I’m sitting with a Celtic chief with the rest of the tribe listening in. We’re in intense discussions but my requests are clear.
“Let us pass and we let you live.”
I can’t really be any clearer than that. My 9 year old adversary is not giving way so easily though. He reminds me that the last time the Romans sent an army over, his grandfather’s people sent them back. If they could defeat the so called great Julius Caesar, what on earth makes me think they’ll give way now? I explain that our army is bigger this time, more determined and has already had success further East. If he really cares for his tribe, he would be wise to agree to let us through and collaborate with us. He tells me he will consult with his people and asks what guarantees I have that I will leave them unharmed. I offer only my word.
Year 4 are learning about the Romans. But they’re not only learning about the Romans. They’re learning about making difficult choices; the concepts of diplomacy, invasion, autocracy, power and resistance. And they know about some of these things already because the curriculum is designed to take children through dilemma, considering multiple points of view and visiting and revisiting these big concepts as they go along.
Year 1 learned about the Queen. But they also learned what a monarch is, how a monarch functions in a democracy (i.e. not being an autocrat) and they have been introduced to the idea of inherited power and titles. Is it right, they ponder, to just be able to inherit power and influence?
Year 2 in their explorations of the Gunpowder Plot and the Great Fire of London are introduced to other monarchs. When they look at how they came to power, they can revisit their conversations around inheritance and a ‘blood line’. They ponder the question “what kind of leader do you want in a crisis?” and explore the causes and consequences of those events in terms of the leadership of the more autocratic monarchs of the time.
Hence when Year 3 encounter the ancient Egyptians, they are familiar with the idea of an autocracy and only need to understand that autocrats can have different titles – they can be kings and queens but also Pharaohs. And what kind of society did this kind of autocrat lead? Focusing on the reign of Hatshepsut, the children are reminded that a leader, even a very long time ago, could be a woman. And this strong, African woman made many changes to her country, leading Egypt through one of the most impressive periods of building. What are leaders remembered for? What kind of leader do you think you would like to be? Why did this leader choose to be represented in art with a beard?
When Year 4 encounter an Emperor and a chief, they have a range of examples of autocracy at their fingertips. Now they see it in action through invasion and resistance. They see how an empire is built, maintained and lost over time with a number of leaders in charge. And in building their understanding of who a leader can be, they are also introduced to Boudicca and Septimius Severus – the first and only black emperor of Rome. Representations of gender and race are being carefully woven in throughout so that beneath this concept of power, we see also identity emerging.
So what alternatives exist to autocracies? Well Year 5 are well primed for their study on Ancient Greece. They explore the characteristics of an autocracy through the myths and legends – ancient kings and queens, gods and goddesses and the shift towards the development of a democracy. Demos – people. Kratos – power or strength. What kind of democracy did Athens develop? Was it a true democracy – who could and couldn’t vote? How did their democracy differ to the one that developed here? Why did we hold the vote back from women and working class men? Would it be better to live in an autocratic society that believed that anyone (male or female, black or white) could lead, or a democratic one that only extended the vote to reasonably wealthy men?
By the time the children reach Year 6, they are well versed in the language of power. Autocrats who are kings, queens, emperors, pharaohs – even gods. They understand the alternative – democracy. But what happens when a democratic system votes in an autocrat? Enter Hitler. How did that happen and what checks and balances might we need in a democracy to ensure that one person could not take complete power?
When we plan curriculum we tend to think mostly in terms of knowledge and the development of skills. And while in some subjects, that might work well, for others it works less well. In Humanities, English, the Arts in particular, learning is not always incremental, yet all ask children to make connections. Concepts are one great way of making those connections and they help children to develop those vital second order thinking skills – understanding cause and consequence, similarities and differences, significance, change and continuity. While in England could be considered to be inward looking in terms of curriculum content, there are still ample opportunities to build in more global and connected ways of working to bear on our work. This kind of thinking about curriculum is commonplace in curriculum models such as the IB and is informing exciting developments in Wales.
In Park Primary school in Wallasey, concepts form the backbone of the curriculum, weaving through the year groups. In addition to power and leadership, each year group have units connecting conceptual themes around migration and identity, conservation and sustainability and human innovation and exploration and each year group plans knowing what the others are doing so they can build from, refer back to and anticipate future learning.
At the British School of Brussels, concepts have been built across the year too. For example, a key concept for Year 6 is also “Power” but this theme is used to connect units of inquiry around war, refugee crises, power supplies (and how they impact on the world), powerful changes in ourselves (including in our bodies) and the power we can exert on our futures. In Harri Tudur secondary school in Wales, concepts have been used to bind subjects in the new Areas of Learning and Experience in the Welsh curriculum. For example in expressive arts, the year is split into three key conceptual inquiries – Art as Identity; Art as Resistance; Art as a reflection of life. Each of the arts subjects can explore these individually, but working towards outcomes that demonstrate children’s understanding of these key concepts and how they manifest themselves in the different art forms in time and place.
Concepts can be thematic (as above), second order (binding skills and disciplines together – for example understanding cause and consequence) or they can be directly linked to knowledge and understanding of a particular subject area or discipline – threshold concepts – that once learned are hard to forget because they make you think about things differently. Understanding that in space a smaller object will orbit a larger object might, for example, be a threshold concept. Once you grasp that, you understand why moons orbit planets, why planets orbit stars and so on. Our curriculum planning needs to attend to all three of these modes of conceptual thinking because each of them enhances learning and critically ensures that nothing is atomised. Everything connects.
It is often said that children cannot easily transfer knowledge from one context to another – this belief is embedded in many national curriculum models – it forms part of the training guidance for NPQ leadership programmes for example. But it is in fact possible for children to transfer knowledge, if they are taught in a way that encourages making connections. Teaching with concepts in mind can really help with this. And so can finding those conceptual links between subject areas by finding contexts – whether real or fictional – that bind or plait subjects together. Context based learning – whether through real life projects or through imagined ones – provide powerful ways of showing children how interdisciplinary life can be and when they can work in contextual, connected ways, children have little difficulty in switching between subject disciplines because they ‘need to’.
Take, for example, the Year 8 class who took on the roles of aid agency workers trying help people to avoid a catastrophe from water borne diseases in Haiti. In Science they learned about the dangers. In Maths they put this knowledge into data and interpreted information. In English they created information texts to warn of those dangers; instructions to stay safe and persuasive texts to raise money. In Geography they explored what had happened – an earthquake damaging infrastructure to water and sewage systems further exacerbated by the impending monsoon season. In addition, the children enhanced their own curriculum by raising money in their own time, putting on performances and even translating their texts into French (“That’s what they speak there, innit?”). These children were taking and transferring knowledge because the context allowed them to. Indeed, it forced them to. They were making connections because they had a sound understanding of the importance of second order concepts. And they were going the extra mile because it mattered. They felt connected to people in a different place, leading different lives and it made them want to learn and to want to take action.
Concepts and contexts for learning that have a clear focus on making connections allow us to build meaningful curriculum webs around knowledge. They allow us to build in experiences that sit outside of curriculum content, but that are still critical to curriculum and conceptual understanding. It was depressing to read a study this weekend that stated that trips to museums don’t improve GCSE results in England. Why would they? Museums may well extend knowledge way beyond what is asked of a GCSE question. They may provide a basis for future interest and learning. They may just give children a happy memory. There will be all kinds of affective, cognitive and sensory connections emerging from such an experience. When we’re planning our curriculum models, we need to keep these connections in mind.
Whether we choose contexts or concepts (and we ideally use both), we need to attend to ensuring that children have a connected, humane education that empowers them to recognise our connections as human beings. To understand, as the IB states, “that other people, with their differences can also be right” and to begin to see that we all have much in common. That though we may be separated in time or place, the human condition is fairly constant. This is critical to our development of empathy as a species; it is critical to peace and survival on our planet and it is critical to the well being of our children.