Research School Network: An evidence-informed approach to curriculum design What are the best bets when using research evidence to shape your curriculum?

An evidence-informed approach to curriculum design

What are the best bets when using research evidence to shape your curriculum?

by Durrington Research School
on the

By Andy Tharby

Last Monday marked the first day of the Durrington Research School three-day training programme on evidence-informed approaches to curriculum, assessment and teaching. The first day was focused on the how schools, departments and teachers might use the evidence from cognitive science, metacognition and literacy to shape the curriculum.

We started the session by identifying a problem. Over the last few years there have been two coexisting movements that have begun to dominate the discourse around improving education: the first has been the desire to improve student attainment through evidence-informed practice; the second has been the desire to improve the quality of education through a closer focus on the curriculum. The difficultly here is that the curriculum’ is a catch-all term; it is defined very differently by different people. Indeed, a pre-course survey of our delegates revealed that they all came with very different preconceptions of what a training course on curriculum might constitute and what they hoped to get out of it. Coupled with this is the fact that many of the values and concepts that underpin curriculum thinking – such as rigour, coherence and sequencing – are disputed and hard to measure and might even come into conflict with some of the central tenets of evidence-informed practice.

In truth, we know little about what an evidence-informed curriculum really looks like and things are likely to remain this way for the foreseeable future. Be that as it may, the evidence that we currently have points to several best-bets. As such, we opted to look at the evidence that supports approaches to memory, metacognition and disciplinary literacy and how to incorporate these insights into curriculum planning as ways of supporting rigour, sequencing and coherence.

Before we shared the evidence, we asked delegates to consider the following questions (which you may find useful in your school):

1. What is the purpose of your curriculum? Does your curriculum reflect the school values?

2. Can all staff in your team articulate this?

3. How do leaders ensure coherence?

4. How effectively is the curriculum sequenced through the years (and what is this sequencing based on)?

5. Who sets out your curriculum and how is this done?

6. Does the curriculum take account of how children learn?

7. How do you monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of your curriculum?

8. How does departmental CPD support staff in understanding and delivering your curriculum?

9. How do you ensure that the curriculum you intend to be taught (e.g. level of challenge) is implemented by all teachers, every lesson?

10. Do you ensure that all students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, have full access to the curriculum (i.e. the teaching is not oversimplified)?

Then we looked at evidence from cognitive science to consider how curriculum design might support the development of long-term memory and schemata. We touched upon the view that long-term memory is considered to be the central structure of human thinking (Clark, Kirschner and Sweller, 2012) and the principle that we learn new things in the context of what we already know (Willingham, 2009). At present, the two memory-building strategies that are best supported by the evidence are undoubtedly retrieval practice and spaced (distributed) practice. A curriculum should:

1. Build regular opportunities for retrieval and review in a logical way – consider the implications for each lesson, each week and each term.

2. Return continually to key concepts, knowledge and strategies. (Note: this is likely to be very subject specific and requires subject expertise to plan effectively. A generic, cross-subject approach is likely to prove ineffective.)

3. Build in opportunities to teach students how to self-study.

We then considered the practical implications of these insights and the way they could influence the shape of the curriculum (as a spiral that returns to topics in increasing depth or as a mastery model that moves at a slower pace with a higher success rate), the organisation of lessons, and how homework and assessment can support spacing and retrieval.

Next we looked at how a curriculum can be built around developing strategic and metacognitive learners. The EEF Toolkit has identified that interventions designed to improve metacognition and self-regulation have consistently high impact. These approaches:

aim to help pupils think about their own learning more explicitly, often by teaching them specific strategies for planning, monitoring and evaluating their learning. Interventions are usually designed to give pupils a repertoire of strategies to choose from and the skills to select the most suitable strategy for a given learning task.

We explored one of the seven strands from The EEF’s Metacognition and Self-regulated Learning Guidance Report’ (2018): model your own thinking to help pupils develop their metacognitive and cognitive skills. Our focus was on how strategies should be built into the curriculum so that students are encouraged to gain ownership and independence in a logical and incremental way. As examples, we looked at how a history department had built a step-by-step approach to answering explanation questions; how a geography department had built a series of homework tasks that encourage students to show their planning and thought processes; and how a PE department had taught students how to annotate their written responses with their metacognitive thinking. 

The focus here was not so much on the metacognitive strategies themselves, but on how these had been weaved into curriculum planning for maximum impact.

Finally, we examined one of the main barriers to learning in schools: low levels of literacy. We used the evidence from the excellent new EEF Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools Guidance Report’ as our starting point, in particular the idea of disciplinary literacy that emphasises the importance of subject specific rather than generic support for literacy. We decided to look at the notion of targeted vocabulary instruction’ as a way of creating a manageable first step towards to disciplinary literacy that bridges the three pillars of reading, writing and oracy. Once again, we discussed practical ways of incorporating this into curriculum planning through the following recommendations:

1. Decide which words/​phrases are useful through collaborative planning: the words should be high utility, portable and should support students in understanding key concepts within the subject.

2. Avoid teaching lists in bulk. Instead, start to map the vocabulary against the 5‑year curriculum or knowledge organisers.

3. Start teaching the words using agreed evidence-based strategies.

4. Create vocabulary tests for key points in the year.

Before the next session, delegates will now complete an audit of current curriculum thinking and practice in their schools.

The central message of our session was that an evidence-informed curriculum should be built around the best bets from the available evidence. Leaders and teachers should identify the main barriers to learning in their schools, choose the evidence that will support them to overcome these barriers and then weave evidence-informed practices (such as memory science, metacognition and disciplinary literacy) into their curriculum design. It is no easy feat, but it is probably the best we can do for our students.

If you are interested in the training programmes or events we run at Durrington Research School, please follow this link.

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