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On A Knowledge-Rich Curriculum


The aim of education is the knowledge, not of facts, but of values.  – William Ralph Inge “The Training of the Reason” 

Do we know that torturing or killing a person for entertainment is wrong? Or is it that we just find it unpalatable? Is it merely guesswork on our part, is truth, outside of scientific truth, merely relative? These questions, asked by the late, great, Mary Midgley give me pause. If knowledge is to free us from superstition, from being wrong about something then what of the knowledge that explores doubt and uncertainty. Is knowing that I don’t know feasible, is much knowledge of a non-certain variety, potentially both truthful or non-truthful, or degrees in between…?

Context, time, place, people might make it so…

Midgley wonders whether we can divide knowledge into two parts asking whether these two parts are:

…science, which securely meets… high standards of certainty, and the rest which is mere amateur bungling.

How much of a curriculum should be given over to dealing with ‘amateur bungling’? She goes on:

There are innumerable aspects of human experience besides the scientific one that we can perfectly well discuss – not, indeed, ever expecting to say anything final and infallible about them, but still successfully communicating, establishing certain things, understanding each other to some extent, and managing to alter our lives sensibly in many ways in consequence. p37-8*

Knowledge, for Midgley has an important role – knowing what to think, what to do, even not knowing what to think and do. This knowledge is organised by values. Sometimes it seems obvious to many people what might be wrong or right, what is good, bad, what is better, not so good, beautiful, not so beautiful… judgement, taste, tradition, revolution, discrimination, all come into building arguments, discussions, comparisons but not certainty. This knowledge, about how to get involved in the conversation, takes a lot of knowing about things, organised into schema of competing values in which what we know is always open to amendment.

The committing of knowledge to long-term memory begs the question about the value of that knowledge. And about the attitude of the ‘knower’ of the knowledge to the knowledge they are being taught. The input-output model of education in which something is taught and is, through various methods, lodged in long term memory is problematic because knowledge is never known nor remembered by each child in the same way. Knowledge is imbued with each pupil’s, indeed person’s, way of knowing it. Values might be marshalled for argument’s sake in defence, attack of said knowledge before, during or after it having been taught. Stick that on a knowledge organiser.

We don’t just teach things that are right or wrong, we also open up huge caverns of doubt in which truths are more difficult to ascertain, but ascertain them we do, in the world in which we live, in our time, in conversations with others to establish how we might live. This is the sort of knowledge that concerns many areas of schooling and is the sort of knowledge that helps ensure a curriculum is knowledge-rich. But don’t expect a child to know it in the same way that the teacher does.

A knowledge-rich curriculum is values driven – and not just one set of values determined as right or wrong – but the difficult search through competing values that help us determine how we might live.


*Wisdom, Information And Wonder: What is Knowledge For?


In Defence of the Graded Report Card


In a piece for the TES Bernard Trafford wrote that:

Assessment is linked, of course, to the whole question of reporting. Many parents still love nice, simple effort and attainment grades: they feel they know how their child is getting on. The message that such judgements are both arbitrary and unscientific is only now starting to filter through to them. I hope to see a day when no teacher at the end of November feels obliged (generally an internal, self-generated command) to set every class they teach a test: “otherwise, how can they write their end-of-term reports?

Though I am not sure that attainment and effort grades are entirely arbitrary they are most probably unscientific, though what is meant by ‘unscientific’ is open to a certain amount of interpretation. I take it to mean that the judgement that the teacher makes is rather more subjective than Bernard Trafford would like.

A completely arbitrary effort grade would be drawn out of a hat for each child, most teachers do not do this. They assign a grade through an ‘impression’ they have of what the effort a child might have made. It’s a guess, not arbitrary, but not necessarily accurate. In fact it can’t be accurate as no teacher can ever know the effort a child makes nor how that compares to other children. An attainment grade is also an impression and, though a teacher might have more evidence to base their attainment grade on it is also likely to bear a certain amount of subjectivity in its creation.

Yet, Trafford concedes, parents like them. Why? Well, simplicity is helpful, a report card full of As and 9s for attainment and 1s for effort is better than one that has Fs and 1s for attainment and 9s for effort. This can help, though the 1-9 grades at GCSE offer a certain challenge. If the effort was a top grade and the attainment very low it can also help give a quick impression of how your son or daughter is doing. Low effort, high attainment is a singular problem and could lead to other suggestions around how to challenge a child. So these grades have their uses.

What would you replace them with? Completely objective grades? In some subjects this is unachievable – the arts come to mind, and in others subjectivity will be present in varying degrees, but this might be no bad thing. A subjective grade shows how the child is seen by a certain teacher at a certain time and emphasises that this relationship is important. It puts an onus onto the teacher’s expertise, there should be some expectation that they know what they are doing as a teacher. If they value your child or not could make a difference to the effort being made.

Are written reports a better alternative? Often schools do both, but the day of the ‘honest’ written report is long gone. There are acceptable words and unacceptable words, platitudinous offerings are made and bizarre disconnected targets from word banks might be conjured up, again a pretence of objectivity might be sought but through a most subjective art form. This is certainly no more ‘scientific’ and due to it being a lot more work for a teacher – the information given might be no more or less helpful than the at a glance grades.

A comparative progress grade could be produced, how your child is doing compared to the rest of the class. The effort and the attainment could be put into context by the teacher by mapping out how everyone is doing in the class and assigning the grades accordingly. That this is unscientific could be emphasised on the report card and could be simplified by putting children into four categories for attainment: concern, pass, merit, distinction (rather than focusing the language on the performance of others) and three for effort: below or above expectations and expected. It might be useful to drop the effort grade as it might be too subjective but perhaps information on completion of work might take its place, if a lot of work isn’t completed that might be useful for a parent to know.

The desire to have end of term tests is not, necessarily, helpful. Beginning of term tests seem a much better idea as then the teacher knows more about how knowledge is being retained and can then do something about it, rather than rely on a test that might have been taken over eight weeks ago as a good gauge to where a class is now. The test might also be flawed; much better to give a grade based on a number of insights over a term and/or year.

The assessment that really matters is the day to day commentary that your child gets from her teachers, the report card should be a reflection of those relationships an easy insight into that sometimes difficult to fathom world.

An at a glance subjective graded report card has its place. It is unscientific but not necessarily the worse for that. Lots of parents like them because they are an easy glimpse into something far more complex – the day to day reality of schooling that they often hear about through the day to day reactions or grunts of their child.

If there were real concerns or huge congratulations due to their child one would hope that these would be communicated in other ways by a school at times when parental knowledge and involvement might help and/or be welcome. Again, in both cases not scientific, but, in both cases, welcomely human.

A graded report card as part of the communication between a school and a parent is a help as long as it is not the only communication a parent expects to get.

Curriculum Series Number One: Curriculum Chaos

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A striking conclusion that we have drawn from the findings is that, despite the fact that the curriculum is what is taught, there is little debate or reflection about it… there is a lack of clarity around the language of the curriculum.

It is certainly possible that this ambiguity and lack of shared understanding expose competing notions of what curriculum means across the sector. However, the most likely explanation is that this arises from a weak theoretical understanding of curriculum. This was confirmed by school leaders, who said that there was a time (long ago) when teachers were taught the theory that underpins curriculum planning. Over time, this competence across the sector ebbed away.

Amanda Spielman HMCI’s Commentary 11 Oct 2017

If what Spielman suggests is true then English children are likely to be experiencing something approaching a chaotic curriculum. In this short series of posts I hope to go some way to help achieve a shared understanding as to what different approaches to curriculum might mean, the theoretical underpinning of these approaches, an understanding of the language involved and recommend certain approaches to curriculum planning that might add to the material that is helping curriculum design to once again become centre stage in education debates.

I believe that one of the signs of chaos around approaches to curriculum design is the idea that anything can work, that each teacher can take any approach that they believe matters and that as they know their learners better than anyone else that will suffice.

Curriculum design cannot countenance such a chaotic approach because in the first instance curriculum design and delivery is a ‘team game’. The design and delivery is inextricably linked and the teachers teaching must know why, what, how, when, where and to whom they are delivering the curriculum.

And I use the term ‘delivery’ advisedly because it is a word that might be contested by some who feel that a curriculum should not be delivered to a child but must, instead, be centred on what a child wishes to find out. Hence the possibility of chaos if we leave it up to individual teachers to do what they feel is best, because the experience the learner has is likely to be so inconsistent that the curriculum they experience seems to be undoing the work that they have previously experienced and not working towards what they might experience next.

The first concept I wish to agree on is therefore the ‘Joined-Up Curriculum‘ – this is self explanatory but it is a curriculum model in which every teacher knows the who, what, when, where, why and how of what they are teaching and that it is in harmony with the who, what, when, where, why and how of all the teachers teaching their subject/s in their school. They receive the baton and, later, they pass it on. They know what happens before, what happens next, how they fit in to this ‘relay’ – the common pursuit and purpose of the ‘way we do things here’.

Therefore these short pieces will accept the importance of the curriculum being ‘joined up’ and see the ‘chaotic curriculum’ as a common enemy to good curriculum design. However, I am conscious of the fact that people have a wide range of different approaches and values which can inform a range of different approaches to curriculum design and in order to help add to the ‘clarity around the language of the curriculum’ I will try to do justice to a number of these different ideas and methods.

This will involve me looking at the current debate at what might constitute a ‘knowledge-based’ curriculum, what might be a ‘competency-based’ one, as well as a look at whether ‘progressive’ and ‘traditional’ are helpful when describing different values behind curriculum design.

Much fun to be had then!


A Level Results Day and the Polymathic Adventurer!


A level results day is always a bittersweet day for me, school left me when I was sixteen and by the time many of my friends were getting their A level results I was working on a market stall selling, amongst other things, whoopee cushions and fart powder. Both products with clear results.

But I digress. As a teacher I loved A level results day, it is exciting to see children, who you have seen grow, at a crossroads in their lives. Where to go? What to do? Did I get the grades? Fear, joy and misery, it’s an emotional day for all. Opening my results as a teacher was nerve-wracking, and sometimes there were individual students I’d think didn’t get the grades they deserved and sometimes the opposite, but mainly it was a day when I’d celebrate the successes with my students and say goodbye and good luck.

Despite this I can’t help think that A levels are doing our kids a disservice. Some years ago the AS level was brought in with one of the results being it gave pupils the opportunity to study a slightly wider range of subjects. A mainly Arts student could carry on with Maths, and a Science enthusiast could keep up their studies in Art; though for only a few months.

We have now returned to the ‘gold standard’ three A levels. Yet all around us we see the results of our system’s narrowness in our intellectual and academic lives. Some scientists don’t understand the Arts, and, in return, some arts graduates don’t get science, statistics; many of us struggle with languages, and the humanities become a world of their own. It seems we can’t rely on GCSEs to carry the burden of breadth.

This is why I’d like to see more schools taking on the IB, and in an ideal world where funding and staffing wasn’t an issue, I hope that many would.

I am fascinated by the polymathic individuals whose knowledge across the two or more cultures sustains their intellectual curiosity. This is why I look forward to listening to Monkman and Seagull’s Polymathic Adventure on BBC Radio Four next week, a programme I hope will appeal to all teachers and all students. Despite a narrowness in exams studied it is possible, with great effort, to keep up interests in a wide range of subjects. The effort, however, is worth it –

So here’s to some great A level results and a continuation of a life lived as a polymath adventurer!

The Problem With Austin’s Butterfly



Ron Berger’s famous ‘Austin’s Butterfly’ is a great lesson about how redrafting and feedback can help a child create a more accurate ‘scientific’ drawing of a butterfly. In the context of the task picture six is clearly the ‘best’ depiction of the butterfly.

If one removes the context and no longer looks for accuracy and, instead, tries to judge the drawing on its own merits – art for its own sake, which drawings are the ‘best’? I would argue that, artistically, one and four are the ‘best’.

How about these three Turner’s, which is ‘the best’?



In terms of ‘accuracy’ maybe the first one, but the third, of a fire at the Tower of London, in 1841, a watercolour ‘sketch’, has an immediacy of response that might represent a different sort of ‘accuracy’, that of the artist responding to a moment in time in a way that captures something of the event beyond an accurate depiction of it. In fact, for many years, this was thought to be a painting of the fire in 1834 at the Houses of Parliament, does this mean the picture is not as good as it should be? Well, it was only a sketch but it did help Turner in developing his Art. This, from 1844, is a finished work:


The art teacher has to rely on knowledge and intuition to decide what is ‘best’, sometimes this is not so easy, especially in a lesson where Austin has already drawn the best butterfly in the first five minutes.

Paul McCartney ‘dreamt’ Yesterday, and remembered it the next morning, quickly working out the right chords, but always thinking in the back of his mind that somebody else must have written it and he remembered it because it came to him so easily. Had a teacher overworked the tune with my ‘imaginary Paul as a music pupil’ who had come up with that tune – saying it needs redrafting, it might have ruined the tune. A lesson which has a given amount of time is often too short for work to be completed. Sometimes it is too long. What to do with those minutes if a child has already created a great piece?

Well, Paul, had to work on the lyrics, ‘scrambled eggs’ was not as good as ‘yesterday’…

But arts teachers need to think what happens if a pupil comes up with perfection straight away? I mustn’t ruin it and I need to feed their aesthetic judgement and taste to ‘know’ when good is good. How do we teach a child to ‘know’ when something is good…

And not, merely, accurate?


Spielman’s OFSTED Game Changer: The Importance of the Curriculum.


Perhaps I had a bit of sunstroke but it seemed to me that what the new OFSTED supremo, Amanda Spielman had to say was a ‘game’ changer. In her gloriously uplifting speech at the, equally gloriously uplifting, Wellington Festival of Education she said that:

One of the areas that I think we sometimes lose sight of is the real substance of education. Not the exam grades or the progress scores, important though they are, but instead the real meat of what is taught in our schools and colleges: the curriculum.

To understand the substance of education we have to understand the objectives. Yes, education does have to prepare young people to succeed in life and make their contribution in the labour market. But to reduce education down to this kind of functionalist level is rather wretched.

Because education should be about broadening minds, enriching communities and advancing civilisation. Ultimately, it is about leaving the world a better place than we found it. As Professor Michael Young wrote in his article, ‘What are schools for?’:

“Schools enable young people to acquire the knowledge that, for most of them, cannot be acquired at home or in the community.”

Yet all too often, that objective, that real substance of education, is getting lost in our schools. I question how often leaders really ask, “What is the body of knowledge that we want to give to young people?

I think the reason that some leaders might have overlooked this question is due to a number of reasons, for example, it might be assumed that the body of knowledge is down to individual teachers or departments; leaders might assume that the national curriculum and exam rubrics ‘are’ the curriculum; and in our recent obsession with ‘outstanding’ teaching and learning leaders might have focused on the ‘performativity’ of teaching rather than the substance, the script*, that is being ‘performed’. Learning walks, lesson observations, CPD focused on ‘pedagogical’ gimmicks and tricks have all added to the impression that teaching is a performance accompanied by engaging activities through which children are entertained or kept busy. I have argued for a long time that pedagogy is not separate to curriculum, the two are intertwined, and if you focus merely on pedagogy then you are neglecting the most important of the two. Curriculum must come first.

Spielman went on to say:

I’ve seen lessons where everything is about the exam and where teaching the mark schemes has a bigger place than teaching history.

For many teachers this is not a surprise at all, in fact for a lot of us in the classroom this has become the dominant mode of ‘efficient’ teaching, soundly teaching to the test to deliver results. This is inevitable in a high stakes culture and though for many it is the high stakes nature that causes this problem, I wonder that without that culture richer curricula would be the order of the day? I doubt it. For a number of teachers teaching has become a short term exercise where the lesson plan, scheme of work/topic and ‘getting them through the test’ approach has become the norm and the slow unfolding of the narrative of a rich curriculum has become a lost art.

And make no mistake, it is an art.

A great curriculum not only unfolds within subjects it occurs across subjects too. Spielman recognises this:

All children should study a broad and rich curriculum. Curtailing key stage 3 means prematurely cutting this off for children who may never have an opportunity to study some of these subjects again.

A rich, broad, curriculum, experienced by children, giving them a variety of knowledge and experiences to enrich their lives is a precious thing and it is the primary reason for a school to exist.

How to ensure this happens?

One could do worse than begin with the recommendations made by Amanda Spielman’s colleague at Ofsted, Sean Harford. He recommended that:

Schools need to know their curriculum design and intent; know how their curriculum is being implemented; know what impact their curriculum is having on pupils’ knowledge and understanding, ‘need for numbers’? that’s up to the school, best way of ‘knowing’ (not ‘demonstrating’) the above.

This is something I have been working on for sometime, I would argue that a ‘trivium’ curriculum approach ensures that schools can provide a broad, rich curriculum with a focused design and intent with a variety of ways to know the impact that it’s having. To this end Tom Sherrington and I have, somewhat fortuitously, put together a ‘powerful curriculum’ day course in London on July 7th. Planned before the Spielman speech, this day will nevertheless look at its potential implications for schools. If you are interested in attending click here for the link.

If you are unable to make it and there are only a few places left we hope to do more in the future.

It is heartening to see that OFSTED ‘s explicit recognition of  curriculum breadth and education for the sake of the knowledge learnt and its importance might help counteract the damaging effects of narrowing teaching and learning to ‘gaming’ the accountability system. That Ofsted has been part of the problem in the past doesn’t mean it can’t be part of the solution in the future. I hope that Spielman’s speech will turn out to be a significant step in the right direction in which all children are able to access a broad rich curriculum that will help them live interested and interesting lives.



*NB, I am not advocating the scripting of lessons here.

Assessment and the Arts


The anti-Ken Robinson Robinson talks about cognitive dualism, the need for the subjective and the problems that creates for schools in a high stakes assessment and accountability system.

If the arts are subjective how can they be measured fairly? If they are assessed more objectively can they be considered to be worthwhile subjects of study?


Confine Post-truth Education into the Dustbin of History


Two arguments have been prevalent in education discourse for a number of years: one, that the content of the curriculum is just a reflection of power relations and two, that all truth is relative. The arguments are often expressed as questions: ‘whose truth?’ And ‘whose knowledge?’ These ideas are then used to back up the idea that the curriculum should be personalised and that everyone is entitled to an opinion as all opinions are valid, so what we teach is less important than how we teach it.

The challenge to such thinking in education comes with two changes that occurred during 2016: our relationship with ‘Europe’ and the oft repeated claim that now live in a post truth age.

Whose knowledge? Imagine a curriculum that celebrated the importance of European culture, had explored the work of Beethoven, Goethe, and Dante, in which all children had been taught about classical civilisation, the languages of ancient Greek and Latin, they had been imbued with the philosophy of Hegel, of Machiavelli, of Descartes, and had tried to understand Kant, had felt the passion of Puccini, the splendour of Wagner and the brilliance of Mozart… and Napoleon… imagine a curriculum where children were now looking at Putin through the eyes of children who had been introduced to Tsarist Russia through the words of Tolstoy.

In education we have for too many years not given enough credence to cultural, artistic, philosophical and political understanding of our European home. Isn’t it a shame the referendum debate lacked a position on the cultural history of our continent, our place within it, its Christian history, as well as Jewish, Muslim and Pagan, its architecture and geography…? Instead these things have been frowned upon for years by a significant number of educationalists. Much of our shared European culture has been seen in our schools as a colonialist history, full of white male domination including, of course,  Hitler. Instead of some sort of communal European identity and feeling, our place as Europeans is absorbed as problematic. And whether you were for Brexit or not, Europe is a part of all our lives. Especially as our island story has an uneasy relationship with the continent, we should teach for a better cultural understanding of our shared and different histories.

Now we hear about how disgraceful it is that we live in a ‘post-truth’ age from the same mouths who have for many years asked but ‘whose truth?’ and stated that: ‘there is no truth…’ How they can suddenly believe that we have lost something they thought we never had is beyond me. Derrida and Foucault, dead European men both, have infected the discourse in the arts and humanities for too long.

It is precisely in the Arts and the Humanities that we should regain a sense of truth, of truths, of the need for a pursuit of truth and some sense of a common history. Education  should reaffirm its purpose of introducing the cultural and philosophical conversations through time to children, we can use education as a way of bringing us back together through all our differences to at least understand that, in the words of Jo Cox MP, “we have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”

If the arts and culture are merely taught in terms of reflecting privilege and power and all is relative so there is no truth, we will struggle to raise children who can see a value in the arts, apart from an X Factor money making and fame generating opportunity. If the arts and humanities abandon the pursuit of truth and leave that noble aim to science and maths, we will struggle to understand!

This means stop pursuing ‘personalisation’, everyone is different, tailor-made approaches in which children are merely customers exercising consumer choice. Instead it means teaching the great works, thoughts, and ideas of the past, restoring a sense that some things are better than others. It means we should teach about our cultural history, the agreements and the clashes of civilisations and ideals, the wars and the peace, but ensure, into our great tradition, we include a wide range of voices, including the dissenting ones to enable new voices to feel that they have a stake in continuing the conversation.

Value the tradition and value the pursuit of wisdom and truth. Confine the wrecking questions of whose truth? and whose knowledge? to the dustbin of history.


Boris ‘Two Articles’ Johnson


The Sunday Times has published an article by Boris Johnson arguing the case for remaining in the EU, that it was written a mere two days before he announced he would be campaigning for Brexit has led to a good number of people bemoaning Boris’s hypocrisy. First there was ‘two Jags’ Prescott, now there is ‘two articles’ Boris and people of twitter have not been slow in putting their opinions forward about Johnson being caught trying to look after his own interests rather than the interests of the nation.

Far from being a sign of Johnson being in two minds and coming across as a political charlatan, his two articles are really a sign of a good education. There is one sign early on when Johnson, as his his wont, uses a classical allusion:

“…like Hercules bringing Eurydice (sic) back from the underworld.”

But it is not just his ability to play around with classical knowledge that is of interest, it is the well known technique of getting pupils to see both (or more) sides of an argument that matters. As I argue in the book ‘Trivium in Practice’ :

…get children to explore… debate through a technique known as a dissoi logo. Through this method a pupil would be encouraged to look at two sides of an argument – or more – and be asked to write… [giving] equal weight to the ‘rightness’ of both sides. This is the process through which instant opinion is ‘shelved’ and stronger, educated opinion begins to be formed

As it says in Wikipedia the dissoi logo ‘considers each side of an argument in hopes of coming to a deeper truth’ and that ‘The Dissoi Logoi was found amongst the works of Sextus Empiricus who lived between 160-210 C.E… In ancient Greece, students of rhetoric would be asked to speak and write for both sides of a controversy.’

Johnson is not showing his hypocrisy arguing for both sides of the debate in writing, rather he is showing what a good, classical, education he had. Actually, I can think of no better rhetorical technique for someone in the Foreign Office, I wonder if he has a few scribbled notes in praise of Putin in his pocket?

NB: I will be speaking on this and other Classical education ideas at the wonderful Battle of Ideas at the Barbican this Sunday coming, come along, it’s a great line up!