When the curriculum lacks coherence, it is both harder to teach and harder for children to locate and place their new knowledge.
Curriculum planning is more than the timetable. It is about leaders having thoughtful conversations with colleagues about the curriculum map for the pupils in their school. It means paying careful attention to how the material to be studied is organised. In primary, it means rethinking topic work and the muddle that was possible, although not inevitable, from ‘topics’ with titles such as water, or colour. Unless such vague topics are underpinned by a clear rationale and conceptual rigour then they devolve into ridiculous, tenuous links such as a history teacher in desperation linking the theme of colour to the Black Death, which Clare Sealy describes
. Or a theme on water, where in religious education this gets translated into Jesus walking on water. And yes, he probably would have wept.
While these examples are amusing, they are doing a real disservice to pupils’ cognitive development. And so, for example, children asked about what they had learnt in history returned blank looks. Prompted about work they had done on the Ancient Greeks, one child piped up, “Oh no that wasn’t history, that was ‘Topic’.” Well, quite. And an example from religious education:
"We’ve been learning about the Jewish people."
"Can you tell me more?"
"Well we’ve learnt about the synagogue. In fact we’ve made one."
"What can you tell me about the synagogue?"
"Well, it’s made out of cardboard."
There are three things to take account of here:
- Knowledge facts need to be underpinned by concepts and that these need to be taught explicitly
- Knowledge should be taught primarily through sacred texts, iconography, art and music
- Knowledge needs to reside in and be protected within the discipline, otherwise we end up with a ‘cardboard’ curriculum.
A further strand is that it is important to maintain a clear distinction between the inter-disciplinary and the cross-curricular. Inter-disciplinary keeps the integrity of subject specific knowledge in tact. If we don’t hold steady on the knowledge and the integrity of the discipline, then we end up in a muddle. And so do our pupils. This is not to say that links across a curriculum are not possible and cannot add additional richness and complexity to a subject, rather that we need to think what is the main idea that we want pupils to think about?
Thinking hard about coherence matters, because if we don't then what is offered to children is bitty. Bitty means that there are lots of fragments of knowledge floating around without being placed in a bigger basket. And so a rationale is needed. This is clearly articulated in the national curriculum - at the start of each subject area to be taught is a clear statement for the big picture. This needs to be held in mind when constructing long and medium-term plans, and also in the daily delivering of lessons. It takes just a few moments to remind ourselves and our pupils of how what we are learning today fits into a bigger picture.
This is both more satisfying and also more effective. It is more satisfying because everyone can see how the learning today relates to a bigger story, and it is more effective because the detail of today is more likely to stick when put into the context of the overall scheme. Ad hoc lessons do not create the opportunities and expectations for pupils to be au fait with essential background knowledge.
We are a pattern-seeking species. We look to make sense and order from the world around us. The plethora of information and stimuli become overwhelming if each is encountered without a context into which to place it. From our earliest days, we have sorted information in order to categorise the world. This is an efficient way of staying alive. Noticing that some things support life and others are likely to endanger it is an essential aspect of human survival.
When the curriculum lacks coherence, it is both harder to teach and harder for children to locate and place their new knowledge. Each of the subject areas of the national curriculum has two sections at the start before going in to the detail: first the purpose
. This sets out the reason why this subject needs to be taught and the impact of teaching it on pupils. The purpose is followed by the aims
: and sets out the entitlement for all pupils. Combined, these provide a platform both for thinking about and making sense of the curriculum detail and for ensuring that every child has access to it.
In December 2018, we asked Mary to share her views on what leaders in all phases of education can be thinking about now to ensure they have a clear understanding of the importance of a broad and balanced curriculum - listen to her Conversations on the Curriculum.
Education adviser and writer