Building a connected curriculum.

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.

What really went wrong with exams 2020?

I write this in the time between the release of A Level and GCSE results and media attention is at fever pitch. What went wrong? Who’s to blame? How can we put it right? There are all kinds of questions to be answered and much better mathematicians than I can analyse the flaws in the system used, but to my mind the simple answer is ‘nothing went wrong – the system operated exactly as it was designed to operate. This is how it ALWAYS works.’ And how it always works is what’s wrong. Nothing ‘went’ wrong, it just IS wrong. All the time.

Let me explain. The reliability of the algorithm Ofqual devised (having rejected help from you know, real experts) was roughly 60% – that means that around 60% of students would probably get the right grade and 40% wouldn’t. We’d surely not accept that? If the chances of your plane crashing was 40% would you get on it? Of course not. But the weird thing here is we ALWAYS accept it. Ofqual decided that this was acceptable because in a normal year you would expect around 40% of young people to “underperform”. The algorithm’s reliability percentage was roughly in line with the reliability of putting young people into an exam.

Young people underperform for a number of reasons. The room is too hot; they have a panic attack; their Dad/Grandad/Dog died (forget mitigating circumstances – as far as exams go there’s a time limit on grief). Maybe they forgot to look on the back page of the exam paper and missed that 15 point question (looking at you, son). Maybe their girlfriend dumped them that week (looking at you, husband). Maybe it was a bad day for hayfever. All these factors conspire to ensure that around 40% of young people are disadvantaged every year not because they weren’t capable of success or because they didn’t know the content, but because they had a bad day. What’s our response? “Them’s the breaks. Tough luck.”

Even once they’ve left the exam hall there are circumstances working against them. Ofqual’s own analysis of the 2017 and 2018 exam papers showed a 50% unreliablity factor in the marking of English and History papers. But no-one changed the marks unless a child had stumped up the cash to pay for it. The fact is that the system relies on things going wrong in order to maintain the appearance of rigour. We can’t have too many passing after all – what would that say about our standards? I’m not sure, but I do know what it says about our morality.

It has taken an absurd situation to make these glaring inequalities obvious. In effect what Ofqual unwittingly wrote into its algorithm at an individual, human level was a random allocation of a dead dog/breakup/hot day/panic attack and this is clearly crazy. It explains why teacher grades were not ‘optimistic’ or ‘generous’ but more likely to be a real reflection of what a student could achieve and what they knew. If anything, what those teacher grades showed us was how badly we’ve been underestimating our young. Will there have been a couple of centres who pushed their luck? Probably. 40% of them? No way – not when they knew that their results would be compared to the last three years’ performance. That was the moderating control on the system – fair or not.

As a society we’ve accepted Maths as a truth when in fact it is as fallible to error as anything else if misused. We use numbers as cataracts to throw attention away from harsh realities. “Just 4% of entries were reduced by 2 grades or more” trumpet ministers and their messengers as a sign of success. Just 4%. Doesn’t sound like much does it? But that’s 28,720 people, or at least exams – some poor souls will have had more than 1 of their exams downgraded by 2 grades. Let that sink in. 28,720. Their teachers must be really rubbish at guessing grades, right? Well, no. There are other important and mathematically incompetent glitches that almost beggar belief – Alex Weatherall’s twitter thread showing how students ended up with Us instead of Cs is a clear example of the rampant injustice in the algorithm. You can link to it here –

These anomalies should have triggered a red flag for Ofqual but they didn’t. They should be triggering an immediate and automatic adjustment without appeal now. But they’re not. And here we come to the second problem we always have. A belief that the ‘system’ is infallible. The mathematician Hannah Fry in her brilliant book “Hello World: How Algorithms will Define our Future and Why We Should Learn To Live With It” writes “using algorithms as a mirror to reflect the real world isn’t always helpful, especially when the mirror is reflecting a present reality that only exists because of centuries of bias.” She argues that the two things we need to look out for when designing an algorithm that impacts directly on human life are accountability (for example to bias) and morality (both the morality of the system but also factoring in human concepts of morality – for example around fairness). This algorithm failed spectacularly on both counts. But the exam system has been failing on both counts for years and that failure stems from the centuries of bias we have in our system. From concepts of ‘deserving and undeserving poor’ to flawed concepts around meritocracy – a flaw that couldn’t have been more beautifully or ironically exemplified by the Harrow educated, hereditary peer, Lord Bethell in one of the most ill judged tweets of all time:

These inherent biases have led to the unfortunate, but no doubt unintended inequalities between private and state educated pupils in the adjustments to results: –

It’s not that Ofqual went out to deliberately benefit the private sector. It’s just that they didn’t think through how their decision not to moderate small cohorts would impact on those outcomes. They didn’t consider how centuries of bias and assumption have created a system that would impact on their mathematics. In the same way that the last Labour government didn’t think through the impact of league tables on house prices. Or in the way that successive governments haven’t thought through the impact of Ofsted/Performance Related Pay on behaviours. Not thinking through is endemic in our system – it’s not a new thing – we’re just seeing it in a new light.

If we had had modular exams, coursework, AS results in place, of course it would have been far easier to predict what the ‘real’ outcomes might be (by that I mean the outcomes that would best keep the perception of fairness intact because as they stood they were also prey to the same biases and game play). But we got rid of those. Why? Because another endemic problem in our society is the belief that people are out to cheat their way to the top. Teachers are out to cheat. Pupils and parents – middle class ones – are out to cheat (working class parents on the other hand are just feckless and irresponsible and their children need a firmer hand than others). With all these cheats and feckless people around, the system is designed to catch them out. It’s actually the opposite of a meritocracy. We were so obsessed with cheating that we made coursework so bureaucratic and joyless that even teachers were glad to see it go. We saw the idea of giving children second chances as ‘cheating’. “It’s unfair to those who didn’t have a bad day!” we cried. Lewis Carroll couldn’t make it up.

And now we’re suggesting that we can’t give these young people the grades they deserve – the grades they’d get on a normal, good, non heartbroken/anxiety-ridden/grief-stricken day. Because it’s not fair to the students who came before them. Let’s apply that logic to other situations shall we?

“We can’t end slavery because it’s not fair to all the slaves who didn’t get to see freedom.”

“We can’t make seat belts mandatory because it’s not fair to all those who went through the windscreen before them.”

Extreme examples I know. But not ending an injustice because it’s not fair to people who have previously suffered it is the most stupid reason I can think of for inaction. We need to give those young people their grades AND we need to use this lesson to prompt us to reform the system so that it doesn’t happen either in covert or overt form to other children. That’s one heck of a hill to climb but the view will be worth it.

What do we want? Young people who go out into the world with a sense of justice – a feeling that they had an opportunity to show what they could do (both academically, socially, practically and morally) and that those achievements are celebrated? Or a system that looks the same year on year that is deliberately set up to make sure that ‘enough’ children fail to make it seem robust? I know what I’d choose. What we’ve seen this week is an education system that has prioritised the system over the child. It’s been an ugly display, but frankly, I’m glad it’s out in the open and we can finally see it for what it is.

Co-Constructing Curriculum – A Mission to Mars.

“Let’s say…”

Year 5 are sitting on the carpet looking up politely at the stranger in their classroom who seems to have turned up to teach them today. They don’t usually sit on the carpet – that’s for infants isn’t it? But I want them close to me and to be able to get up and down without having to navigate furniture. You have to be nimble when you’re going to Mars, but they don’t know that yet.

Continue reading “Co-Constructing Curriculum – A Mission to Mars.”

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. Continue reading “A Curriculum for Compassion”

Ofsted: Should we be Scared?

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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.  Continue reading “Ofsted: Should we be Scared?”

Winners and Losers: GCSEs 2018

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So results are in and, surprise, surprise, there’s not much change. A slight 0.5% improvement on ‘pass’ rates, but given that the new 4 was supposed to be equivalent to a C/D borderline grade, that’s to be expected. But wait… ‘pass’ rate? Aren’t there three other grades to consider here? Aren’t grades 1-3 passes too? It would seem not since government have firmly labelled not only 4s as ‘standard passes’ but also 5s as ‘strong passes.’ Who cares about the rest? The 33.9%? Meh. May they proceed onto endless resits, doomed to groundhog day repeats of failure for the next few years, their confidence dwindling to the point that they feel worthless. Who cares? Passes is what we’re after. Because, standards. Continue reading “Winners and Losers: GCSEs 2018”

Let’s get behind the Chartered College of Teaching.

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Back in 2014 I heard about the idea for a College of Teaching and I wrote this blogpost outlining why I, as an ordinary classroom teacher, was so excited at the prospect of what this organisation could do for me and why I was so desperate for it to get off the ground. Four years later, it exists and I’m not a member – not even at affiliate level.

Continue reading “Let’s get behind the Chartered College of Teaching.”