Seven starting points for interrogating your curriculum

Written by: John Tomsett | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

What are the seven starting points that will ensure you have a healthy, open conversation about your school’s curriculum? John Tomsett, co-author of a new book on curriculum conversations, discusses some of the key questions we should be asking…

Having heard about our first Huh project, Philippa Cordingley, CEO of CUREE – the Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education – challenged co-author Mary Myatt and I to write a primary version.

In fact, we have written two. Primary Huh: Curriculum conversations with subject leaders in primary schools focuses upon individual discrete subjects, and its companion volume Primary Huh 2: Primary curriculum leadership conversations provides a platform to practitioners who lead on the broader issues of primary curriculum design.

Curriculum review can seem a daunting task and it is definitely a team undertaking. During the project, we interviewed 19 subject leaders and two senior leaders about how they approached developing their subject curriculum. We transcribed the interviews, pared them down to 3,000 words each, and added some other helpful content.

The Huh project is founded upon conversations. Developmental curriculum conversations can take several forms, however there are arguably, seven useful starting points.

Often the first question of each starting point is all you require, because, as Christine Counsell pointed out: “After the first question or two, discussion is driven by the dynamic of that subject, the subject’s curriculum issues and/or the concerns of the subject lead.”

Much of what follows is largely based upon the thoughts of the remarkable curriculum leader Claire Hill, director of school improvement at the Turner Schools Trust, and her Huh conversation with us.

These seven starting points are by no means exhaustive, and they are all inextricably linked. You will probably touch upon all seven during a healthy, open conversation about your school’s curriculum. Some of the best conversations occur when you get into the detail of curriculum design at the granular level.


1, The history of the (subject) curriculum at our school

How was this particular subject curriculum developed over time?

  • Who was involved in this process?
  • Who put these different elements together?
  • When was this element introduced and why at this point in particular?
  • Has it always been at this point in the curriculum? Why?
  • Which legacy issues are barriers to the specific improvements we would like to introduce or that an external subject specialist or subject resource might suggest are desirable?
  • How can we overcome those barriers so we can move beyond these legacy issues?


2, General curriculum overview across the age range

Begin with year 6 and imagine the final (subject) lesson. If we have taught a rich, challenging, ambitious curriculum for all the pupils, what does success look like? What do we want the pupils to know, understand and be able to do?

  • If this is the destination, how do we get there? What are the necessary building blocks of curriculum that start in EYFS and continue developing through to year 6?
  • How do we decide which content to use to exemplify specific conceptual understanding in the subject?
  • How rooted is the current curriculum in the national curriculum for this subject?


3, Curriculum sequencing: Why that? Why now? Why to them?

Why do we teach this, to these pupils, at this point in the scheme of learning?

  • What else could we teach these pupils which may be richer, more challenging, and more ambitious?
  • What could we teach which would better link what they have learnt before to what they will learn next?
  • What are the key concepts of the subject and how do we plan for when and how we teach them?
  • How does the content of this unit of study allow pupils to develop their conceptual understanding and subject-specific skills?
  • How have we woven formative and summative assessments through this curriculum unit to maximise pupils' learning?


4, Curriculum sequencing: Boring down into the fortnightly curriculum

What are year 4 learning at the moment?

  • How does that build on from what they have previously learnt?
  • How will it prepare them for their learning over the next two weeks, month, two months and so on?
  • How does that key concept link to their future study – in a few weeks or months’ time?
  • Why is it the focus for this particular lesson at this time?
  • What vocabulary may the children have difficulty accessing?
  • How will we explain this concept? What common language are we going to use?
  • How will we support the lower/higher attainers?

We can use the following questions to explore the pupils’ experience of the curriculum.

  • What are you learning about and why?
  • How does this lesson fit in with what you have learnt before?
  • What do you think you might be moving on to study next?
  • How do you know how to improve in this subject?
  • To what extent does the work challenge you and make you think more deeply about the topics you are studying?


5, Assessment and responsive pedagogy

How can we assess learning in a meaningful way?

  • How does this help assess what pupils know, understand, and can do at this point?
  • Why is this the most appropriate way to assess at this point in our curriculum?
  • How true is this assessment to our curriculum and to our subject discipline?
  • To what extent do we respond in our teaching to what assessment data tells us about pupils’ learning?
  • How do we decide which formative assessment method we will use and why?


6, Misconceptions

What are the likely misconceptions pupils may have about this unit of work?

  • Are all the class/subject teachers aware of these? How do we know?
  • How can we help pupils address these misconceptions?
  • How can we prepare less experienced teachers to approach teaching these identified misconceptions and ensure they are addressed?
  • How can we share good practice and teaching strategies?


7, What’s great and how can we spread the greatness?

Which parts of the curriculum do we love? Which parts really work? Which parts really sing? How well does this part of the curriculum build upon the narrative that precedes it? How does it extend and deepen pupils' subject knowledge and understanding?

  • What is it that makes this part of our curriculum so effective?
  • What taps into the pupils’ interest?
  • What supports learning in that particular unit?
  • Which parts of our curriculum need to change? Why?
  • How can we change less effective parts of the curriculum, in light of what we have identified as successful in other parts?
  • How can we develop these aspects of the curriculum as a team?


Conclusions

Throughout the curriculum review and development process, the two most vital questions to ask, in order to fully interrogate your curriculum and the teaching and learning opportunities that stem from it, are “why?” and “how do you know?”

And when does it end? The truth is, curriculum development is never-ending, which is why we called the project “Huh”. Huh is the Egyptian god of endlessness, creativity, fertility, and regeneration – the perfect curriculum deity.

  • John Tomsett taught for 33 years and was a teaching headteacher for 18 years, leading Huntington School in York until August 2021. His blog is called This Much I Know, and he has written extensively about school leadership, including several books. Visit https://johntomsett.com/ and follow @johntomsett


Further information & resources

Primary Huh: Curriculum conversations with subject leaders in primary schools and Primary Huh 2: Primary curriculum leadership conversations by John Tomsett and Mary Myatt are published by John Catt Educational. Visit https://bit.ly/3Mv7MwZ


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