There’s a brand new talk
but it’s not very clear, oo, bop,
That people from good homes
Are talking this year, oo, bop, fashion
Fashion, David Bowie (1980)
As I reviewed and refined a Year 7 scheme of work on ‘the geographies of fashion’ as part of a(nother) major curriculum overhaul, I felt it offered a really good opportunity to ‘concretise’ some of the heady curriculum challenges which everybody is currently trying to grapple with.
This blog looks at the big picture of curriculum thinking, then looks at how I have applied that thinking into selecting and planning a scheme of work. I also look at how we work with geographical concepts and how this helps with the challenge of making critical geographers.
Curriculum is very much in vogue. Everybody is ‘doing curriculum’. Quite frankly this scares the shit out of me. As Claire Stoneman observes: ‘although there are conversations about curriculum, there aren’t really conversations about curriculum’. People talking about ‘curriculum tools’, such as knowledge organisers, or filling in pro-formas to outline intent, implementation and impact is not people talking about curriculum. Claire is right – curriculum requires deep thinking, it requires us to take a step back, to take our time and to intellectually engage with our subjects.
The big picture
Like, I am sure, a lot of teachers, I have relished the renewed focus on curriculum. It offers some of the ‘intellectual attraction’ which Alex Quigley has written about. This renewed focus has also reemphasised the importance of subject specialisms, not just in terms of subject knowledge but also in terms of subject specific pedagogy. How wonderful it would be if Adam Boxer is right when he writes that ‘teaching and learning is dead’.
In my department, we have largely embraced our whole school’s focus on a knowledge-rich curriculum. As the good cynic I am, I’m always dubious of things that sound like a buzz phrase. This focus seems different though, in that it is based in evidence. Way back in 2011-13, when I was completing an MA which largely concentrated on curriculum, I have been a convert to the concept of teaching ‘powerful knowledge’ in the sense defined by Professor Michael Young. I have also read enough popular psychology to be wary of affirmation bias though. Was I buying into this fad simply because it matched my world view?
For those of you who haven’t come across the concept of powerful knowledge, read my previous blogs on the concept, or better still read David Didau’s excellent Making Kids Cleverer. (David has also generously summarised some of his key arguments on his blog). In one of those serendipitous moments, the lyrics to Bowie’s Fashion state one of the key points – powerful knowledge is the stuff ‘that people from good homes are talking this year’.
Ok, so it isn’t just this year. They’ve always talked about it. It’s the knowledge, including cultural capital, which contributes so much to the disadvantage gap, the vocabulary gap, social mobility and so on. It is the knowledge which everybody has a right to and which, if people are in possession of it, enables them to have a better life. Sadly it is also the knowledge which some educationalists have argued against the teaching of because it seems to favour and perpetuate educational disadvantage. I would argue that it is the failing to teach powerful knowledge which allows inequalities to persist.
Anyway, I digress, we have embraced this idea of teaching powerful geographical knowledge. That was probably the easy bit. Now it is a case of thinking through and planning a powerful knowledge-rich curriculum. Despite being a fan of creative destruction, we started with what we had and looked at where the powerful knowledge was. We looked for the gaps. We ended up with a set of topics which would offer a broad and deep geographical education, in terms of conceptual, locational and procedural knowledge.
And fashion made the cut?
We had taught a fashion topic at my current school since before I started, I have always taught a fashion topic and fashion still has a place in our powerful knowledge-rich curriculum. At first glance it sounds ridiculous. Surely this is a throwback to the almost content-free teaching of the noughties, where we tried to teach everything through geography apart from geographical knowledge. I would argue otherwise.
One of the pieces of work (which will, at some point, merit it’s own blog post) is how we explicitly teach big geographical concepts like place, interdependence and scale. Looking at the scope of a topic on the global fashion industry, it is such a fertile topic for grappling with those powerful concepts. So that was the first thing I have done: identifying how each lesson can tie into those big concepts. I’m looking at the idea of a concept map which we can develop over the course of the scheme (hat tip to Simon Renshaw for sharing his work on this with me). A key challenge of teaching these abstract concepts is being able to concretise them (see chapter 5 of Kirschner & Hendrick’s fabulous How Learning Happens). Fashion offers those opportunities. It also offers opportunities to make links between students’ everyday experiences and powerful disciplinary knowledge.
To help us implement (apologies) the powerful knowledge-rich curriculum, I produced a comprehensive curriculum outline. Based on departmental discussions, where we really allowed our inner geographers to break out, it was essentially a list of the detailed knowledge – concepts, processes, locations, procedures, etc – which we wanted to cover in each topic. By mapping it all out together, we could see the big picture and the overall coverage. We could identify the links, which we could then make explicit, and we could also see the progression. Michael Fordham and Christine Counsell are quite right when they say ‘the curriculum is the progression model’ and putting together our outline showed this. Our stated aim is to ‘make good geographers’, not to get students good grades. If we do the former, the latter should take care of itself.
I then set to work on a lesson-by-lesson outline. I did not set out to reinvent the wheel. I looked at what we’d done before and identified what was already good. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was already lots of powerful knowledge. (While the idea of a knowledge-rich curriculum may be made out to be new, it is not replacing a knowledge-free curriculum). Working with pen and pencil, I drafted out what I wanted to do each lesson. I identified the key ideas, the key questions, the links back and forth between lessons: ‘If we introduce this idea here, we can go back into more detail there and then call back on it in these lessons too’. This is the kind of ‘careful thought’ which Claire Stoneman argues curriculum lives on and I agree.
Making the implicit, explicit
I love this phrase, which comes from David Didau’s wonderful book on literacy. The notion also applies to those big, powerful, organising concepts in geography (and no doubt in other subjects too). Place, space, interdependence, scale and so on – as again I’m sure in other subjects, there is no single correct list of these concepts (Richard Bustin does a valiant job of collecting them together in his book on powerful knowledge and capabilities). These concepts are, by nature, abstract. As such teaching them is challenging. On reflection, I’m not sure whether I have ever attempted to teach them explicitly, certainly not below A-Level. And yet, when we think about the students we identify as ‘good geographers’, they inevitably demonstrate an implicit appreciation of these concepts.
So for me, going forward, it is a case of not leaving it to chance. Anybody can become a better geographer. By explicitly teaching them geographical concepts, we are not only providing them with a powerful toolkit, we are also helping them to understand what geography is all about and begin to recognise themselves as geographers.
Interdependence, scale and globalisation
While we may end up touching on other concepts, I have settled on these three as focuses for the fashion scheme of work. I wouldn’t say globalisation was on the same tier of organising concept as interdependence or scale, but I would argue it is crucial to understanding the topic, and the other two concepts.
It is also worth noting at this point that the fashion scheme of work is part of an ‘arc’ of schemes in Year 7, starting with a topic on the UK and going onto a case study of Liverpool (one of our nearest major cities) as a global city. As such, the concepts are introduced gradually and returned to, with as many concrete examples as possible.
The key question for the scheme of work is how are our clothes made? It revolves around the idea that fashion is a global industry. So we introduce the concept of globalisation early on to look at how the fashion industry works and how it has changed. By looking at where students’ own clothes are made, we can concretise the concept. We can then explore how and why are clothes are made in that way.
From starting to understand how globalisation has changed where our clothes are made, we can then introduce the idea of interdependence – that idea that the connections with other places make us dependent, them on us and us on them. When looking at the global supply chain for a pair of jeans, we can see how people in far flung corners of the globe rely on each other, to varying degrees. In later schemes of work, we’ll look at how interdependence can be within human systems, within physical systems and also between physical and human systems.
Having considered how people and places can be interdependent, we can also introduce the different ways which geographers understand the concept of scale and introduce the different scales from the global down to the local. Not only can we look at how different processes and actions happen on different scales, but also look at how actions on one scale can have an impact on a different scale, just as interdependence shows us that an action in one place or system can impact another.
Critical geographies, critical geographers
I said earlier that the stated aim of our curriculum is to ‘make better geographers’. Unpacking exactly what this means is worthy of another blog post in itself (don’t worry, I’ve made a note). In thinking about that notion though, I am conscious of the challenges around addressing values, ethics and politics in our curriculum. If you’re going to teach about the global fashion industry, you will inevitably cover issues which are controversial to some degree.
So how should we engage with controversial issues? One hypothetical option is to try as best as possible to ‘stick to the facts’; to try and teach the knowledge in a values-free way. This is impractical and arguably not preferable. What is the point of making a better geographer, if we don’t want them to engage with a world in which they will inevitably come across political and ethical issues?
The risk in this area comes from teachers passing on their values, whether consciously or not, to their students in a way that the student cannot identify where objective fact and their teacher’s subjective views start and finish. Again, there is a call for us to make the implicit explicit. We need to borrow the tools from the history classroom and discuss whether things are objective, subjective, biased, contextualised, etc. We need to give students opportunities to form and debate their own views. We should challenge their views and let them challenge ours too.
In short, we need to exercise an abundance of care – we must be mindful of what we say, the resources we use, the questions we ask and the activities we set. I would argue that this is made easier though in a powerful knowledge-rich curriculum, where concepts are taught explicitly. We are effectively giving them lots of food for thought. There is plenty of ‘content’ now, whereas perhaps before we allowed our own views to dominate in, if not a vacuum, a less knowledge-filled lesson or topic. Now, if we present the knowledge and give students an appreciation of how this knowledge is made and open to challenge (again, this is a key strand of powerful knowledge, as I and others have explained elsewhere), we can be more confident in allowing students to form better opinions than was previously the case, not least because they have the means to justify their views with knowledge.
So to go back to David Bowie: fashion may not be a brand new dance (nor is curriculum), but it carries more than enough weight in a powerful knowledge-rich curriculum. Which is the type of curriculum which we need to teach to people, from good homes and bad homes, again and again. Because if they do it over there, but we don’t do it over here, we’re doing our students a disservice and the disadvantage gap will persist. Oo, bop, fashion.
I’m going to try and take a look at the idea of ‘curriculum artefacts’ or ‘curriculum resources’ in a future blog post, looking at how we can marry together the higher-level curriculum thinking with the reality of planning and resourcing lessons. I might also look at the choice of activities we use in the world of a (powerful) knowledge-rich curriculum.
The lyrics of ‘Fashion’ are copyright of David Bowie (1980) and I apologise unreservedly for bastardising them, however I did it for a good cause. If giving young people access to knowledge, regardless of their background, is not a worthy cause, then I don’t know what is. I’m sure David would have agreed.