Planning a knowledge curriculum.

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For the first time in my career I am planning a whole five year history curriculum from scratch. This is something of an embarrassing confession to make but I don’t think my experience is that unusual. As I wrote about here a while back, there are lots of reasons this isn’t typical; a lot of the time, for better or worse, what we teach is based on the textbooks we have and what’s on the shared area on our school network. Often incoming Heads of Department inherit schemes of work and staff used to doing things in a certain way, sometimes for good reason and sometimes just because it is what’s always been done. In the face of high workloads and understandable concerns about rocking the boat too much it is very tempting not to reinvent the wheel, especially when we are so well-meaningly and earnestly told we should avoid doing so.

This causes significant issues. Gradual evolution of curriculum and schemes of work seems sensible but can very easily lead to curricular confusion and incoherence. A lesson on Thomas Becket comes to be taught every year simply because it is taught every year with the original purpose and wider meaning of the lesson, if indeed thought was ever given to this, lost years back in the swirling mists of changing strategy and fashion.

The cult of high-stakes, graded one off lesson observations made this worse, with emphasis placed on the quality of what happened in each hour without reference to how this tied into any bigger picture.

For a time I didn’t think this that much of a problem. Lazy thinking on my part, aided by poor training and CPD, had led me to believe that the purpose of history was in the transferrable ‘historical skills’ it taught. The content, be it the feudal system, or Doom paintings, or the agricultural revolution, was only a vehicle used to develop description, explanation, evaluation or inference in my pupils, which meant a patchy, haphazard curriculum wasn’t anything to worry very much about. Why spend time painstakingly curating the knowledge pupils would learn if it wasn’t the point of my subject anyway? Better to produce one off whizbangy lessons that shoved pupils through boring low order recall, past description and explanation and then rocketed them right up to evaluating all within sixty minutes.

Of course, I know now this is nonsense. It is now pretty well accepted in the history community that getting better at history means knowing more of it and that a curriculum pupils do not remember is really no curriculum at all.

So what should go in my curriculum? It is here that I, tentatively, first use the phrase “knowledge rich”. I use this phrase cautiously because I see the danger it may turn into just another jargony buzzterm teachers laugh about in the pub. Indeed, some teachers are laughing already. “Knowledge rich! We’ve always taught knowledge! What do you think we’ve been doing for X years?”

I get it, I do. Not very long ago at all I would have laughed too. Of course I was teaching knowledge! I taught children about Thomas Becket! I taught them about Doom Paintings! I taught them about enclosure!

All knowledge, right?

Well, a bit yes but mainly no. In the earlier years of my career I was teaching my pupils knowledge but to be honest, not much of it and what I did teach was mostly forgotten. How could it not be? We rarely returned to it and because any links to anything else were more accidental than intentional it wasn’t memorable. Pupils forgot most of what I taught them and so, even if it could be argued the curriculum was knowledge rich (which it wasn’t), they ended up knowledge poor. Effectively, my pupils were comets blazing through unknown galaxies with ever diminishing trails behind them.

So with the curriculum I’m planning I’ve been determined not to make this mistake. To be truly knowledge rich we must ensure what is taught sticks and is built upon. If the features of the medieval Church are taught in Year 7 then they must remember them so pupils can understand why John Wycliff criticised it. Pupils then need to remember Wycliff’s criticisms so Martin Luther’s complaints don’t seem to arrive from nowhere. Pupils then have to remember Luther to understand Henry VIII’s justifications for the Reformation. To make sense of what has happened in the past pupils must be able to make connections and cannot be comets. Planning a curriculum that makes it possible for pupils to do this means going down to very, very granular detail and knowing not just what pupils are learning but why, and how this will be built upon later. It means scrolling back and forth between years 7 and 8 deciding when exactly is the right point to introduce them to the concept of ‘revolution’ or ‘franchise’. It means moving topics around so that the sequence is just right.

At this point I find myself backtracking somewhat. In the past, and I still stand by it to a certain extent, I’ve said that we should spend more time thinking and discussing what pupils should learn rather than how. While this is true, it would be disingenuous to suggest that the knowledge curriculum in history has no overlap with delivery methods. For children to learn enough of the past to make any kind of sense then there just isn’t much space for very involved activities that take up a lot of time. Time spent on making castles, posters or organising a mock medieval fair is time that could have been spent more directly teaching pupils more knowledge. More knowledge is important because it is easier to connect the dots when there are lots of them.

For a knowledge curriculum to work properly time must also be spent going back over what has been learned before to make sure that the dots are clearly defined even if they were taught years before. It does, of course, take time but since adopting an unashamedly didactic approach and deliberately reducing my tolerance for disruption it has amazed me just how much more I and my pupils get through.

Of course, no matter how rich a curriculum in history is, decisions have to be made about what to teach. it just isn’t possible for them to learn everything. This is where the importance of topics, framed around areas of genuine historical debate, lies. These overarching questions, which can last a term or more, provide the framework in which the knowledge can sit and, more importantly, assume the meaning which makes it memorable. Failing to have these can result in lots of facts that add up to nothing, demeaning history by making it little more than a glorified pub quiz.

I have enjoyed the work, I really have, more than anything I have done in ages. It feels important. I am proud of myself for doing it.

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11 thoughts on “Planning a knowledge curriculum.

  1. kmcg2375 says:

    Knowledge rich isn’t a silly or ostentatious thing to plan for at all. In Australia, we have a couple of awesome pedagogical frameworks that highlight this – though sadly these don’t have as much real impact on schools as standardised test results do.

    Check out the Productive Pedagogies framework out of Queensland. It has ‘intellectual quality’ as one of four dimensions. The Quality Teaching Framework out of New South Wales used the same model and also features intellectual quality. In both models, intellectual quality includes ‘deep knowledge’, along with ‘deep understanding’, ‘metalanguage’ and other elements.

    Are there any similar frameworks where you are?

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  2. I have zero experience as an educator ( of children, anyway), but plenty as a student. Plus I love history. So this comment will contain no jargon.

    The most important thing in teaching history is to inspire curiosity about it (same goes for any subject, really). The historical event you choose to teach isn’t as important as 1) making it live; and 2) drawing a parallel with current events to make it relevant.

    If you aren’t doing these two things, the rest is a wasted effort.

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  3. Jealous of your opportunity to write a history curriculum from scratch! You provide a great justification here of the value of a knowledge-rich curriculum, and the difference between a knowledge-rich curriculum and a curriculum that has knowledge in it.

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  4. I think my reluctance to embrace the concept of a ‘knowledge-rich curriculum’ lies not in its concept, but in its limitations and execution?
    Having had a traditional UK education in the 50s I am, as we all are, influenced by my own experiences, as well as what iI have encountered in a life in education. Even then I observed that what at that time would be called a ‘knowledge-rich curriculum’ varied wildly from subject to subject, and teacher to teacher.
    I like to think of a hierarchy running from data – information – knowledge (leaving aside understanding for the present). Much of what I experienced, in history for example, was at best a data-rich curriculum. Any aspirations it had to being information-rich let alone knowledge-rich fell well short of the mark.
    Thus I could list dates of battles, list the factors leading to the Industrial Revolution, or Repeal of the Corn Laws, but to call this knowledge-rich would be a travesty. I had lots of data, precious little information, and virtually no knowledge.
    In maths I could similarly solve quadratic equations, or write out Pythogoras’ Theorem, but again this wasn’t really knowledge. merely data or at best information. I had no grasp of what they really meant, or how they fitted into the wider world of maths. A total absence of context. I passed the exam at 16 with a good mark, but very little knowledge.
    By contrast, in biology, I had teachers who not only taught me about the recent discoveries of DNA, but they also helped me grasp its significance, and how it helped enable the mechanisms of reproduction and evolution. So I experienced the full range from data through information to knowledge. That biology curriculum I would argue was indeed knowledge-rich.
    Looking back at the history curriculum, it could be argued that much of the data I was required to acquire was actually redundant. I ‘knew’ the date of the Battle of Stamford Bridge, and the date of the Battle of Hastings. What I didn’t know was the relationship between them, and the implications for trying to fight on two fronts simultaneously. That knowledge I could have grasped if it had been explained, even if I couldn’t remember the actual dates! The dates were redundant, though the interval was relevant.
    I have no real argument with a ‘knowledge-rich curriculum’ therefore, but am wary since much of what I see expounded as this seems to me to actually be data-rich but knowledge-poor. If more contextual material and requirements to demonstrate conceptual grasp are included, rather than just the ability to regurgitate data and information, and I suspect you would find few who would argue against it?

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  5. Marc says:

    I really appreciate your post here and commend you for the thoughtfulness of your effort to write curriculum. From my perspective as a high school administrator in New York City, this in particular resonated with me:
    “The cult of high-stakes, graded one off lesson observations made this worse, with emphasis placed on the quality of what happened in each hour without reference to how this tied into any bigger picture.”
    The fetishization of the single lesson observation for the purposes of evaluating teacher effectiveness in our school system has negatively affected our teachers’ understanding of the bigger picture–both historically and in terms of student learning. We work with teachers to re-tool units of study within existing curriculum by developing a “story of the unit” based on brief reading of recent scholarship on the questions and problems that historians wrestle with on a given topic. We posit that when teachers “bring forward” a historical narrative to their instructional design, they clear space–and prioritize opportunities–for students to pose alternative perspectives as the primary objective of their inquiry. While this method has been successful for some teachers, we continue to wrestle with the nuances of pedagogical content knowledge.
    Thanks again and keep us posted on your progress–very interested in your work from our side of the pond.

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