Curriculum is diet

‘Our wings are small, but the ripples of our hearts and minds are infinite’

A long blog and a massive game-changer. Grab a cuppa or something in a glass and enjoy…

Knowledge-rich schools are predicated on the highest standards of behaviour and then build confidently on an ambitious curriculum that supports student memory (which is learning). Continuing the grassroots’ view – the how of curriculum.

Curriculum is diet.

We can let pupils ‘eat’ burgers, ready meals, poor-quality food, or we can nourish them with food crafted from the finest ingredients of entitlement and love. These are the extremes of the diet of curriculum we create because pupils will ‘eat’ what we serve them. The diet we choose then is paramount to their learning and is what we mean by education. Our students’ diets goes beyond the 3 year GCSE specification because we are blessed to have the students in our care for 5. Many blogs have been written on the curriculum and few more exciting and more powerful than @MrNott via TES.  https://www.tes.com/news/our-poorest-pupils-suffer-when-we-replace-dickens-wimpy-kid. This blog tracks how we arrived at the ‘best that’s been thought and said’ – THE best part of the journey so far for Saint Martin’s. It has transformed us as a staff, our working lives, put expertise at the centre of everything we do; its impact on our students is transformative as we ramp up the ambition and they feast!

The How…

2 years ago, during a cold January INSET, I set the premise: we’re all History teachers. Students may drop History at the end of Year 8 (though I would absolutely defend their right to History over 5 years – because it’s Literature – the story of how the country and world reached their places today, but I digress.). With only 2 years or 6 terms of History, which events would we, as ‘History teachers’, ensure no child would leave school without knowing? Everyone had a view, of course. From 1066 Hastings to 1966 Wembley; the Revolutions – Tolpuddle, Jarrow; the Tudors; the Civil War; the Slave Trade; the setting up of the Welfare State. World History included revolutions, too: American, French, Russian. And, of course, the people of History: Pankhurst Gandhi, Mandela. It was fascinating and for every topic suggested, all nodded in agreement at its importance, whilst simultaneously realising we couldn’t teach everything…

As we had begun to delve into Curriculum, I shared Siegfried Engelmann’s powerful thoughts summarised in Joe Kirby’s Pragmatic Education blogs. Thank you, Joe. But there was one seminal idea – Engelmann’s insight that ‘the cause of educational failure is the curriculum’ because it placed the responsibility right at the heart of our locus of control.

We looked at different curricula models in varied areas which posed questions about content, chronology, number of units per year, timings. Should we work to arbitrary term lengths, or decide that teaching X takes 13 weeks so it is allocated 13 to teach it in a way that it will be recalled for years to come: learned.). The GCSE specification was acknowledged – it is our duty to teach it – but could we, university-educated professionals, produce a curriculum  that fed our students the content and knowledge we wished we had been served, including the ‘golden nuggets’ of learning which, perfectly sequenced, would drive the depth of understanding beyond our highest aspirations? A curriculum, for example, in MFL, whereby students could converse confidently in French – something they were not able to do despite having been awarded GCSE As and A*s. Revisiting, interleaving and memory were pivotal, too, but they would come once we had crafted the Curriculum.

The question was asked: what is your Department/subject canon? We were clear in our timings too – reject the fruitless separations of Key Stage 3 from 4, in favour of departmental 5-Year Curricula to mastery by looking to the outcome and aspiration for students in our departments and tracking back over 5 years to position what had to go where to reach the end.

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We agreed this experience could be emulated in every Department and subject; this was not unique to History. There were choices to be made about the ‘what’ of curriculum. If we left those choices to politicians, we would criticise the narrow white, dead and male canon, so we set off on the most amazing journey: crafting our own – the Saint Martin’s canon predicated on Arnold’s, ‘the best that has been thought and said’. Collaboratively our English teachers battled over ‘Frankenstein’ or  ‘Wuthering Heights’ but both saw all our students being taught a classic Gothic novel, analyse it and create their own descriptive writing from it because both Shelley and Bronte were the best writers for the job.

Such an exercise takes time, swathes of time in fact, as well as deep thought and discussion to shape and craft the plans, but the conversations I have been privileged to drop in to have been (and remain) energising and intellectual. It has been a pleasure to hear Science staff talk so expertly about the modules handed to them in the wrong order or with missing pieces (by the GCSE Spec/KS3 Curriculum) and to watch them reshape their Science curriculum for all 5 Years for our students. Quickly, they came to realise that underpinning prerequisites is essential: teaching digestion meant an understanding of enzymes; needing knowledge of molecules, then bonding, leading to the atom! So Year 7 start with the Atom (smallest first), the Greek and Latin etymologies of thermos and endo/exo, whilst meeting many great scientists on their way – Mendeleev and Rosalind Franklin amongst others, not to mention their own teachers.

In English, it was a process of demolition and re-building, clearing the debris of Autobiographical Writing and Newspapers and the laying of new foundations ensued. In their first term with us, Year 7 encountered ‘The Iliad’, summarised in the context of who Homer was (and indeed if he was) and why we should study him before reading and analysing a translation of, ‘The Odyssey’. This was then followed by Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ with focus on a translation of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’. In Trinity Term, they were introduced to Chaucer and Chaucerian English through ‘The Knight’s Tale’, with Year 7 teaching completed with, ‘An Introduction to the Renaissance andA Midsummer Night’s Dream’’ where they meet ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ again, looking very different this time, except students will understand the parody completely – just as Shakespeare intended. Year 8 opens with Rhetoric. It replaces the surface-level FAR DEPRESS SPA or A FOREST persuasive writing with ethos, pathos, logos and the 5 Canons of Rhetoric. We teach anaphora, epiphora, anadiplosis, chiasmus… And we are all energised, learning from those who crafted the most powerful, historical speeches: Christ, Elizabeth I, Sojourner Truth, Wilberforce, Pankhurst, Martin Luther King to name a few. It means our Year 8s know the context of each speech, read/hear it, analyse it, understand its impact. In turn, they then begin writing with integrity from their soul – not in response to a formula or checklist. And how students have gathered voice, opinion, passion, structure as they begin to understand and harness the power of the spoken word.

 

The journey has been so much more than ‘a curriculum review’ for it has inspired us all to re-consider our subjects and to really think about not just the what, but how we teach it.

In Art, Emma has stripped back her entire curriculum to focus on Portraiture. The results are stunning. All Art students start their GCSE course in Year 7, regardless of whether or not they opt for it at the end of Year 8. As well as spending time (24 hours each per year in Years 7 and 8) building the language and definitions of Art, the palette and Art History, Emma uses the grid method and starts Year 7 with a baseline – a drawing without a grid. Over 2 years, she revisits the same picture for assessment and tracks progress. It is astounding. Lessons are uncomplicated, focused and instructive; students watch the expert and then emulate her; the repetition and precision of stroke enabling all to succeed. Its simplicity and impact are powerful. Emma circulates to support her students, providing personalised feedback to each pupil in every lesson. Drawn, sketched art works of portraits are deconstructed (thank you, Daisy) – eyes, mouths, noses – each worked on very precisely until the moment is right to bring them together to craft a face.

 

In Music, Tim has re-thought his curriculum to enhance vocabulary; his aim that, by the end of Year 7, they know pianissimo from fortissimo; polyphonic from heterophonic. By Year 9, our students know a Beethoven from a Mozart; know and recognise a Williams and a Zimmer, and can articulate and appreciate them musically. All students know notation; all students can write music (not just those who can afford peripatetic lessons); all students play instruments and create – not what Space sounds like which, at best, is cacophonic, but all can play from major and minor scales to Blues improvisations.

In PE, Shaun is working on the knowledge and vocabulary necessary to underpin the theory of his subject. The calf is called the gastrocnemius; the collar-bone the clavicle. In addition to his PE Script, he is also creating a booklet of Sporting Greats. This will consist of moments, people and achievements that he judges all students are entitled to know as masters of the cultural capital of sport: the original Marathon; rugby; Muhammad Ali, Roger Bannister, Pele, Serena and Venus Williams, Ellie Simmonds. He believes that if the PE staff don’t explicitly tell the students, they may never know the endeavours and accomplishments of these amazing people; their dogged determination against the odds, and their astounding sporting prowess. Pupils will be able to rely on the strength of their stories to inspire them in the face of adversity, too, and learn that hard work and resilience are key to success.

Every subject has begun this journey and we make greater progress towards our destination every day.

So where’s Curriculum now?

What we are doing will impact upon the futures of our students and change their lives forever.

  1. We realised that subjects are not the same so they cannot be treated the same. Christine Counsell has been instrumental in that seminal moment of learning. Thank you. We refer to it often. Cumulative v hierarchical. They just are. Let their leaders and teachers take them in their right directions, but don’t expect them to do the same – they don’t; can’t, in fact. Respect them. Consistency exists in behaviour and standards+ but not in subjects.
  2. Teachers are experts and know how their subjects work. The Head and I line-manage every Department between us. In our weekly meetings, I ask questions – lots of them – to unpick the essence of subjects, and subject leaders use me as a sounding board for their thinking. It’s powerful; I relish our time as it energises and drives practice to pursue perfection.

At this point in time, we are well on our journey of putting all of that curriculum into the highest-quality Knowledge Books and Scripts which have been made by expert teachers for expert teachers and students to work from in class. They have had an enormous impact on reducing staff workload and have enhanced curriculum, and teaching and learning beyond belief. All for another blog, though.

For now, the whole review and challenge of curriculum is brave. It puts teachers in charge of our domains. It puts us back on the ladder of professionalism – with surgeons and barristers – to say we are experts in our subjects and in the teaching of them. We are! SLT MUST TRUST SUBJECT EXPERTS and give the opportunity, time and support to Departments to find their way through this. The Teaching and Learning Lead needs to ask the questions that prompt such depth of thought and unharnesses expertise that will change lives. Equally, SLT must support their staff if the most efficient way is to learn from those who are already on the path to share their experience of the journey.

The greatest rewards, though, are for the students accessing, learning, engaging with curricula previously reserved for the very advantaged. Pupils will be completely engaged in their learning, thinking, asking us amazing questions. There are no behaviour issues (why would you misbehave when you are this engaged?). At the same time, a tangible respect by students (and staff) for staff has emerged. We no longer look like cabin crew (no offence intended) issuing card-sorts, rainbow groups and spending hours on discovery tasks. No more of that: the stage’s sage is back! They are recognised by students, parents, governors and visitors who comment on how clever our staff are (because they work hard and smart to be thus!) with the Saint Martin’s Curriculum that has unclipped wings so teachers teach and all students devour.

Interested in any of this, just contact Saint Martin’s for a visit @Knowledge_Ed or via admin@saint-martins.net or come to hear more at our first Midlands Knowledge Schools Hub conference on Saturday, 12 May. Click here for tickets.

 

 

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