Reading about Curriculum

I have spent a lot of time reading about curriculum over the last few years and it has radically changed the way I think about my job. I have kept a list of the books, articles and blogs which have most influenced me as I have done so, and it seems silly not to share it in case it is of use to others. I have every intention of continuing to update it, but I should probably face reality and accept that I will only do so rarely. There is a definite secondary bias, which simply reflects my own experience and role. This list focuses on curriculum thinking in what might be characterised as the liberal tradition, because that is where my own views lie. Other traditions are available, but I think it is fair to say that the content of the curriculum tends to be less of a focus for them. Obviously my list doesn’t include everything relevant, not least because there is a lot which I haven’t read. I apologise to the many people who deserve to be on it but have been omitted. This is a reflection of my slow reading rather than the quality of their work.

The purpose of education

This broader issue underpins curriculum theory, and it has greatly influenced my thinking on the subject. Some of the best things come from quite some time ago.

R.S Peters – Ethics and Education (George Allen and Unwin, 1966) – Peters sets out the philosophical basis for a liberal education in a seminal work which should be much more widely read today by school leaders.

Hannah Arendt – ‘The Crisis in Education’ (1954, available at: https://thi.ucsc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Arendt-Crisis_In_Education-1954.pdf) – In this barnstorming essay, the well-known philosopher and political thinker Hannah Arendt tackles what she thinks is wrong with contemporary American schooling and sets out her vision for the role of education.

Martin Robinson – Curriculum: Athena versus the Machine (Crown House Publishing, 2019) – Robinson draws on the liberal tradition to take eloquent aim at what he sees as today’s machine schools.

Clare Sealy – ‘How to speak truthfully about what it means to be human: A user’s handbook’ (2020, available here) – I rather love this post, which resonates strongly with my own views on what education is for and brings home the point beautifully that a knowledge-rich curriculum is about the heart as well as the head.

Principles of curriculum planning

This section includes theoretical works, since theory should underpin curriculum planning at the level of the whole school and the individual subject (and probably does even if we are not aware of it).

E.D. Hirsch – Cultural Literacy: What every American needs to know (Vintage Books, 1988) – Hirsch has become controversial within educational circles because of the popularity of his ideas amongst those on the political right (in spite of his own leftist views), but this is a seminal work and he deserves to be read in his own words by those with curricular responsibility.

Michael Young, David Lambert et al – Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice (Bloomsbury Academic, 2014) – Young’s concept of ‘powerful knowledge’ is one of the most influential ideas underpinning the concept of a knowledge-rich curriculum, and I would strongly recommend his own chapters in particular in this book. If I had to pick only one item on this list for a senior curriculum leader, it might well be this one.

Daniel Willingham – Why Don’t Students Like School? (Jossey-Bass, 2010) – Not strictly a work about curriculum, but I’ve included it because Willingham does a superb and accessible job of setting out the principles of cognitive science on which much curriculum planning rests, especially the importance of background knowledge when learning something new. An essential read.

Christine Counsell – ‘Taking Curriculum Seriously’ in Impact (Chartered College of Teaching, Issue 4, available at: https://impact.chartered.college/article/taking-curriculum-seriously/) – A brilliant introduction to the crucial distinction between substantive and disciplinary knowledge and an absolute must-read.

Tom Sherrington – ‘What is a “knowledge-rich” curriculum?’ in Impact (Chartered College of Teaching, Issue 4, available at: https://impact.chartered.college/article/what-is-a-knowledge-rich-curriculum/) – The most accessible introduction to this concept I am aware of, in a bite-sized article.

Martin Robinson – ‘Curriculum: An offer of what the best might be’ in Impact (Chartered College of Teaching, Issue 4, available at: https://impact.chartered.college/article/curriculum-an-offer-of-what-the-best-might-be/) – Robinson’s lyrical take on the famous Matthew Arnold quotation about ‘ the best that has been thought and said’, which features prominently in the National Curriculum.

Mary Myatt – The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to Coherence (John Catt Educational, 2018) – Myatt’s no-nonsense, practical guide is ideal for the busy school leader and sets out curriculum principles in a very accessible way.

Alex Standish and Alka Sehgal Cuthbert (eds.) – What Should Schools Teach? Disciplines, subjects and the pursuit of truth (UCL Institute of Education Press, 2017) – In the introductory and concluding chapters the editors provide an excellent account of disciplinary knowledge and the value of subjects as the best basis for a curriculum. See also the foreword by Michael Young.

Clare Sealy (ed.) – The ResearchED Guide to the Curriculum: An evidence-informed guide for teachers (John Catt Educational, 2020) – Chapters by different curriculum experts. Ruth Ashbee’s chapter on subjects as the best way of making meaning is a very strong contribution. Michael Young pops up again too.

Ruth Ashbee – Curriculum: Theory, Culture and the Subject Specialisms (Routledge Books, not yet available) – Although it has yet to be released, the authorship of this book is good reason to think it is going to be a crucial contribution to curricular discourse.

Jon Hutchinson – ‘The three best arguments against a knowledge-rich curriculum, (and why I think they’re wrong)’ (2018, available here) – In this blog post Hutchinson does an excellent job of tackling some of the counter-arguments.

Senior curriculum leadership

Little attention was paid to this crucial responsibility in the early years of my career. Fortunately that is no longer the case.

Christine Counsell – chapter in Clare Sealy’s ResearchED Guide to the Curriculum (see above) – Superb chapter on how to have conversations with subject leaders.

Christine Counsell – ‘In search of senior curriculum leadership: Introduction – a dangerous absence’ and subsequent blogs in the series (2018, available here) – This series of blogs is essential reading for senior leaders and is about much more than how to lead on curriculum. It also introduces the reader to key aspects of theory such as the distinction between core and hinterland.

Summer Turner – chapter in Stuart Lock (ed.) The ResearchED Guide to Leadership: An evidence-informed guide for teachers (John Catt Educational, 2020) – An impressively pithy summary of what senior curriculum leaders need to know.

There are plenty of curriculum bloggers with things to say of interest to senior leaders, many of whom are currently overseeing curriculum in schools and trusts themselves. Some of them are Ruth Ashbee, Tom Boulter, David Didau, Michael Fordham, Kat Howard, Jon Hutchinson, Ben Newmark, Steve Rollett, Clare Sealy, Tom Sherrington, Sallie Stanton, Claire Stoneman and even me.

Curriculum in different subjects

Curriculum-planning at the level of the individual subject is where it matters more than anything, and it’s important to get into the nitty-gritty before too long. I think this is important for non-specialist senior leaders as well as for heads of department.

Mary Myatt – Subject-specific chapters at the end of her book (see above) – Myatt provides concise sections on each subject which are a helpful introduction for the busy senior leader and provide useful signposts to heads of department.

Alex Standish and Alka Sehgal Cuthbert – Their book (see above) has fascinating chapters on a number of subjects which take things to a deeper level, focussing especially on disciplinary knowledge.

Ruth Ashbee – https://www.ruth-ashbee.com/directory – This website is an invaluable compendium of books, blogs and other materials on each subject. Very strongly recommended for further exploration.

Image found here and labelled as available for noncommercial reuse.

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