Curriculum Planning to Support Learning

As we continue to engage more and more with evidence from cognitive science and educational research, our knowledge and understanding of how we learn deepens.  For example, the idea of Cognitive Load Theory, frames our understanding of the idea of challenge – we need to make sure that the information presented to students is not too easy, or too demanding but just right and elicits thinking.  We also know that we learn by linking new information to existing knowledge – forming schema (an interconnected web of knowledge – more here)Spaced practice (repeatedly coming back to information that we are learning in various short sessions, spaced out over time, rather than cramming in a long intense period) and retrieval practice (the act of having to retrieve something from your memory, often with the help of a cue) are essential in terms of supporting long term memory retention.  There is also strong evidence to suggest that explicit instruction of tier 2 and 3 vocabulary, is a key factor in the educational success of students – especially those from a disadvantaged background.  And finally we should be giving a great deal of thought to threshold concepts in our subjects. A threshold concept is described below:

“A threshold concept can be considered as akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress. As a consequence of comprehending a threshold concept there may thus be a transformed internal view of subject matter, subject landscape, or even world view. This transformation may be sudden or it may be protracted over a considerable period of time, with the transition to understanding proving troublesome. Such a transformed view or landscape may represent how people ‘think’ in a particular discipline, or how they perceive, apprehend, or experience particular phenomena within that discipline (or more generally).” (Meyer and Land, 2003).

These ideas should be framing how we plan our curriculum, in order to maximise the learning that is happening in our classrooms.  Here are some ideas of how we can do this.



This quote from Martin Robinson is just fabulous. The message from it is simple.  Look at your curriculum (especially key stage 3) and increase the level of challenge within it, in terms of the knowledge you share with students, the richness of the vocabulary you expect them to use and the quality of the work you get them to produce – expect more of your students and make them think!

Spaced Practice

Curriculum time is tight and the reality is that we can’t spare huge amounts of time to repeat material that we have covered.  However, there are ways in which we can do this:

  • Plan homework as an integral part of your curriculum and use it as an opportunity to revisit previously covered material.
  • Within your short medium term curriculum planning, find opportunities to link new knowledge that is being taught to previously covered material.
  • Plan ‘pause lessons’ into the curriculum.  This is where no new material is covered, but previously covered material is revisited.

Linking to what we already know

Long term planning of the curriculum should see topics being returned to, developed and added to in greater depth, over the years.  So  the curriculum needs to be cumulative as layers of knowledge are built on top of each other and linked to each other.  This is how a well planned and sequenced curriculum becomes the model of progression in learning, as it builds upon previous learning.

Retrieval Practice

Plan into the curriculum opportunities for low stakes quizzes on previously covered material, but in a very strategic way.  So at set points in the curriculum, plan questions that will cover material that was covered last week, last term and last year.

Explicit Vocabulary Instruction

The curriculum should provide a map of the knowledge that will be taught over time.  This can be articulated as the key vocabulary (tier 2 and 3) that students need to know and be able to use confidently.  One way of doing this is to produce ‘knowledge organisers‘.  A knowledge organiser is a set of subject specific vocabulary, that provides the building blocks (the tier 2 and 3 vocabulary) of the subject.  If these are well thought out they provide a strong model of progression through the curriculum.

Threshold Concepts

Before designing a curriculum, you must decide on the high-utility concepts, facts and procedures that provide the building blocks in your subject/s. It is these that you must regularly return to.  Each subject curriculum should focus on these threshold concepts.     They are too important to be covered once, so they need to be threaded throughout the curriculum.  So this is, in effect, spacing – but it’s the regular and explicit spacing of these really important disciplinary ideas.

So, curriculum planning is a complex and important process, that should be shaped by what we know about how we learn.  In the words of Dylan Wiliam:

“A collection of learning materials is no more a curriculum than a pile of bricks is a house. What our students need are carefully organised, sequential, structured introductions to school subjects.”

Posted by Shaun Allison

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