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Curriculum planning – are we training or teaching? A reflection

Exams have been and gone, students have departed, and an air of calm has descended. Mercifully, we now have time to properly reflect on the events of 2017/18. Principally, we can look at planning for next year: what worked, what didn't.

Recently, I was at an English teaching conference at which a man in a very nice suit was attempting to sell a ‘knowledge rich curriculum’. This seemed to consist of throwing literature by white, male, middle class Victorian Englishmen at 11-year olds, and assessing them against watered down GCSE criteria for five full years.

He had progress data. He had achievement data. He could prove it worked. Strangely there was no data to show the effect on the mental health or well-being of young people, or any significant data on student engagement. His ‘knowledge rich curriculum’ looked like training, and not teaching. It looked like repeated GCSE assessment and not engagement with inspirational subject content and I’ve been terrified every day since that this is what is going on in my own department.

Are we training and not teaching? Are we drilling and not facilitating?

With this in mind, below are some brief reflections on how I intend to teach more and train less.

Assessment – low stakes are the best stakes

Like a lot of schools and colleges over the years, collecting data has become an art form. Assess at the start of a half term, and then at the end – we have a baseline, we can measure progress, we can make predictions. Nothing to see here, just excellent practice. Well, not quite.

Recently, I was told of a setting where students complete a full GCSE mock exam paper every 5/6 weeks. Completed over one lesson, students mark their own papers in the subsequent lesson. My initial response was one of horror: surely this means assessing students on content they have not covered? Surely, this means students ‘fail’ at certain topics every 5/6 weeks (because they are set up to do so)?

The issue is this model also sets students up to fail when finding a baseline. Particularly in FE, assessments can be difficult to track because students know when assessments will be and so don’t attend. To mitigate, implement low stakes quizzes in all lessons. To collect quality data, longer quizzes (15-20 mins maximum) can be used at the beginning and end of the half term with shorter, low stakes quizzes being used in all lessons to practice knowledge retrieval.

This will also have benefits in well-being. In the simplest possible terms, if a student ‘fails’ (in student terminology) a mock, they wait 5/6 weeks to correct this. If they ‘fail’ a low stakes quiz, they very quickly have the opportunity to correct this.

Themes, not assessment

‘What did you learn in school today?’

‘We did paper 1, question 3 and Assessment Objective 2’

This depressing conversation happens (too often) on a regular basis. Part of the reason for setting up a blog was to reflect on my own everyday practice and experiences, and it’s confession time. I’ve been guilty of doing the above. Of teaching AO2 or P1Q4 instead of creating engaging, enriching lessons which excite and absorb students.

Well, no more. To combat this, teach around themes. The ever excellent Anthony Cockerill summed this up much better than I ever could here (read it!), and I’ve fallen in love with the ideas he mentions. It’s not always easy to implement this in Further Education, but identifying themes such as conflict, the supernatural or fear will engage students and allow practitioners to express their joy at the content they are teaching (instead of mindlessly plodding through AO3 or paper 2, question 3). I’d love to go into more detail, but really, Anthony has said it much better than I could.

Aspire and cultures of curiosity

As Jenny Webb recently wrote ‘teach beyond the curriculum and expose your students to the most challenging content you can. If you can enhance their reading of a newspaper article with a lecture on some important historical point, then do it.’ Identify the most challenging content you can and get students thinking/ talking/ arguing over it. The amount of times I have heard ‘they’ll never get that’ during my career has been heart breaking.

Create a culture of curiosity in your classroom and students can access any topic, text or content. Workshop texts before starting tasks, get students discussing their views on the text through their own individual prism of life experience and relate this to other texts you’re going to cover or even your own experiences.

To create this culture, value and reward curiosity, teach students how to ask quality questions and encourage them adapt texts, their own ideas and the ideas of their peers.

Current affairs – engage with the ‘now’

Too often, we are comfortable with pulling out an excellent lesson on language analysis that has sat on a USB stick for years. Based around a solid Jekyll and Hyde extract or a passage from the Bourne Ultimatum, this lesson goes down well whenever it is used. But why aren’t we looking in the here and now for resources?

On starting this blog, it occurred to me that I hadn’t read a full non-academic book for pleasure in years. I’d read hundreds of 700-word extracts, but not picked up a book myself. If I’m not doing it, what chance I’m inspiring my students to do it?

How to get around this? In his excellent article on young adult fiction, Andrew Otty proposes using YA fiction as a means to get students engaged in reading for pleasure and also to engage students in an ever-changing classroom. Using fan fiction apps like Wattpad can also enormously engage students and enrich lessons which previously would have focused on the GCSE Literature texts which panicked teachers had incorporated into every element of the language curriculum.

This isn’t to say that the above is a panacea for curriculum ills across the country. But something does need to change about the way curriculum is being influenced by data, progress and Ofsted and hopefully by integrating the above, students can actually enjoy curriculum content and learn about something beyond Paper 2 Question 4.


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