Do you offer children something to think, talk, read and write about?
It’s been a quiet Christmas break, which is how it is when you get a bit older. It’s usually making sure that younger generations have a good time; that they are fed and clothed and have presents to open. It has been interesting to drop in and out of Twitter to see what’s being discussed. It can be an eye opener, or occasionally a tablet shutter, as views pass that might elicit a type-delete response.
However, recent tweets about the curriculum suggest that Curriculum is the current hot topic, as Ofsted are putting it at the centre of their next round of thinking, and some commentators seemingly jumping on the opportunity to propound their “knowledge rich” agenda, as if it’s a new phenomenon.
My career in teaching started with training at St Luke’s College, Exeter, from 1971-74. Although Plowden was a high-profile element that was the new core of pedagogic reflection, the sharing of knowledge was central to the science course that I started and the Environmental Education course to which I transferred in year 2, providing a broad subject base for Primary, which became my passion.
It was based on knowledge, the interpretation of which into classroom narratives was left to us. We explored “programmed learning”, which was exemplified by exploring the stages of making a cup of tea or a piece of toast. This showed us the essence of embedded knowledge that is assumed in giving instruction or developing a narrative. It made us better “storytellers”; a mixture of substance and exploration. If you think of sharing a book/(his)story with children, their background knowledge inevitably impacts on their understanding of the whole; that’s Hirsch in a sentence.
We talked of challenge in tasking, with the challenge depending on our understanding of the knowledge that the children had already encountered; it was effectively tested through use and application. Within the task, when children encountered difficulty, it highlighted areas that had ether been missed or had not been assimilated effectively, so in-task teaching would occur. There were tremendous similarities to my own education experiences in the 1950/60s. It was also writ large in the available resource materials, such as Nuffield Science 5-13.
Knowledge and challenge were intertwined.
I still have a copy of the textbook that underscored my initial training; Environmental Studies, by George Martin and Edward (Ted) Turner, who was the course leader. For those who would wish to claim that knowledge-rich is a new phenomenon, I’d offer them this book, from 1972 as both a starter knowledge across subjects that sought to give an introduction to thinking practically about the world, supplemented in each chapter with an extensive bibliography for extended reading.
The premise of the course was to provide teachers with the background to introduce children into their world through three layers, Investigation and interpretation, communication, inspiration. Over time, this gave rise to my personal mantra of learning challenge as something to think, talk, and write about, leading to presentation, preferably to a known audience.
The course explored the living and non-living world; essentially chemistry, physics and biology with added geology; the past world around us, architectural features, local archaeological sites and using artefacts; rural and urban living, settlement studies, including use of materials for dwellings and other buildings; conservation, especially within an urban settlement; histories, especially from a locality perspective, but also within a national and international perspective. (Ted Turner took as his inspiration the notion of the Renaissance, especially Leonardo da Vinci. That allowed the summer field trip to be to Florence, at a time when it was possible to wander into galleries freely. However we also had to write about the other aspects too; planning how we would use the available resources to offer the broader curriculum.
Mathematics, of measures, counting and data, language, art and music were significant features.
It was a good basic starter, to which I later added two part-time Diplomas, one in Environmental Sciences and the second in Language and Reading Development.
The 1987 National Curriculum was a 95% match with our existing curriculum; I was a deputy in a First School.
The subsequent Dearing Review gave a 95% correspondence.
When I became a HT in 1990, there was a need to create a firmer base for the curriculum, which could have been described as a little ad-hoc.
We had a mix of planning layers, starting with whole school and year group. This was premised on allocating topics appropriately.
Every topic had a “topic spec”, which was designed by the subject lead, ensuring that the NC expectations were clear, articulating essential knowledge, skills, challenges, available school and locality resources, plus reminders of quality outcome expectations (Level descriptors rewritten as descriptors of child capability).
Every teacher received their planning file in July, before a half day of a closure that allowed them to organise their planning thoughts before the summer holiday. A copy came to me as HT, so I knew in July what the next year “learning map” looked like.
Because the year was based around revisiting areas, especially in maths and English, revision of ideas, aka interleaving, was embedded.
In so doing, we had a curriculum with meat, two veg and a good helping of dessert.
It was planned longer term, so that it had substance. It was broad, balanced and relevant, drawing from the locality as much as possible, to fully immerse the children into their community, as well as drawing from wider opportunities; we did take the children on local trips, but also to London, to the British Museum for Greek, Roman or Egyptian exhibitions. However, time was always against us for day trips, with at least two hours each way on a coach and costs getting ever higher. The IWB did allow us to bring a level of experience into classrooms, taking over from the video or CD player.
While “bright ideas” might be imported, these were always evaluated against what was already offered. If they added something, they were incorporated.
It was a cycle of constant improvement, supported by every subject lead having at least a half day with a County inspector to review the school offering as a whole.
The 1997 National Curriculum with the accompanying strategies, did put some of this under strain, especially when we needed to replace experienced staff. It was noticeable that some applicants were used to a narrower diet. However, personalised CPD opportunities, eg shadowing colleagues, allowed insights into expectations. Staffing stability helped with this; we held onto the “tribal memories”… see blog…
The breadth paid off in national testing, too, where English, maths and science scored highly. Every subject was valued, with quality outcomes celebrated throughout the school, with displays or presentations opening learning to others.
The 2014 Primary National Curriculum was always a worry to me, even though I was not school based, but working in ITE and with parents and inclusion. It articulated English and Maths extensively, while others were diminished. Listening to Tim Oates, early in the process, saying that it was designed to be easier to test highlighted an underlying political agenda.
As we are now a couple of days into 2019. Perhaps a chance for reflection and refinement?
I have no problem with a conversation about what children should be exposed to through their school experience. There must be a clear narrative to learning; it is after all, the school’s internal book.
Every subject can be explored by a 2-year old, a 12-year old or a 22-year old. Their ability to interact with the experience will vary widely, from an initial exploratory phase, which I would see as “play”, through to accommodating, reflecting on and reacting to, ever more sophisticated information. We are on a constant journey, carrying with us, at any point, the accumulated wisdom of earlier experiences. So a “knowledge organiser” as our “topic specs” can be seen today, will vary considerably for each age group, and should do so. It should support a developing narrative approach, not become a knowledge dump which an inexperienced practitioner might simply regurgitate.
Order and organisation are key to teaching and learning success, over different timescales.
I would argue that annual plans allowed teachers to ensure coverage while also developing each topic at depth. Colleagues also benefited from collegiate sharing, either one to one or within practical workshops.
At classroom level, each teacher planned in ways that suited them. They were personal diaries, only considered if there were question marks over children’s progress. Classroom teachers are paid to think. They need to think clearly, on multiple layers, always with children and their progress in mind. That’s why it can be tough at times.
When teaching becomes top-down, teachers start to look at what is expected, to second guess what “those above” are looking for. That this has, on occasion been subject to the management or Ofsted rumour mill, can’t be denied; one local school or colleague passing on their tips from their own inspection, so others copy.
To hold to your own course can be challenging, but it is your own school’s journey that’s important.
It’s your narrative, your history, your present.
More important, it’s your children’s narrative, their history and their present.
That’s your data; what you do for them and what they get out of it. It’s a mix of the obvious, the displays and the books, but also their attitudes in school, their capacity to engage in talk with others. It’s a story, based on words, not numbers, so that children can engage with their own developing narratives.
Children’s pleasure in overcoming challenges and learning…led by teachers who enjoy teaching.