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Research School Network: Curriculum and sequencing This post examines the complexity of leading curriculum change, with a particular focus on sequencing


Curriculum and sequencing

This post examines the complexity of leading curriculum change, with a particular focus on sequencing

by Durrington Research School
on the

This academic year has a clear zeitgeist. Curriculum. As if often the case OFSTED has had a role to play in driving the educational zeitgeist, but this year there is an element of chicken and egg about the role it has played.

What I mean by that is the thinking around curriculum was bubbling to the surface before it became the central tenant of OFSTED’s new framework. Furthermore, OFSTED has undoubtabley become more evidence-informed in recent years, so perhaps the change to the framework was more of a catalyst for greater focus on curriculum, rather than the overriding cause.

To blog about curriculum is a daunting business, it is by its very nature a broad and sprawling discipline that encompasses everything that we do. Furthermore, as Alex Quigley explained in his recent article in the TES, the evidence that relates specifically to curriculum design as a whole is patchy at best. There is plenty of evidence relating to the elements that make up a curriculum but not on the overall package. Therefore, we as Research Schools need to be cautious in the advice we give, as this has the potential to be anecdotal rather than evidence-informed.

At Durrington we recently spent some time with our curriculum leaders beginning to unpick both their existing curriculum choices and help them create a rationale for any future changes to their curriculums.

The launchpad for these discussions were the following questions linked to the OFSTED framework posed by Christine Counsell at a presentation earlier this year:

CC curriculum

We felt these questions provided an excellent interrogation of why curriculum leaders had made the choices they had in relation to different aspects of their curriculums. As an aside, Christine Counsell is excellent on curriculum, her writing on the subject provides real clarity of thought in what is a deeply confused area of education. You can find a particularly good blog that she recently wrote about curriculum here. Particularly interesting and thought provoking in the blog is the idea of a curriculum having a core and a hinterland. A really useful construct.

At our meeting, we broke Christine’s questions down further to structure more in-depth discussion around each element. We also created our own graphic to exemplify and clarify what we consider (and this is ultimately a choice we have made) the key aspects of curriculum thinking and planning.

Durr Curriculum

It would be fair to say this session has posed many more questions than it has solved, but it has at least framed the discussion.

Sequencing

The aspect I want to focus on most for the remainder of this post is the question of sequencing. Essentially this means the order you choose to teach your curriculum – why you teach what you teach, when you teach it. 

In general, as you begin to look at curriculum from a secondary school leadership perspective you begin to realise how difficult it is to lead on, due to how subject specific the decisions that we make are. I think sequencing demonstrates this most clearly. While the evidence is there on principles such as spaced or distributed practice and retrieval practice which feed into sequencing decisions, there is very little on sequencing at a subject level. This is compounded by the differences between subjects when it comes to sequencing.

For example, I am a history teacher. For me, and other history teachers may disagree, sequencing in history is all about narrative and chronology. The narrative is the key, building the story of the past in student’s minds and knitting it together through substantive concepts such as democracy and consolidation as well as procedural knowledge such as source analysis. My view is chronology has to dictate the sequence of this narrative. In my mind the narrative cannot have coherence if the sequence is not chronological. History happened in an order, to break this seems illogical. Therefore, while others may disagree, I have clarity on sequencing in my subject.

Talking to my English colleagues, English Literature may follow a similar rationale when it comes to sequencing. However, as soon as I enter into a discussion about the English Literature curriculum I immediately become aware of how little I really know about the rationale for any choices in this area, and this is in the subject which, in my opinion, is closest to my own. If you take our (supposedly) closest neighbours geography, sequencing seems to pose a completely different set of questions. Choosing in this subject where to place different concepts, topics and skills clearly has very little to do with chronology. It almost certainly is to do with a narrative but a narrative based on a completely different rationale. It is akin to comparing the narrative of a novel with a linear plot such as War and Peace, to a more conceptual novel like The Buried Giant (Kazuo Ishiguro, very good if a bit abstract in places). They both have a narrative at their heart but it is constructed according to a different set of rules.

The challenge then when trying to tackle sequencing across a school or a MAT or even an education system then is there are probably very few people nationally with the necessary expertise to give precise direction on sequencing across multiple subjects. Therefore, how do we usefully orchestrate curriculum sequencing change at a leadership level? So far, our approach has been to provide a framework, stimulate discussion but ultimately leave it to the subject specialists to make the decisions. The danger is if we are too prescriptive on sequencing then we risk forcing subjects to construct their curriculums in an ultimately unhelpful way to fit our need to assert control over the curriculum. Thereby putting the cart before the horse.

Ultimately these are considerations that have always been there in our schools and have at different times over the last 40 years risen to prominence. Hopefully the complexity of the answers means this particular zeitgeist remains in place for the foreseeable.

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