I was privileged to participate in a webinar this week given by Reid Smith. Reid Smith is the Head of Curriculum, Assessment and Instruction at Ballarat Clarendon College, a school that has improved their approach to curriculum over the past 20 years. This blog shares the content of the webinar on Clarendon’s improvement journey toward building a coherent curriculum. To view the webinar, you need to be a member (it’s free to join) of ThinkForwardEducators and you can then access the video here https://thinkforwardeducators.org/meetings-for-members/reidsmith-apr-2021
The content delivered in Reid’s talk, the Clarendon approach, should really be what graduate teachers are taught as they enter our profession. Just as the Michaela Community School have, I believe that a book needs to be written on the Ballarat Clarendon School improvement journey, so that the profession can be the beneficiary that leverages off their collective wisdom.
But first, a little more on Reid Smith, he is also a primary teacher working in a school in regional Victoria, Australia. He is also a PhD candidate at Latrobe University studying the relationship of knowledge accessibility and reading comprehension and has just released a paper on that topic and I encourage to look at that here too.
What follows now is basically a transcript of the presentation. For me I always prefer reading print (blogs) to podcasts or video as I know it is easier to go back and find things that I want to revisit in a blog post.
He started his presentation, building a case for a coherent curriculum, and gave an explanation of why it is important to have a coherent knowledge rich curriculum.
Reid started with a definition of curriculum: Curriculum is the learning experiences that are planned for learners in an educational setting.
There is both an intended and enacted curriculum:
- intended curriculum is that which is documented; the intended teaching and learning; so essentially what we intend to teach in the classroom, and have the students learn
- enacted curriculum is what actually happens in the classroom. And the hope is that the enacted curriculum matches the intended curriculum.
- Knowledge provides a driving, underpinning philosophy.
Having a great level of knowledge has many benefits. Students and people who have a greater level of knowledge are more capable readers and they tend to be able to comprehend more difficult pieces that are related to that knowledge. We know that knowledge is associated with more beneficial social outcomes for students. We know that when students have a reserve of knowledge means that they are able to gain more knowledge. This notion that when students have stores of knowledge they are able to pick up new knowledge more quickly. However at Clarendon, knowledge is not just a stepping stone to get to somewhere else. Clarendon actually thinks that accumulation of knowledge, of its history, the world, its people, its science and its future is actually something that’s really a valuable end in and of itself. The school values knowledge; it is the birthright of our students to have access to the knowledge of our various civilisations and they have a right to the knowledge of a world that has accumulated over time. Knowledge is really Clarendon’s driving underlying philosophy. It is what Clarendon is aiming for from Kinder through to Year 12.
- The knowledge content is specified in detail.
Reid said, the knowledge rich curriculum is an attempt to nail down what it is that the teachers will teach and the students will learn and do within our classrooms. We like to be clear about what the students are learning because we like to think that teaching causes learning and we want to be intentional about how our teaching is going to cause learning from our students.
- Knowledge is taught to be remembered, not merely encountered.
Reid continued to say, when Clarendon puts together the knowledge rich curriculum, they are trying to avoid knowledge in encounters, where we hope the students might pick up some knowledge as we go along. Clarendon want to have the students amass a really specific body of declarative and procedural knowledge, in a way that is planned and sequenced properly. Clarendon wants knowledge to be remembered, instead of knowledge as being experienced as just encounters. Clarendon tries to embrace learning from the point of cognitive theory. It doesn’t want a series of knowledge encounters that may be experienced differently from one student to another. They really want something that is designed to help students store this knowledge information in their long-term memories so they can build on it later.
- Knowledge is sequenced and mapped deliberately and coherently.
Clarendon tries to give thought to the optimum sequencing of knowledge to deliver over time to students. So, the question becomes how can we best build this secure base of knowledge with our students, to provide them and to develop with them an understanding of concepts and ideas that actually endure and can be built upon over time, that’s not lost from one term or one year to the next, so that students have a store of accumulated knowledge over time.
When talking about a knowledge rich curriculum, sometimes people tend to pigeonhole knowledge as just facts learnt in isolation. For example in History the learning of dates, and who was the ruler at certain times and things like that etc. Clarendon sees knowledge as a broader conception of what knowledge is. Clarendon sees knowledge as fitting into two broad categories. The first is declarative knowledge, this idea of knowledge that is about knowing something. For example knowing that the first element in the periodic table is hydrogen. So there is a store of declarative knowledge, things that you know about. Then there is procedural knowledge which is more about knowing how. So ways about going about things, you may think about the skills that students need to know in order to put together a topic sentence, structure and essay, they might know how to construct a study timetable etc. And the knowledge rich curriculum is designed to help students to be able to develop skills in creativity, problem solving and in critical thinking. Dylan Wiliam encapsulates this well “the main purpose of curriculum is to build up the content of long-term memory so that when students are asked to think, they are able to think in more powerful ways because what is in their long-term memories makes their short-term memories more powerful.” (2018)
What actually Dylan Wiliam is saying is that the accumulation of knowledge allows students to think creatively, problem solve and think critically. Greg Ashman succinctly puts it as “knowledge is what you think with”, that is you need this store of knowledge to be able to think critically and analyse, discuss, evaluate and to be consumers of that information.
Because the idea that you can sub-contract a knowledge base to your phone just doesn’t work. In order to be able to use knowledge, in particular new knowledge to solve problems, the information needs to pass at least through your short-term memory. So, you can’t have a knowledge store that sits primarily on your phone, computer, Google or the internet. In order to be able to think critically you need to be able to have that knowledge available, and the more that knowledge is available in your long-term memory the more free space you are actually freeing up in your short-term memory in order to process this information.
Now when we consider what knowledge that we want to teach our students, the difficulty is that not all knowledge is equally valuable. A strong guiding principle for Clarendon is this idea of powerful knowledge developed by Michael Young. Michael Young (2014) describes knowledge as being “powerful” if it predicts, if it explains, if it enables people to envisage alternatives, if it helps people think in new ways. So, operationalising it in terms of our knowledge rich curriculum it means that there is ‘better’ knowledge in some fields that is more ‘powerful knowledge’ – i.e. more likely to feed forward into future learning and life. And one way to think about this, is to what degree will things that students learn now feed forward into what they will be learning in the future. So, how well will the text that we are studying in English, how well will the context that we are studying in PE, how well will the things that we are actually investigating in Science, feed into future learning and their life beyond school. The more ways that knowledge might throw forward to future uses is an indicator that knowledge is more powerful knowledge. There is another part of Michael Young’s work that is really crucial and this underpins some of the ideas around Clarendon’s low variance curriculum, and that is that all students deserve access to powerful knowledge. There should not be a reserve of knowledge that just sits for the privileged few such as the academically able. All kids have a right to knowledge. All kids have a right to the A grade curriculum if you like, rather than the B grade curriculum.
Whenever we have differences in knowledge we are going to have to select what knowledge to teach. The idea of what knowledge to select to teach is therefore a really important one, and also fraught with danger too, as there are some things that will not be chosen to be taught in the curriculum.
An important idea from Richard Elmore is as he states, “The limiting factor on the learning of many children are the expectations of the adults in their lives.” This comes to the idea of being ambitious! When selecting content that you are going to teach, be ambitious! Students will sometimes surprise you with what they are able to work with. When you have more ambitious and interesting content it means you can do more with it. For example the persuasive piece where they are looking at the laws of an ancient society and whether they are fair is perhaps more interesting and useful than deciding whether a school uniform should be worn or not.
Low variance curriculum:
When we think of curriculum variance we are talking about the variance in taught and learnt content as well as variance in instruction. We need to think of a range, from a continuum of lots of variance (complete variance) to one of next to no variance. You have horizontal variance that exists i.e. how similar or different is the curriculum received between different classes of the same English cohort across the six Year 8 classes. Whereas, the vertical variance is the similarity or difference that is occurring year on year within the same school. So, say between Year 7 into Year 8 in 2020 and then again between Year 7 into Year 8 in 2021. At one end of the continuum in every classroom experience there would be a no variance situation where the curriculum content and instruction is exactly the same between classes. Whereas in a complete variance end it is the opposite, nothing is similar, no instruction is shared, you don’t have a common understanding of what it is students are to learn, there is no sharing of instructional resources, no same end point in curriculum coverage. In practical terms these two extremes don’t exist, and in reality at most schools the extremes tend to be from low variance to high variance.
In a high variance school from one year to the next, class teachers would have very few shared outcomes that would be more specific than we are teaching Romeo and Juliet or learning about the solar system. There would not be a common understanding of what it takes for the learning to be successful, or what students should know, write, think about or be able to say as a result of the learning. Often the assessments that would occur in a high variance school would be negotiated by teachers right at the end of the process. So, we would all teach our classes and come up with an assessment that could be a conglomeration of the things that we have taught. An assessment that wouldn’t feature things on there that I’d not taught in my class, the assessment would make sure that there were things on there that other classes had taught, and I would make sure that there was nothing on there that I hadn’t taught. On the very low variance side of things you have groups of teachers who have agreement about a unit’s purpose. That are very clear about what the students should know, be able to say and do as a result of that unit of learning and how students demonstrate the things that they know. Often that is achieved through significant shared materials, and at the pointy end of that scale through student booklets that have been put together for all the classes, containing instructional materials, and agreements of instructional strategies that you are going to use. e.g. containing the Docklands Primary school method of teaching algebra. In the middle you have a continuum of somewhere that sits between the two, and most schools are somewhere within that range of low variance to high variance.
Reid emphasised the benefits of a low variance approach where there is more similarity of instructional practices between classrooms more similarities about what we want to come about as a result of the low variance approach for our classes.
Why a low variance approach?
To provide an opportunity for teachers to share good practice.
When developing a knowledge rich unit, the act of talking about what it is that this unit is going to contain necessitates that you have to talk about teaching, and the language that is used and the discussions that use are rooted in what you are actually doing inside the classroom. The idea of making transparent your practice, sharing the things that you are actually doing is a really important part of being a team of teachers. Sometimes we’ll even get together as a group and say the kids in your class seem to have developed this skill much better than the kids have developed in my class. Can you show us what you actually did, the teacher will go to the board and they will teach and we will be actually watching them, and say oh gee that is different to what I do? I am going to adjust my practice because I know that their practice results in stronger outcomes for the kids.
- To increase the quality of instruction over time.
That collegially shared information goes into program units and it also increases the quality of instruction over time. As we go about the low variance approach what we are trying to do is identify the best practices, the best bets. So, out of all the things we could do when we are teaching a particular idea what are our best bets. And that comes through from expert teachers and from assessment information. And what we are really trying to do is find the best bets. It’s a way for us as teachers to learn from other practices from other people, the benefit of that is that the average quality of our instruction across classes is increasing, we are learning. We are getting better every year.
- To provide students with a consistent experience between classes.
This is particularly important for younger years as they move from class to class and a year. What we are really trying to do is have a consistent experience. That consistent experience is particularly important in two ways. Firstly, it is important within a particular year. Consistent cues, consistent routines that reduce transition times between learning activities, consistent ways to set up classrooms to ease the transition between classes, so that when kids move they are familiar with these routines. And, secondly, probably the greater effect is over time when kids move through school from prep through to year one through to year two, it produces a consistent common experience for them which means that they build up a common schema of knowledge. At Clarendon teachers can be sure that students have learnt a common grounding of knowledge from year to year which assists in their teaching at the beginning of each year.
- To reduce the planning and preparation loads on teachers.
For the teachers it helps to reduce the planning and preparation loads, when we are planning collaboratively, when we’re planning year on year so when we’re using materials and ideas from year to year for the next year, it actually reduces the preparation load. And it enables the teachers to do some really effective things with the time that has been freed up. The other thing it does is build up a strong instructional culture, when you are constantly sharing practices, when you’re agreeing to subjugate practices that you’ve used in the past, for the good of the group, you are building up common pedagogy across the group.
- To build a strong instructional culture.
This idea of instructional culture, it imagines schools as organisations rather than collections of private practices. In a school with a strong instructional culture, there are common expectations around what is taught and how. These decisions are made by groups of teachers working on their practice, moving instructional decisions from the idiosyncratic to the collective.
So, in high variance schools you don’t have this organisation called school, that exist relatively independently, that run like private practices that kids move in an out of classes located in a series of buildings located within the school. In terms of organisation they don’t really function that way because there’s so much variation between classes, that it is not actually an organisation. And instructional culture imagines these schools as organisations. So, what you’re trying to do is leverage from the knowledge and expertise of teachers currently in the school, and that have been at the school in the past. This instructional culture also applies to teachers that will teach at the school in the future too. What you have with a strong instructional culture is a transparent culture, and a series of classrooms that share their organisational practices and share their instruction, and we own it together. Therefore it is not something held by me, it is something that we do as a school. In a school with a strong instructional culture, there is a common expectation of what is taught and how. That is what makes a strong instructional culture. There is a common pedagogy, there is a language of learning, an underlying theory that underpins everything else. And these decisions are made by groups of teachers working on their practice. What we really are trying to do is move instructional decisions from the idiosyncratic to the collective. So that decisions are made collectively, instead of these instructional decisions being made by individuals that may have more or less knowledge, more or less experience, more or less cohesion than the rest of their peers. Instead at Clarendon we are trying to harness the best collective wisdom of our teachers in order to make the best decisions we can in the service of the learning for our kids. So, a low variance curriculum enables a consistent and known knowledge base to be built over time. It is consistent because we know that this knowledge construction for instance is happening in each of the classrooms in say Year 4. It means year on year we are constructing a knowledge base that is known. So we know what the kids have learnt about and been exposed to in Year 7, so that means that we can build on that when we move into Year 8, Year 9 and Year 10.
Another consequence of a strong instructional culture, a culture that has a strong underlying pedagogy, is that it enables the organisations to “learn” over time and supports improvement efforts. The reason that a school learns over time is that if you have a curriculum that is written down and is present in some place where people can access it and it is used for more than one year then that means that you can make improvements to it. So that the things that are working from one year can be kept in the curriculum and tweaked, things that aren’t effecting the learning of your kids, things that you’ve missed or split up or need to work on, or someone in the team that’s going to work on and make it more efficient can be built into the curriculum that you have so that when you’re in 2022 you’ll have a curriculum that’s better than before so that every time it’s iterated through, you’ve got the input of these expert teachers so that it’s improving. So the school is an organisation that is actually learning, improving as you go, so that even when your new teachers come into the school they are sharing their knowledge and their wisdom with their colleagues, and when they leave the school, they are leaving their knowledge behind. At Clarendon we have some units that were written in their very initial basic form seven or eight years ago, and the echoes of the teachers’ work is coming through even now and there could be thousands of students whose learning is affected by teachers who have left the school six or seven years ago. So the strong instructional culture, the low variance approach, the documenting of curriculum allows us to capture the best teaching that has ever occurred inside our schools. It’s supporting improvement efforts because it means we are speaking the same language; we are working on the same things. So when we harness the collective we actually have an opportunity to work together to improve curriculum.
But it takes time. Change to instructional culture is incremental in time and radical over time. What that means is that you have to be patient, you need to be taking small steps and it means for some of us who want to get there now and reduce variation, the pace will seem so slow it might feel like you’re not getting anywhere. But in some point in time maybe in 12 months or so you’ll look back in time to compare to what was being done before and you’ll see a huge shift that resembles really accretional change rather than a sudden change in a team’s practice.
So how does a low variance curriculum effect Clarendon’s approach to differentiation. Clarendon believes in the following mantra that underpins their approach, they believe in ‘differentiation by support, not differentiation by curriculum.’ This goes back to Michael Young’s idea that all students deserve access to a quality curriculum, to powerful knowledge. If it is good enough for some of our students it is good enough for all of our kids. There should never be a subset of students that don’t have access to a quality curriculum, a C or D grade curriculum, just because they are less advanced on the developmental pathway at any point in time. So the starting point whenever we are working with kids in our class, is what can I provide as a teacher to enable them to access the curriculum. What is the minimum level of support that is required to access the curriculum? And the reason why the low variance approach and a documented curriculum is so important is that it frees up the teacher’s time and attention to be able to focus on these things. So, instead of teachers trying to find some worksheet online, and having to format it and it might be 50% of what you need, and it needs some adjusting and it is from some mediocre website. Instead of having that, you are starting with something that is quality. You are starting with real purpose to your lessons and you know that my class, or particular students might have difficulty with this particular idea, or that a student is going to have to need some support in this. So I will need to think carefully about what it is that I need to do and prepare for bridging the gap from where they are at and what we are asking the students to think about and do.
Now that is not always possible, there are going to be situations where the curriculum that you have in place is not going to be entirely suitable for the kids in your care and you are going to have to make some judicious decisions about that and whether that shouldn’t be your starting point.
Constructing a knowledge rich unit.
Here in the slide below are Clarendon’s general guidelines for a knowledge-rich unit
The first step is to decide on what is to be the topic of the unit?, and Clarendon stresses starting with the attitude of being ambitious!
Reid then shared some examples in this slide below that were illustrative of the second step above, purpose. By having a common purpose such as in the example of Romeo and Juliet below, the play is taught through the lens of it being a product of the Renaissance period. These purposes detailed in the slide below take these enormous domains and help define what it is that we are going to teach. Agreed purpose leads to lower variability between classes. The shared purpose is a key feature of the low variation approach to curriculum.
The third step is to detail what this knowledge already builds on, what do students already know at the beginning of the unit, what have they learnt before, and what are the things they are likely to know, what are they bringing to the table.
The fourth step is to detail the knowledge that students need to know, that is to be learned. There is a “sweet spot” – for instance in between “doing the Romans” which is a bit too broad and then listing every single series of facts that a student is going to encounter as part of the unit. You are really trying to decide on what it is that the students will need to know and be able to do to achieve the unit’s goal?
The final step is some agreements. If you had a pyramid of variability, this is right at the top. So, then there needs to be discussion as a team (if applicable) of what will be common between the classes. What do we feel will be an acceptable level of variation between us? Are we going to share explanations? Is there going to be a way that we as teachers explain particular concepts to kids? What explanations will we use? What learning activities and practice work will we share and make common?
In terms of the knowledge of course, you don’t write it all yourself from scratch, instead use textbooks, use websites such as the Core Knowledge Foundation, Oak National Academy (has a whole curriculum online), because it is too big to do yourself, instead leverage off existing resources.
Lastly, in the webinar Reid referenced to building a curriculum map, and referred took Neil Almond’s analogy in researchEd’s book on Curriculum, where Neil talks about curriculum as a boxset analogy. The box set analogy works for a particular subject area. If you think about a series like The Simpsons you can watch it in any order, as you do not rely on one episode to key you into the next episode. A high variance curriculum is a little like the Simpsons series, a boxset, because you don’t need one part to link to another episode. However, if we think of series such as Game of Thrones or Line of Duty, these series have particular episodes that have their own sub plots that build through the course of a season, and then when you put all of the episodes together there is an overarching plot for the series. So these seasons depicted in the slide below are essentially like the different year groups. So therefore the question becomes how are we going to build our students’ knowledge over time. So when we are introducing knowledge in season 1, in Prep/Kinder the knowledge is a little shallow, so what Clarendon is trying to do is to encounter that knowledge again and again, so that gradually the students are building this knowledge. The low variation approach is important here as Clarendon knows that the kids have been exposed to common knowledge. The curriculum can be built like a box set where the knowledge can be built over time just as it is in a TV series. So at every year group the knowledge is revisited and built upon, we are building a schema (this knowledge experience) of deeper knowledge.
Another model that is useful is the 3 dimensional curriculum model developed by Claire Sealy. It involves 3 dimensions. the first of which is the vertical links, they are the links that occur between year levels in the same subject. So how does what kids are learning about in Year 7, relate to what they are learning in Year 8 and how does that then relate to what they are learning in Year 9. Then you have horizontal links, so how are things they are learning in English related to History, or in Art, Dance and Drama in the same year level. The horizontal curriculum is not dealing in themes, so it doesn’t mean that an ideal curriculum has a theme. For example, we don’t want apple month where in Maths we are counting apples, in Art we are drawing apples and in English we are writing a persuasive essay on apple eating: a kind of forced thematic ideas. What we are trying to do with the horizontal links is leverage the vertical links to teach the developed sequencing of individual subject areas. So what we are trying to do is look for supporting links between subjects areas rather than trying to shoehorn them in. The third dimension is the diagonal link between those different subjects and in different year levels. It might be something that is built in Year 7 and then is built on again in Year 9 in a particular subject.
Within the constraints of time we have to make judicious decisions about what it is that goes into our curriculum. Because our most precious and finite resource is instructional time. Thirteen years with our students sounds like a lot, but it is not, so every minute of instructional time counts. So, we have to make some really strong and considered decisions on what it is that we are going to teach and what we are going to use our instructional time for. And, at the heart of that, all of our curriculum decisions are political decisions, as these decisions need to determine what to leave in and leave out.
A curriculum map
A curriculum map shows the sequence of learning in one or more learning areas. Of most value is the process of its construction. A curriculum map is intended to be a high-level planning document; therefore, it usually contains just:
- Unit name
- Unit purpose (Big Idea)
- Schedule in the year and Year Level (where it is taught and for how long and in what subject)
Can be electronic, paper or a series of post-its (to start with!)
So the following Year 7 curriculum map is run in excel, and the different subjects taught are horizontally represented. Along the top we have delineated where the terms are, so term 1 units sit underneath term 1, term 2 units, sit under term 2, and we have the name of the units, so the first unit that we run in term 1 for Year 7 it is GM Crops. Below it we then have the big idea that the unit is exploring. So essentially we indicate on the map what it is that we want kids to know as a result of this unit. Clarendon does this for the entire school from their 3 year old’s through to their senior classes in Year 10.
So, how can you build a coherent curriculum? Some final advice from Clarendon’s experience:
- Recommend starting with one subject or year level
- Audit your current curriculum, what do you currently actually teach, do you have a shared curriculum, include the “state” of the curriculum, so what state is the curriculum in, do you have shared curriculum materials? What exists for that curriculum? e.g. there might be a scope and sequence and that’s it, or there might be a textbook and that’s basically the curriculum for the year. The reason that’s important is it might give you an idea for how much work needs to be done with particular units for this to become a low variance curriculum. You might use a traffic light system and use post it notes to help with this, where a red post it note might mean that you have not got enough curriculum resources, an amber post it might mean it’s ok but you could use some more resourcing and green post it represents a strong currently resourced curriculum
- Agree on the criteria for inclusion/exclusion before you start. You need to have some sort of underpinning philosophy about what goes in and what doesn’t go in, so what are you going to cut out of the curriculum. It is really important to this before you start, and the reason you are going to do it before you start is you won’t need that criteria until you really need it. As there will come a point when your team are arguing what should be kept or not in the curriculum and then at that moment you need that criteria that says what are the bases for our decision making here, i.e. what criteria are we using as this will help on what to eliminate or include in the curriculum. So agree on the criteria for inclusion/exclusion before you start.
- But, the buck has to stop somewhere? So, when it comes to a time for a group to make a decision, and there is a stalemate, who is it exactly that has the mandate to do so, and therefore has the authority from the group to consider the group’s arguments and decide to go a particular way.
- Decide on what is definitely out (based on your criteria), and delete them from the unit because they are not fit for purpose and don’t meet the criteria.
- Determine any links between subject areas and change timings
- Determine what needs to be added (confer to the Australian/state curriculum)
- Once you have determined what needs to be added, reorder your units, move them from one year level to another, and this is where post it notes can be used to achieve this
- Be pragmatic: So, when you are putting the curriculum map together
- Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. There will be a temptation sometimes with units that you don’t like to take everything off, and then all of a sudden you are looking down the barrel of having to re write a whole heap of different units. It might be wiser to take a longer term view and gradually phase units out, and this links to the last point, it has to be manageable
- You can’t do everything at once, it’s too burdensome
It’s actually ok to use a unit twice as your curriculum map is coming together. Which means the planning has already been done for another year group and potentially another group of teachers.
The building of this curriculum map is a big job, but a worthwhile one. If you are a school leader, nothing will help you gain a better understanding of what is happening in classrooms as much as being able to put your finger in the curriculum pie, to be able to see what it is that we intend to teach, even if that is not what’s enacted, what is it that we intend to teach.
So, if you have not already become a member of ThinkForwardEducators https://thinkforwardeducators.org/ (it’s free to join), then I encourage you to, not the least to be able to watch Reid Smith’s webinar recording, but to access the other webinar recordings and network with other educators who are interested in the hope of achieving growth in students’ social opportunities! A deeply human desire to improve students’ social opportunities by focussing on what the evidence and research says works, and therefore, is in the best interests of the students under our care.