What is a knowledge-rich curriculum? Principle and Practice.

I have found recent discussions and debates about the concept of a ‘knowledge-rich curriculum’  – or knowledge-led; knowledge-based – fascinating.   Some of this has been explored brilliantly in various blogs.  Here is a selection:

There are also numerous blogs from Michael Fordham (Knowledge and curriculum – Clio et cetera), Clare Sealy (Memory not memories – teaching for long term learning – primarytimerydotcom) or Christine Counsell: the dignity of the thing

Along with plenty of others, I initially struggled to get my ahead around this idea.  As a science teacher I’ve always felt my curriculum was packed with knowledge and, without question, I’ve seen numerous cohorts sit lots of GCSE exams year after year, each requiring significant knowledge.   However, having engaged in the debate, read Martin Robinson’s Trivium 21c and Dan Willingham’s work, I’m increasingly convinced that a knowledge-rich/focused/led/based curriculum is an important concept that we ought to embrace.

Based on my work with lots of schools in varying circumstances over the last few years, I would say that not only is this approach often different to the default practice, it offers a secure route to the rising standards that we’re continually seeking.

What is a knowledge-rich curriculum in principle?

Based on various ideas pulled from the blogs and books cited above, I would suggest there are four components:

Knowledge provides a driving, underpinning philosophy:  The grammar of each subject is given high status; the specifics of what we want students to learn matter and the traditions of subject disciplines are respected.  Skills and understanding are seen as forms of knowledge and it is understood that there are no real generic skills that can be taught outside of specific knowledge domains.  Acquiring powerful knowledge is seen as an end itself; there is a belief that we are all empowered through knowing things and that this cannot be left to chance.  There is also a sense that the creative, ’rounded and grounded’ citizens we all want to develop – with a host of strong character traits –  will emerge through being immersed in a knowledge-rich curriculum.

The knowledge content is specified in detail: Units of work are supported by statements that detail the knowledge to be learned – something that can be written down.  We do not merely want to ‘do the Romans’; we want children to gain some specified knowledge of the Romans as well as a broad overview.  We want children to know specific things about plants and about The Amazon Rainforest, WWII, Romeo and Juliet and Climate Change.  We want children to have more than a general sense of things through vaguely remembered  knowledge encounters; in addition to a range of experiences from which important tacit knowledge is gained, we want them to amass a specific body of declarative and procedural knowledge that is planned.   This runs through every phase of school: units of work are not defined by headings but by details: eg beyond ‘environmental impact of fossil fuels’, the specific impacts are detailed; beyond ‘changes to transport in Victorian Britain’, specific changes are listed.

Knowledge is taught to be remembered, not merely encountered: A good knowledge-rich curriculum embraces learning from cognitive science about memory, forgetting and the power of retrieval practice.  Our curriculum is not simply a set of encounters from which children form ad hoc memories; it is designed to be remembered in detail; to be stored in our students’ long-term memories so that they can later build on it forming ever wider and deeper schema.  This requires approaches to curriculum planning and delivery that build in spaced retrieval practice, formative low-stakes testing and plenty of repeated practice for automaticity and fluency.

Knowledge is sequenced and mapped deliberately and coherently: Beyond the knowledge specified for each unit, a knowledge-rich curriculum is planned vertically and horizontally giving thought to the optimum knowledge sequence for building secure schema – a kinetic model for materials; a timeline for historical events; a sense of the canon in literature; a sense of place; a framework for understanding cultural diversity and human development and evolution.  Attention is also given to known misconceptions and there is an understanding of the instructional tools needed to move students from novice to expert in various subject domains.

 

What is a knowledge-rich curriculum in practice?

The best way to attack this is through some examples:

Exhibit A: The Romans 

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If you imagine some Year 8s looking back to their time in Year 4, when they ‘did the Romans’, what would we want them to remember?  They might remember their trip to the ruins or the museum, the video of the gladiators and something about togas and what the soldiers looked like.  They might have a general sense that Romans had an empire and that they were around a long time ago.  In a knowledge-rich curriculum they would remember all of this but would also be expected to know the terms empire, emperor, centurion, amphitheatre, aqueduct.  They would know who Julius Caesar was; they would know a set of dates, placing the Romans in time in relation to Jesus and 1066 and be able to identify the location of key Roman sites in the UK and Europe.

All of the teaching could be supported by giving students a knowledge organiser with all the key facts on it from which various quizzes and tests are derived to support their retrieval practice.  This would be part of a long-term plan that ensured students returned to Roman history beyond Year 4; there would be an expectation that their knowledge would be built on, not left behind.

Exhibit B: Parliament Hill Science 

At this Camden school, the science department has developed a superb set of resources to support students with learning.  This is linked to their FACE It approach described in this post: FACE It. A formula for learning.   The idea is that students need to master the recall of basic science facts and concepts on the road to deep understanding and the ability to apply knowledge to problem solving.   They are provided with excellent study guides; more detailed than a knowledge organiser but stripped down from what might be in a text-book. Here’s a sample from the GCSE unit on genetics and selection.

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Significantly, students are shown the quizzes that will be used to test them on their knowledge. They are embedded in the books.  They are seen in advance so that students can learn the form in which knowledge is sometimes expressed.  It guides their learning. Students are asked to learn the material after being taught it and then take the quizzes without any study aids.  The aim is that all students get all the questions right.  That’s the point.  Their theory is that, if students can’t get the simple factual recall questions right, they have no chance of then getting the ‘application to new contexts’ questions right.

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This embedded quizzing teachers lower attaining students to build confidence, gaining important study skills and has paid dividends.  It also helps a team of teachers to focus their energies and to plan collaboratively.  It’s a Godsend for any new or non-specialist teachers too.

Exhibit C:  Trial by Ordeal

If you were teaching the GCSE History theme study on Crime and Punishment, you might show this BBC Bitesize video: https://www.bbc.com/education/clips/zrtk2hv.  It’s a great colourful story full of information, examples, facts, concepts, gory details.  You could watch it and have a wonderful engaging discussion during a lesson.  But…. some days and weeks later, what would students remember?  If you hoped students would recall as much as possible simply through absorbing information or by making their own notes, you’re going to get a wide range of responses – and for certain, the weakest students will have the worst notes and, in all likelihood, the lowest level of recall.  It’s not enough.

In a knowledge-rich approach, we don’t leave this to chance.  We spell it all out. Alongside watching the video and having the discussion, we make the note-making absolutely explicit.  These are the key facts; this what everyone must know; this is what you must all remember.  Not only this, but at least all of this:

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You might choose to train students to produce their own structured notes in a quizzable format or you might just give them the notes and focus on the retrieval practice and application.  But what you won’t do is all students to scrabble around dredging memories for half-remembered titbits of facts in the hope that they have a coherent picture of the idea of trial by ordeal.  You control it; you are precise about it.

Exhibit D:  Sequenced knowledge of Motors. 

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This is my favourite bit of teaching physics – one of them at least.  If I teach this through a  knowledge-rich approach I want to make sure that the knowledge builds securely.  Firstly, say in Year 8, through demos and practicals, I want students to build their tacit knowledge of the key phenomena:  magnetism, magnetic fields, attraction and repulsion, the idea of ‘strength’ of a magnet;  forces; current in circuits – each with direction and magnitude; the idea that phenomena interact. All of this can be highly qualitative – simply focusing on changes of direction and the simple awe and wonder thing that motors work at all in our universe. I will also secure recall and understanding of some key terminology.

Later, as part of a spiral curriculum, avoiding cognitive overload and building on prior knowledge, I need students to understand and use F = BIL and Fleming’s left hand rule.  I need them to know the terms, that magnetic flux density more or less means ‘strength’, has a symbol B and units Teslas.  I need them to learn the equation by heart and practise using it and manipulating it.  All of that needs focus – so that they think about the equation away from the buzzy distraction of a sparking, whizzing motor.  I build the sequence carefully, deliberately with a focus on practice and recall and schema-building.

Is this new? Well, yes I think it is to many teachers and in many schools –  especially once the cogscience combines with the idea of subject grammar.  It’s way beyond some reductive idea of rote learning and regurgitating facts for no purpose.   It’s about ensuring students always have a secure knowledge platform allowing them to reach the next level.  But it’s not too important (is it?) whether we did this before… some of us will; some won’t and that will depend on context, subject, phase…   The point is that we do it now.  It’s actually rather exciting….

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Ten Teaching Techniques – Tom Sherrington

egypt

It’s a well-established idea that, to develop expertise in a particular skill or technique, you need to practise. The more you practise, the better you get.  As outlined by the excellent people at Deans for Impact in their Practice with Purpose document, it helps to identify a specific element of your teaching to practise on and then focus very deliberately on improving in that area.

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Instead of flitting from one thing to another, dipping in and out, the suggestion is that teachers would do better to select one thing from all the options and try hard to keep at it until the practice feels more like a habit. This approach absolutely applies to numerous elements of behaviour management and most of the Silver Arrows I highlighted in this popular post.  However, for this post I wanted to focus on pedagogical elements of teaching.

Here are ten things you might want to try to practice – deliberately:

1. Developing routine knowledge recall procedures.  

It takes practice to establish this as a snappy, low-stakes routine, conducted in a disciplined fashion, at a frequency that really helps your students to retain the knowledge you’ve taught them.  You need to establish a pattern that you can stick to:

  • identify the specific knowledge elements that lend themselves to snappy tests – a knowledge organiser broken into sections that students can focus on.
  • a quizzing method that students are familiar with and can organise readily – are you going to read out the questions, prepare each test or use ppt slide?
  • a quick method for self or peer checking of the answer – eg with answers on a visualiser or ppt slide.
  • a routine that returns to the same knowledge elements repeatedly so that the recall is strengthened; it needs not to take up too much time in any given lesson and happen often enough to become low stakes and habitual.

Develop the technique with  multiple choice questions,  sequencing of concepts/events and more sophisticated ‘which is a better answer’ style questions.

2.  All-student response: using mini-whiteboards really well. 

As I outline in this post – the No1 bit of classroom kit is a set of mini-whiteboards. The trick is to use them really well.  You need to drill the class to use them seriously, to do the ‘show me’ action simultaneously in a crisp, prompt manner and, crucially, you need to get students to hold up the boards long enough for you to engage with their responses. Who is stuck? Who has got it right? Are there any interesting variations/ideas? Use the opportunity to ask ‘why did you say that? how did you know that?’ – and so on. It takes practice to make this technique work but it’s so good when done well.

3. Questioning techniques: 

Each questioning technique takes practice, especially if you are in the default-mode habit of asking the whole class every question and taking answers from those with their hands up. Make a deliberate effort to try out and practise these methods:

  • Random selection: use an online name generator or lollisticks or some other means of selecting students at random. It’a powerful effect. (Lollisticks need to be a no-nonsense practical tool, not a fussy gimmick – I’ve seen this done superbly well.)
  • Cold Calling: just check out technique 33 in Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion 2.0.  I prefer this when combined with wait time and the name selected after the question. eg “What is 7 cubed?…..pause….. John?”  With “John, what is 7 cubed?”, only John has to think about it.
  • Probing:  routinely ask follow-up questions for every question you ask, two or three times.  Go deeper.  I’ve explored this in Great Lessons 1: Probing. 
  • Going Dialogic.  An extension of probing – you set up the expectation that one student might engage in an extended dialogue to probe ever more deeply into their understanding with the rest of the class as an audience.  It takes practice but works incredibly well. See Pedagogy Postcard 1.

4.  Think Pair Share

A strategy I firmly believe is underused relative to its power.  It takes practice to make it a routine with the necessary behaviour management strategies.  It is fully explained in this post: The Washing Hands of Learning

5. Metacognition and modelling

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Metacognition scored very highly in several ranked lists of effective teaching and learning strategies – eg Hattie’s visible learning effects or the EEF toolkit. In a nutshell, it is the process of teaching students how to solve problems and complete complex tasks by  making the strategies and thought processes explicit by modelling them.  For example, in these non-verbal reasoning questions, you can show students how you go about solving them, narrating the process explicitly including double-checking all the wrong answers. This is something they can then practice.  It works for modelling writing too – you need to  walk through the full details of how you construct sentences and paragraphs to convey what you want to say in the way you want it said.  Doing this well takes practice – try it.

Look no further than John Tomsett’s posts on this, featuring some videos of modelling in action:  Modelling and meta-cognition – and this one too. 

6. Whole-class feedback instead of marking

Instead of slaving away late into the night with your red pen poised to ink up a massive set of exercise books, just read this brilliant post by Jo Facer: Giving feedback the ‘Michaela’ way.  Read through the books, make some notes and give whole-class feedback instead.  Do it over and over again and get good at doing it – practise. It’s a game changer.

7.  Critique-method feedback

Instead of merely nodding in jaded recognition at the Austin’s Butterfly video, why not actually use the critique method it describes and develop real expertise with it.  There are lots of ideas and resources to support you – nicely compiled in this excellent post by Dave Fawcett Creating a culture of critique .  Let’s see your students developing the expectation that their work will be critiqued in a  specific, support manner allowing them to reach higher standards than they thought possible.

8.  Deliberate vocab development 

This links to the recall method above but here I’m thinking about a technique to cement vocabulary development specifically.  Very often new words are encountered in lessons and teachers might explain them at the time – only for them to be completely forgotten about and, consequently, not learned.  I suggest adopting a routine:

  •  a region of a board is dedicated to new vocab;
  • new words are listed during the lesson with awkward spellings explored explicitly
  • new words are sounded out through choral repetition so that students all experience saying the words
  • students are asked to put the words in a sentence orally or in a place in their books for new words
  • the lesson list forms the basis of a systematic recall test the following day/week/month – something students learn to expect thus supporting their engagement with the words in the first place.

9. Embedded tiering:  Mild, Spicy, Hot or Challenge, Turbo-challenge

Instead of differentiation meaning providing different work, develop a collaborative planning approach where question relating to any given topic are constructed with in-built tiering.  I’ve seen this used superbly well at primary and secondary with labels such as bronze, silver, gold; mild, spicy and hot or, Core, Challenge, Turbo-Challenge.

This is not the same as setting artificially differentiated learning objectives – but it supports the organisation of a class where students progress at different rates, allowing everyone to find a suitable challenge level (seeking an optimal 80% success rate).  Practice is needed not only to devise really good tiered sets of questions that still offer enough repetition at each level – but also to manage the learning in the classroom when everyone has diverged from the initial instruction phase.

10. Third time for excellence: Draft, re-draft, publish.

Again, taking something from Austin’s Butterfly, try to create space in your curriculum planning to go the whole hog on redrafting so that students get to the third version: the third draft of a poem, story, essay or piece of writing in French; the third attempt at a painting; the third run-through of the performance, recitation or speech.  The first one might be ‘a great start’. After feedback, the second version is a big step forward, taking the feedback onboard.  But you will find that Version 3 is where you see Excellence emerging. This is where it gets exciting.   You can’t do it for every piece of work – so pick your moment – but when you can, go for the power of three.  You can get better at this – more streamlined; less bogged down in the individual feedback; less fussy about every detail of the first draft, focusing on specific elements over others.  Try it.

Let me know how you get on.

Why does knowledge matter?

Teachappy vlog series…Dylan Wiliam

This month, we interview Prof. Dylan Wiliam to find out why he believes teaching knowledge is so important in schools and what the latest findings from cognitive science can teach us.
Prof. Dylan Wiliam
Dylan is Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment at University College London. Before that, he taught for several years at inner-city schools in London. He’s probably best known for his academic work which, over the last 15 years, has focused on the use of assessment to support learning. His new book Creating The Schools Our Children Need is out now.
What is a knowledge-rich curriculum?
Is a knowledge-rich curriculum just about teaching children lots of facts? Dylan Wiliam says no, and that children need knowledge to help them think more deeply about the world. Knowledge also helps people move from novice to expert. Click on the video (the first of 5) to hear what else Dylan has to say on the matter.
What should be on a knowledge-rich curriculum and who gets to decide?
There is an infinite universe of knowledge out there but only a finite amount of time at school to teach it. So what we choose to teach is very important. But who should decide what our children learn? Teachers? Politicians? Parents? Dylan Wiliam shares his thoughts below.
Why do teachers need to know about short and long-term memory and what are the implications for the classroom?
In his new book, Dylan states that, “The point that in fact should guide the whole of education is that short-term memory is limited, in both capacity and duration.” I asked him why this is so important for teachers to understand and what implications this has for the classroom.
What’s the difference between performance and learning?
We’ve all been there. You teach your class a lesson, let’s say on finding equivalent fractions, and they seem to get it. By the end of the lesson they know what they are, they can find equivalent fractions and you feel they’ve cracked it! But then you return to the topic days or weeks later and it’s as if they’ve never been taught the lesson before! The reason? Well, they performed well in the lesson but they didn’t necessarily learn anything (i.e. changes in their long-term memory were not made). Here Dylan explains the difference between performance and learning. Adrian BethuneAdrian is a primary school teacher and author of Wellbeing in the Primary Classroom – A Practical Guide to Teaching Happiness (due out on 6th September 2018).