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  • Writer's pictureRuth Ashbee

My plan to reform our curriculum

Do you dream about curriculum? I do. I dream and I can see the web of knowledge, and it’s the most beautiful thing. I can see how we touch the universe through our subjects, and my heart soars.

Wherever I look, I see core, hinterland, narrative, organisation, memory, and sequences. If you’re going for a drink with me and you don’t want to hear about declarative and procedural knowledge then bad luck. Curriculum is my king and my country.

But none of this is much good until it’s taken and translated into the T-drive. Lofty ideals need to give us lessons on the ground. Students learn from work not WordPress.

Planning your actual curriculum to live up to your dream is a terrifying task. It is just so big. You can’t just sort the year 7 curriculum this year and the year 8 next year. You have to sort the whole thing all at once or nothing. Coherence demands a big picture. Sequencing demands all the pieces can be seen so that their order can be decided. How can we achieve a task like this when we have to fit it around assemblies, house meetings and you know, teaching? This is my plan to tackle this huge and critical task:

  1. Vision meeting (15 mins) 

Meet with leaders within the department and agree a curriculum vision. My suggestion is: “Our intent is to plan and teach an inspiring and memorable science curriculum that inducts students into what Michael Young calls “powerful knowledge”: the knowledge and skills that allow access to humanity’s most rewarding endeavours. We seek to implement this by delivering great lessons informed by cognitive science: great explanations, core knowledge and hinterland illustrations, Shed Loads Of Practice, frequent low-stakes tests and dual coding, as well as explicitly teaching students how to revise independently, and providing them with the resources and accountability to engage in regular and effective revision as home learning.” (30 mins)

2. Department knowledge mapping (30 mins)

Get together as a department to draw a collaborative knowledge map showing all the links between all the topics in ks3 and ks4. Ideally use a software tool like Don’t bother labelling the links- you already know what they are (30 mins)

3. Preparing and printing planning documents (15mins)

Print the ks4 specification for biology, chemistry and physics content onto A3 paper, left hand page only. On the right hand side, add the columns: “How Science Works”, “Language”, “Gateway Concepts” and “Hinterland.” This will be the KS4 A3 planning booklet.

In addition, print copies of the How Science Works section of the specification.

4: Subject specialists meeting (1hr30mins)

a) Hand out the KS4 A3 planning booklet to subject specialists (physics, chemistry, biology). Subject specialists go through the ks4 spec and add in post-it notes with any additional content you feel strongly should be included. We add in things for sense-making (domains for magnetism), exemplars and links (eg pendulum) and wow factor (eg Chernobyl). Don’t worry about exactly where you stick the post-it notes – sequencing will come later.

b) Next, go through the chemistry, biology and physics with subject specialists and plan where each part of the How Science Works will go. Note next to each point on the HSW spec which unit/s they will appear in, and also write in the column next to that part of the biology/physics/chemistry. Each point must appear at least once; obviously many will appear a lot more than that.

c) Check everyone is clear on the rest of the column headings. “Language” is for all the tier 3 and possibly tier 2 language that students struggle with for that unit or area. For example in radioactivity we have isotope (as referring to a source rather than “a version of an element with a different mass number”, calling isotopes by their mass number e.g. C-14, activity, emission, etc. “Gateway concepts” refer to things that have to be understood before students can access this area. So sticking with radioactivity, students can’t understand ionisation if they don’t know about the structure of the atom and what ions are.*  “Hinterland” refers to the supporting details, the examples, anecdotes and experiments that students don’t need to remember accurately, but that furnish the richness of their understanding and contribute to the building of tacit knowledge. Examples might be the story of Marie Curie working through the night out in her shed for months on end to extract enough polonium to study, or Haber’s work on chemical weapons.

Ask subject specialists to go through the document and fill in as much as they can, but not to make stuff up for the sake of it. We can return to these later.

Take the A3 booklets away and complete if necessary.

5: Subject specialists meeting: 1hr

Meet and read each others’ notes. Make any additions – non-specialists are great at pointing out particularly language that presents a challenge. (15 mins)

The rest of this meeting will be for beginning to plan the KS3 curriculum backwards from what we have detailed for KS4. Go through the A3 booklets and make notes on what could happen in KS3 and what possibly should be saved for KS4. For example I think teaching about alpha and beta decay, and referring to materials as isotopes, can come in KS3 and be very useful. I think decay equations doesn’t add anything at KS3 and so should be kept until KS4. This prompts me to think we need a radioactivity KS3 unit. Lots of other things will probably arrange themselves nicely into more traditional KS3 units such as “Forces” and “Cells”

Have some discussion and note taking about what KS3 units could look like, what they can do to support challenge in ks4, and what their sequence might be like. For example,  I think we will probably want Adam Boxer’s chemistry fundamentals, a forces topic, static electricity and respiration and photosynthesis early on. We want Adam’s How Science Works unit too, probably halfway through year 7 though so students have enough substantive knowledge to be able to really get to grips with notions like theories, data and evidence.

7. Sleep and reflect. Things like this need time to distill.

8.: Subject specialists meeting (2 hours)

a) (1hr30mins) Get together and agree the units and sequencing for ks3 and ks4. What can KS3 curriculum to provide a strong foundation for KS4? Which aspects of the language, gateway concepts, and hinterland can come early? Which need to come later?

Add in anything that is required by the national curriculum if you are a LA school, plus any extra stuff you want for KS3. Because my school is in industrial revolution country, we might look at an iron unit, just a short one, but an intentional cultural curriculum choice in addition to everything we’ve considered so far.

b) (20mins) Agree a checklist of what each unit should contain. My suggestions are:

  1. Core questions

  2. Planned explanations

  3. SLOP including dual coding and writing revolution activities

  4. Data questions

  5. Experiments and experiment questions

  6. Concrete examples

  7. Stories for hinterland- see Bill Wilkinson’s blog

c)  (10 mins) Agree two years to be the focus for writing units: we will probably do year 7 and 8. This is because a) our ks4 units are largely serviceable and b) there’s no point writing a great year 10 unit for teaching this year, that relies on units that this year’s kids haven’t had yet. This of course is an issue for year 8 but at least it will only be an issue for 1 year. We need to get the units written really over the next year if possible, the gains made in quality of explanation, core questions and SLOP will still be significant gains for students who are too late to benefit from improved sequencing further down the school.

9. Meet discuss the planning of units (30 mins)

All staff who have been allocated a unit to write to meet and discuss progress and issues.

10. Teaching, reflection and further planning.

After the allocated time, check that all units have been completed. Try them out on the appropriate year groups. Meet and discuss reflections, and allocate the rest of the year groups for planning.

*I haven’t used the term “threshold concepts” here as threshold concepts have  a very specific definition which includes being irreversible – many gateway concepts are entirely reversible in our students, and indeed research by Andrew Schtulman has shown that we never really overcome many misconceptions, we just learn to suppress them.

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