A Curriculum for Compassion

I’ve been developing curriculum with schools in primary and KS3 since the early 2000s but I don’t remember a time when the word curriculum has had as much currency as it seems to have now. The stark fact that it has risen to prominence because Ofsted happened to mention it is quite depressing. But if it means that schools are now thinking much more carefully about the child’s experience, the coherence of that experience and how it holds together for both meaning and effect, then I suppose we should be glad.Dwjh3fbW0AAJoKz

I’ve written about curriculum several times. In this post, back in 2012, I described what we were doing with our KS3 curriculum to tackle the woeful lack of challenge they were encountering as they moved into secondary school. In this one  written last year, I reflect on how Wales is embracing cross curricular practice with deep inquiry for KS3. Elsewhere, I’m busy working with primary schools to think about how we build curriculum that is coherent, credible, compassionate and creative. That is not simply knowledge-rich, but humanity-rich too – these are documented here and here.

Much of this work is taking me into schools to speak with staff about planning the arc of the curriculum and then looking at how it might be taught to keep those strands of credibility (knowledge), creativity (fluency and connections) and compassion intact while keeping an eye on making sense. For example, at St. Ebbe’s school in Oxford, we’re working towards a curriculum model built around dilemma (Dilemma Led Learning), but one in which the chronology of the ancient world makes sense for KS2 children and progresses in time so that it seems coherent and logical. For KS1, the seemingly disparate and unconnected topics of the foundation subjects will be connected both in time and place by explorations of ‘near and far’ – moving logically in place from our town to space and meeting significant figures along the way who might add to our understandings of arts and sciences and events. This is relatively easy to organise and shape, but it’s amazing how many schools seem to leap from Great Fires in capital cities to Toys to Dinosaurs with barely a pause for breath.

Once this skeleton begins to take shape, we can start to think about our focus. For example, if we say we are teaching the Ancient Greeks in six weeks, we’re doomed to fail. How can you teach 3000 years of history with all its attendant discoveries, stories, beliefs, geography and events in six weeks to any satisfactory degree? You can’t. You need to find a focus. And the same is true of any ancient period. Last week, I was asked to teach The Romans (again). I knew that the book “Escape from Pompeii” was a popular text for literacy in Yr 4 and so it seemed like a good place to place our story. I started where I always start:-

People: who are the voices we’ll hear and what do they have to say? Who is the human being in a mess who will captivate and engage the children?

Place: where is this person? And how does their place differ from (or connect to) our own?

Problem: What’s at stake? What does our human being in a mess need help with? And how can we help?

Possibilities: What do we need to know in order to help? How are our hopes and efforts blinding us to other points of view? How do we cope with the inevitable problems we’ll encounter? How do we document our efforts? What can we learn?

So. We have a boy – a young man – called Faustus. I choose the name because it means ‘lucky’ (all hail Google). He is sitting on a boat, returning from a fishing trip and stares in horror as Vesuvius erupts, taking all he has ever loved and ever owned with it.

I haven’t photocopied worksheets. I’ve made a slide with Turner’s “Vesuvius in Eruption” on it and I’ve made the shape of a boat with masking tape on the floor. Next to it is a timeline. 55 BCE/BC on one side, 410 CE/AD on the other. We’ll come to that later. Low resource, high impact. The best resource in the room is me. The best resource should always be the teacher. A teacher who has not spent hours huddled over a laminator, but instead has spent time curled up on a sofa, sipping tea and drinking in facts. Facts that link Pompeii to their home town – Chester. Like the fact that in the same year that Vesuvius destroyed Pompeii, Chester, in the form of the fort Deva Victrix  was founded. A happy coincidence, but one that can link their place to our place. Subject knowledge matters. Differentiated worksheets, less so.


Of course, I could have put those facts into a workbook and had them sitting silently, reading and answering questions. But no workbook could have created what we achieved, working together.

The children come in and sit around the ‘boat’ and after a quick gathering of their prior knowledge, we begin. Speaking as Faustus, I speak of my horror and dismay as I watch the disaster unfold. The children urge me to action – to do what I can to save my family and animals from the volcano. I resist – the volcano is raining hot ash and burning debris all around – how will I get past it?

“True,” nods a child, sagely “the ash will solidify in your lungs and they will collapse.”

I try not to gape and nod back at him.

“But you could turn your boat upside down and protect yourself from the ash and debris and then swim to shore, breathing the air in the boat,” a hitherto quiet girl pipes up. We congratulate her on the best idea ever to be thought in the history of thinking.

“And you could pray to the God of the sea – to Poseidon!” says another.

That leads us on a brief detour to think about the names of the Roman gods in relation to the Greek gods. The children are knowledgeable about the Greeks – it was their last unit of work, but they haven’t yet seen how the Romans adapted and changed them into their own deities. It turns out we have an expert in the class – a child who for the rest of the lesson is known as “Mr. History.” He correctly names not only the Roman gods, but offers us a brief but accurate account of Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain, his subsequent withdrawal and who his main allies were. Mr History suggests we consult and offer a prayer to Neptune. And so the children go to task on writing their prayers –

“Almighty Neptune, greatest of Gods, please strike your trident on the mountain and persuade the God of Fire to stop this eruption.” And so on…

Neptune does no such thing, sadly, but he does calm the water so that Faustus can venture to shore. But all is for nothing. His family are already lost and now, so is his boat – an ember strikes it aflame and it is gone. The children, it would be fair to say, are shocked. But I have bigger plans for Faustus and I can’t let their brilliant, creative imaginations get in the way. I’m the storyteller and what I say goes. So he fails and I can get back on my plan.

Enter Pliny the Elder.

Pliny the Elder, according to accounts written by his imaginatively named nephew, Pliny the Younger, took Roman army ships to the shore close to Pompeii to rescue whomever he could. Details are scant about who he saved or how many, but he tried and so, I add Faustus to the number plucked from the sea and taken on his ship to safety. But to where?

“Where might he go? He has lost his home, his family, all of his possessions…where can he go? What word might describe someone who finds themselves without a home and who is unable to return to where they once lived?”

You see, I know these children will be moving on to their next topic soon and that the next topic is called Adrift and is about refugees. Why not seed the notion of being a refugee in now?

To cut a long story short, it is decided that Faustus will join the army. He’s had enough of boats, but he’s grateful to his rescuer and decides to dedicate his life to the army. We talk about it – it’s a way to belong, to survive – they’ll feed and shelter him (even if he does have to buy his own food from his wages) and he can travel as far away from his terrible memories as he wishes. Where might he go? We get the maps out. We look at where he comes from. Where they come from. We look at a map that shows the extent of the Roman Empire in 79AD. I drop in the information that a new fort is being constructed in what will become Chester – they’ll need Romans to grow and develop this new site, named for the River Dee, but with the name ‘conquer’ embedded in it. The Romans plan to conquer the river, to stay. And so he goes to Chester. We form the line of coherence, from the children’s lives to a place and time long gone. And their hearts go with him.

As we end the session, standing at the edge of the fort, tired but hopeful, I ask them this question:-

“We might call someone who has lost all they have, destitute. When Faustus lost his home, his possessions and his family, he became destitute, but he is here now, hopeful for a new life. What does someone who is destitute need to become successful again?”

Some of the children start to talk about food and shelter and homes, but one small girl raises her hand. I repeat the question:-

“What might someone who is destitute need?” I say.

“Love” she replies.

There’s little more to say.

8 thoughts on “A Curriculum for Compassion

  1. Two phrases jumped out at me from this excellent blog: “Curriculum for compassion” of course, and “thinking much more carefully about the child’s experience, the coherence of that experience”.
    Too much recent discourse on the curriculum reduces it to that which is taught in lessons – and leads us in to the current obsession with ‘knowledge-rich”.
    The definition of the curriculum as ‘All the planned activities that the school organises in order to promote learning, personal growth and development’ (Richard Doll, I think) is much more powerful. It leads us back to thinking how children experience their education – remembering that they are ‘learning’ every second of their time in school, not just in lessons, and not just the knowledge content of the lesson and not just what the teacher thinks is being taught. Without paying attention to this, fancy knowledge discussions are not much more than an intellectual game, and, more to the point, likely to be educationally ineffective.

  2. Oh. ” It turns out we have an expert in the class”. I think this little point is very important. I seem to remember reading a blog where it was stated that students should never be allowed to challenge anything a teacher says in class even if they know the teacher is wrong because the teacher should always be seen as the single authority. Sadly, I cannot remember who or when. This felt completely wrong to me at the time, maybe because I taught lots of adult classes where the students often do have valid experiences to contribute & need to be treated with some level of respect (or they will just walk). And I’ve certainly seen people mocked on Twitter for saying they “learned from their students”

    Your experience underlines that students, even small ones, often have valuable knowledge to share, and if treated with respect rather than scorn, which I suspect may be born of insecurity, will add to the value of the lesson, and the total knowledge gained, for the whole class (and the teacher).

    1. I couldn’t agree more. It seems irresponsible to me to not find out what children already know and to celebrate their efforts to acquire knowledge. Perhaps, as you say, it stems from adult insecurity.

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