Firstly, Happy 2019.
I have not posted for a while for a few reasons: I am currently delving down into both writing a book and my Masters which is exciting. But also because I have truly been trying to think about why it is I have been both successful and unsuccessful in the classroom over the years? What is it that has really assisted me to build relationships with my most difficult classes?
An answer contacted me out of the blue last week: an ex-pupil of 6 years ago (from my more challenging state school) who wanted help transferring from Law into English. In her request she kindly said:
You were the best teacher I’ve ever had and made me believe in myself and so that’s why I’ve messaged you.
I thought about this in contrast with the stark and sometimes bleak educational debates about curriculum design and thought: hang on, maybe we are still missing something here.
The Power of the Curriculum
I have no doubt that curriculum design is a vital method in developing a student’s knowledge. Good curriculum designs (as showcased by Claire Hill and Rebecca Foster) may be best visually represented in the shape of a spiral: the curriculum’s difficulty moves upwards throughout the year yet key concepts and skills are continually visited so that they are more easily remembered and strengthened.
Not only this, but good curriculum design should also encourage lessons that are ‘off the exam’ and purely used to spark, test, challenge, or stretch our students. In my view, we can never challenge our students beyond the exam if we have not designed our curriculum with space to do this.
Then, the micro detail: ensuring that schemes of work effectively interleave knowledge, the use of daily (and weekly) memory testing, ensuring the new knowledge taught in lessons does not overuse a student’s cognitive load, and – amongst this – finding ways to further encourage success by integrating essential vocabularies (see: Alex Quigley’s book – Closing the Gap).
If departments can get this right, then they will undoubtedly set the students up for the best success.
The Power of Delivery
However, no matter how brilliantly the curriculum is designed, teachers are not there to simply communicate a planned lesson to the student or to be a curriculum correspondent. They need to love it, they need to believe that this curriculum is (to quote my colleague Carl) ‘the best that has been thought and said,’ that it is worth teaching to the students, and that the students are capable of learning to love it too.
It often comes up that the most uninspiring teachers are those that students say are “just doing their job.” Yet, success in education appears to be about giving the impression you are doing ‘much more’ than that. And whether that ‘much more’ embodies itself in humour, personality, sarcasm or sternness, it is about 2 things: authenticity (the real belief in your subject and the pupils), and delivery (the way ‘you are you’ teaching it).
If the factors above are absent, then no matter how many hours are invested into designing the curriculum, no matter how ‘knowledge-rich’ or exciting it seems, it becomes a chore and students become disinterested.
The fact is, we still need slightly more than a good curriculum to be teachers.
So, when planning your curriculum in accordance with the new Ofsted changes, don’t forget to give space for teachers to ‘do their thing’ with it. Many teachers truly are inspired by their subjects and we need to remind ourselves of this continually. More importantly, we have to not forget that students can (and do) always surprise us.
A good curriculum must:
- Be knowledge-rich
- Build from the best foundational knowledge
- Challenge pupils beyond the exam
- Give space to revisit key terms/topics
- Interleave topics
- Be considerate of cognitive load
- Provide regular low-stakes memory tests
But it’s not enough unless:
- Teachers love it
- Teachers believe the students will love it
- Teachers have space to deliver with their own authenticity