Research Spotlight – 2019 Term Two

Research Focus – Curriculum and Knowledge

The new OFSTED framework, with its new method of “deep-diving” a department to question its teachers, has led to a new found interest in curriculum intent. After years of focusing on how we teach, a new focus on what we teach and why is probably not unwelcome but it is leading to concerns that many teachers and curriculum leaders are unprepared for their curriculum to receive too much scrutiny. Part of the problem is that programs of study can evolve organically over time and without us realising it the original intent of the curriculum can be lost.

This intent matters. If the intention of my curriculum is to prepare pupils for work in the 21st century, then what I teach will look very different to someone whose intent is to prepare pupils to be socially responsible citizens. It will look different too to someone whose curriculum is intending to pass on the accumulated wisdom of previous generations and to leave them with the skills to add to this wisdom themselves in the future. Intent matters. For a look at three different models of educational intent see Robeyns paper here:

Types of knowledge

Another point to consider in our curriculum is the balance that different types of knowledge might play. There are many ways that knowledge can be classified but the two that most often concern us when it comes to curriculum building are substantive and disciplinary knowledge.

Substantive knowledge is knowledge about a subject – the facts that lead to greater understanding. In geography we might teach pupils the substantive knowledge that rivers usually run faster closer to the mouth or that meanders can be cut off through erosion to leave an ox-bow lake.

Disciplinary knowledge is the knowledge of how this substantive knowledge was originally created. What procedures are used in our disciplines to create new knowledge? Pupils might need to know we gather data on river velocity or use photographs to identify the remains of landforms like ox-bow lakes.

Some subjects naturally prioritise one form of knowledge more than an other but both will exist in there somewhere. Understanding these two terms can help us to better plan our curriculum by ensuring that pupils are gaining an understanding of the structures of our disciplines rather than simply their contents.

Threshold and Folk Knowledge

It can also be useful to think about and identify what Meyer and Land call threshold concepts. These are pieces of troublesome knowledge, the lack of which can prevent pupils from making further progress in our subject. For example, in geography, if pupils have not understood the concept of sustainability they will struggle to understand the flaws with London’s regeneration projects or with large scale water transfer schemes. However, once they have truly grasped the concept it is irreversible and will transform how they see the world.

We can also consider the role of folk knowledge in our subject. Things that children learn outside of school, that if often based on ‘common sense’ and may well be wrong. Many misconceptions can have their basis on folk knowledge. It seems to be common sense that it is hotter on the equator because it is closer to the sun – but it isn’t right. It seems common sense that rivers run quickest near the source as they are coming down mountain sides – but it is not true. The problem with this folk knowledge is that it feels intuitively right as it fits with other things that people know about the world – this can make it difficult to challenge and to change. It helps if we can identify these likely misconceptions in our curriculum so that they are addressed explicitly and the myths are busted.

Mapping the journey

The word ‘curriculum’ derives from the word for the route of a race. A curriculum should take pupils from one place to another and like any journey one things must follow another. What we teach our pupils needs to come in a logical order so that they have the opportunity to use what they studied before in later topics. This naturally allows for retrieval of previously taught material and so strengthens their memory of it but perhaps more importantly it helps to develop more meaningful schemas, webs of knowledge, about our subjects in which different things they study are connected. This helps them to see that what they learn matters as it will be called on again. Nothing stands in isolation.

This happens more commonly in some subjects that others. Some have a natural pathway to take, some as chronological in history, or they have a hierarchical structure, such as in maths, which is predicated on pupils needing to master the ability to solve one type of problem before applying it to another. Other subjects are not structured in this way. It can seem that in geography we have an almost random collection of topics: urbanisation, tectonics, tropical rainforests… and so they could go in any order. Each stands alone. We have to fight much harder to place them in a logical order in which that which goes before is used at a later date. For example, pupils study tectonics in Year 8 before using that knowledge to help them understand landscapes in East Africa, then use this to help them contrast it with the forces that shape our local landscape, and then again at the end of the year when trying to understand the development of Haiti. Answering not only the question “why do we study this?” but “why do we study this now?” is an important step in creating a meaningful curriculum.

Prompt questions

When planning our curriculum there are a number of questions we might want to ask ourselves.

  • What is the point of studying this curriculum?
  • What should pupils walk away knowing?
    • Substantive knowledge
    • Disciplinary knowledge
  • What are the threshold concepts that might prove to be a barrier?
  • What are the misconceptions that arise from folk knowledge?
  • Why have we structured our topics in this order?
  • When will they have the opportunity to use what I have taught them again?

Mark Enser

Head of Geography and Research Lead

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