The science of better: 10 principles of curriculum design


“A good curriculum empowers children with the knowledge they are entitled to: knowledge that will nourish both them and the society of which they are members.”

- Clare Sealy, Headteacher

Curriculum design is complex. What to keep in, and what to leave out? How to balance breadth with depth, make authentic links across subjects, build in progression and understanding? No small task, but an exciting challenge, and one where the decisions we make today can have far-reaching consequences for those we teach. As assistant headteacher Jon Hutchinson puts it, “the curriculum the pupils study informs what they will come to know and be able to do. It can have a really big influence on who they become.” This article draws on our 10 principles of curriculum design.

1. What and why

The choices you make about what to include in your curriculum can be driven by your school’s aims and values. For example, if preparing pupils for the world of work is an important aim for your school, you might include a PSHE topic on jobs in your key stage 2 curriculum, or more vocational courses at key stage 4.

In some subjects, selecting curriculum content will be especially complex. Particularly in literature, humanities and arts subjects, curriculum content is contestable. Again, our aims and values as educators can help us here. A belief that education should improve social equality might justify prioritising ‘shared knowledge’ in the curriculum (Hirsch, 1999). However, deciding on what constitutes ‘shared knowledge’ is deeply problematic; if your aim is to teach pupils ‘the best that’s been thought and said’ (Arnold, 1869) the question then becomes, who gets to decide what constitutes ‘the best’ (Robinson, 2018)?

Alternatively, in order to pursue social equality, we might choose to disrupt the status quo rather than align with it. This doesn’t have to mean that we neglect to teach texts that have stood the test of time, but that we might also introduce alternative voices and histories to discuss why it is that ‘some voices are valued or remembered over others.’ (Reid, 2020, p.45)

Thinking of the curriculum as both a window and a mirror might also guide our decision-making (Style, 1988). As Birmingham-based headteacher, Sonia Thompson, pointed out in a recent webinar: the curriculum is “about celebrating [our pupils’] heritage, their diversity, what they’re bringing to school … but also being very clear that we have got powerful knowledge that we want our children to learn, and that’s the business we’re in.”

2. Breaking it down

Curriculum design means planning in excessive detail by asking what exactly you want pupils to know. Both teachers and pupils benefit from this clarity; pupils are clear on what they’re learning, and teachers are clear on what they’re teaching. Whole school curriculum leads are also better able to identify connections that might be meaningfully made between different subject curricula. A greater level of detail in the curriculum also helps teachers to think about progression, both through individual lessons and lesson sequences. At the same time, pupil performance is easier to measure, because it’s clear what specific understanding needs to be checked. Describing content in meticulous detail is key to effective curriculum design.

Deciding what to prioritise isn’t easy, and it’s likely to be a collaborative exercise between teachers, subject leaders and senior leaders.

3. Focus

We can only concentrate on a few things at once, so we need to eliminate distractions from our curriculum and hone in on what’s most important. For instance, if we’re teaching the Romans as part of the history curriculum, do we want to emphasise their military conquests, their artistic achievements, their mythological beliefs, or their aqueduct and road-building technology?

Thinking about key concepts can help give the curriculum focus. What are the big ideas that are central to understanding your subject? What do you want pupils to know about them? How will you intentionally revisit them to develop deep understanding? Each time key concepts are revisited, it helps to vary the context by approaching them from new angles that allow pupils to deepen their understanding.

Deciding what to prioritise isn’t easy, and it’s likely to be a collaborative exercise between teachers, subject leaders and senior leaders. This means allowing the time and space for good curriculum design, something which Sonia Thompson is passionate about:

“We talk about making changes for curriculum, but without the time to do these things, without the time to think it through, it won’t happen”, she says. “I’ve got to give myself time, I’ve got to give my subject leaders time, to ensure that the pathway for this year, with everything else, has got to be clear, well thought out, implemented in the right way, and we’ve done the work to ensure it’s going to work”.

4. Coherence

Understanding arises through connection. Building in connections within and between areas of learning allows us to create a ‘joined up’ curriculum which, according to Clare Sealy, will be structured “in a way that makes remembering almost inevitable.” As she notes:

“Key concepts and vocabulary are reinforced because new words and concepts are encountered repeatedly in meaningful contexts.”

Connections can also be made explicit to pupils in lessons: teachers might draw attention to links between and within areas of learning. Conversations between subject leaders and senior leaders play an important role in ensuring that meaningful links between subjects are highlighted in the curriculum. During our curriculum design webinar, Kat Howard’s eyes lit up as she described a conversation she had with a science teacher colleague. They were discussing the concept of catalysts, a word which carries different meanings depending on whether the context is science or literature. Since pupils had already learnt about catalysts in science, they had some background understanding to bring to their English lessons. Such conversations, she emphasises, are “integral to the evolution of your curriculum,” with her experience highlighting just how important teachers’ knowledge is to curriculum design as a whole.

5. Progression

Think about how learning builds in complexity over time. It’s important to know where pupils are starting from in terms of their background knowledge, whilst keeping a look out for misconceptions that might become engrained as new knowledge is acquired.

At a long-term planning level, this means thinking about the sequence in which units are taught. At the medium-term planning level, it means thinking about how much new information is being added at any point, so pupils don’t experience cognitive overload. At the level of individual lessons, it’s a good idea to build in regular assessment checkpoints, which allows teachers to take a step back and think about gaps and errors that the pupils might have picked up.

Oli Knight is the headteacher of an improving school in London. As he explained to us, curriculum design has been the main strategic focus of staff training and development over the past year, with the challenges of Covid providing an opportunity to think about creating a well-sequenced curriculum model. As he says, staff need to think about what they are teaching younger students and how it “prepare[s] them for what they’re going to encounter in Year 8, and Year 9, and Year 10, and Year 11.” He added, “my hope is that it affords us the space … to think about curriculum in a really sophisticated way.”

6. Pace and space

In order to securely acquire new knowledge, we must return to it many times. This means thinking about sequencing curriculum content so that there’s space to revisit previous learning with plenty of opportunities for practice. For example, a mathematics teacher might use spaced practice to ensure that her pupils can confidently use written methods. It is helpful to consider this when planning out what should be taught when. By increasing the time intervals between retrievals of the same curriculum content, we can build desirable difficulty into the curriculum. Thinking hard about curriculum content makes it more likely that pupils will remember it.

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7. Orient attention

What we focus on is what we learn, and we focus on what we value. So how do we decide what counts as valuable?

One way of making curriculum content valuable is to show how new content relates to pupils’ existing knowledge by making links between the content and pupils’ experiences. Where pupils have a limited range of experiences outside of school, taking them on trips and inviting visitors into school is especially useful. By involving carers and communities in their learning, we also show pupils the shared value of their education.

There might also be content of immediate interest to pupils because of where their school is situated. For example, schools in Brixton might choose to focus on the Windrush generation because it reflects the local demographic; pupils might even have family members who experienced this history directly. This strategy might also be made more indirect. For example, it could be considered how the themes of a play such as Romeo and Juliet might be relevant to their own lives with such themes as, young love, gang warfare, arranged marriages, social prejudice, friendship, family tensions.

8. Big picture, fine detail

Think about how to deepen pupils’ understanding by making links between the fine details of their learning and the big picture of the curriculum.

How might this be done? In our webinar, assistant principal Kat Howard gave the example of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth to show how English teachers might draw on her when exploring different female characters from literature. As she explains, she might ask pupils:

“Where have we seen these characters before? We’ve seen female representation within literature before – draw on that knowledge and really use that to enhance your understanding of the current situation, the current character, the current theme”.

Crucially, Kat points out that such an approach has allowed pupils to recognise their own learning success, building “confidence in themselves, confidence in their understanding, [confidence] with the curriculum.

9. Variation in action

For pupils to develop a detailed understanding of content, we can vary the way in which content is presented, practised and retrieved. This means building in lots of opportunities for pupils to encounter the same content in different ways through curriculum design.

Clare Sealy describes the act of repeatedly revisiting the same concepts in her curriculum: “each time a concept is encountered within a different context, not only is the concept more likely to be remembered, the understanding of that concept becomes more nuanced.”

Sealy talks about how vertical links can be built within a subject, so that key concepts are encountered again and again. She gives the example of primary children encountering the idea of a ‘tyrant’ via King John in Year 1, Ancient Greek democracy in Year 5, and Adolf Hitler in Year 6.

10. Review and refine

There’s no such thing as the perfect curriculum, and improvement is a continual process of adjustment and refinement. It’s another reason why curriculum design is best done collaboratively, drawing on the strengths of teachers, subject leaders and senior leaders.

In our webinar on tackling lost learning through curriculum, when the conversation turns to the topic of difficult leadership decisions, Oli Knight shakes his head wryly: “It seems the perennial focus of a headteacher is making hard decisions that no one likes.”

In a transition school such as Oli’s, sometimes long-term curriculum principles must be sacrificed for short-term teaching reality: getting Year 11s through their exams whilst developing broader knowledge for younger years, deciding how many qualifications pupils should sit in order to balance out the need for good grades, versus experiencing a broad range of subjects.

But it’s rather comforting to know there are no easy answers, and, as Oli puts it, “you can only make the decision based on the evidence you have at that point in time.” The rest is a process of evolution, fine tuning and collaboration:

Curriculum development is never finished.

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