According to a curriculum leader I line manage, there is a phrase of mine that fills him with horror.  Whenever I say: “something that’s been on my mind for a while is…..” he knows a big job is coming his way.

He suffered it earlier this week.  The reason being I’ve been trying to get it clear in my head how on earth we are going to revisit the curriculum covered during lockdown.  It is an issue for his subject, but similarly across the school.  As it stands spaced practice principles run through our curriculum in several ways across different subjects.  I’m assuming a certain amount of cognitive science understanding in this blog, but essentially the principle of spaced or distributed practice involves repeatedly coming back to the information that we are learning in various short sessions, spaced out over time, rather than ‘cramming’ it into a single intense period.  The sort of strategies designed to achieve this at Durrington include:

  • Lagged homework that revisits content previously taught as opposed to what is being taught currently.
  • Retrieval practice quizzes that test knowledge learnt weeks and months previously.
  • Summative assessments that require knowledge from all topics taught across that year or keys stage.
  • Cyclical curriculum design that revisits concepts, building on them each time.

In normal circumstances this works pretty well.  It enables us to exploit the lessons of cognitive science and strengthen student memories of the content they have learnt by regularly putting them through the process of recalling information from their long-term memory into their working memory.

However, for this to be effective it relies on the concepts having been taught in the first place.  There will always be those students who missed that lesson that will fall through the net, but for the majority these spaced practice activities running through the curriculum will be enough to supplement the initial teaching and build deep knowledge.  My suspicion is that if we adopt a similar approach to the curriculum taught during lockdown that we may well come unstuck.

As with many schools we have experienced a spectrum of engagement with our provision.  We’re pretty proud of what we have offered, five Google Classroom lessons every day since day one, following the existing timetable. Curriculum leaders and teachers have worked tirelessly to ensure the quality of these has been exceptional.  However, despite all the measures put in place, not all students have fully engaged.  Therefore, it is not the case of the odd student who wasn’t in for that lesson.  There will be a number of students for whom a retrieval practice quiz will not strengthen memory, it will simply reveal what they do not know.  As a result the normal approach of using spaced practice woven into the teaching of new content isn’t going to be enough.

Perhaps then the pause lesson could be our new (old) best friend.  In terms of spaced practice, a pause lesson would be a chance to recall knowledge and engage in practice around content previously taught.  The teacher would take a break from the topic being taught (usually eliciting some student grumbling) and return to something taught previously.  However, in this post-lockdown iteration they will need to change.

Essentially we have prototypes of these new lessons running across our school at the moment.  Y10 are spending some time in school at the moment, completing 2-hour lessons in shifts.  During these lesson no new content is being taught, instead teachers are establishing student knowledge, coherence and confidence with distance learning topics, doing some re-teaching where needed (which is a lot) and dealing with the concepts the require the most teacher modelling in order to be successful.

Now, in order for our curriculum to move on and keep the necessary coherence and appropriate sequencing we cannot front load all of this work for all year groups to September and then simply carry on as normal.  Equally, we cannot just jettison the curriculum covered over lockdown.  I teach history and I’m not prepared to simply say that my Y8 students going into Y9 just won’t really understand the causes of the First World War that well.

Therefore, dotting pause lessons into the curriculum across the year might be one useful solution to this enormous headache.  These pause lessons would represent the chance to take a section of the lockdown curriculum apart and then put it back together again.  It would work best with some prep, maybe a homework involving a quiz or student checklist to give the teacher some insight into student knowledge and understanding.  Then the teacher could work to either teach from scratch or fill in the blanks.  This would not so much be revision as catch-up.  Think the student who missed a big chunk of the year and you need to bring them up to speed.

Within this model choices will need to be made.  To go back history example, not everything connected to the causes of the War could be included, but the essentials could.  Making these choices of what to teach would be part about teachers and leaders picking the absolute core knowledge, and part about formative assessment of pupils to find out their areas of greatest weakness.  By finding the parts of the curriculum most in need of attention in this way, some of the fog would be lifted, allowing the rest of the curriculum to make more sense.

This is pretty commons sense stuff so will be nothing that most have not already considered, and is fraught with other problems.  Not least the intense pressure on how much we always need to cover in our curriculum.  However, to salvage the March to July curriculum, we need a plan (and my curriculum leader needs to get his thinking hat on).

Posted by Chris Runeckles

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