Jemima Rhys-Evans, HEAD OF PRIMARY CURRICULUM AND STANDARDS, THE CHARTER SCHOOLS EDUCATIONAL TRUST; DIRECTOR, CHARLES DICKENS RESEARCH SCHOOL, UK
Just over five years ago, Charles Dickens Primary School moved from being one-and-a-half-form entry, with mixed year groups, to two-form entry. With mixed classes, we had worked on a two-year rolling curriculum, making sequencing of skills and knowledge a challenge. The move to two-form entry gave us the opportunity to re-evaluate our curriculum and to build a more rigorous progression model.
At around the same time, we had redefined our ethos in a collaborative process with the whole staff team, and three core values had emerged: academic excellence, creativity, and social and emotional intelligence. However, a review of the curriculum in place also made it clear that, in science and humanities subjects in particular, students were not being supported to be academically excellent. Lessons were planned in a slightly ad-hoc fashion, with a focus on fun activities rather than securing pupils’ knowledge.
Michael Young’s work on powerful knowledge (Young et al., 2014), and particularly his 2014 seminar ‘The curriculum and the entitlement to knowledge’, was hugely influential, as was Bordieu’s (1986) work on cultural capital. Charles Dickens has high levels of disadvantage (just over 30 per cent of our students are in receipt of the Pupil Premium grant), and many of these students would not have access to powerful knowledge and the consequent cultural capital unless we explicitly provided it through our curriculum.
We therefore completely overhauled our curriculum so that it is rich in carefully sequenced substantive and disciplinary knowledge (Counsell, 2018). It fosters a deep understanding of ‘the best that has been thought and said’ in history, geography and RE.
In order to facilitate this, we have moved towards fully resourced schemes of work: booklets. These were created in-house by the curriculum team, in consultation with secondary subject specialists and specialist organisations. Core knowledge and vocabulary were identified and made explicit in a knowledge organiser. These were then sequenced into a medium-term plan and this was then turned into a sequence of lessons with accompanying pupil tasks (see Hutchinson, 2018).
The booklets have many benefits:
- carefully sequenced knowledge across a unit
- planned by subject specialists
- free teachers to concentrate on engaging explanations and questions
- explicit teaching of vocabulary
- reduced teacher workload (informed by the Independent Teacher Workload Review Group’s report on reducing unnecessary workload (2016). I also wrote about this in issue 9 of Impact (2020)).
Feedback from teachers and pupils on the first two booklets was surprisingly positive (I was worried that our incredibly creative teachers would reject pre-planned sequences of learning). Yet two recurrent issues emerged:
- The temporary appearance of the booklets (they were stapled print-outs) impacted on students’ presentation
- They were too text-heavy – knowledge-dense rather than knowledge-rich.
This meant that we were facing a key design question: how could we present challenging material in an appealing, accessible format? We needed to re-evaluate the core content of the booklets and to consider how best to present the content.
Each booklet contains a balance of information and pupil tasks. Each lesson follows a similar structure, reflected in the design of the booklet:
Retrieval practice > Vocabulary exploration > Information > Student task A > Information > Student task B > Plenary (most usually a summary of the core learning and often not included in the booklet).
The first generation of booklets led to improvements in students’ outcomes but we knew that there was more mileage to be had from them, especially in terms of the effective presentation of information. We want our humanities units to be challenging, and to build students’ literacy skills through regular reading activities, which meant the inclusion of plenty of text. However, we were also aware that presenting text as a single uninterrupted chunk was not always accessible or effective in driving understanding. Moreover, in many cases text was not the best vehicle to deliver content. Finally, we felt that the physical appearance of the booklets was important, and wanted a more appealing object that would help students to feel excited to use them and proud of their learning.
We therefore drew on the considerable skills of one of our teachers (a graphic designer in a previous life) to improve the visual design of the booklets. He exceeded his brief spectacularly, applying a range of information design theories, particularly dual coding (Clark and Paivio, 1991).
Some of the changes that he made were simple: reformatting text into two columns and adjusting the spacing for maximum legibility, and interspersing text with purposeful images. Some were more complex: replacing text with infographics was especially effective in the geography curriculum. He also introduced a consistent set of task icons, fonts and colour schemes, all to increase the ease with which the brain could process the information being presented. Consistency was further embedded for those visuals that would be repeated across topics and years (such as maps and timelines) and in graphic style: multi-coloured drawings and diagrams that focus on simplified ‘painterly’ form and which children might be familiar with from story books and graphic novels. This consistency and clarity of layout served to reduce students’ extraneous cognitive load, allowing them to focus on the task at hand (Chandler and Sweller, 1991).
While there is consistency of appearance, the content varies according to subject. The narrative nature of history increases the likelihood of information being presented in illustrated text form, whereas geographical information lends itself more to diagrams, visuals and infographics. Figure 1 shows an example of a resource to accompany a geography lesson.
Task design: Tasks to build understanding
Most lessons contain at least two student tasks. Type A tasks secure understanding. In history, this might be ordering dates on a timeline, sequencing events through drama, answering questions on a text or analysing source material. In geography, this might be annotating a map or modelling a physical process (e.g. the course of a river or the formation of a mountain).
Task design: Tasks to build articulation of understanding
Type B tasks build students’ skills in expressing their understanding. In history, this might be constructing a causation argument (Why did Henry VIII break with Rome?) or an impact evaluation (What was the legacy of the Roman occupation of Britain?). In geography, a Type B task might be a written explanation of a physical process (e.g. the eruption of a volcano) or a comparison of different places.
The skills to produce these pieces of writing – to teach students to think like a historian or a geographer – need to be explicitly taught over the course of the unit. In order to support students to become fluent essay-writers, we need to build their writing skills through small bouts of deliberate practice, rather than writing lots of essays (Ericsson, cited in Christodoulou, 2017). Small writing tasks are therefore included in lessons, using scaffolds from Hochman and Wexler’s (2017) writing-instruction method, such as the ‘because, but, so’ structure and the ‘single paragraph outline’.
The beginning of units tend to contain more type A tasks, and there are more type B tasks towards the end, aiming for a balance of these over the course of a unit. At the end of each unit there is an assessment task, e.g. a longer written piece in response to a question, which is a culmination of all the shorter tasks in the preceding lessons. This task gives students the chance to piece all their learning together and to understand the subject as a whole.
Assessment outcomes show that students are retaining more core knowledge and applying their knowledge and vocabulary more effectively in extended pieces of writing when measured using comparative judgement metrics. Pupil voice demonstrates greater engagement with learning in these subjects and teachers report improvements in their subject knowledge, leading to improved explanations, modelling and scaffolding.
The booklets are, of course, works in progress and the work of resource design is a constantly iterative process, both aesthetically and pedagogically. By combining visual design that is both beautiful and supportive of learning with task design that builds students’ substantive and disciplinary knowledge, they allow for not only an ethic of academic excellence (Berger, 2003) but also an aesthetic of excellence.
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