I would say that a philosophical mind and a principled character are the best attributes of a person. Certainly, I would wish for each of our students to leave Turton with the capacity to think and the strength of character to lead a good life.
Philosophy and principles, however, cannot lead us to do great things without pragmatism’s timely involvement.
For a significant part of my career, I focussed extra energy on Pastoral work – student behaviour and psychology. I enjoy working with people and sharing philosophies, ideas and ideals; I am also driven by a strong desire to make a difference, to influence and develop educational practice, such that it improves people’s lives.
In an effort to gain insight from the experts, expand my thinking and deepen my understanding, I have read hundreds of books and articles pertaining to behaviour, psychology and how children learn. I was excited every time I picked up a new book on my areas of interest. Of current note are: Flourish, Martin Seligman and What Every Teacher Needs to Know about Psychology, David Didau. While I revelled in the principles and philosophy extoled, I was also keen to get to the section of the book where I hoped there would be some practical examples of how things might look in my school.
Over time, I came to realise, that many education related books are unable to localise advice, where practical approaches are recommended, they lack detail and precision. Thus my job then, as now, is to explore and debate the philosophies, establish clearly my own principles and ultimately come up with practical applications and solutions myself. As Head Teacher, this is ever more poignant; with my time now spanning across pastoral ideologies and those of the curriculum- indeed the two are inextricably linked – I find that even where solutions do exist, such as the government’s National Curriculum, they are often lacking.
Much has been written about curriculum of late. My Leadership team and I operate a book club, and have read many great books on education, including curriculum. I take seriously my responsibility to have some knowledge and understanding of the ‘big ideas’ in all subjects, reading books that scan across subject areas. Of note: The Well-Educated Mind, Susan Wise Bauer; Figuring, Maria Popova; Leonardo, Walter Isaacson; The Righteous Mind, Jonahan Haidt. I see the Leadership team and myself as the people to lead curriculum design across Turton.
Over 3 years ago, the government announced the removal of National Curriculum levels; creating an opportunity for schools to take back control of their profession and create a curriculum and assessment design to suit their school and their students.
We have seized hold of this opportunity, working with the philosophies and principles close to our hearts, to design a curriculum rich in knowledge, focussed on learning the best of what has been thought and said and forging cohesion across disciplines, so that students understand the big ideas, connections and concepts that run through each subject.
Prior to this change, it was rare to hear teachers discussing knowledge or what they were teaching; behaviour – yes, attitude – yes, test scores – yes, but not what students were learning. This article, on the School of Life website suggests that we aren’t as good at thinking strategy as we are at execution (just getting things done).
‘At school, ‘working hard’ still means dutifully following curriculum, not wondering whether or not it happens to be correct.’ School of Life
As well as students being required to dutifully follow curriculum, so too have most teachers. As successive governments have interfered more and more in education, curriculum design and deciding what should be included in each subject, at each stage, is a highly under-developed skill in teachers and school leaders.
‘We should strive to ensure that at least 20% of our efforts is henceforth devoted to reflecting on the deeper ‘why’ questions – before we allow ourselves to ‘relax’ into the more familiar and routine work of execution.’ School of Life
Four years down the line, reflecting on the deeper ‘why’ question, we have read much, and discussed and debated even more. Deciding, with subject leads, what to include and what to leave out at each stage. We identified a set of organising principles running through each subject from years 7 to 13. Once agreed, the content was then structured as narrative, identifying substantive knowledge, disciplinary knowledge and relation to knowledge, as well as the interplay between grammar, dialectic and rhetoric.
Our expertise in all subject areas has grown as we focus, in detail, on designing sound, academic curriculums with an emphasis on classical ideas, exploring how knowledge builds and how students come to understand and draw connections.
Our philosophy is embedded, not just in the minds of the Leadership team, but in the minds of subject leads, teachers and all staff across school working with students. We have strong, sound guiding principles and values, and a clear sense of purpose and direction.
All good so far! We have explored the thinking of the experts, heeded the advice from the School of Life and arrived at a clear sense of what matters to us in curriculum design and ideology.
However, the purpose of this article is not to harp on about the concept of ‘curriculum design’ as abstract, nor do I want to keep extolling certain curriculum philosophies and principles. I now want to talk about the 4 years of intensive work put forth to build our Trivium curriculum and share the product itself as a model for others.
On arriving at the point of execution, similarly to my research in pastoral work, I have found little in terms of pragmatism from the experts. Don’t get me wrong, there are some wonderful books and articles and inspiring minds contributing to the educational debate these days; of note: Trivium 21C, Martin Robinson; The Learning Rainforest, Tom Sherrington; What Schools Should Teach, Alex Standish & Alka Sehgal Cuthbert; Christine Counsell, thedignityofthethingblog.wordpress.com. But to move from debate to practical application is stepping into the void without a guide book.
The upshot, then, is DIY! The government provide a National Curriculum, but we know that this is seriously flawed and lacking in terms of coherence and narrative.
Michael Young claims that the curriculum is a resource for charting the teachers’/school’s/country’s goals; that it should contain what is valued that is important for all pupils to have access to. This is only realisable if the Leadership of the school has the capacity and desire to lead the production of a school curriculum that contains what is valued, by the school leaders and teachers, but also by the community that the school operates within, both locally, nationally and globally. And if school leaders are prepared to accept the amount of time, energy, intensity and dedication required for the process of a whole school curriculum re-write that places emphasis on knowledge, understanding and application rather than exams.
We believe that a coherent, academic curriculum, where knowledge is fundamental, forms the bedrock of success for any student in our school. We believe that all students have an entitlement to important knowledge through a relevant curriculum; that knowledge, learned and then understood, is the route to a good life, to over-coming disadvantage and the route to all students flourishing during their time at school and beyond.
Then, as leaders, is it enough to put forth the philosophy and principles, leaving the teachers to make up their own curriculum?
We think not! Certainly Heads of Department and all teachers are a crucial part of the big conversation on curriculum, but leaders must question, challenge and debate what is to be included, how we establish the common core across each department, and how cohesion is vital in ensuring the quality of students’ learning experiences. This goes right down to the details, such as ensuring that every English teacher has the same definition of a paragraph, which is then communicated to students with clarity, ensuring that even when students move from one teacher to another there is no confusion.
Even then, establishing this in each subject was not enough. Through our work, we realised that establishing subject curriculums from year 7 to year 13 and the path to mastery in each subject, was only part of the curriculum story.
To complete the story, we must produce a whole school cohesive curriculum that provides a narrative, for students and parents, of the knowledge to be gained, the learning expected and a clarity of the development from building knowledge, developing dialectic and exploring rhetoric through the Trivium, on a student’s journey through school.
This required discussions and debates about important knowledge, connections across subjects and the timings of when things are learned where, or how things are learned in preparation for experiences in other subjects further down the line.
For example, if science require students to manipulate the equation for density in year 7, and maths don’t introduce this until year 8, do we alter the timings of the introduction of this knowledge? Or do we enable science teachers to work with maths teachers to deliver this concept in a way that supports students’ learning and understanding in maths later on?
How many of Shakespeare’s works should students be exposed to during their time at Turton? If they study Othello in English Literature in year 8 and Macbeth in Drama in year 8, is Romeo and Juliet challenging enough for study in KS4? Or would Merchant of Venice be more academically rigorous? Is three full Shakespearean texts enough?
‘The best of what has been thought and said’ comes from great minds, so who are the 3 to 5 historical figures, in your subject, with the big ideas? Does deciding on these people bring into question what to include in your curriculum?
After much research, discussion, disagreement and agreement, we now have a publishable draft, whole school curriculum, such that any student, and their parent, arriving in year 7, can clearly see the wonderful knowledge and learning they will gain throughout their time at Turton.
Our whole school curriculum presents students with the notion that this is all the great stuff you will know and come to understand by the time you leave us in year 11/13. This is your entitlement, as a student of Turton, no matter who you are. Through knowledge we form community, we overcome disadvantage, remove racial tension and bigotry and we develop parity for people in the North of England.
By ensuring that every child has access to a high quality curriculum, we can reduce the differences in student achievement that are due to students’ backgrounds, and help them to develop the knowledge they will need to participate effectively in society. This, combined with a culture, created through our Triad programme, where every teacher continually improves, means we develop a teacher workforce where almost all teachers are as good as the best; this is a goal we can achieve, and our students deserve nothing less.
My reason for writing this blog is to share the product, not just the philosophies and principles.
In a large comprehensive school such as ours (which has suffered at the feet of the skills revolution and teaching to the test; with a wide range of teachers, many of whom have never been required to think deeply about curriculum and many who have no experience of the classics in their own education) curriculum review and reform, to this level, is a major piece of work. This work has its own process, pace and intensity. It has taken almost 4 years to come to fruition – not completion; this process is never ending and each step of the journey reveals the length of the journey ahead!
Reading around and coming to understand each subject, establishing a rationale for teaching it and deciding what the ‘big ideas’ are that need to be included, has been an education in itself for us as a Leadership team.
The process of selecting ‘the best of what has previously been thought and said’ and by whom, has led us to a more enlightened curriculum and a deeper cohesion, both through and across subjects.
Most significantly, we have arrived at a whole school narrative that illuminates each subject, draws on connections between subjects and provides a clear perspective on how each subject/topic/idea forms part of a much bigger picture.
If, like us, you are searching for an answer to the questions of curriculum design such as: what is the ‘best that has previously been thought and said’ for each subject, then I hope you will find our curriculum overview useful. This is our version of a coherent, knowledge-rich curriculum, providing a strong liberal arts education through the three ways of the Trivium.
Enter through the curriculum icon, which will take you to a subject map (as above). Each subject has a philosophy: a reason for including it in a child’s education and why the knowledge is important; and a narrative: the story of the important knowledge acquired and then understood in that subject, told as narrative from year 7 to year 13.
The subject narrative is underpinned by 3 or 4 organising principles (in bold) that run through the subject as the child progresses.
Key historical figures, that have contributed to the best that has previously been thought and said and worthy of inclusion in the curriculum at Turton, are highlighted in red.
In italics are key texts, selected carefully to ensure students read and understand important works, and underlined are the time periods relating to the area of study.
Clicking on the triangles in the centre of the subject map takes you to a network diagram that provides an overview of every child’s entitlement to curriculum on entering Turton. It demonstrates how knowledge builds over time and where connections are made, across disciplines, providing important contexts for understanding the world around them.
I hope you find our curriculum of interest and invite feedback in the form of constructive comments and points for debate/discussion.