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 being a proxy 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