A breakdown of...curriculum design
"Always ask yourself, why this? why now?"
Yeah...I'm more of a 'why me?' 'why today?' kind of guy.
Last weekend, while the majority of teachers were drowning themselves in wine at the reality of the first week back at school, I decided it would be a great idea to expose myself to even more educational trauma. I am, of course, talking about the ResearchEd national conference that dominated peoples' Twitter feeds for the entirety of Saturday 7th September and beyond. This was the coming together of the Beyoncés and Jay-Zs from the world of educational research, just with more clothes on and (slightly) less sass.
Although I spent the majority of my day queuing for a coffee, queuing for the loo and queuing outside an overcrowded classroom, I did manage to find a seat in a talk on curriculum design. This is where I have stolen the tagline for this blog post - 'Why this? Why now?', which was one of the recommendations that Claire and Rebecca Foster made in their session: 'Designing a powerful KS3 curriculum'. They wanted to encourage subject leaders to think critically about the content they teach and the order in which they teach it. After all, how many times do we get asked "why do we need to know this?" when teaching anything from algebra to El Alamein. Replies of: "You just need to..." never really go down well, so perhaps students need a metaphorical slap around the face instead (I said metaphorical. 100% metaphorical.)
Incidentally, I had recently finished designing a resource for Sheffield Hallam University to assist teachers in designing a new KS3 and KS4 History curriculum, so I wasn't as surprised as some teachers to see this advice projected on the big screen. Since the announcement of Ofsted's new inspection framework in May, there has been a growing demand from teachers and teacher trainers for guidance on curriculum design. These grumbles had eventually reached my ears and, as ever, I was poised to make a quick buck out of the confusion.
But what has caused all of this fuss? If you walk into many schools, you will no longer see practitioners prettying their mark books and sprucing up their spreadsheets; instead, they are combing through their curricula in order to convince inspectors of the learning journey that 'most-certainly-100%-definitely goes on in their classrooms'. Well, as always, it has all been driven by Ofsted. In their press release earlier this year, they explained how their new inspection framework (which came into effect this month) advises inspectors to:
'spend less time looking at exam results and test data, and more time considering how a nursery, school, college or other education provider has achieved their results. That is, whether they are the outcome of a broad, rich curriculum and real learning, or of teaching to the test and exam cramming.'
(Cue a single tear falling down the face of every teacher currently writing a results analysis review...)
But what does this mean for History, I hear you ask? Well, in my curriculum resource I explained how History teachers need to consider the following things when designing their curriculum:
> Breadth of knowledge
Are students exposed to enough chronological and geographical breadth across the three-year KS3?
> Depth of knowledge
Is the teaching of topics rigorous enough to enable students to understand Historical events in depth. Are they encouraged to access second-order concepts?
> Source skills
Are students encouraged to analyse and evaluate source material, or are sources just used as an 'accessory' for factual learning?
> Relationship with KS4 and KS5
How does the KS3 curriculum fit in with wider-school teaching of History - is it used as a method of preparation (e.g. a three-year GCSE)?
> Staff expertise and resources
Are the topics in the curriculum easy to resource and could they be delivered by a non-specialist?
Understanding these ideas is the first step in designing or redesigning your KS3 History curriculum. Of course, many of these things are obvious and have been a staple of the GCSE and A Level specifications for a number of years now - but have you ever applied them to KS3? Treating the lower-school curriculum with as much importance as the exam years will not only increase take-up at GCSE, but could also boost attainment.
In light of this, the biggest change that we made to our curriculum was the inclusion of a 'topical' breadth study, which was ultimately motivated by student feedback on the subject of History itself. Over the last two years, we have seen a 50% decrease in the number of students choosing to study History at GCSE. While there are obviously a number of reasons for this (damn you, Economics and Geography!!), the biggest reason that came out of a student survey was that students no longer felt History was that relevant in their lives. For example, around 60% of pupils believed that History is not as useful as STEM subjects in the modern world - but let's not even get started on THAT debate...
So, using this 'why this? why now?' mantra, 'Empires and Migration' seemed like the most appropriate topic to introduce into the curriculum and Year 9 was seen as the best fit (from a chronological and intellectual standpoint). Pupils in the school come from a range of different ethnic and religious backgrounds, so a world topic of this type seemed incredibly fitting. During the term we cover six out of the seven continents and we are just waiting for something newsworthy to happen in Antarctica so that we can have the full set (fingers crossed that Trump does something stupid!) Politics is also something that interests a number of our pupils (with many taking it at A Level), so we wanted topics that were explicitly relevant to the modern day. Since introducing the course we have used news stories about Windrush, Syria and British dialects to stress the importance of the subject and we stress how historical skills can help students in their future workplace.
I am sure that many of you will be scratching your head, thinking: "I swear I have heard of this topic before..." Well...you have. We took the topic straight from the newly-reformed GCSE - AQA to be exact. This meant that we had a ready-made SOW and textbooks that we just needed to adapt for KS3. Bloody genius! (Even if I do say so myself...)
So, here it is - our current KS3 History curriculum!
It is by no means perfect and I welcome your views on how it could be improved. What works is that we have overarching questions integrated into each topic, so that students and teachers understand the second-order concepts they need to learn. As well as this, all year groups are assessed on their ability to write essays, retain factual information and analyse sources - skills they will need as they progress up the school. The final thing that makes this SOW work for us is that it is not set in stone. I encourage all members of the department to dive deeper into certain topics if the 'learning' leads them that way. They can also ignore certain topics within a unit if they are struggling for time or lacking subject knowledge, so it is flexible enough to fit every classroom. This fluidity will hopefully help to not only increase student numbers at GCSE, but should hopefully lead to happier and more effective staff.
I would now love to see your KS3 curricula, as I am sure there are many out there that are much better than mine! Share yours on Twitter or in the comments section. Also, if you are interested in finding out more about how you can redesign your own KS3 curriculum, then you can access my advice here: https://schoolleaders.thekeysupport.com/ or just drop me a message!