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Reviewing the Primary Curriculum – Part 3

 

We have a golden opportunity to revisit and refresh the curriculum. Many schools were doing this before it became a focus for inspection from September 2019. It is absolutely right that the substance of provision for our pupils is evaluated on a regular basis. Without this it becomes stale. Part 3 of 3!

You can also read two free chapters from Mary Myatt’s recently published book on the curriculum here: www.marymyatt.com.

The curse of content coverage

Are we ensuring that our pupils are taken to a place of mastery, where they know, understand and can do things on their own terms or are we overly concerned with covering the content? As a sector, it seems that the pursuit of content coverage leads to shallow learning. Instead, we need to be thinking about doing fewer things, in greater depth. We need to ask: what are we planning for our pupils that will have the greatest impact? Are we ensuring that they are being taken to a place of mastery where they can do something on their own terms as a result of what has been taught? Or are we overly concerned with covering the content and moving on before they really know and understand something? Considering curriculum plans means that we have to come to terms with the fact that it is better for our pupils to know, understand and apply things in depth, rather than completing masses of worksheets which privilege task completion above deep understanding.

One way of thinking about this is Austin’s Butterfly. In this example, Austin, aged six, is taken to a place where he has mastered the accurate drawing of a swallow-tailed butterfly. He has developed the intellectual architecture of a fine piece of work. If we think this is worthwhile then we have some hard decisions to make. Either we can say that content coverage is more important than deep understanding and agree that Austin should complete six different drawings of animals, of roughly the same quality. Or, we can say that we will invest the time into making sure that he is really secure. That he is able to produce something of real quality which sets him up to continue to produce work at that level over time. These are not easy decisions, but they are important, because they cause us to focus on what our children have learnt and are able to do on their own terms as opposed to just completed.

Once we have the big picture in place and we recognise that it is not possible to cover everything, we need to make sure that our pupils are provided with beautiful, high quality materials. These include rich stories and high quality images and artefacts. The default position is to download worksheets from the internet. However, most of these are not of high quality and too frequently are proxies for learning because they privilege task completion over deep understanding. By the time we have searched, downloaded and paid for a low quality worksheet, we could have found an image from the internet which will do a better job. Why use low-grade sketches of mosques or castles when high quality, authentic images are freely available and can be shown through an interactive whiteboard? As a sector, we need to wean ourselves off the crutches of poor quality materials and re engage with the authentic richness of art, mathematical patterns such as the Fibonacci sequence, geographical features, historical artefacts and science. And offer these to our pupils for discussion and observation.

Sensible approaches to gathering impact

How do we know whether what we have taught has been learnt? The answer is through what our children produce: in their talk, in what they write and in what they produce. The problem is that in many parts of the sector, writing has been privileged over what children say and produce. This has led to an over emphasis on written outcomes which have not been fully supported through speaking, listening and reading. And a consequence is often a pile of worksheets, which might have been completed and ticked off, but which children are not able to talk about in their own words. If we consider Austin’s Butterfly again, we might ask these questions in terms of impact: does Austin have a sense of the progress he has made? Does his teacher? And does some other adult who looks at his work? The answer is yes. Does it need a number on a spreadsheet? The answer is probably no.

We are able to tell whether our pupils have learnt what we have taught them through a number of ways – by the things they say about what they have learnt, by looking in their books and by the things that they produced, including writing. The key question we need to ask is: ‘This is what they have been taught, have they ‘got’ it?’ If they have, then good. And if not, then we need to go back and revisit the material.

So, let’s take this opportunity to go back and work through our curriculum thinking in a measured and steady way, bearing in mind that this is long term work and not a quick tick box exercise. Let’s go back and reignite our interest in individual subjects, find the stories and provide worthwhile activities for our pupils that enable them to dig deep and linger longer. Because they are worth it.

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