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 seven 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.