What Is a Curriculum in Schools and Why Is It Important?
Curriculum Design and Planning.
A curriculum is a programme of study undertaken by students in schools that encompasses their entire learning package, resulting in their final grades; different countries follow different models but all culminate in final examinations or assessments.
This article will take you through some of the key areas to be borne in mind.
Each stage of a student’s education is guided by a curriculum, so designing them appropriately and effectively is vital.
For many younger teachers, their school experience was determined by the National Curriculum, which was introduced nationwide for state schools in 1988 following the Education Reform Act.
Prior to this, curricula were determined by local authorities or schools themselves, meaning great diversity in offer and approach.
The concept of a ‘core curriculum of basic knowledge’ was first outlined by Sir Jim Callaghan in 1976, but it wasn’t until 12 years later that the reality came about.
Schools were faced with the challenge of combining subjects to be studied with final exam preparation and enrichment opportunities, maximising the potential for students and not limiting access to knowledge but also delivering that knowledge in the most efficient way.
What Does Curriculum Actually Mean, and Why Do We Need to Know?
Before we delve too deeply into the technical aspects of curriculum design, let us first define what curriculum means and also how we have got to this point where the word is now the first on the lips of many school leaders as they plan their approach.
It is interesting first to note that the root of the word Curriculum is in fact the Latin verb ‘currere’, meaning ‘to run’. As a noun it meant ‘Racecourse’, so some indication already of something that has a clear start and endpoint with challenges along the way.
By the mid-19th Century, the word ‘curriculum’ was in regular use in European Universities to describe not only the total programme of study undertaken or offered but also the individual aspects therein; we all design an aspect of curricular when we plan a lesson or a learning sequence.
The NCTL put it beautifully: “A school should consider what ingredients are required to make a really outstanding curriculum that will inspire and challenge all children and prepare them for the future.”
Howsoever you choose to define or determine curriculum you are doing so in abstract form; your definition may differ slightly from that of your colleagues but there are still numerous concrete principles that need to be considered as you plan.
Essentially, your curriculum encapsulates everything you offer that is an opportunity for students to learn something new, either through direct experience, instruction, practice or by some form of academic osmosis.
The curriculum can be argued to be as much about the inspiration and drive it offers the teachers as the instruction and knowledge it imparts to those that study it.
It must be remembered that the National Curriculum (NC) in England does not apply to Academies or Free Schools but still should represent a touchstone.
Since 1988 there have been myriad reforms and re-workings of the National Curriculum – content, assessment, subjects et al – but the NC acts now as an outline, a framework.
In her excellent book Curriculum; Gallimaufry to Coherence (2018), Mary Myatt warns that it is vital to distinguish between the National Curriculum (above) and ‘curriculum’ itself; the former is a scaffold in need of considerable contextualising, the latter ‘represents the totality of the experience of the child within schooling’.
She urges us to be aware of three key aspects when considering curriculum as we see it now:
- “It is more complex and simpler than we have come to think”
- “Its status and content now have a higher profile than in recent years”
- “It is never going to be possible to do it all”
If we see the curriculum as a chance for our students to acquire a range of skills – social, personal, emotional and cultural capital – then we are approaching it in the best way.
What Are the Key Terms We Need to Understand When Making Curriculum Choices?
Let’s outline some of the key concepts and terminology.
Firstly, the difference between Breadth and Depth:
Breadth is the range of subjects taught across the entire curriculum, and the span of knowledge within each subject.
A broad curriculum, therefore, focusses on all curriculum subjects, not just core subjects.
Breadth can also be seen within subjects, such as a global History curriculum covering a wide range of time and place, or English curriculum that covers a large range of authors and cultures.
Depth is, as it suggests, how deeply specific topics within each subject are covered and studied – how well do students understand key concepts, underlying links et al.
Depth is related to the intricacy and complexity of the schema formed during study to enable conceptual grasp and understanding.
Knowledge can be substantive (declarative) or disciplinary (procedural) – know ‘what’ and know ‘how’.
Substantive knowledge is content taught as fact – properties of materials, plots of plays, mathematical formulae; disciplinary knowledge is the understanding of how knowledge itself is established and verified – persuasive writing, conducting experiments etc.
There is also Core knowledge – basic facts to be learned and retained (remember we need facts to solve problems – Chi & Glaser, 1988) – and then Hinterland knowledge, which is contextual knowledge needed to provide deeper meaning, frame ideas and concepts, give greater depth.
For example, in a Maths lesson, a student needs the core knowledge of displacement and volume theory to properly acquire and retain hinterland knowledge of the story of Archimedes.
Threshold concepts are similar to core knowledge, in that they represent the entrance-level ideas – concepts that enable students to better understand other ideas; they need to know about 2D shapes before tackling 3D shapes.
Curriculum structures are important to understand as well; a vertical structure introduces curriculum aspects progressively as the school year develops, with knowledge built on prior learning.
What students learn in lesson one is built on in lesson two e.g. students learn about Elizabethan England before they tackle a Shakespeare play.
A horizontal structure is more thematic; aspects of the curriculum are introduced to students across year groups at the same time, perhaps like a PSHE theme, so as to integrate and interrelate knowledge.
The curriculum can also be cumulative.
Knowledge builds on and expands previous learning, it is either segmented; new ideas are added that are related to current contexts (so something a student learns on a Geography field trip, or a one-off Charity Day leads to fundraising skills being developed).
Or it can be spiral – previous learning is revisited and new knowledge added at age or stage-appropriate times, such as persuasive writing being taught every year but with increasing complexity each time.
If the curriculum is taught through the experiences and lives of the students then it is ‘context-dependent’, and if it isn’t related to personal experience then it is ‘context-independent’.
How Is the Quality and Effectiveness of a Curriculum Assessed by External Agencies?
Curriculum is a key discussion point in education at present, with an increasing focus on the way that curricula are not only designed but also implemented – the new OfSted framework (2019) puts Curriculum under the ‘Quality of Education’ banner alongside teaching, assessment and standards, and focuses on three core concepts:
Essentially, what are your aims, how are they put in place and facilitated, and how will you know if you have succeeded?
Alongside this should come all those other things you need to consider; student ability, content, context, teacher resources – the whole caboodle.
A good curriculum needs opportunities for interleaving, acquisition of essential cultural capital, links with other topics, content and subjects.
It is more than just what to teach and when, driven by the need to ‘cover it all’ before the exam.
Take for example the classic approach of allowing a month or so for revision in Year 11; on the face of it this looks brilliant, you’ve curated content so wonderfully that you’ve actually found time to give over to students working through exam questions and ‘preparing’ for the exams, topic by topic.
Yes, this is to be lauded but beware the ‘cramming’ approach; cramming isn’t always necessarily the night before.
It can be perpetuating the myth that ‘blocking’ works; it doesn’t!
A good place to explore is Rohrer’s work of 2007:
“With blocked practice, all problems are drawn from the preceding lesson. With mixed review, students encounter a mixture of problems drawn from different lessons.”.
Spacing and Interleaving helps improve long-term retention, retrieval, performance; everything we want to enable success.
Therefore, we must factor this into our curriculum design; mixing up problems yields better results, so plan for regular worthwhile assessment and quizzing that reviews previous content – last unit, last topic, last week, last lesson – and reap the rewards.
To go back to Rohrer: “Spacing provides review that improves long-term retention, and mixing improves students’ ability to pair a problem with the appropriate concept or procedure”.
If we explore the terms employed by OfSted we see that we need to know what we want students to know and be able to do (intent), how we will teach this (implementation) and how we will measure the extent to which students have learned what we wanted them to learn (impact).
So, our intent is our planning, our implementation is our deployment of available resources and our impact is our outcomes; all of these can be measured in different ways.
The latter, I think, is the key here.
Can the students do more, do they know more, can they talk about more than when they started that particular period of study?
Remember – celebrate this knowledge; allow the chance to apply it; challenge it in debate; question it; probe for a depth of understanding.
Intent, Implementation and Impact are not discrete; they are not judged separately.
The assessment of them externally requires coherence between them, and so should you.
To quote from the framework for inspection:
“inspectors and leaders start with a top-level view of the school’s curriculum, exploring what is on offer, to whom and when, leaders’ understanding of curriculum intent and sequencing, and why these choices were made; then, a ‘deep dive’, which involves gathering evidence on the curriculum intent, implementation and impact over a sample of subjects, topics or aspects”.
It is vital that anyone involved in delivering the curriculum is able to articulate its rationale and its aim – if you don’t know why you are teaching what you are teaching then how can you possibly teach it effectively??
We will explore each of Intent, Implementation and Impact in more depth in future posts; for now, let’s consider tenets of curriculum design.
How should I design my curriculum to best suit, my students?
So, how do we build a curriculum?
Well, that’s a question.
Firstly, curriculum is built at lesson level – to quote from Dylan Wiliam’s excellent Principled Curriculum Design (2013), ‘pedagogy trumps curriculum’.
What Wiliam means here is that no matter what the over-riding ambition or vision, ultimately the curriculum is what is delivered in classrooms day in, day out; the outcome is only achieved when the delivery is effective – an early vision of ‘intent, implementation, impact’.
He goes on to tell us that curriculum ‘is the lived daily experience of young people in classrooms, curriculum is pedagogy’.
Bad workmen will blame their tools; good workmen check they have the right tools in place before tackling a task.
A really important message from Wiliam is this: ‘Teachers create and develop curriculum every day, whenever they plan and deliver lessons.’
We all have input and we all have creativity.
He goes on to outline 7 core features of a good curriculum, and these should be absorbed at all levels – classroom teachers in charge of weekly lesson sequences, middle leaders designing units, faculty leads looking over the whole year: balance, rigor, coherence, focus, relevance, appropriateness (pitch) and vertical integration.
There is also a lot of discussion about what sort of curriculum to have?
Knowledge or Skills?
To me and to many they are not mutually exclusive. A Knowledge-rich curriculum is seen as one that is subject-based and aims to teach students domain-specific knowledge and skills.
Notice the presence of ‘skills’ there; the knowledge forms the basis for the application. Within a knowledge-based curriculum, subjects are taught with increasing levels of complexity that in turn leads to deeper knowledge and understanding at a more conceptual level.
Ellis (Exemplars of Curriculum Theory, 2004) states that a knowledge-centred curriculum ‘focuses on intellectual growth and development, on challenging the learner to go deeper’.
I could not agree more that challenge and stretch come from depth and not breadth – don’t send your students to another field where you can’t supervise them, help them dig deeper and excavate more in the field you are working in!
However, Knowledge and Skills are not easily separable; don’t try!
One begets the other, I feel, and there are many pieces of writing and research out there that offer their view.
One suggestion is to see the terms ‘Knowledge’ and ‘Skills’ as simply different names for different ways of knowing how to do things – ‘know that’ and ‘know how’.
Indeed, the Early Career Framework statements for the Teacher Standards use this very model, and it is very clear.
You need facts to solve problems – simple; each topic has its facts that, if committed to our children’s long-term memory, aid problem-solving by freeing up working memory; this leaves them better suited to cope with more complex problems.
In a piece for Impact Journal in 2018 Tom Sherrington cited 4 key components for a curriculum centred on the acquisition of knowledge:
- Knowledge provides a driving, underpinning philosophy
- The knowledge content is specified in detail
- Knowledge is taught to be remembered, not encountered
- Knowledge is sequenced and mapped deliberately and coherently.
Alongside the Intent, Implementation and Impact, these can become guidelines for curriculum design.
Whether you are a classroom teacher, Head of Department or Senior Leader you are responsible for designing forms of curricular – sequences of learning with clear goals and desires that give students what they need in that particular topic, Unit or Subject.
As far as I see it, the knowledge is the subject – it should be celebrated within its domain; the language, the terms, the facts, the literacy of the subject (Hirsch – Knowledge begets knowledge (1987)) all need to be included in your planning.
The ‘Spider-Web’ metaphor can be helpful here (Thijs / van den Akker 2009) to see what constitutes the curriculum you are designing: purpose; content; pedagogy; assessment; knowledge organisation (schema development) – a very wide range of practices indeed!
The best thing to do is to start with your own knowledge; as Coe et al (2014) tell us:
‘Teachers with strong knowledge and understanding of their subject have a greater impact on students learning‘.
It is also important for teachers to understand how students think about content and are able to identify common misconceptions on a topic.
When you know your stuff, you can teach it to others, anticipate misconceptions, go deeper, give feedback, but beware the Curse of Knowledge, coined by Wieman in 2007:
“Here I would like to offer an explanation for this disparity between good intentions and bad results and, on this basis, suggest how to improve teaching and learning. The explanation arises from what has sometimes been called the “curse of knowledge” by educational psychologists. It is the idea that when you know something, it is extremely difficult to think about it from the perspective of someone who does not know it.”.
The EBE Great Teaching Toolkit Evidence Review summarises it thus:
As a teacher you need ‘deep and fluent knowledge and flexible understanding of the content you are teaching’ and that you must have ‘knowledge of the requirements of curriculum sequencing and dependencies in relation to the content and ideas you are teaching’.
In the very recent words of Efrat Furst, ‘teachers are experts who regain sight of the elements that build the knowledge structures that they are teaching’; essentially, they are not blinded or blighted by the ‘curse of knowledge’ outlined by Wieman above.
Don’t forget that you will know much more than your students and you must factor in small steps, regular checks, formative assessment opportunities – allow for knowledge to be encoded, stored and retrieved regularly.
All curriculum planning must of course factor in the basic aspects of learning science; don’t overload or cram your matter; space it out, interleave it, allow opportunities for retrieval and assessment.
Be sure of your footing.
The design and implementation of a curriculum must be a work from the heart, I feel; a celebration of everything wonderful that there is to learn about a topic, delivered in an empathetic and appropriate way to allow a diverse range of souls to be touched by its content and enriched by the opportunities it presents.
Curriculum Design and Planning FAQ
Very simply, the curriculum is the programme of study undertaken by a student; this can be at subject, unit or topic level and approaches to its design varies across institutions.
Anyone who teaches a topic should be involved in the planning of the methodology; this creates coherence and gives teachers agency.
Curriculum is now closely investigated by OfSted as part of how effective a school is; it is looked at in detail and schools must be sure of their ground! As with all things in education, decisions around curriculum design should be taken with the best interests of the students and their outcomes in mind.