Designing curriculum in ‘the new normal’

Sept. 17, 2020

Matea Marcinko

Fellow, Learning Design, Ambition Institute

Schools have returned to some sort of normal this month. As the dust settles on new routines, the focus for many senior leaders overseeing curriculum will be shifting to the work of curriculum development.

The new school year will present many new challenges, including how to adapt your curricula to meet pupils’ needs, following the disruption of school closures.

There are many unknowns, which I won’t attempt to resolve here – but there are some evidence-based approaches that I am confident will help curriculum senior leaders to tackle the challenge before them.

I’ve drawn these insights from the principles that underpin our programme, Curriculum for Senior Leaders. These may be unusual times, but by focusing on the evidence of what works we can continue to offer our pupils the support they need to thrive.

Randal Cremer_two teachers in library


Principle 1: Review and refine

Dylan Wiliam says that reviewing and refining curriculum is “part of every school’s regular cycle of improvement and renewal” (2018).

This cycle has gone into overdrive, as schools have rapidly responded to the shifting needs of their pupils: from adapting to remote learning during closures; to teaching on two fronts as groups of pupils came back into school; to planning for the ‘new normal’ and full re-opening.

So, how do we review and refine in this context?

  • Don’t re-invent the wheel. Reviewing and refining is a good part of any school’s natural cycle, so this should work within the systems you already have in place.
  • Use your experts. Draw on the expertise of your team, using subject leaders’ knowledge of their disciplines, and senior leaders’ understanding of your school’s priorities.
  • Listen to feedback. Collect feedback as part of a systematic approach to curriculum review so that subject leaders can get to the root cause of any problems before planning and implementing change. This will help you to avoid falling back on quick fixes that will have minimal impact or toiling over large-scale changes when only tweaks are needed.


Principle 2: What and why

A school’s purpose of education informs its curriculum aims, which are reflected in the vision statement for each subject. Vision statements inform the choices that subject leaders make about what knowledge to include in their curriculum, and what to leave out.

For senior leaders, the school’s curriculum aims will inform which subjects will be taught and which will get more precedence in the timetable.

For subject leaders, it means making tough decisions about the most powerful knowledge to include in your curriculum (Young, 2018).

  • Consider your vision. Every subject is unique and your curriculum needs to reflect that. Thinking about what makes a subject distinct will help teachers to select curriculum content and work out what forms their subject vision.
  • Coherence is key. If each subject vision reflects the school’s purpose of education as well as respecting subject distinctness, you’ll establish alignment across the whole school curriculum.
  • Review and refine. A clear subject vision gives us a yardstick by which to measure the success of our curriculum so we are better able to work as teachers, within our subject communities, to review and refine the curriculum that we offer.
Randal Cremer_two children studying at desk with teacher


Principle 3: Focus

Identifying the most important elements of a subject is critical to effective curriculum design.

  • Prioritise with care. To avoid breadth trumping depth, we can streamline our curriculum to focus on the most important content.
  • Remember the hinterland. We need to be wary of distilling curriculum content down to merely the core and overlooking the importance of the hinterland. Including examples, illustrations and stories in your curriculum takes time, but is important in supporting pupils to understand core content. (Counsell, 2018).
  • Choose your key concepts. Within our most important content, identify which are key concepts that pupils should keep coming back to, which content merits studying in depth, and what pupils need to practise.

These decisions should be made together, by curriculum senior leaders and subject leaders, drawing on their understanding of the needs of the school and understanding of the subject. The principle of ‘focus’ will be more important than ever as we consider the gaps students might have on returning to school, and the possibility of further school closures.

These are not normal times for schools. But your curricula can unlock new knowledge, passions and experiences for pupils. It can offer them hope that things will go back to normal one day and remind them of the joy of learning in a room with their peers and their teachers. That’s something we can all look forward to.


We’re recruiting for the next cohort of Curriculum for Senior Leaders – find out more about the programme and apply >.

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