“The design and implementation of the curriculum is at the heart of school life. It creates the atmosphere for learning and sets the tone and philosophy for teachers.” from Creating Outstanding Classrooms: A whole-school approach by Oliver Knight & David Benson
For those of you that aren’t familiar with the 10th film in the James Bond series, “The Spy Who Loved Me” is about a reclusive megalomaniac who plans to destroy the world and create a new civilisation.
In April this year, author, blogger and chief provocateur David Didau – a.k.a. @LearningSpy – came to work with our fabulous English department to help them to plan their new curriculum and post-levels assessment system. I’ll leave you to draw your own comparisons.
“I wasn’t looking, but somehow you found me”
The whole process began early in February this year via a few Direct Messages through Twitter, followed up with a quick chat at the NTEN conference at KEGS to agree dates, before finally confirming the intended outcomes via e-mail, which looked something like this:
- Our English team would have a framework curriculum, with possibly a unit planned in depth for Years 7, 8 and 9, including assessment.
- Capacity would be built within the team through modelling and the co-construction process.
- The school would be left with a potential model way of working to roll out with other departments.
These would be achieved by:
- Determining shared values of the team and the “what” of what the team wanted to teach.
- Supporting the design of a Programme of Study and assessment system that assesses mastery of threshold concepts rather than levels.
- Supporting the design of a model Scheme of Learning.
As far as timescale was concerned we had two possible options:
1) Try and cram all of the above into 1 day
2) Do it over 2 days and do it right
…we chose the latter.
“I tried to hide from your love light”
Wanting to make the best possible start to their 2 days with David – and to avoid any chance of “the tumbleweed moment” – the team spent quite a bit of time beforehand trying to discuss exactly what they wanted to teach. This was clearly time very well spent, as the first question they were hit with following my introductions was this – now legendary – one posed by Headteacher Tom Sherrington:
Having already seen this tweet from Tom at the time, the department had no need to convince me of its merit and were encouraged from the beginning to design the curriculum that they wanted, without interference or restrictions of any kind. To me, this wasn’t a leap of faith, it was just trusting our experts to do what they do best.
“But like Heaven above me”
As well as knowing what they wanted, the team also found it helpful to be clear about what they didn’t want. Here’s their final wish list:
- Full novels that promote reading.
- Less assessment and more learning.
- Longer schemes to really explore texts and themes.
- All assessments marked for both reading and writing so they are no longer seen as separate skills.
- More educational trips that are linked into our schemes of work.
In order to do this, they were encouraged to avoid succumbing to the “sunk cost fallacy” and to “murder a few of their darlings” (more about this in Part 2), for example the way Lady Macbeth was taught. The point being, they started the whole process knowing exactly what they wanted.
Their outline Programme of Study included more challenging texts and contained just three Schemes of Learning per year that were arranged chronologically, as shown below:
“The spy who loved me”
David also introduced the team to the work of Hermann Ebbinghaus and Robert Bjork.
Ebbinghaus first introduced the world to his forgetting curve and the spacing effect as long ago as 1885 through his pioneering work on memory. This popular graphical representation shows the idea that the amount of newly acquired information we retain declines over time without any attempt to retain it. To increase retention over time Ebbinghaus thought that spaced repetition could help. Spacing works on the idea that we learn better when information is spaced out in intervals over a longer time span rather than when information is repeated without intervals (massed presentation). Each repetition is thought to increase the length of time before the next repetition is required – from days initially to years.
Bjork explains the spacing effect in more detail below:
In his New Theory of Disuse Bjork also argues that spacing reduces the accessibility of information in memory and in doing so fosters additional learning of that information. In other words, building in opportunities to revisit information at the point of ‘almost forgetting’ for students is good, as it means they are more receptive to learning new information.
Spacing may well be one of the most effective ways to improve learning, but what do you do in between repetitions? Bjork argues that an effective strategy might be to interleave our study. The theory being that interleaving requires learners to constantly ‘reload’ or retrieve information, allowing them to extract more general rules that aid transfer. Here’s Bjork on interleaving:
“Is keeping all my secrets safe tonight”
One of the ways this might manifest itself in the curriculum was shared by our Acting Head of English, Adele Corrigan, at our Curriculum Conference last week.
The department agreed on six organising concepts against which they have chosen to assess – the six concepts of English: Analysis, Impact, Structure, Grammar, Evidence and Context. To quote Knight & Benson again:
“Organising concepts are needed to facilitate retention in memory, develop economic mental processing and support analytic reasoning”
These six organising concepts underpin the design of the department’s Programme of Study and Schemes of Learning. The concepts are mapped against the Schemes of Learning before being tracked over the Programme of Study to ensure the requisite spaced repetitions.
Structure and Coherence, for example, is one of the six organising concepts that would be spaced so that it was met in each Scheme of Learning across the Programme of Study in different ways.
Year 9 Term 1 – Gothic – Frankenstein.
Analysing the use of structure in a novel e.g. paragraphing, length of paragraphs, ending of chapters and cliff hangers. Examining the effect of these structures and why they are used.
Year 9 Term 2 – War – A range of war poetry.
Looking at the wide range of structures available to poets e.g. aabb, abab, sonnet and free verse. Comparing the differences between the structure of a novel and a poem and discussing which is the most effective for certain purposes. Linking prior knowledge by examining the effect of these structures and why they are used.
Year 9 Term 3 – Dystopia and freedom – Animal Farm and 1984.
Writing a persuasive speech about banishing certain objects to “Room 101”. Focusing on own structure and writing in a structure that best suits individual purpose and style. Using prior knowledge to think about intended effect and reason.
“And nobody does it better”
Initial thresholds for each of the six organising concepts were then agreed from the simplest “Working towards” to “Exceptional” in order to establish the depth of knowledge and skills for each organising concept.
The “Beyond” threshold was added afterwards and came from a desire to ‘go deeper’ than “Exceptional” and create a threshold that stretched students beyond the confines of Level 8 or A* at GCSE. Here Yoram Harpaz’s “Performances of Understanding” were particularly useful in directing assessment beyond mere presentation of knowledge and into the realms of questioning, criticising, critiquing, challenging and developing counter-arguments to it.
“Performances of Understanding” by Yoram Harpaz from Creating Outstanding Classrooms: A whole-school approach p57 by Oliver Knight & David Benson
“Though sometimes I wish someone could”
The team then used the following seven fertile questions from the same book’s Teaching and Learning Cycle to enshrine the construction of medium term plans for each Scheme of Learning:
- What can my students do?
- What do my students need to understand next?
- What will they do to generate those understandings?
- How will we all know they have been successful?
- What will their feedback be at the different stages?
- What performances will there be – both intermediary and final?
- What does this enquiry prepare students for next and how does it build on what they have already done?
Here’s an example of how they were used to help plan the Year 7: The Story of English Scheme of Learning:
“Nobody does it quite the way you do”
Once this planning for progression was complete the idea of disciplinary thinking could then be introduced in order to ensure knowledge is applied and becomes useful knowledge rather than the mere acquisition of facts leading to inert knowledge. The team used Peter Lee’s disciplinary planning grids from p72/3 of Creating Outstanding Classrooms in order to think about how they could encourage students to think like, talk like and become experts.
The planning grids are currently being used to plan out the lesson-by-lesson overview, which also includes assessment criteria based on the organising concepts.
“Why’d you have to be so good?”
So was it all worth it?
Doing all of the thinking for themselves enabled the department to build a deep and clear understanding, while also allowing them to take personal ownership of their new Key Stage 3 curriculum. In doing so they have been able to go way beyond what could ever have been achieved by following anything that was externally imposed on them.
After two days the process left the whole department feeling reinvigorated, energised and seriously excited about teaching their new Programme of Study. These quotes are typical of their feedback at the end of the second day:
“It has been really exciting. We absolutely love our new assessment criteria and can’t wait to use it. We also think that our new KS3 programme of study is really challenging and engaging and can’t wait to start teaching it.”
“I can say for definite that I haven’t been this excited about teaching for a long time, a very long time.”
Not only that, but thanks to David and our English team we believe we now have the basis of an excellent model that can be used to support the redesigning of curriculum and assessment across the remaining subjects in our school.
You can also read David’s excellent blog about his work with us One step beyond – assessing what we value as well as his subsequent blog about the efficacy of our assessment system Does it do what it’s supposed to? Assessing the assessment following the initial feedback.