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How to create an effective curriculum

May 6, 2022, 8:34 GMT+1
Read in 8 minutes
  • Darren Woollard outlines how a collaborative approach led to reviews of how and what pupils are taught
How to create an effective curriculum

As part of our Trust’s commitment to making a lasting impact for our pupils, we want to ensure we are providing them with the highest-quality education that enables them to be the best they can be.

As our Trust has grown recently, we decided to bring our schools together to create a joined-up approach to reviewing each school’s curriculum to ensure we are achieving our goal.

A core part of our approach is recognising the strengths in our differences; each school brings a unique perspective to learning and serves a unique community.

Our school leaders know what works best for their pupils and have included aspects in their curriculum that are specific to the context of not just their school but to the lives of the children within it.

The point of our work is not to create a Trust curriculum, but to encourage school leaders to think deeper about the impact of their curriculum and how a child’s learning should slowly develop and build throughout their school experience.

Initial ideas for review

We started by asking our schools to designate one of their leaders as a curriculum lead for the project. They attended a course on curriculum design led by Ambition.

Following the introduction of the current Ofsted framework, we had already begun working on curriculum development at our schools, but this course inspired us to ask challenging questions, such as: what is the purpose of education? 

Moving forward, we wanted to ensure that we were utilising the learning from the course and embedding these more complex ideas into the design of each school’s curriculum. 

Working with the curriculum leads, I mapped out a long-term process that would enable our schools to make lasting changes to their curriculum offer and maximise the impact on pupils. 

Despite the challenges, the pandemic also provided opportunities for us to develop the use of tools that allow for ideas to be shared across the Trust, fostering deeper collaboration. School leaders from across the Trust could easily jump on video calls to discuss ideas, contribute to our plans and create and share resources. 

The process

After some consideration we set five key stages to the process that would take place over a period of two years. There were two important factors that led to this decision. 

Firstly, we wanted subject leaders to review their curriculum in detail and offer them stages that built upon findings in a constructive way.

Secondly, with the constant pressures of teaching in a pandemic and with each school having its own priorities, we wanted to give them the time to really consider and work on each stage without losing momentum.

Schools are currently working on the third stage of this process, which is focused on encouraging us to think about the purpose of education.

Having a deep understanding of their intent is key to the next stages of the process; it lays the foundations for curriculum design as subject leaders will need to reflect this in their own subject areas.

The final two stages of the process are part of the design phase and will be where our teachers use their findings to reflect on and update their curriculums:

  • 1. Learning about cognitive science
  • 2. Cognitive science in practice
  • 3. Purpose of education
  • 4. The habits of curriculum design
  • 5. Developing subject coherence

The intent stages

Stages one to three began with ensuring every teacher at every school had an understanding of cognitive science and how it can impact their teaching, thinking particularly about Willingham’s simple model of memory. 

Cognitive science is understanding how the structure and functions of the brain affect our ability to learn. This includes what sort of teaching and learning strategies are best to help pupils build their schema around a particular subject or concept, and embed their knowledge and understanding into their long-term memory.

This is an important foundation for building an effective curriculum because every aspect should be designed in a way that supports our pupils’ learning best.

During this stage, we supported our leaders and teachers by providing them with key reading materials and encouraged them to create opportunities to discuss pedagogy in their own schools. 

We then asked ourselves questions about the purpose of education and why we educate children, as part of a trust wide network event. Summer Turner’s Chartered College article proposes four main schools of thought about the purpose of a school curriculum: to prepare pupils for the workplace, to build character, to further social justice and to teach knowledge for its own intrinsic value (Turner, 2016).

This and other stimuli provided rich discussions in each school about what we believe about purpose, and led to schools reflecting on the aims of their curriculum with their own communities.

Our intention is that schools should know why they teach what they teach. When teachers are planning a unit of work, decisions about what to include should be down to the design of the curriculum and not the individual choices or preferences of the teacher.

Neil Almond talks about a box set analogy of curriculum: in series like BBC’s Line of Duty there is an overarching plot, but each episode in sequence deepens our understanding (Almond, 2020). This is a great way of describing what we are trying to achieve with curriculum, with each lesson building on the last and with challenging end goals in mind.

The curriculum needs to provide a sequence so that new learning is built on what has gone before, and takes account of what is still to come. 

It is about reiteration, which links to our thinking about cognitive science and the idea that our brains are much more likely to remember when we are revisiting knowledge or concepts often and over time.

Our teachers and subject leaders are beginning to discuss how they can create this narrative of learning that weaves throughout a child’s whole school experience, and will be working on this with colleagues through subject network groups.

Core purpose

Throughout any updates and decisions made to the designing of a curriculum, it’s imperative that schools have a core purpose. This has played a key part in our success in the process so far, with our Trust’s clear vision being a commitment to making a positive difference to society, which is a cornerstone for decisions made about how we educate our pupils.

This was echoed in the findings of our intent phase, where a common thread for our teachers is wanting to help each child at every one of our schools thrive.

Whilst we are eager to see how the next stages unfold, we are assured that this work is already having an impact on our pupils’ education. Teachers across our Trust are adapting the ways in which they approach the planning and delivery of their lessons, and subject leaders are thinking more deeply about their subjects.

Being able to discuss their core purpose as educators, and the impact that subject knowledge can have with other staff across the Trust, has led to the creation of networks focused on sharing ideas and working together to make a difference. 

Darren Woollard is Executive Leader at Learning in Harmony Trust