The Strait and Narrow Way of Curriculum Leadership (2)

In my previous post I made use of a passage from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1961) to provide a metaphor for senior curriculum leadership as a narrow path between opposing perils. In this one I use another part of the allegory to illustrate my first piece of advice to help a senior leader to stay on track:

Now a little below these mountains on the left hand lieth the country of Conceit; from which country there comes into the way in which the pilgrims walked, a little crooked lane. Here, therefore, they met with a very brisk lad, that came out of that country, and his name was Ignorance. So Christian asked him from what parts he came, and whither he was going.

Ignorance: Sir, I was born in the country that lieth off there, a little on the left hand, and I am going to the Celestial City…

Christian: But thou camest not in at the Wicket-gate that is at the head of this way; thou camest in hither through that same crooked lane, and therefore I fear, however thou mayest think of thyself, when the reckoning-day shall come, thou wilt have laid to thy charge that thou art a thief and a robber, instead of getting admittance into the city. (Bunyan 1961 pp.126-7)

Poor Ignorance comes to a sad end in Bunyan’s allegory because he does not start in the right place. Instead of coming through the gate at the beginning of the road, he joins it towards the end, missing most of the important stages, including difficult ones like the Valley of the Shadow of Death. When I first read the book as a child, I felt very sorry for him, but he provides a useful illustration of my first piece of advice for senior curriculum leaders:

  1. Senior leaders should think carefully about the best starting point for a process of curriculum review.

Like many others, I began my personal journey of curriculum development with the dawning realisation that not nearly enough attention had been paid to what students should know in order to be considered educated to a suitable standard in each subject. After reading various things on the theme, I arrived at the point of feeling ready to move my school towards a knowledge-rich curriculum (Didau 2017, Myatt 2018, Young et al 2014). If you’re wondering what I mean by that, I think Tom Sherrington’s criteria represent the best definition I have come across (Sherrington 2018). I was clear about my end goal, but not sure where to start with heads of department. I suspected that there were areas where the knowledge we were teaching was not ‘powerful’ enough (Young et al 2014), but I could not demand change based on a hunch. I knew that I wanted students to be clearer about what they should know, but it seemed too soon to ask for knowledge organisers to be put in place, and I was not convinced they would be a good idea in every subject. I was confident that we would benefit by changing the order of some of the content, but I could see that there was little point in asking colleagues to move things around until they had got their heads around the aims of the activity. Through all these deliberations, I was mindful of the fact that, like Bunyan’s Ignorance, I could undermine the entire process by starting in the wrong place.

I ended up trying to take my colleagues on a shortened version of the journey of discovery which I had been on, taking advantage of the opportunity to lead an extended session off-timetable for all subject leaders. It seemed like the closest thing to starting at the beginning. If I could get them to see things as I was now seeing them, they would immediately start to understand the need for change themselves without me having to impose it on them as a non-specialist in all subjects apart from one.

But even this was fraught with difficulty. I knew very well that advocacy of increased knowledge, sadly, does not always go down well in our profession and that I was vulnerable to being accused of taking a rote learning approach, seeking to develop pub quiz winners rather than creative, critical thinkers. I needed to prove to my colleagues that I was not attempting to drown them all in a Gradgrindian quagmire (to mix my literary influences).

To overcome this problem, I attempted to explain myself in a language which would be familiar and non-threatening to my colleagues (e.g. by referring to our shared desire for students to become critical thinkers, creative minds for the 21st century etc, but emphasising that the best way to get them there would be a knowledge-rich approach). I was not being dishonest (I genuinely believe in what I was saying), but I avoided waxing too lyrical about things which I feel passionately about but which would have been less familiar and potentially more unsettling for my audience. For example, the importance of a liberal education and broad knowledge as a fundamental part of every young person’s birthright and an end in its own right is dear to my heart, but has not been at the forefront of thinking within the profession for the bulk of my career. I was being pragmatic and sacrificing the urge to share every single one of my thoughts for the sake of getting the ball rolling.

I also asked each subject leader to produce an outline of what knowledge each unit of study at Key Stage 3 was intended to deliver, because it made sense for them to start by considering the extent to which our curriculum was already fit for purpose. Without asking whether the existing units of study offered suitable knowledge in the best order, it seemed to me that there was little point in putting knowledge organisers, SLOP booklets or other resources in place. I was also mindful of the fact that producing the knowledge outline would require a desirable shift in focus, moving away from questions about what content teachers think they should cover to better ones about what students ought to know. Although I am always wary of asking for paperwork, and didn’t want to waste subject leaders’ time by asking them to record what they and their teams already knew, I felt that the benefits of this activity were worth the opportunity cost. Since very few senior leaders are working in a new school and designing a curriculum from scratch, I would advise them to do something similar and begin with what is already there.

I was mindful of the danger that I would be accused of undervaluing skills, and gave lengthy consideration to what we mean by skills (a somewhat misleading umbrella term in my opinion) and their relationship with knowledge. I am sympathetic to arguments made by Fordham (2017) and Didau (2018) on this point, but made it clear to subject leaders that I had no problem with specific skills pertinent to the subject being included in the knowledge outlines. By doing so I was claiming these skills as a form of knowledge and asserting that the best way to teach them is to ask what students need to know in order to develop them. For the purpose of the outlines, I defined knowledge very simply as what we want students to know as a result of studying a given unit and provided suggested headings (declarative and procedural knowledge), but I gave no prescribed framework or length, leaving this to each subject leader.

When the completed subject knowledge outlines came in, I did not assess them in any way or ask for amendments. Some were very detailed, others much less so. They were presented very differently. Tempting though it was to have a beautifully uniform set of documents, I resisted this urge, because it was not the aim of the activity. I judged that asking for more information or querying whether some of the skills were teachable would have had little benefit at this early stage, when it was better to allow the specialists to come to their own conclusions after further discussion, teaching time and CPD. As an end in their own right, the outlines would not have represented a successful curriculum review, but as a tool to start a process and to disseminate thinking about knowledge-rich education, I think they worked well.

Stage One was complete(ish) and I was ready to move on.

Post 3 follows here.

References:

Bunyan J (1961) The Pilgrim’s Progress Guildford and London: Lutterworth Press

Didau D (2017) https://learningspy.co.uk/curriculum/broad-balanced-curriculum/ (accessed 200819)

Didau D (2018) https://learningspy.co.uk/curriculum/teaching-knowledge-is-teaching-skill/ (accessed 200819)

Fordham M (2017) https://clioetcetera.com/2017/10/10/skills-cannot-be-taught-discuss/ (accessed 200819)

Myatt M (2018) The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to Coherence Woodbridge: John Catt Educational

Sherrington T (2018) https://teacherhead.com/2018/06/06/what-is-a-knowledge-rich-curriculum-principle-and-practice/ (accessed 200819)

Young M, Lambert D et al (2014) Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice London: Bloomsbury Academic

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