Senior Curriculum Leadership 1: The indirect manifestation of knowledge: (B) final performance as deceiver and guide

 

This blog series on senior curriculum leadership asks how a non-specialist SLT can take assurance from a middle (subject) leader.  You can read an introduction to the series here. The series as a whole suggests nine categories for questions which are often missing in leadership and management conversations. I offer these categories as a tentative structure for a knowledge base needed by senior leadership teams if they are to understand and interrogate both curriculum and all that curriculum affects. 

 

 

SCL 1: The indirect manifestation of knowledge: (B) final performance as deceiver and guide

Continuing my theme of curriculum as narrative, I now return to a point made at the start of my last post: the indirect ways in which knowledge manifests itself within the final performance, and the resulting need to ensure that the full curricular journey is doing its work for all pupils.

A curriculum exists to change the pupil, to give the pupil new power.  One acid test for a curriculum is whether it enables even lower-attaining or disadvantaged pupils to clamber in to the discourse and practices of educated people, so that they gain the powers of the powerful.

While GCSE or any 16+ qualification is always going to be a flawed proxy for that, it’s worth remembering that this is supposed to be its job.  A public examination such as GCSE is just a sample of the full domain represented by the curriculum.  Teach narrowly to the surface features of its test and you not only miss the point of the curriculum, you limit success for many by not letting the wider domain do its work. (See Daniel Koretz on distinguishing ‘domain’ and ‘test’ or this blog by Daisy Christodoulou for an excellent summary of Koretz’s account and the serious damage done by teaching to the test.)

Teaching to the test can mean different things across subjects.  At its most extreme, it could mean teaching the specification content for five years.  Or it could just mean not taking seriously any content taught beyond the specification. Most commonly, it means structuring learning around the surface features of the test, rather than the layers of knowledge or the smaller component skills that sit underneath successful performance. Each of these happens. Each is a failure to treat curriculum as narrative, a failure to grasp the indirect manifestation of knowledge at the finishing point.

In this blog post by David Thomas, now Principal of Jane Austen College, we hear what can go wrong when indirectness of various kinds is not understood. A combination of exams being increasingly high-stakes and skills-based in structure has led schools to distort learning. Obsession with skill-based assessment objectives and markschemes has twin casualties: (a) joyless learning; (b) it doesn’t work.  Instead of the excitement of opening up ‘new worlds of history and literature’, pupils are pushed through ‘yet more rounds of dry and soulless skills practice’. David draws our attention to the way in which many skill accomplishments required in exams – such as inference or problem-solving – can only be taught indirectly: through component parts such as layers of knowledge, rules of grammar or fluency in mathematical procedures:

 “These components look very different to the skill being sought – just as doing drills in   football practice looks very different to playing a football match, and playing scales on a violin looks very different to giving a recital.”

What David’s blog makes clear is that attending to the long-term and indirect is not some luxury; it is urgently necessary. We have to break out of the short-termist, vicious circle of substituting exam questions for curriculum and a disproportionate focus on Years 6 and 11.

It’s odd that inertia still grips us in fixing this short-termism.  And it is inertia. For here am I, yet another person, saying this same thing. It’s even odder given that principles of indirectness are so well established in cognitive psychology. If you’re not familiar with this, hear how Bjork explains why performance shouldn’t be confused with learning or consider the role of deliberate practice in securing expertise as explained by K. Anders Ericsson

Is the reason for this inertia the accountabilities framework? Perhaps. But it doesn’t entirely explain it.  After all, we have warrant for knowing that more attention to the long-term and indirect would make outcomes better.  I suspect it also has something to do with the fact that we don’t really know how to talk about curriculum at whole-school level.  First, we don’t have the analytic vocabulary of indirectness – of the kind suggested in my post on curriculum as narrative – and second, we are not in the habit of analysing the long-term effects of knowledge because of ingrained assumptions that progress must look like a markscheme, progress must look like a skill ladder, progress must be about skills because skills are the language of the final performance. We have to know (goes the logic) how well pupils are doing so we’d better calibrate progress in final outcome terms.

That there is reluctance to embrace the power of curriculum generally and knowledge in particular is readily shown by what happened in England when National Curriculum Level Descriptions were abolished. Many forgot – or perhaps never realised – what was the root problem with Level Descriptions. They merrily re-invented and worsened the root problem by using GCSE grades at Key Stage 3.

But the curriculum itself is the progression model. Its mastery is progress. That is what it is for.  When it comes to progress, the burden of proof is on the curriculum.  And that includes knowledge itself for it is not just a setting in which to practise skills; it is a curricular property with an agency all of its own.

A fruitful starting point for thinking about this is to ask how prior knowledge changes pupils.

To do this we need to take seriously the possibility that a curriculum can turn (say) a disadvantaged, vocab-poor Year 5 into a pupil who, carries such reference points in poetry that they are ready to notice what is new and startling in (say) Romantic poetry before they hit Year 10.

A failure to do this sees  pupils encountering Romantic poetry in some hollowed out way. It sees pupils bumping into their first Romantic poet by means of a feature-spotting exercise in skills-based assessment language. It sees them doing so without rich familiarity with a range of Romantic poetry, let alone with poetic or other movements that preceded or influenced Romanticism.  It sees them tackling only the Romantic poets on the GCSE spec; often, only the Romantic poems on the GCSE spec.

Letting a skills-based final assessment supplant a curriculum is like trying to read the last chapter of a novel without reading the novel. It’s like listening to the last cadence of the song and trying to analyse in a purely technical way without letting the whole of the song’s melodic and harmonic journey do its work. Play the last cadence all you like; its implied harmonies cannot be heard.

So how can curricular thinking steer us into asking better questions about the change that knowledge brings about in pupils? One productive trick is to think freshly about the final accomplishment itself, but in terms other than those normally used to assess it.

A thought-provoking exploration of this can be found in a small MEd research study carried out by history teacher Kate Hammond.*

Hammond was puzzled.  She noticed a distinction between writing by Year 11 pupils who she knew would sail into A grades and writing by pupils whose practice answers were A grade perfect but whose performance in the exam room she instinctively knew would be fragile even though all data suggested otherwise.

Hammond knew that there was no point in looking for any markscheme language to capture this distinction between A grade non-fragile and A grade fragile.  It was mark-scheme blind. Drilled in the analytic moves required for top marks, these fragile A graders made links, marshalled evidence, compared factors, weighed claims, pulled every lever and pushed every button with the weary predictability that the exam required but there was a something not quite right, something which …. well what?  An immaturity in their writing? An inauthenticity? An insecurity?

Hammond’s conscious lack of language drove her research. Naming it was the problem, and naming it became her MEd project. She decided to characterise the non-fragile performers.  What new language could be found to describe their fine accomplishment? She thus embarked on an exercise in curricular theorising.

Hammond went painstakingly through A grade work trying out a new language to capture the highest quality, using nothing more than the pupils’ work and her own instincts about good history from reading historical scholarship.

For example, she noticed how word choice gave an analytic precision arising from acute sensitivity to period features.  Thus a non-fragile A grade would choose to write ‘the public’ when judging a factor that led to the rise of the Nazis. Look at what the word ‘public’ is doing in this tight sentence handling a density of ideas:

So the Nazis could be argued to be relying on the Depression and the apparent lack of leadership caused by it to be noticed by the public and to retain their attention from that point.

Fragile performers, in similar efforts to weigh up the relative importance of a factor, reached for a word such as ‘the people’. It appears interchangeable. It wouldn’t lop off any marks. But it’s not as good.

Choosing ‘the public’ gives this analytic claim more power.  A ‘public’ has agency. It can be appealed to. There are mechanisms by which a ‘public’ can respond. To grasp such a thing as a ‘public’ in early twentieth-century Germany and to know that it wouldn’t be quite the right word in another context is to know multiple things that sit behind that word. That knowledge seeps through and does indirect work.

Hunting for a way to express this, Hammond eventually described this as ‘the knowledge that flavours the claim’.  Deft choice and deployment of other abstract nouns in the sentence similarly give analytic nuance within elegant concision.

Already I hear the objection, ‘but if they don’t need it explicitly for GCSE marks, why on earth does it matter?’

To ask this is to widely miss the point. First, it is helping with GCSE performance, but indirectly.

Remember these are the secure As, not the fragile As.  Hammond points to a ready analytic facility that is furnished by such knowledge, a facility that appeared to make a difference in the ease, speed and assurance with which one can arrange material and express judgement.  Somehow, these pupils just ‘knew how the past worked’. No insecurity was betrayed by clunkiness.

Second, and most importantly, what was Hammond really doing in this research? She was simply asking, what are such students like?  What characterises the wider, inner knowledge base they appear to have at their fingertips whose outward manifestation is vocab precision? Who are these students who by the end of Year 9 are just going to fly?

Crucially, what do they have which curriculum itself could and should cultivate, much earlier?

As Hammond worked on her data, she began to infer and then classify the layers of prior knowledge that seemed to sit behind such dextrous integration of abstract terms. She began to conclude that some pupils appeared to have formed extensive, secure schemata from studying a wide range of history, not just this early twentieth-century topic but other twentieth-century topics, wider European history and other periods and cultures at Key Stage 3 or earlier.  She began to show how particular scales of wider knowledge were surfacing, indirectly and subtly in pupils’ choice and arrangement of words.

Hammond therefore began to think about really long-term preparation for GCSE success and for many more pupils, but definitely not in terms of yet more replication of final skills, definitely not in terms of practising those weird proxy genres invented by examiners (a 6-mark ‘evaluate’ question, a 4-mark ‘describe’ question) that some schools seem to think should be practised from Year 7.

She now thought in terms of what they learned in Years 7 to 9, in content areas far beyond the specification. There, she suggested, must lie the seeds of significant transformation, the kind that would change the child’s reference points fundamentally, in broad, varied content which had shaped their historical seeing, their ability to interpret or deploy a word appositely. This was the knowledge that was manifesting itself indirectly in her highest-attaining pupils.

Readers will now spy a large elephant in the room.  What of pupils living in homes where abstract academic vocabulary is the language of the dinner table? Surely these pupils may have gained these tools for precise thought, or at least had them accelerated, by their broader exposure to the lingua franca of the educated community. So perhaps it wasn’t the curriculum alone that achieved this.

But that is precisely the point. It shows the critical importance of the curriculum for those pupils without such backgrounds. What should curriculum in its provision of that specialised abstract language that gives power to an educated community, be providing? We can generate extras and interventions for ‘pupil premium’ pupils, but schools have very limited time. Meanwhile, their core business is the curriculum, the life of the mind, that lives in every classroom all day long. Key Stage 3 is a store for furnishing the memory with literary worlds, sound worlds, cultural, geographical and historical worlds until such vocabulary is so second nature that pupils can ‘move about’ within it.

I deliberately labour this because explaining the Hammond work rather too quickly some years ago, one puzzled teacher remarked, ‘but surely if they need a word like “the public” for the GCSE, the answer is just to hammer home that expression in Years 10 and 11?’

This taught me just how far we are from understanding curriculum as narrative. It’s about as daft as saying, ‘let’s get them to “practise” flavouring their claims with knowledge’.

It’s all about noticing. If one has encountered the expression ‘the public’ before, in varied contexts, that changes the way we hear or read it. We both notice it, in the sense that it is instantly comprehensible or instantly interesting, and we don’t notice it, in that we don’t need to stop and use up any working memory trying to process it.  Curriculum works because, like narrative, it manipulates our noticing.

 

Key Stage 3 history would be doing its work well if it were inconceivable that a pupil could begin Year 10 without a memory furnished with many historical stories in which ‘the public’, ‘public opinion’ or ‘the attention of the public’ figured, and without their ears tuned to hearing these expressions used in scholarly ways.

So a central curricular question to ask is this. When pupils first hear/read such words in the context of studying Nazi Germany in Year 10, what do they actually hear?  A definition given by the teacher? The words finding a home only in this story? A couple of dimly remembered examples only?

Or will the whole prior curriculum give life to those words in a micro-second? Will those words break forth from prior knowledge as if from a centre and related to a whole, through which, alone, they can have meaning?   Words only work by carrying with them the unsaid.

* * * * * * * *

Hammond’s work is small-scale and tentative – she makes no big claims. The significance of her work is in theoretical generalisation not statistical generalisation. She merely offers an emerging heuristic for future research.

The significance lies in her determination to avoid using ‘markscheme-ese’ in an effort to capture the hidden qualities, cultivated much earlier, that underlie securely strong performance.  This is what the indirect working of the curriculum is all about.

But so much for working backwards from a 16+ exam.  It’s a sign of the times that I felt the need to go there early, so as to show the value of curriculum in the context of collective worry about outcomes. But it rather undermines my whole point about curriculum being prior to assessment!  What about planning forwards? In my next post, I’ll invert the Hammond challenge. Using an example of Key Stage 3 planning, I’ll consider what a senior leadership team needs to ask in order to understand its power for long-term change in pupils, in ways sensitive to the subject.

*The Hammond article is behind a paywall. This is why I have attempted to explain it thoroughly.  Alternatively, grab a history teacher and ask them to access it through Historical Association membership: Hammond, K. (2014) ‘The knowledge that flavours a claim: towards building and assessing historical knowledge on three scales’, Teaching History, 157

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Senior Curriculum Leadership 1: The indirect manifestation of knowledge: (A) curriculum as narrative

 

This blog series on senior curriculum leadership addresses the challenge of how a non-specialist SLT is to take assurance from a middle (subject) leader.  You can read an introduction to the series here. The series as a whole suggests nine categories for questions which are often missing in leadership and management conversations. I offer these categories as a tentative structure for a knowledge base needed by senior leadership teams if they are to understand and interrogate both curriculum and all that curriculum affects. 

SCL 1: The indirect manifestation of knowledge: (A) curriculum as narrative

‘Curriculum’ derives from the Latin ‘currere’ meaning a race or a course on which a race is run.  The Latin verb ‘currere’ means to ‘run’ or ‘proceed’.  The word is replete with a sense of movement.

I like this idea of a race course or running track for three reasons:

First, it underlines the importance of the journey: to take a short-cut would be to miss the point. The specified ground must be conquered or the race can be neither run nor won. All the running matters. If we tell the runners to practise only the final sprint, we not only miss the point of the whole race, we miss opportunity for many more runners to finish and finish well.

Second, it reminds us that curriculum is not a mere aggregate of things. Its temporal character is a key property. Curriculum is content structured over time.

Third, it points to the curriculum as continuous. Not just a sequence or a chronology, it’s much more like a narrative.  Curriculum is content structured as narrative over time.

Once we start thinking about content structured as a narrative we really get somewhere.

A narrative (think novel, film, symphony, song …) is full of internal dynamics and relationships that operate across varying stretches of time. Those dynamics and relationships realise the function of every bit of content.

And every bit of content has a function. That little event early in the novel does a neat job not only in making the early story work, but also of furnishing the reader’s memory so that, much later, it resonates in a satisfying resolution or newly puzzling twist.   That early theme in the symphony will furnish our melodic or harmonic memories so that later returns or variations can disturb or delight. A narrative works on its reader or listener through constant interplay of familiar and strange, and things can only be familiar or strange by virtue of earlier reference points, ones that stay with us.

Of course, all I’m talking about here are schemata. Cognitive psychology has long established that we only have a tiny window of attention through which to attend to new material, but armed with multiple sub-surface associations, from prior knowledge, we rapidly assimilate and interpret the new. A narrative is just an intensification of this process.

For narrative is structured in a particular way to make sure things do stay with us: a narrative may have episodes but its meaning-making structure (the reader’s interpretive process) is not episodic; it’s continuous. We don’t – we simply can’t – lose the effect of the earlier episodes. This is because narrative (I mean a good one) has the effect of keeping multiple strands all spinning at once. Thus earlier stages stay warm in memory so that they form part of the backcloth through which we interpret every new element.  A narrative is constantly unifying, pulling things together so that they function.

But narrative is weird.  Although that early detail has altered our seeing or hearing, when it finally comes into its own, we often can’t see it.  We barely notice we have it.  The narrative has rendered it so secure in memory that lots of memory space is freed up for speedy grasp of plot twists or the poignancy of a written texture, one packed with meaning by virtue of the earlier stages. Now layered in long-term memory, they are lightly but surely evoked.

This is a narrative’s magic. (Keep thinking novel, film, opera…) Each little bit never gives you the totality, yet somehow each little bit evokes a totality.

Now, this works backwards, in the ways I’ve outlined above but it also works forwards. A narrative manipulates reader expectation, but not too much. Narrative works through gaps or spaces that set the mind whirring about what is not yet known, and what sits outside the text altogether. Without them, there would be neither anything to compel one to read on, nor any sense of arrival that makes the prior journey make sense.

 

In other words, those internal relationships, operating across time, make the effects of knowledge gained highly indirect.  A narrative works through the indirect manifestations of knowledge.

To put it another way, knowledge is fertile, generative and highly transferable.  Our knowledge is carried by the narrative and performs functions that we cannot always see.

 

This is just how curriculum works – or is supposed to work. And this narrative behaviour of curriculum starts to give us a language for interrogating the curricular workings of subjects not our own, sufficient at least to avoid some of the worst pitfalls of generic assumptions.  In looking at any piece of content you need to be able to see it within its curricular relationships.  Otherwise, any view on time spent on X, or method used to teach X, or measure that X is secure… is ripped right out of context.  For X gains its meaning by association with everything around it, both other strands happening concurrently, and other or similar knowledge learned before or later.

The object being taught is everything. We may not understand that object fully, but it is possible to understand something of its curricular context in its temporal dimensions. It is possible to ask, what is this bit of content doing?

Where to start? Well, a little bit of curricular language goes a long way. Here are two simple, practical ways to begin to think about this (i) ‘proximal’ and ‘ultimate’; (i) ‘core’ and ‘hinterland’.

 

Proximal and ultimate functions

Each bit of a curriculum is always doing a job in making the next stage possible (a proximal function) but it is also doing an enduring job (an ultimate function) which might come into its own later, sometimes much later. Each of these are jobs a pupil couldn’t hope to see but which an observer needs to be aware of if they’re to get inside any teacher’s decision both about why that content is positioned there and about such matters as emphasis and explicitness, timing and practice, within teaching.

When one of our science Subject Specialist Leaders, Lucy Austin, was first building our trust’s primary biology curriculum, I thought, “Prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells in Year 4? Sounds a bit detailed for 8-year-olds!”

I was wrong.  After a conversation with Lucy, I understood it in within a bigger, temporal picture.

I already knew why pupils being secure in terms such as ‘cell’, ‘membrane’ and ‘nucleus’ was vital for certain ‘ultimate’ reasons outside of science: for pupils to read fiction and non-fiction fluently by Year 6, they need to be richly familiar with all kinds of specialist vocabulary that gets used as metaphor in non-science contexts.

What I had not grasped is that you will end up with poor generalisations about cells if you gloss over the distinctions between prokaryotes and eukaryotes. Poor generalisations lead to bad science in the form of misconceptions which have to be unpicked later. ‘Let’s get it right first off’, said Lucy, ‘and riches will result in what pupils can then understand, notice and assimilate’. She was right and we’ve spent an illuminating term watching Year 4 doing everything from practising these terms to fluency – inclusive, enjoyable, moving – to making models and paintings of eukaryotes and prokaryotes.

An example of a proximal reason for focusing on eukaryotes is the need for pupils to move on to understand respiration. They don’t learn about respiration properly at this point, but are briefly introduced to it as they encounter the various organelles including mitochondria.  At this stage, ‘mitochondria’ and ‘respiration’ are just words, pictures, tantalising ideas, early scene setting. Grounded in visual memory through drawing and model-making and in verbal memory through secure recall, they are like clues at an early stage in a novel, it’s now there, ready, waiting, in memory, for a ‘wow, here it is again!’ moment when respiration can be taught properly, very soon.

 

Core and hinterland

This pair of powerful words has proved the most important thing to help me think about subject difference within curricula.

The trick here is to handle paradox. Even though clearly, as the word suggests, ‘hinterland’ is just supporter or feeder of a core, when it comes to curriculum, the hinterland is as important as what is deemed core.

The core is like a residue – the things that stay, the things that can be captured as proposition. Often, such things need to be committed to memory. But if, in certain subjects, for the purposes of teaching, we reduce it to those propositions, we may make it harder to teach, and at worst, we kill it.  A good example is reading a work of literature in English.  We can summarise plot, characters and stylistic features in a revision or teachers’ guide, and those summaries may well represent the residue that we want secure in pupils’ long-term memories. These are proxies for the way the full novel stays with us, enriching our literary reference points and colouring our language use for ever. But they are not the primary means by which we imbibe & retain those reference points. That requires reading, bathing in the text, delighting in the text, alone and with others.

The act of reading the full novel is like the hinterland. However much pupils might be advised to study or create distillations, commentaries and plot summaries, however much these become decent proxies for (and aids towards) the sort of thing that stays in our heads after we’ve read the novel, to bypass reading the novel altogether would be vandalism.

In some subjects, we do well to remember that what has been identified as core knowledge, what must be recalled, is just a proxy.  This is why it’s madness to be running around checking for oral retrieval drill without attention both to the nature of what is being learned and to its status within the overall curriculum narrative.  Application of retrieval practice needs to be thought about in curricular terms. There’s no way the entire novel stays in long-term memory: memorising a poem is a great idea; memorising every word of the novel generally isn’t; you just read it.  If a teacher chooses for a class to spend some time just reading, and discussing/thinking about the reading, then ask not whether reading or discussing are good or bad things; ask, rather, what is their interplay with what precedes and follows? A curricular lens makes us look for interplay, not incidence, over time.

Teaching literature is 100 times more complex than this, but this one distinction is a wake-up call to the application of generic ‘how?’ of ‘good teaching’ without attention to the ‘what?’

 

Now let’s take a quick detour via RE before returning to Year 4 biology.

Our RE lesson is sitting within a half-term’s journey that involves a clear purpose to ensure pupils are secure in the meaning of ‘worship’, ‘devotion’ and ‘temple’ and that they learn several New Testament stories as part of their ongoing study of Christianity, which is to be followed by Islam the following year.

The pupils are being led up to the beautiful story of Simeon in the temple, the moment when Mary and Joseph present Jesus. According to the story, Simeon holds forth with an exultant devotional hymn of worship that has come to have lasting meaning in the Christian tradition – the Nunc Dimittis. How do Year 4 make meaning out of this, sufficient to retain it so that this example of ‘worship’ and ‘devotion’ and this particular instance of a ‘temple’ becomes fertile in future study of this religion and others?

They do so through a beautiful hinterland. Pupils have listened to (and/or read, watched, acted) the story of Mary and Joseph going on a long, long journey, with a young baby. According to Jewish custom, Mary and Joseph must go to the Temple with their firstborn and make a sacrifice. They take two pigeons as their offering.  Finally, exhausted, they reach the Temple. They unpack their belongings (don’t forget the pigeons).  A huge amount of the lesson is on this lead-up, the children become invested in the exhaustion and expectation of Mary and Joseph as they learn all about what this journey would have been like and what it was for.

Cut to the Temple. There a man is waiting. What is he waiting for?  The pupils hear (or read) the backstory on Simeon: how all of his life, Simeon had hoped to see the Messiah, how the Jews believed that God would send a special person to lead the Jewish people, how the Jews believed this leader would be the Messiah, how long ago (the Jews believed) God made a promise to Simeon, saying, ‘one day, you will see the Messiah!’, how Simeon had waited years and years…  We reach our core only in the final 15 minutes of the lesson, when Simeon’s song of worship carries so much meaning about religious devotion and worship.  We have arrived it through two stories that now converge.  Those stories were curricular hinterland.  Cut them and the core is not fed.

 

To return to cells, this is how Year 4 pupils first bump into prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells (together with pictures of the cells of course):

“In the cell on the left, the nucleus is uncontained. Scientists used Latin to name these two types of cells. The cells on the left are called prokaryotic cells (without a membrane-bound nucleus). The cells on the right are called eukaryotic cells (with a membrane-bound nucleus).”

Our Year 4 pupils don’t arrive at that cold. What was so special about Lucy’s writing of our biology curriculum, was the fact that this little bit of content came after an extended hinterland that served a proximal function.  Pupils are drawn in through the story of a seventeenth-century Dutch scientist:

“Anton van Leeuwenhoek (Lay-van-hook) sat by his study window, in the autumn of 1673, to open a letter.
The letter had come from England. It was from The Royal Society.  Leeuwenhoek had been eagerly waiting this response. Earlier in the year, Leeuwenhoek had sent The Royal Society drawings of creatures that he had seen using his microscope.
Leeuwenhoek had begun to give up hope ….”

The lead-up to cells is mingled with the fascinating story of microscopes and particular scientists’ struggles with them, so that by the time we reach that dense paragraph and the photos of cells it describes, almost everything in it has been encountered before – scientists finding things, scientists naming things, scientists using Latin and Greek, the word ‘cell’ (we know that Leeuwenhoek took it from monks’ cells), the idea of a membrane … the only new things are the words ‘prokaryotic’ and ‘eukaryotic’.  They are core and, nestled within the hinterland, they are fed.

 

The term ‘hinterland’ is as fertile in curricular thinking as its literal meaning.  It’s not clutter. This is nothing to do with fun stuff to make things more interesting or engaging, nothing to do with extraneous activities to ‘engage’ (which are so often redundant when the content itself is engaging and its mastery rewarding).

Of course, the distinction doesn’t work in all subjects all the time. For in some subjects, reduction to the pure propositions is vital and the last thing one wants is contextual stuff.   Even context can be clutter.  But that is the very reason why we need the word ‘hinterland’. It helps us distinguish between a vital property that makes curriculum work as narrative and merely ‘engaging activities’ which can distract and make pupils think about (and therefore remember) all the wrong things. It allows teachers to have this kind of conversation:

“Isn’t that a distraction?”

“No, it’s hinterland. This is why…”.

 

To summarise, the term ‘coverage’, normally associated with curricula, has limited use.  When trying to interrogate others’ curricular decisions or to establish their implications for teaching, stop talking about coverage.  Talk the language of narrative; let curriculum do its work across time.

This also avoids the sillier, purely generic debates about whether knowledge or skill is more important when (a) it is their relationship and interplay that matters, and (b) that interplay takes place differently across subjects. But more on that later.

In my next post, I’ll develop another implication of the indirect manifestation of knowledge hinted at the start of this post: the fact that the final accomplishment or performance is not the same as the means of its nurture.  This takes us to the heart of the reason why curriculum has been neglected: not just because it has been supplanted by assessment, but because its relationship with assessment has become distorted.

In search of senior curriculum leadership : Introduction – a dangerous absence

This is an introduction to a series of posts exploring future possibilities for senior curriculum leadership in schools.

What does it mean to be in a whole-school leadership team and to be leading on curriculum? We still lack a properly developed model of what is senior curriculum leadership. Time was when a senior leader in charge of curriculum did timetabling and examination options, perhaps handled staffing and other resourcing attached to subjects. Most of this had little to do with curriculum, but when I first went into teaching, this is what the ‘curriculum deputy’ traditionally did.  More recently, curriculum has often disappeared altogether. Senior roles typically comprise head of teaching and learning, assessment, data, achievement….  Where is curriculum?

Curriculum is fundamental to schools. It is also fiendishly complex. Necessarily directional and dependent on recognisable channels, it must nonetheless be vibrant and changing for such is the character of knowledge and our relationship to it.  It is at once a thing of beauty and of utility, and both matter. More like the waterways of Venice than a set of roads or paths, it needs specialist maintenance or it won’t take you where you want to go, nor make it a rewarding experience. Moreover, like Venice, its waters don’t stand alone. If you don’t understand the relationship of knowledge in the curriculum to the wider oceans and rains of knowledge that renew or trouble it, you’re liable to flood or drought.

Such a thing needs leadership. To stretch my Venice analogy further than it deserves, the collective waterways of the city need overarching leadership not just the individual canals.

Trouble is, the term ‘curriculum leadership’ is associated with middle leaders – the ‘geography coordinator’, the ‘head of science’. It is, quite rightly, linked to subjects.  Subjects are derived from the great traditions of knowledge construction in academic and artistic fields, each with its own rules of enquiry and evidence, its own traditions of argument and debate or its own standards of performance and judgement. Each echoes a distinctive quest for truth and each carries accumulated wisdom that must be mastered if its wider ways are to be opened up. Children need to be brought into these traditions if they are ever to enliven and renew them themselves.  The traditions are interconnected all right, but they are canals. Without canals, we have no city, or at least, not a navigable one.  Their very separateness matters.

What can senior curriculum leadership mean, that is, leadership of curriculum in the whole school, given that one cannot know about all these subjects in their distinctive channels?

And why on earth does this matter so much? Haven’t we gotten along perfectly well thank you very much without such senior staff exercising curricular knowledge?

Actually no, we haven’t. The absence of an adequate model of senior curriculum leadership seems to me to deepen fundamental and longstanding problems in schools with which we have all wrestled, from weak assessment systems to problems with generation and interpretation of data, from problematical judgements about teaching and learning, to attraction and retention of fine teachers, from teacher development to the effectiveness of CPD.

My concern is therefore not just about what a person in SLT called ‘curriculum VP’ or ‘curriculum deputy’ needs to know, but what everyone in a senior leadership team needs to know about curriculum in order to lead on everything else.

Senior curriculum leadership is the whole SLT’s business.

Where SLTs have tried to reach into pedagogy with generic strategies that fail to attend to subject distinctiveness, all manner of distortions have occurred. In tackling the ‘how’ (teaching and learning) and in attempting to judge its efficacy (progress, assessment, data, outcomes), if we ignore ‘what?’ is being learned, we risk damaging so much else that school leadership and management ought to foster.

Let’s take a closer look at those two areas:

(i) teaching and learning

To talk about teaching without considering what is being learned, is to create an intransitive pedagogy, a pedagogy without an object.  Without the curricular substance supplied by such an object, so much school leadership conversation on teaching and learning is operating in a vacuum, and into that vacuum flows genericism.

A couple of years ago I wrote about a chronic example of such genericism : the practice of many schools who for a very long time insisted that teachers structured lessons around Blooms Taxonomy, and thus did violence to the structure and content of various subjects.

If such practice is now discredited, I’m not confident that it is for the right reasons. What should trouble us is not just the assumptions of hierarchy relating to ‘evaluate’ or ‘analyse’ but the fact that this was deemed a generic solution.

The problem of genericism is no respecter of ‘prog’ or ‘trad’.  While most now accept that expecting pupils to be doing group work every 10 minutes is ridiculous, I would be just as bothered if pupils are expected to be doing retrieval practice every 10 minutes.

Such a directive ignores the matter of what is to be retrieved, in what form, in what interplay with other content and for what subject purpose.

For example, a head of teaching and learning who draws on research in the psychology of memory to argue that that lower attainers should just learn fewer facts, really thoroughly, may be making a very sensible point in particular subject contexts.  But applied in blanket ways, it ignores how different subjects hold facts together in ways that make them memorable: through logical relations in some subjects, through narrative in others, through a supporting hinterland in others, and through other types of association in others.  So in some settings, certain kinds of surrounding material don’t necessarily get in the way; they can, paradoxically, help the retention of the core material.

Thus it may not be the number of facts to which we should attend, but to their status, function and interplay in the disciplinary accounts that give them subject meaning.

These are curricular questions before they are psychological questions. They are about the way in which factual material is ‘carried’ whether in text cohesion or in other disciplinary structures.

For non-scientists like me, such disciplinary carrying is beautifully explained by Rosalind Walker in her account of where genericism has compromised science teaching.  Rosalind writes this post in order to “successfully challenge blithe exhortations to do something in our teaching that is just not appropriate”. Notice how in order to explain how generic guidance weakened her students’ progress by distorting the curriculum, she needs to explain science’s vertical explanatory structure and its declarative elements. She also needs to talk about ‘inference’, and when she does, those of us reared in the stables of history or English know we have ridden into a foreign country.

Rosalind’s blog is a counterblast against misguided whole-school directives on teaching. She writes how she had frequently ‘gone off and performed what I now view as contortions, corruptions of my teaching of science subject knowledge, in order to please observers…. I’ve written up lists of ostensibly hierarchical success criteria so that pupils know how to improve their work….I’ve created lessons around a hinge question so as to make sure I’ve got a hinge question in my lesson.’

Her critique is severe. School science has been damaged by the effort to foist upon it inappropriate questions, activities and feedback models.

 

(ii) progress, assessment, data and outcomes

Conversations between senior leaders and subject leaders must be cognisant of the curriculum sits behind that data, or else the conversation risks being at cross purposes. At worst, it becomes a conversation that imagines it is about outcomes, but is actually just about measure of outcomes.

Stuart Lock, principal of Bedford Free School, once tweeted, “if in some schools every meeting on data was replaced with a meeting on the curriculum, those schools would have much better data”.

Stuart’s point was that instead of tracking numbers, we need to get much closer to what those numbers represent, to what pupils now know or can do, that they didn’t or couldn’t before.  If the curriculum itself is the progression model, then numbers change their meaning.  This places the burden of proof on the curriculum itself.

By contrast, all kinds of curricular blindness have done serious damage in recent decades. They clearly still do in countless school contexts. Perhaps most serious are the pressures that detract from precise formative analysis of progress pupils make in the steady building of underlying components such as knowledge increments or basic procedures.  Instead, teachers are too often required to track back from the skill-based language of final summative assessments, turning every lesson into a micro-exam, and for what? The push to use summative assessment for formative inferences has resulted in a confusion between performance and the means of its nurture.  Cue the clandestine lament of the conscientious head of department, that they have to waste time “kicking rubbish data upstairs to SLT”.

 

So much for the problem. How does this absence of curricular focus happen? And what can we do about it?

It happens because at the level of a whole school, the pull of the generic is strong and understandably so. Schools must be led and managed as coherent enterprises. Parity must be found across a school’s spheres. To ascend the ladders of school leadership, subject specialism must, to some degree, be transcended.  Whole-school leaders contribute in vital ways that transcend subject. They must communicate strategy, distribute resource, facilitate collaboration, align systems, review pupils’ progress across differing spheres, build policies for behaviour… In short, they must create the best environment possible for all teachers to make things happen.

Therefore, built into the culture of staff development is a sense of subject specialism as transient.  Built into the structure of a school is an imperative for common proxies – from performance measures to precepts for pedagogy – all at one remove from the actual substance what is being taught and learned.

How easy, then, to slide into the assumption of equivalence, especially with generic terms such as ‘learning’, ‘progress’ or ‘skills’.

Of course, in its necessary calculations that place one subject beside another for comparison and management, a school does produce a gain in its collective professional knowledge. But it also creates a loss.  It loses sight of the knowledge goods themselves, and these disappear in senior management and leadership conversations.

Yet one subject differs profoundly from another.  And these differences are significant. If SLT are to gain a sense of what kind of data might be useful in establishing attainment or progress, if conversations about matters such as ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ are to have any meaning at all, then the substance of what is being taught and learned needs primacy.   In seeking to establish the quality of the work of a department or teacher, instead of going too quickly to the generic, SLT might more usefully go via the substance, nature, structure and form of the subject.

But how?

Pity the poor senior leader!  What on earth is he or she to do? The job of the senior leader is to hold middle leaders to account. But given that he or she cannot master about fifteen subjects, how is this to be done? A scientist deputy head cannot be an artist; a historian cannot be a mathematician. How do we break the eternal barrier of not being able to speak that subject’s language?

There must be a way.

Senior Leadership Teams need a curricular language for talking about teaching and attainment, a language which, because of its curricular character, illuminates rather than conceals the thing itself.  Such a language cannot be empty of substance. It must be rooted in a shared knowledge base, one that makes curricular communication possible.

So what distinctively curricular, professional knowledge base might equip a senior leader to discern and weigh, incentivise and question, the resource that is a teachers’ subject specialism?  What kind of knowledge base is necessary to be able to discuss teaching, learning, assessment and data in ways that allow a geographer to breathe geography?

In the remaining posts in this series, I will share a very tentative case for the structure of that knowledge base. Drawing on principles first developed with the University of Cambridge Faculty of Education MEd Researching Practice community between 2010 and 2015, and first presented as a structure within a keynote address for the inaugural conference of the British Curriculum Forum on 18 June 2016, I break it down into nine areas. Each of these nine areas of knowledge furnish questions that senior leaders need to be able to ask if they are to do their core job – to take reliable and useful assurance from middle leaders, to do so without corroding the dignity of the thing being taught and to situate all this within the big picture of the whole-school curriculum with enough knowledge to strategise concerning its future efficacy.

These nine areas for questions are as follows:

  1. The indirect manifestation of knowledge
  2. Substantive and disciplinary knowledge
  3. How does epistemic ascent work? Understanding subject structures: hierarchical and horizontal; cumulative and accumulative
  4. Recontextualisation: the origins of subjects in academic and professional practice outside school
  5. Subject communities: the sources of authority and renewal for teachers’ curricular thinking
  6. Crazy cross-curricularity or intelligent interdisciplinarity?
  7. Joining lessons in sequences
  8. The general and the particular
  9. Education as an experience in its own right

 

 

 

Genericism’s children

Many a head of history will have used some of the holiday to do a little thinking about how to move his or her history department’s practice forward.

Let’s imagine one such head of history. She has been anticipating the likely state of Year 9’s essay writing by June. What sorts of things will the essays tell her? How are they going to get better? And what does ‘getting better’ mean anyway?

Let’s imagine that she and her department have focused on causation essays – those essays that will answer questions such as: Why did Russia have a Bolshevik revolution? Why did South African apartheid end? Let’s say she’s been thinking about this in the light of earlier causation essays, perhaps Year 8’s favourite on Napoleon’s demise. What is a strong argument in such a question? What layers of knowledge do the essays reveal? What deficits in knowledge do they betray? What is knowledge ‘doing’ in the stronger essays? What layers of knowledge from Year 7 seem to be indirectly affecting success in Years 8 and 9? What is giving these students power as they survey and wonder, judge and reckon?

Our head of history will steep herself in the numerous articles by other history teachers who have considered such matters over two decades. She knows most already, but she will search for new ones. And in order to move deeply into decisions about the nature of what she is after, and to build her own knowledge, she will also read recent historical scholarship: Christopher Clark on the causes of the First World War, Mary Beard on the fall of the Roman Empire, or perhaps that new book on the Ottomans … … is there time?

… Stop. Stop right there, head of history. It’s 11pm. 3 January 2016. Time to stop reading. Time to stop dreaming. Time to go back to school. The place where all this should be happening. The place where all this professional knowledge should be prized and used, tested and explored.

The place where it probably won’t.

Dream on head of history. Maybe in the Easter holidays?

Our head of history falls asleep, all over the Ottomans.

How will our head of history’s efforts to use such knowledge fare when faced with a new whole-school approach to lesson planning, using a generic framework such as one derived from Bloom’s taxonomy? Let us imagine three such heads of history conversing with their senior leaders in three schools.

In Scenario 1, lesson objectives commencing with the verbs ‘describe’, ‘explain’ and ‘analyse’ or ‘evaluate’ must match successive stages of a lesson. Pedagogies associated with these verbs must foster the increments of demand that their hierarchy is deemed to enshrine. These pedagogies form a menu on which teachers are encouraged to draw.

The conversation our head of history has with an SLT member is confused, stressful and culminates in impasse. It does so on two fronts: first, over the term ‘explain’; second, over the status of the verbs. The head of history points out that she is indeed privileging pupils’ explanation, but causal explanation. She points out that this is a style of disciplinary reasoning that shapes many history essays. She insists that it amounts to an argument in response to a certain kind of ‘Why?’ question, that students will build such arguments across three or four lessons and that ‘explain’, in such a context, does not mean ‘explicate’, ‘set out’ or ‘expand’. It also has nothing to do with explaining the process of photosynthesis or explaining how a bicycle works.

To force an ‘explain’ (of either meaning) into the middle section of each lesson confuses the journey toward building powerful, informed, causal explanations, especially if, as SLT expects, the teacher must tell pupils that ‘explain’ is a step more demanding than ‘describe’, and even more damaging if teachers must distinguish it from ‘analyse’. Causal explanation, in history, is, necessarily, analysis.

The tense conversation muddles on. And as efforts to communicate lurch about, our frustrated head of history gradually realises what is going on. SLT is treating the verbs as proxies for learning processes, each with attendant teaching method. She is therefore reading our head of history’s comments on ‘explanation’ through that lens. In other words, our SLT member reads the history department’s curricular account as if it were a pedagogy.

But causal explanation is a curricular object; it is neither learning process nor teaching approach. Causal explanation may, of course, command all kinds of learning process; some might coincide with aspects of Bloom’s taxonomy, but it is not, in itself, a learning process. It is a disciplinary end, a curricular ‘what?’, not a pedagogic ‘how’. To read curriculum as pedagogy is not to read curriculum at all.

In requiring our head of history to build a lesson around learning processes, our SLT promotes an intransitive pedagogy, a pedagogy without an object.

The conversation is held entirely at crossed purposes.

In Scenario 2, by contrast, our second SLT treats Bloom’s taxonomy as curriculum, but the conversation with our head of history is just as vexed. In this school, a variant of the taxonomy is used to capture generic ‘thinking skills for the twenty-first century’. In this construal, the verbs describe processes, but processes to be learned rather than processes of learning – a crucial distinction, for it renders them a curricular object.

Underpinning SLT’s desire to add these into the curriculum is a perception of deficit. History is construed by SLT as information, as a collection of inert facts; students must therefore be taught, as an addition, the skills of critical thinking. They must be encouraged, as an addition, to be creative.

Yet our head of history knows that history is not a collection of facts but a structured field of knowledge. She knows that intricate relations between its factual elements – relations structured by language, by chronology, by narrative – give all that factual material, once secure in memory, a special power, a function in assimilating new knowledge. Our head of history also knows that history lessons tackle the origin, structure and status of that knowledge: students must re-arrange and re-construe, argue and analyse. A history teacher carefully shuttles between representations of the material that the discipline studies (substantive knowledge) and induction into the tradition of epistemic rules and practices that made such representations possible (disciplinary knowledge). To climb into the conversation that is history, to learn its intellectual rigour, is to nurture criticality and creativity in abundance.

Our head of history’s resistance therefore now arises not merely from clashing nomenclature. It arises from the fact that the required curricular addition is redundant.

Scenario 3 yields a happier conversation, yet the result of its harmony is tragic. This time SLT listens well to the head of history. She realises that strong history lessons already see students carrying out all the moves in the school’s generic skill taxonomy. Students in history do, indeed, combine and create, arrange and apply!

Delighted at this surprising, if accidental, compliance, all SLT need ask our head of history to do is to show where in her history curriculum documentation these modes of thinking will be taught, and to evidence the result.

Thus, in Scenario 3, curricular by-product has become product. A faux curricular narrative has been created, and now becomes the narrative that will hold the head of history to account. As price for being left in peace, this third head of history will now complete audits against these generic categories. She will screen out the distinctive historical meanings, the ones much discussed in her department, in history teachers’ literature, in her own subject-specific training. In order to satisfy a management narrative, she will re-write columns on workschemes and boxes on lesson plans. She will engage in concomitant casuistry in assessment.

It is not that the head of history does not value creativity and criticality; it is, rather, that these outputs do not correspond with the means of their nurture. They are not resolvable into objectives of the same name.

Above all, they derogate the thing that our head of history sees making the biggest difference for the erstwhile weaker student, the thing that gives hope that vocab-poor students might eventually gain the critical skills SLT claims to prize – that is, the systematic, steady familiarisation with layers and layers of rich, fascinating, enabling knowledge.

The double tragedy is that this investigation of the history department has not improved SLT’s grasp of the nature of historical knowledge, its relational properties and epistemic structures. It has converted these things into a superficial and misleading curricular narrative, and in order to retain professional harmony, the head of history must pretend her curricular decisions are governed by it. She must be complicit in a lie.

 

These three conversations, about a non-curriculum, a redundant curriculum and a usurper curriculum, illustrate communication breakdowns between genericist and subject-specialist. They do no more than imperfectly exemplify a stream of cri de coeurs in my in-box from desperate heads of history which have waxed and waned (mostly waxed) over fifteen years. I choose Blooms – or rather common applications of its variants – at random. Any number of whole-school policies, on teaching, learning or assessment, would do.

I share them here for two reasons, each of which I plan to explore in this blog:

First, to illustrate a clash of cultures in many of England’s state secondary schools, that between curriculum construed as strongly bounded domains of specialized knowledge and curriculum construed as (or replaced by) sets of aims deriving from assorted perceptions of utility. It is a divide between two views of what is emancipatory for students.

Second, to posit a crisis in our conceptions of senior curriculum leadership. Such a crisis is characterized by an absence of curricular reflection on differing knowledge structures and their epistemic power, on the place of knowledge in definitions of progress, on subjects as distinctive yet shifting traditions into which pupils can be inducted, on the interplay of layers and forms of knowledge within subjects, and on knowledge as the inclusion issue: what Hirst and Peters called ‘public modes of knowledge’ and the access they give us to educated conversation.

This absence matters because it leaves a vacuum. It is a vacuum into which genericism flows.