Teachers collaborating on the curriculum

Written by: Richard Jackson | Published:
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It is teachers who deliver the curriculum, so curriculum design and implementation through collaboration is a clear way to improve teaching and learning quality, says Richard Jackson

Whose curriculum is it anyway? Policy-makers, senior leaders, subject leaders, teachers? The answer might differ depending on your experience of curriculum design and context.

In this article, I would like to offer reflections and suggestions on how school leaders can design and implement a coherent curriculum in a collaborative way, exploring curriculum design and implementation through five questions: why, what, when, how and – critically – who?

Below, through looking at each of the first four of these questions, I want to consider the crucial role of the fifth – the who – and why without a shared intention sustained progress in this area will not be realised.

The why of the curriculum

The why of the school’s curriculum, and that of each subject, is in a large part dependent on the bigger question: “What is the purpose of education itself?” This is a philosophical question that can sometimes occupy academics, policy-makers and senior leaders, but is it a conversation that we have regularly with teachers? Turner (2016) proposes four purposes of education:

  • Building character: As pupils learn they develop socially, academically and emotionally thus developing their character.
  • Teaching knowledge with value: Education as an end in its own right; pupils learning knowledge for its own sake.
  • Furthering social justice: Education as a route to social change and mobility.
  • Preparing for work and citizenship: Education which prepares pupils with the knowledge and skills they need to be active in work/society.

Which of these we consider as the purpose of our curriculum will depend on our own beliefs, and the vision and context of our individual schools. There is no right or wrong, but it is a conversation that is important to have at school level and at subject level.

Engaging with these conversations about the why of the curriculum with subject leaders and then in a collaborative way with colleagues in the phase or subject is more likely to ensure an understanding of this “why” that translates into what pupils learn and how it is taught.

The what and the when of the curriculum

Many schools have spent a great deal of time over the last few years deciding what to teach and when to teach it. These decisions are complex and happen both at the school and subject level, and also, as Professor Dylan Wiliam reminds us, at the classroom level: “Teachers create and develop curriculum every day, whenever they plan and deliver lessons.” (Wiliam, 2013).

This makes it even more important, as school leaders, to ensure that teachers have the understanding of how pupils learn and are equipped with the subject knowledge and expertise to make decisions about what is taught and how this knowledge is sequenced.

In many schools, it is the subject leaders or heads of department that make many of the decisions about the curriculum content and sequencing. However, doing so in a collaborative way and making use of a wider pool of knowledge, can often lead to more informed decisions and teachers who are more likely to be engaged with what they have to teach.

One study of collaborative curriculum design teams (Voogt et al, 2016) found an effect of collaboration not only on the curriculum itself, but also that this form of professional development improved pedagogical content or subject knowledge, having a positive impact on curriculum implementation.

So how do we make the most of collaborative curriculum planning? Within departments there may be teachers who have specialisms, expertise and subject knowledge that complements that of the subject leader. Encouraging subject leaders to find this out and making time for them to collaboratively plan and sequence the curriculum may lead to a more coherent curriculum.

This collaborative approach applies to senior leaders as well.

Of course, ensuring a coherence of the curriculum in line with the “why” of the school is vital, as is accountability, yet so is recognising that often senior leaders are not curriculum experts within a subject or phase.

Therefore, as Christine Counsell advocates, approaching curriculum conversations with subject leaders and teachers in an enquiring way and with a certain degree of humility enables a conversation informed by the subject which contains challenge and learning on both sides (Counsell, 2020).

This should deepen both the subject leader’s and the senior leader’s understanding of the why, the what and the when of the curriculum for individual subjects and the whole school curriculum.

The how of the curriculum

As might be expected by now, collaboration is also key when implementing the curriculum. As Prof Wiliam suggests, individual teachers create and develop the curriculum each day in the decisions they take about how and what to teach.

These decisions should be informed by a secure evidence base, encompassing how pupils learn, and principles for effective teaching and for effective subject-specific pedagogy. Collaborative two-way discussions within subjects, phases or within a year group based on this common understanding can facilitate an implemented curriculum which is coherent and of high quality.

Within some schools, departments, phases or year groups have used “teaching walk throughs” or “teaching previews” to discuss the “how” and to collectively develop teaching.

In some schools this has included: sharing teaching strategies such as modelling, scaffolding and questioning; discussions about pre-empting misconceptions and ways to address these; and the modelling and rehearsal of these teaching techniques.

Power of collaboration

Approaching curriculum development and implementation in a collaborative way, which treats the “curriculum” as belonging to all those who are involved in the design and the teaching of it, should lead to a coherent, high-quality “intended” curriculum becoming a coherent, high-quality “taught” curriculum. Through this collaboration, we can achieve not only effective curriculum development, but professional development of teachers, too.

  • Richard Jackson is curriculum designer at the Teacher Development Trust. Considering the subject of this article it is apt that it began with a collaborative conversation about curriculum between Paula Delaney, head of content, and a second with Kat Howard, expert advisor, both at the Teacher Development Trust. Visit https://tdtrust.org/

Headteacher Update Summer Edition 2022

This article first appeared in Headteacher Update's Summer Edition 2022. This edition was sent free of charge to every primary school in the country. A digital edition is also available via www.headteacher-update.com/digital-editions/

Further information & resources

  • Counsell: Better conversations with subject leaders. In The ResearchED Guide to the Curriculum: An evidence-informed guide for teachers, John Catt Educational, 2020.
  • Turner: Secondary Curriculum and Assessment Design, Bloomsbury Education, 2016.
  • Voogt, Pieters & Handelzalts: Teacher collaboration in curriculum design teams: Effects, mechanisms, and conditions, Educational Research and Evaluation (22,3-4), 2016.
  • William: Principled curriculum design, SSAT, 2013.

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