcomes one of the main problems with downloading resources from the internet, many of which are superficial, often incorrect and can portray the original knowledge as to be downright dishonest. So, this is a call to honesty and integrity.

3. Identify concepts
The third insight from cognitive psychology that is helpful for thinking about the way we plan the curriculum is the importance of concepts. These act as ‘holding baskets’ for lots of information. When a child understands a concept, new knowledge relating to that concept becomes ‘stickier’.

If we want our curriculum plans to be coherent, they need to have a rationale; otherwise they are just random things we expect pupils to learn. One of the most efficient ways to secure coherence is to identify the concepts. They provide the threads of a journey through the content matter, signpost underlying structures, are laden with meaning, are efficient and, yet, they are also able to expand.

Concepts provide the schema through which meaning is made and connections are formed. They reach back into the past – where have we met this idea before? And they stretch to the future as we consider how new information links to our previous understanding. Paying attention to concepts means we are developing the intellectual architecture for meaning and strengthening memory over time.

Another reason why concepts are important is the effect they have on learning. Identifying big ideas help pupils make sense of what they’re being taught. Instead of random lists of stuff to be learnt, concepts act as expandable portmanteau that enable pupils to draw on prior knowledge and include new knowledge. The identification and explicit teaching of concepts will help pupils make rich connections and support them in identifying new concepts over time. As we identify concepts, and start building new information relating to those concepts, we are providing a rich picture for pupils. Concepts need to be the driver for learning. Given that we cannot teach everything, Professor Willingham argues that pupils should learn concepts that come up again and again – “the unifying ideas of each discipline”.

So, where might we find concepts and big ideas? A starting point in England is the National Curriculum documents. There is a tendency to go straight to the detail of what needs to be taught. However, each subject within the National Curriculum has an importance statement. There are summaries of the National Curriculum documents and links to resources on my website

Mary Myatt
Education Adviser, Writer and Speaker

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