Rumours are leaking out of Ofsted Towers of a shift in focus towards ‘Knowledge Rich Curriculum.’ There is consternation among some inspectors about ideological infiltration from the DfE and what this might look like in terms of an inspection framework. But I’d urge caution before we jump to conclusions – this could be a positive thing. Could be. Let’s start by assuming two key principles that seem to have emerged as patterns over the past few years:-
- Ofsted will not dictate pedagogy.
- Ofsted will mostly hold you to account for what you say you do. Consistency is the key.
If those two things hold true, then there’s no reason to fear that we’ll see Ofsted dictating that desks should be in rows, that direct instruction be the sole pedagogical tool, that knowledge organisers should be coming out of our ears and that children are being rote tested every five minutes. The focus seems to be on curriculum and not on pedagogy.
And as we see in their attitudes towards marking, while they have helpfully outlined in their myths busting document that they don’t expect to see triple marking, if your policy says you do it, you had better do it. You’ll be hung by your own tabard if staff are not following policy. So simplify the policy.
So what can we expect? Well, this is pure speculation of course, but I suspect it means that if you say you teach it, they’ll check that the children are learning it. That’s one way to check if people are really covering the curriculum they say they are teaching. And isn’t that fair? If someone threw a random sentence about Queen Victoria’s children into the medium term plan and an Ofsted inspector comes in and asks the children what the names of those children were, are they a cruel, fact obsessed tyrant? Or are they simply trying to find out if you teach what you say you teach? Work out what you want the children to know and stick to it.
What’s at threat here are spurious tasks that seem lovely but are empty. If your children are making a Viking Shield, then you might need to think carefully about what they are learning as they do so and make that explicit. Whether they are learning knowledge or skills, they need to understand the POINT of what they have done and how it connects to the broader map of understanding of who the Vikings were, when they had most impact on our history, how they had impact and how they lived. Conveniently, the knowledge obsessed who didn’t like the word ‘skills’ have now rebranded them as “procedural knowledge” so we can do everything under the happy umbrella of knowledge!
My advice would therefore be to look at curriculum documents and think “is there an explicit knowledge strand in here? Should it be simplified? Does it connect in a coherent way or are there just random sets of tasks, loosely linked to the topic?”
This absolutely does not have to be dry or dull. It can be a connected, thoughtful curriculum that allows children to use knowledge in all kinds of ways. Let’s share an example from something Hywel Roberts and I developed together. We’re going to be working towards a ‘topic’ about coasts. But there are two other ‘strands’ as well as knowledge that we want to explore. Because as well as wanting children to know, we also want them to be able to care and to be able to do. So, yes, one aim is knowledge, but another is socio-cultural. We want children to think about some of the problems our society has with the loneliness of old people. The third is linked to their literacy. We want them to be able to adopt the voices of other people so they can play with levels of formality and to extend their vocabulary. In my planning document I might have these as three strands with three aims.
To Know: To know how coasts erode.
To Feel: To understand the impact of loneliness on people and to demonstrate empathy towards the old people we will meet (both in fictional and real experiences).
To Do: To write fiction and non fiction texts that show an ability to shift formality and to use new vocabulary and knowledge.
Our outcomes might take the form of:-
- An article about the erosion of a local coast and its impact on residents, with the expectation that it will explain to its readers the effect of tides and weather on the coast and what it does to specific types of rock.
- A visit to our local old folks home with the children feeling confident enough to ask the residents questions about their lives.
- Diary entries from the points of view of both the old lady and the social worker and report writing (social worker report and news report).
We may begin in a literacy session with the teacher speaking. She has put two chairs together and is sitting on one of them. She explains:-
“In a moment we’re going to go into a story and I’ll be speaking as an old lady who is 96 years old. Imagine! 96! When was she born? Yes, 1922 – I wonder what events have happened in her lifetime? I wonder what we have now that wasn’t around when she was a child. What do you think?”
The teacher is linking to previous work on timelines and checking what the children have remembered about the 20th century. She is also searching for misconceptions and identifying anachronisms, gently correcting as the children go until their ideas are shared. She might share and explain the word anachronism and let the children play around with sounding it out. Then she sets the scene:-
“She is sitting on a sofa – let’s say it’s here where I am sitting. Beside her on the cushion of the sofa are dog hairs. She rests her hand on them. But there is no sign of a dog.”
The teacher pauses and looks at the children sadly. She gauges who seems to have understood the subtext and carries on.
“The old lady is in a room which is quite old fashioned. There are photographs on the walls and objects around the room that remind her of her life. She rarely throws anything away and the room is crowded with a myriad of memories. She has lived here all her life. As a child, she lived in the cottage that stood on this site before her current house was constructed. Shall we talk to her and ask her some questions? Let’s summarise what we already know…”
The teacher guides the children through this short comprehension task, explaining some of the vocabulary and then allows them a couple of minutes to form questions. As they ask, she builds a story of her life:-
- Yes she has children (and grandchildren) but they live far away.
- Her dog, sadly, died.
- Her husband also is no longer with her, but oh, what a happy marriage they had! (we don’t want to depress the children too much – we’re aiming for concern, not trauma, so moving speedily on to happy memories helps to lift the mood!)
- She doesn’t go out. At all. And the only people who come to the door are ‘THEM’. And ‘THEY’ are not going to make her leave. She was born in this house and she will stay in this house until her last breath!
After a quick recap with the children we start to paint the scene. Asking the children to think about all the photographs that are on the wall, in small groups, the teacher asks them to recreate some in freeze frames (tableau). She’s pulling together comprehension skills while allowing the imagination space to breathe. The class share their images with each other and the teacher helps them to develop the descriptions of what they see by pulling out deeper details – “what’s that in the background?” “why is she smiling?”
We can also shine our torches on (imagined) objects in the room and find ways of describing them on a post it note. The children place their notes around the room and read each other’s :-
“There is a well worn dog lead gathering dust in a corner.”
“There is a framed boarding pass for a flight to Australia. 15th December 1994.”
The children may well now be ready to write a descriptive opening to a story…
In the afternoon, it’s Topic Work. Geography. Coasts. It could also be called “Human Being in a Mess. Part Two.”
We gather again around the old lady. She tells them that someone is coming this afternoon. She has had a letter. So she has locked the door firmly and will refuse to let them in.
Then the teacher shows the children the lady’s home.
How does this change our perception of her situation?
If we were a team of social workers about to visit her, what might we do to persuade her to leave?
Why is the house in this state?
All of these questions lead us into the ‘knowledge’ of the topic while maintaining the socio-cultural element of the work. Our story can still remain central, but there is now something we have a reason to know and learn. How do coasts erode? How safe is it to build homes near the coast? Are some coasts safer than others?
Of course some of that information will be taught explicitly. There will be non fiction texts to explore. There are non fiction texts to write. For example, how might a letter explain to the lady that the coast is likely to erode further? How would a newspaper report explain coastal erosion to a lay reader? What might the social worker’s report say?
And later, as we prepare for our visit to the local old people’s home, we’ll remember our old lady. We’ll think about how we felt about the fact that no-one visited her. We’ll think about how we might have helped her. And she will help our children to feel more comfortable and to be more sensitive as we do our community project. As for knowledge…
Could you still quiz children on the key geographical terms you want them to remember? Yes.
Could you still get them to write a range of texts with this knowledge embedded? Yes.
Is a story helpful in acting as a memorable vehicle for learning? Yes.
Is this knowledge rich? Yes. But it’s also feeling rich, doing rich, responsibility rich.
In the end, the only difference this new “what does Ofsted want?” panic might make to my practice is to just tweak the process to absolutely make sure that what I think the children are learning is what they are learning. I might check that a little more. I might make that strand more explicit in my planning. None of that is a bad thing. But I’d also feel I could do so and remain absolutely true to the way I work. And that’s a blessing.