The Joy of Curriculum

As I (willingly) slave away over my department’s geography curriculum, it has occurred to me that this latest shift in education has done a huge amount to rejuvenate my own passion for teaching. In what was going to be a blog reflecting on the practical steps involved in building a knowledge-rich curriculum, I have actually written a more personal post which brings curriculum change and my own career journey together to serve as a sign that a change in context, whether that be the national policy context or the local context of the school we find ourselves forging a career in, has a huge impact on our daily working life.

A decade ago I was still working for BP. I had been thinking for some time about moving into education. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy working in the oil industry. As I’ve said ‘context is king’ and I loved the context of oil and gas; the geopolitics of the industry and the essential role in plays in our lives. In part I was a frustrated by the disconnect between the excitement of the industry and my part in it. Somewhat linked to that frustration, I suffered from a kind of impostor syndrome. I was convinced that, having never studied business or management in my life, I was going to be ‘found out’ and asked to clear my desk. This lack of confidence in my ability compounded with the frustration with my role as I didn’t see myself rising sufficiently to play a more exciting role in the industry. If nothing else, the experience and maturity I have gained since finally deciding to leave BP, aged 23, in the summer of 2010, has often made me wonder what might have been had I stayed working in the energy sector. That of course is one of those counter-factual, hypotheticals. Teaching training beckoned.

When I trained to teach in 2010/11, pedagogy ruled though even then the work of the Geographical Association with its manifesto for geography – A Different View – showed that at least some educators working in the geography subject community were interested in what we teach as well as why we teach it. After completing my training, another disconnect emerged in my career. By day I was getting to grips with being a geography teacher. By and large, I was told what to teach and my main focus was on getting the kids to behave and make progress. By night, I had chosen to continue my studies into geography education with an MA at the Institute of Education. Through my studies at the IoE, I first encountered the ideas of Michael Young and was an active follower of the debates around knowledge in the curriculum which revolved, in part, around Michael Gove’s curriculum reforms which were taking shape.

I became a Head of Department in 2016, a moment of ‘peak’ curriculum change: a new GCSE and a new A-Level to be developed at the same time. Plus a Key Stage 3 which needed a significant overhaul if we were going to prepare our learners for the new, more demanding exam courses. Even this was curriculum change, the focus was still on how we taught the content – the structure of the lesson, incorporating extended writing, embedding exam technique, etc. The need to provide challenge and evidence progress in every lesson dominated all of our planning. Trying to reconcile these pedagogic expectations with the content of the new specifications was a real struggle. I was (and remain) incredibly lucky that I had a small but incredibly hard-working team alongside me. Three years into leading my own department, we’d changed everything we did. There was no doubt in my mind that the quality of what we were (and are) doing far supersedes what went before it. Sadly this improvement in quality of curriculum and pedagogy hasn’t always translated into exam outcomes (yet), but that is a different frustration and a different story. Amongst the annual churn of the school calendar, my team and I would often comment that we would be done with change this year and next year will be easier. So writing this midway through my fourth year, where we’re in the middle of another perhaps even more radical overhaul, why I am not at all downhearted?

Knowledge is the answer. Although I was very familiar with the arguments around knowledge and in particular Michael Young’s concept of ‘powerful knowledge’, completing my MA and moving onto other concerns like being a middle leader meant that I’d lost touch with the debate and as a result didn’t see the opportunities of powerful knowledge to drive our curriculum development. A new headteacher at my school, with a vision for a knowledge-rich curriculum, together with the national shift triggered by Ofsted’s new obsession with curriculum, has re-sparked my interest in powerful-knowledge and this has helped to rekindle my passion for curriculum development. Yes, we’re producing knowledge organisers and doing retrieval practice, but this pedagogy is driven by the curriculum being knowledge-rich and underpinned by a view that it is important for children to learn subject knowledge. We’ve reviewed every aspect of our curriculum with a view to being more ambitious with our expectations over what we want young people to learn. We start with the ‘what’ and ‘why’ and then think ‘how’ we will teach it. Developing deep and broad subject knowledge over time is the source of challenge in our geography curriculum. Teaching lessons with this ambitious content, discussing demanding concepts and using questioning to tease out and develop learners’ understanding has helped teaching become a joy for me again. For sure, challenges remain. So far we have made, or rather are in the process of making, a structural shift to a knowledge-rich curriculum with appropriate pedagogy. What has to follow is a cultural shift where learners see the value of this knowledge and want to learn it and do well. This is absolutely the harder part, but when the purpose and potential impact is so clear, it makes the effort worthwhile.

Developing a knowledge-rich curriculum has re-energised me as a teacher. It is intellectually demanding. It also feeds my passion for my subject. It requires me to use my ability as a geographer and I have read and watched all kinds of material to boost my own subject knowledge. It also requires me to engage with research on how to best teach a knowledge-rich curriculum in the classroom. Bridging those identities as a geographer and a teacher, to be a professional subject expert is stimulating and rewarding. These changes are a challenge though. For so many teachers, myself included, we have gone for many years without having to address our subject expertise, instead often focused on transferable pedagogies. Going forward, we will need time, space and resources to develop our subject knowledge, our curriculum-making expertise and our research-informed pedagogic abilities. This is a different kind of professional identity to what has dominated for a decade or so. It is an exciting opportunity though and one which we must work hard, as subject and teaching communities not to squander.

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