This week I have had the pleasure of running one of the research school’s training courses around curriculum design. In preparation for this I returned to my go to resource on curriculum design; Mary Myatt’s “The Curriculum Gallimaufry to coherence” and increasingly the words of my former PGCE lecturer, Roger Firth, who after every lesson observation, shared lesson plan or even tentative planning discussion, would ask (without fail) “Where is the Geography?”.
If I am totally honest, that repeated question used to drive me insane. It became a bit of a running joke between all of the Geography trainee’s and I am ashamed to admit a question that I tended to give very little attention to. I mean, obviously there was Geography there- It was a geography lesson, planned by someone (me) with a degree in Geography to be delivered in a Geography classroom! However, now with the gift of hindsight, looking back on my PGCE lessons and schemes of work (a task that I recommend you do your best to avoid!) I realise just how pertinent the question was and what Roger was really getting at. He was simply trying to make sure that what remained at the core of my planning, and therefore what must remain at the very core of our curriculum, was the subject – not some misguided attempt to engage with bells and whistles, or try to appeal to the “interests” of my students; but the actual nuts and bolts of what makes Geography (or whatever subject) so important (and amazing) to grapple with.
This is similar to Mary Myatt’s restaurant analogy in which she imagines a restaurant owner that is concerned with as she describes the “ephemera” (i.e. the table service) “without going back to basics and making sure that the core ingredients….were of sufficient quality”. This is similar to the way parts of our sector and therefore curriculum, has become susceptible to a misplaced focus on showy lessons, pupil engagement and superficial activities with little actual substance.
I think back now to lessons and schemes of work that were created during my early teaching years – grand schemes and sequences of lessons, entitled “The Geography of Crime” and “Impossible Places”. While the intention of these was good, what happened was the subject (the main thing) became lost – students became more interested in the number of people that die every year climbing Mt Everest, rather than the climatic challenges the environment posed, the tectonic movement that has and continues to form the range or the cultural and economic significance of the mountain to Nepal. The Geography had become secondary – it was in the shadows, but not explicit. Myatt refers to how we must “stop being squeamish…about scholarship, deep learning and our pupils having access to and mastering robust knowledge”. Our subjects have, as Michael Young describes, powerful knowledge created by specialists and it is this knowledge that allows us to take students beyond their own experiences. If we hide away and forget the subject in our curriculum then we are likely to deny our students access to the very knowledge they need. By constantly asking “Where is the Geography?” Roger was simply ensuring that I was giving my students access to the robust and powerful knowledge they were entitled to. If the Geography was not there, and in many cases in my early planning and curriculum thinking it wasn’t, I was doing my students a disservice. We must ensure that we do not parade lessons, schemes of work and curriculum plans that are just masquerading as our subject – this is not what we want to teach or what our students need/deserve.
If our subject does not remain central to our curriculum plan, our curriculum does not provide them with the powerful knowledge they need to understand the world, and they remain dependent upon those who have it. While my planning may have occupied and even engaged some students, it was simply a task completion activity – I was not developing their geographical knowledge or them as geographical thinkers – they remained reliant on me to do this. In addition, the core concepts of our curriculum remain central to our ability to weave a coherent curriculum together. Headline grabbing tasks and “fun” activities will be enjoyed but forgotten, they will not allow students to attach new knowledge to prior learning, but high-quality subject knowledge will. See below the example I recently shared with other geography teachers on how key subject concepts such as place, development and climate systems can weave seemingly separate topics together.
The importance of asking “where is the (insert subject here)?” becomes ever more vital when we begin to discuss cross curricular planning. Mary Myatt again articulates this eloquently when discussing the act of creating a model of a synagogue as part of an RS lesson. In such a situation the religious education element is lost and superseded, unintentionally, by design and technology. As Myatt states “the integrity of individual subjects must be preserved”.
The importance of the subject and subject knowledge is also vital when we consider the role of core and hinterland knowledge in our curriculum. Hinterland knowledge may be considered as the “rich array of content, stories and examples that give meaning to the core” knowledge we want out students to retain (Joshua Vallence). While the fun tasks of carousel learning, clue finding and many other engagement exercises may act to detract from the intended curriculum, a strong grounding in our subject, and a high level of teacher subject knowledge can act to enhance it. The hinterland of our subject is what most likely drew us to the topics we teach today and these must also be planned into the curriculum.
There is a huge wealth of excellent resources, presentations and blogs out there currently on the topic of curriculum design, many of them more detailed than this, which I would highly recommend reading and I have listed just a few below. This blog serves two purposes (for me at least); firstly as an apology to Roger for giving such little attention to his question and secondly to ask that when you consider the complex issue of curriculum design you too ask yourself – “where is the (insert subject)?
Ben Crockett (@bcrockett1)
Christine Counsell – Senior Curriculum Leadership 1: The indirect manifestation of knowledge: (B) final performance as deceiver and guide, https://thedignityofthethingblog.wordpress.com/
Mary Myatt – The Curriculum Gallimaufry to coherence