KS3 curriculum design has dominated my thinking for the past few years. I first blogged about redesigning KS3 back in 2015 (here) and it’s something I keep coming back to time and time again (here, here, here, here). I’ve come to appreciate that curriculum design is a never-ending process and that if you think you’re done then you’re probably doing it wrong. I believe that curriculum design is a continual process of reviewing and refining but the good news is that it’s a wonderful process filled with hope and promise. It’s a love story.
Earlier this year I presented at CurriculumED and ResearchED Rugby on the never-ending love story of KS3 curriculum design. I’ve finally found the time to blog where I’m at with this story and the changes we’re about to embark upon with our KS3 English curriculum. If you’re a fan of 80s fantasty films and curriculum design then this is the blog post for you.
KS3 – Still the wasted years?
Four years ago, HMI commissioned a survey to get an accurate picture of whether KS3 was providing students with sufficient breadth and challenge and helping students to make the best possible to start to their secondary education. You can read it here but it probably won’t surprise you to learn that the report suggests that schools hadn’t been prioritising KS3 (e.g. staff KS4 first which leads to more non-specialists and more split classes at KS3).
I believe schools have been giving greater focus to KS3 in recent years and it’s clear that curriculum is dominating educational discourse – and rightly so. I don’t think there’s much more important than thinking deeply about what you’re actually teaching students. However, I’m still concerned about the sorts of texts that are given a place on some KS3 English curriculums.
My slide above shows a selection of the texts I’ve had to teach at KS3 over the past 13 years. I daresay I’ll upset some people by saying this, but I don’t think any of those texts deserve curriculum time (I know Chicken Run is a film – it was used a the basis for review writing on the year 7 curriculum in one of my training schools).
As English teachers, I believe our job is to teach great works of literature however challenging that might be. Our job is to take Hardy or Bronte or Shakespeare or Plath and make that accessible for all our students. If it was good enough for us and it’s good enough for students in private schools or grammar schools then it’s good enough for all of my students. Because of course these great works of literature are relevant to everybody – they’re part of our cultural heritage and I want my students to have cultural capital; they’re not going to get that from reading books like those on my slide. Of course they’re fine for reading at home but I don’t agree that they’re worthy of weeks of study in class.
Having read Michael Young’s ‘Knowledge and the Future School’, I agree entirely with his definition of the purpose of schools. He says that the purpose of schools:
Young argues that school is the only institution that we have that can, at least in principle, provide every student with access to knowledge and that EVERYONE is entitled to a foundation of knowledge. It’s a lucky child indeed who can rely on their home environment to give them a sufficient foundation for their knowledge of the world. Young asks, ‘If we do not teach the best that has been thought and said then we leave children to the lottery of their birth and widening social injustice.’
Unless we can alter this social injustice then what are schools for?
Young goes on to explore the idea of ‘powerful knowledge’ which is slightly problematic in that it’s really difficult to pin down exactly what that powerful knowledge is within the discipline of English. However, whilst we might not all agree as English specialists about what is the most powerful knowledge to have, I daresay there’d be some agreement amongst us about what isn’t the most powerful e.g. texts such as ‘Stone Cold’.
Curriculum time is finite and we must prioritise the very best – we should be broadening students’ horizons. If someone could put forward an argument as to why ‘Stone Cold’ or ‘Holes’ represents some of the best that’s been thought or said, and therefore why it deserves a place on the KS3 curriculum, then I’d love to hear it.
KS3: Fantasia vs The Nothing
This is the part where I begin to compare KS3 curriculum design with that wonder of an 80s fantasy film: The Neverending Story.
If you haven’t seen the film (what have you been doing with your life?) then let me just give you a brief summary… The film starts by focusing on a young boy, Bastian, who is having a pretty tough time. Early in the film he’s chased by a group of bullies and takes refuge in a book store. They mysterious owner is a reading a book called ‘The Neverending Story’ and says that it’s not a book for him; it’s dangerous. Of course Bastian can’t resist so, when the owner disappears to take a call, Bastian ‘borrows’ the book and hides himself to read it.
The story is about a fantasy land, Fantasia, which is under threat by The Nothing which is destroying everything in its path. As Bastian reads the book he starts to realise he’s a part of the story and, ultimately, the hero of the story.
In the film, Fantasia represents humanity’s imagination whilst The Nothing represents adults’ apathy and cynicism towards it. I like to think of Fantasia as representing the beauty and wonder of what we could achieve at KS3 and The Nothing is the threat of cynical approaches to KS3 that see it as a two or three year extension to GCSE preparation or, just as bad, a few years where you can do pretty much whatever because KS4 is what’s important.
I believe that we can do amazing things at KS3 that give students a strong foundation of knowledge that will enable them to be successful in the future but we have to resist The Nothing of GCSE questions, assessments and approaches that threaten the possibility of what we can do at KS3.
You’re a KS3 hero
If you have been in charge of KS3 curriculum and you’ve been fighting against The Nothing then you were Artreyu. He’s the hero of The Neverending Story who is sent out into Fantasia, with his trusty horse Artax, to try and find a cure for the Childlike Empress who has fallen ill. The hope is that once a cure is found The Nothing will no longer be a threat.
On his journey, he tries to cross the swamps of sadness. Artreyu is protected by the Auryn (a necklace he has been given) but his horse is sadly overcome with sadness, sinks and is taken by the swamp. I have vivid memories of crying my heart out over this as a small child.
I imagine there’s been times where you’ve been dragging your team through the mire of KS3 misery. Where you’ve been trying your best to enthuse your team to get excited about teaching something which is so depressingly bad that you could have thrown yourself head first into the swamp. I’ve been there. Early in my career I had to teach ‘Two Weeks with the Queen’ to year 7 and I’m not sure I’ve every felt the misery of crushingly low expectations more keenly.
At the end of the film, The Nothing has destroyed all of Fantasia bar the Childlike Empress and a single grain of sand. Bastian is given this solitary grain and told that he has the power to bring Fantasia back with his imagination. Bastian re-creates Fantasia – he restores the very best bits (including not only Artreyu but also his trusty steed) and the more he wishes and imagines the better Fantasia becomes.
If you’re now in charge of KS3 then you’re Bastian. I’m not sure there’s ever been a better time to reimagine KS3 and do something really very exciting. Of course you will want to keep the best of what’s been working in your context but it’s a great time to think really deeply about what your students should be studying at KS3 to best prepare them for the future.
In part 2 I’ll share where we’re going next with our KS3 English curriculum. I’m pretty excited about it!