Conferences Curriculum

On Redesigning the KS3 English Curriculum Part 2 #rEDRugby


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I was honoured to be invited to speak at ResearchED Rugby on the 1st July 2017. In Part 1 I shared my views about KS3 in recent years and my arguments for re-prioritising it. In this post I’ll share details of my KS3 curriculum redesign and where we’re going with it next year.

Our Foundations

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I believe KS3 forms the foundations for future learning. In the last post I explained all the things I wanted my students to have as foundational knowledge and skills. If I boil all of that down to three core foundations it’s these:

  1. Learning for good not just for now
  2. High aspirations and challenge for all students
  3. Sustainability

Because I’m not Oliver Caviglioli, I couldn’t draw a good image of foundations so I’ve used this one of a driveway; it shows all the foundational layers you need before the bricks go on top. I think it serves as a good analogy for the relationship between KS3 and KS4. We can’t park our GCSE car on a driveway with shoddy foundations unless we’re happy to see it fall into a mini sinkhole.

Learning for good not just for now: Learning is…

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It seems quite unbelievable to me now but for the first 8 years of my career I didn’t have a good definition of what we really mean by ‘learning’ or how students learn best. Luckily that didn’t hinder my career because, as it turns out, nobody I worked with seemed to have the answer either! I worked hard to ensure that my students were engaged in lessons and that they made good progress but lots of what I did was based on guess work or shiny ideas I stole from other teachers. My thinking and understanding about learning has really shifted over the past couple of years – largely thanks to reading blog posts by the likes of David Didau, James Theo and Carl Hendrick.

This definition from Kirschner, Sweller and Clark is, I think, a bit of game changer: ‘If nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned’ In the light of this definition, curriculum maps with half-term long units (some of which focus on knowledge/skills students will never ever come back to) don’t seem like the best model for learning. Such massed practice is great for performance of learning: your students will probably appear to know a lot about a topic by the end of the unit. However, this gives us a false sense of security because it’s so easy for students to demonstrate that they’ve learnt something if we’ve only just finished teaching it. But how would we know if students have learnt how to write a great persuasive letter if we teach it in year 7 and then never come back to it? How can we ensure that the time and effort put into lessons, by both students and teachers, is resulting in long-term learning?

Learning for good not just for now: Units of learning

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I think we need to use spacing and interleaving to ensure long-term retention of knowledge and skills. We need to rethink teaching in units which is a contrived notion anyhow – we only teach in half term blocks because that’s how the calendar chunks up the year. In fact, we only teach in lesson units because that’s a seemingly sensible way to break up the day; I think both contrivances lead us down a path of seeing learning as little discrete bundles we can neatly tie a bow around when, in reality, learning is messy and complicated and invisible. It’s a classic example of the tail wagging the dog and we should, instead, refused to be dictated to by the calendar but, as far as possible, by what we know is best for changing things in long-term memory.

Learning or good not just for now: Spacing

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The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve gets an outing at almost every edu-conference I attend but it’s so important in my curriculum design I needed to include it. So much of what we teach in a lesson, no matter how ‘outstanding’ that lesson is, is forgotten within minutes. We need to keep coming back to things to make the retention stronger and stronger – each time students retrieve that knowledge, the more durable their memory of it will be. In the same way, the more often I go into my car to find where I’ve put the locking wheel nut key the more likely I am to remember where I’ve put it the next time I put my car in for a service.

We need to plan time in our curriculum to keep coming back to things rather than perpetually moving on to cover more ground. And, of course, we can’t teach everything so we need to make some tough choices in the selection of what we will teach.

Learning for good not just for now: Less but better

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So here’s our KS3 curriculum map for next year. You’ll see that it’s not very busy. Essentially each year group studies two units: a novel unit and a Shakespeare unit. We’d rather do less and do it better.

We will be study each text over three terms because we think that gives us enough time to read the entire text and really understand the plot, characters and themes. It affords us more opportunity to explore the literary contexts and engage with literary criticism. What it doesn’t mean, though, is that every lesson is given over to studying the text – I suspect that three solid terms of a single text would be too much for anyone! Instead, we’re introducing what Bjork calls ‘desirable difficulties’ and interleaving the study of the text with analysis of fiction and non-fiction extracts, poetry lessons and weekly writing challenges inspired by Chris Curtis (@Xris32).

And because we’re interested in long-term learning, rather than performance of learning, we have moved away from regular summative assessments for next year. We will only be summatively assessing at the end of the year (I’ll come back to this).

Learning for good not just for now: Interleaving

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This is what the first half term for year 9 might look like for next year. You can see that they only have five Jane Eyre lessons over that first half term and I will be honest and say that it feels counterintuitive. It feels wrong to have such gaps between lessons and we’ve found that quite a challenge as teachers this year. But what we’re aiming for is not our own feeling of security. That desirable difficulty of interleaving learning should lead to durable learning and, believe it or not, the students aren’t at all phased by it. In fact, I don’t think they see learning in blocks in quite the same way we do.

What we’ve got to remember is that students are moving through the day learning about Medieval medicine in period 1 to playing rounders in period 2 followed by solving quadratic equations in period 3 and so on. Whether or not this English lesson follows on from the last English lesson is not as much of a concern to them as it is to us. How often have you stood at the front of a class and asked them if they can remember what they did last lesson only to be met by 30 blank faces?

Learning for good not just for now: Knowledge and retrieval

slide 12One of the things we’ve introduced at KS3 is Knowledge Organisers – an idea taken straight from Michaela. We use these to define the key knowledge that we want all students to know and this includes anything from plot details to key quotations. We then used spaced retrieval practice at the start of lessons in the form of 5-a-Day starters. It’s low stakes testing that we use to make those connections in the long-term memory more durable.

Learning for good not just for now: Coe and Willingham

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One lightbulb moment for me in recent years was learning about Professor Rob Coe’s arguments about poor proxies for learning. For the vast majority of my teaching career engagement has been my guiding principle. To realise that students could be engaged and learn nothing really challenged my thinking. I thought, and had been told, that engagement was the gold standard in teaching practice – that students busy doing something = good practice. The more I thought about it, and the more I realised that unless changes were happening in the long term memory no learning was taking place the more I came to accept Coe’s arguments.

Of course, we can each of us be totally engrossed in an activity for quite extended periods of time and learn absolutely nothing: I love, for example, untangling necklaces which can take 20-30 minutes of really focused attention but I’m not learning anything. I bet, though, that if you took my face when I’m completing that task and transplanted it into the classroom it would look a lot like learning!

So part of what’s threaded through our curriculum is a move away from engagement for engagement’s sake. I want teachers to ask: what are students learning from this activity or in this lesson? Is colouring in a wanted poster for Lennie serving any benefit or am I just keeping my students busy? I want students to think hard and work hard in lessons; that’s exactly what we’re striving for.

I also love this quote from Daniel Willingham: ‘Whatever students think about is what they will remember…memory is the residue of thought’. I know I’ve fallen foul of distracting students from their learning by devising wondrously left field tasks for the purpose of engaging them or ticking them into learning. Students remember what they think about. If you’re getting them to think to pop balloons to reveal questions inside then it’s likely they’ll remember that lesson where they popped balloons but will they remember the questions inside? Perhaps not.

Of course I’m not advocating lessons in which students are bored to distraction but engagement should be a by-product of the learning.

High aspirations and challenge for all: Pygmalion effect

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The second foundation of our KS3 is that teachers have aspirations for all students. In their 1968 study, Rosenthal and Jacobson showed that if teachers were led to believe that some students would achieve better (so called ‘bloomers’) then those students would achieve better. The study supported the hypothesis that reality can be positively or negatively influence by the expectations of others: the observer-expectancy effect.

So we have high expectations for all our students – we expect excellence. I don’t want to hear any member of my team saying that ‘our students can’t do that’ or ‘my bottom set year 9s should be reading Jane Eyre’ because I think it’s rubbish and I also think that if the teachers think that then it’ll probably end up being true. Instead we need to believe that all of our students can engage with a text like Jane Eyre; we tell our students that they can engage with it and the more they have been engaging with challenging texts the more they’ve felt that they can actually do this. Nothing is beyond them.

High aspirations and challenge for all: Success and self-concept

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Self-concept is really important. If students think they can do something or think that they can’t then it’s more likely to be true. However, the effect on academic achievement on self-concept is stronger than the effect of self-concept on academic achievement. Lots of motivational talks telling students that they can do and achieve whatever they want is going to have lesson impact than them experience success in lessons; we need to ensure that success happens.

I think it’s really important that we don’t make too many assumptions based on data – I don’t think we should be pigeon holing students, almost as soon as they come in the door, as a grade 43 or a grade 5 student. If we assume a student is a grade 3 student then we’re likely going to limit what we teach them and that’s a crying shame. How are students ever going to produce something excellent if they never get to see what it looks like? How are they ever going to aspire to write a grade 8 or 9 (whatever that means) piece of writing if this hasn’t been modelled for them?

I expect my team to teach to the top and scaffold skilfully where needed with a few to taking that scaffolding away bit by bit. I do not expect my team to produce 5 differentiated activities for every lesson. I think we’re doing students a massive disservice when we ‘differentiate’ to the point of abstraction. It’s our support that should be differentiated not the task itself. If we assume Jess can’t write an essay and so we give her a gap filling exercise whilst everybody else is giving essay writing a go, and that happens week in and week out, when is Jess ever going to build up the skills and knowledge to actually write an essay which she’ll need to do when she hits year 10 or 11?The truth is that we’re making academic success even less likely even though our motivation might be out of kindness because we’re trying to protect Jess’ self-esteem. Instead, we need to scaffold essay writing for Jess so that she can experience success – we shouldn’t be getting her to do something intrinsically different from everybody else in the class.

High aspirations and challenge for all: Vocab

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In Daniel Rigney’s book ‘The Matthew Effect’, the message is that we need to address the imbalance between the haves and the have nots. If we don’t explicitly address the needs of those who are word poor we’ll see the gap between the word-rich and the word-poor get ever wider. At age 7, children in the top quartile have over 7000 words whilst children in the lowest quartile have less than 3000. That gap gets bigger and bigger. The word rich will gain more and more words as they read more widely and naturally gravitate towards other word rich children whilst for the word poor the opposite is true.

It’s not good giving students the feedback that ‘you need to use more ambitious vocabulary’ without teaching them what that is. We can’t rely on students going out and discovering new words – we need to explicitly teach them and empower students by giving them a rich and academic vocabulary with which they can understand and express sophisticated and nuanced ideas. We do that through one aspect of our KS3 homework which leads me onto the third foundation of our key stage 3 curriculum design: sustainability.

Sustainability: No marking homework

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On of the ways we hope to achieve sustainability at KS3 is with homework that supports the work that we are doing in lessons and supports teachers’ wellbeing – English teachers do enough marking without taking in KS3 homework every week which needs marking. One of the core homework tasks for all KS3 students is to actively learn ambitious vocabulary which they are tested on every week.

The words are very ambitious and initially we had some concerns from parents that their year 7 daughters were being expected to learn words which they didn’t know themselves but that just reinforced my resolve. How would these girls become word rich if they weren’t being exposed to a rich vocabulary at home and we weren’t providing it to them at home? Our KS3 students have really risen to this challenge, another idea that we took from Michaela, and feel empowered by having such a rich vocabulary.

The rest of KS3 homework is made up with an expectation that students read every day and that they actively revise content using their knowledge organisers – we will be doing more work next year to support students with self-quizzing. We don’t use traditional reading logs to track reading but we do have a Google Doc set up that students are expected to complete every week (it takes them about 5 minutes) which enables us to see what students are/are not reading and having conversations with them.

Sustainability: Kill the data monster…

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Another way I wanted to make KS3 sustainable for teachers was by reducing the number of assessments. Having read Daisy Christodoulou’s book ‘Making good progress’ I was convinced that we had been over-assessing students in a bid to keep feeding the data monster. Consequently, for the vast majority of next year we will only be doing formative assessments. I want teachers to focus on identifying what students know, understand and can do rather than worrying about what number we can apply to that to generate some kind of flawed shared meaning. So teachers will be expected to do regular diagnostic marking of students’ work but will only apply a grade to the end of year assessments at KS3.

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To make that as sustainable and painless as possible whilst retaining the utility, we are using whole class feedback in the form of marking crib sheets.

There ends the talk…

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I wanted our KS3 curriculum to focus on students’ learning over the long term and I’ve designed a curriculum with long-term, challenging learning at its heart. I’d like for it to withstand changes to the way the domain is sampled at KS4. This isn’t about teaching to the test for 5 years, this is about doing what’s right for our students by ensuring that they have a really good foundational knowledge and skills which will set them up not only for success at KS4 but beyond. That’s the hope anyway…


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