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….


The Question of Knowledge


PTE has produced this pamphlet in conjunction with The Association of School and College Leaders. In it, several headteachers from across the country detail their experiences and the challenges they faced when attempting to provide a knowledge-rich curriculum to their students, often with no resources or base to begin from. The pamphlet is free to download from this page.


Parents and Teachers for Excellence.


Knowledge based scheme of work

The final piece (number 3 but search the blog for the others) about how to use summative assessment in a knowledge based curriculum by Robert Peal:

Planning a knowledge-based scheme of work. Part 3: Summative Assessment

Like many teachers, I have spent the last week marking end of year exams for Key Stage 3. Having put some thought into the design of these exams, I have – perhaps for the first time – found this to be an instructive and, dare I say it, enjoyable process.

For the sake of this blog post, I am going to focus on our Year 8 exam, covering Early Modern Britain and the Age of Encounters. All our KS3 assessments share a similar format, and you can view them here, with examples from Year 7, Year 8 and Year 9.

In the past, I have struggled to find a satisfactory format for end of year exams, falling back on the unimaginative (and unhelpful) practice of mirroring GCSE examinations. Reading Daisy Christodoulou’s Making Good Progress, and talking to colleagues at the Historical Association Conference in May, helped me narrow my focus. At WLFS, the construct we want to assess in KS3 history boils down to three outcomes (four in the case of Year 9). Do pupils have:

  1. an accurate chronological framework of the period studied?
  2. a broad knowledge of the period studied?
  3. the ability to construct well-evidenced historical arguments?
  4. the ability to comment on the purpose and usefulness of historical sources? (Year 9)

Our end of year exams now mirror those outcomes. At Year 7 and 8, the exam consists of three sections:

  • Section 1: Chronology test /5 marks.
  • Section 2: Multiple choice quiz /20 marks
  • Section 3: Essay /25 marks

Section 1: Chronology test

The chronology test for Year 8 involved linking 10 events with 10 dates. The events were chosen from a list of 25 dates included in the pupils’ revision guide, spanning from 1453 to 1721. We didn’t expect pupils to memorise all of the dates listed. But if they had a good understanding of the historical narrative, and knew some of the most important dates (such as 1588 and 1688), then they would – we hoped – be able to piece together the correct answer.

Pupils gained half a mark per correct answer. As a test item, the chronology test tended towards bifurcation: in all, 46% scored 5 out of 5, but with another a large percentage clumped towards the bottom end. Next year, we need to do more to ensure a strong chronological understanding amongst all our pupils. Perhaps our pupils should memorise all 25 dates?

Section 2: Multiple choice quiz

This quizzing portion of the exam has been designed to assess the whole domain of the Year 8 curriculum, in a way that the essay question could not.

In Making Good Progress, Daisy recommends using multiple choice questions for formative assessment. Though a good idea in principle, I have found MCQs too time-consuming to create, and too cumbersome to mark, on an ongoing basis. However, for our summative end of year exam, the investment in creating and MCQs was time well spent.

Once pupils completed their exams, our department entered all of the pupil answers into a question-level analysis spreadsheet (see here), so that we could see which questions pupils struggled with, and which questions pupils breezed through. Daisy suggests this is useful for highlighting pupil misconceptions, which it was. But I did wonder whether the varying success rates for different questions was more dependent on the design of the question, rather than the quality of pupil understanding.

MCQ question level analysis

For example, this was the most challenging question for our pupils.

4. Which Catholic martyr did Henry VIII execute for refusing to give up his religion?
a. Thomas More
b. Thomas Wolsey
c. Thomas Cromwell
d. Thomas Cranmer
Success rate: 39%

The low success rate clearly has a lot to do with the proximity of the distractors: parents at the end of the fifteenth-century really liked the name ‘Thomas’.

Question 4 tested an item of declarative knowledge, but the next most challenging question for our Year 8 pupils probed their understanding on a more conceptual level, in the way that Christodoulou argues MCQs are well equipped to do.

20. How was the power of Georgian Kings further limited by ‘Parliamentary government’?
a. The king was not allowed to be a Catholic
b. The king could only choose ministers who had the support of Parliament
c. The king could not start wars without Parliament’s permission
d. Parliament had the power to appoint and dismiss the king
Success rate: 44%

The question hinged on the word ‘further’, and required pupils to discriminate between the outcomes of the Glorious Revolution in 1688, and the outcomes of the development of Parliamentary Government under George I. At the other end of the scale, the question pupils found easiest did surprise me.

17. What title was Oliver Cromwell given to rule England in 1653?
a. Lord Protector
b. King
c. Prime Minister
d. Lord Chancellor
Success rate: 98%

I thought I was on to something, as many pupils had written about Cromwell as ‘King’ during the year. But by the time of the exam, not a single pupil chose that distractor. Three did choose ‘Lord Chancellor’. Again, the question with the second highest success rate was not one I thought particularly easy when writing it:

18. What did the Bill of Rights do?
a. secured the legal rights of Parliament and limited the monarch’s power
b. banned the monarchy, and establishing England as a Commonwealth
c. gave equal political rights to all people in England
d. united England and Scotland into a single Kingdom
Success rate: 94%

But, our analysis shows this question was simply too easy, and the distractors too dissimilar. Perhaps the most helpful outcome of this question level analysis has been to hone in on which questions worked well, and which did not – allowing us to refine the writing of the MCQs in years to come.

Section 3: Essay

Lastly, we set a mini-essay, with clear instructions that pupils were to write three paragraphs: two sides of an argument and a conclusion. With around half an hour to complete the essay, this seemed like a reasonable demand.

Throughout the year, our Year 8 pupils wrote five essays. They were on Henry VIII and the Reformation; The Age of Encounters; the Later Tudors; the English Civil War; and the late Stuarts/early Georgians. We chose two essays questions from these five units, based on the same enquiry as the earlier essay question. We were not interested in tripping up pupils with fiendishly difficult questions. Rather, we wanted straightforward essay questions that gave pupils the best chance of marshalling their knowledge to support a reasoned historical argument. The two questions pupils had the choice of answering were:

  1. ‘The invention of the Printing Press was the most important event that took place in Early Modern Europe.’ To what extent do you agree with this statement?
  2. ‘Charles I only had himself to blame for his execution in 1649’. To what extent do you agree with this statement?

To mark the essays, individual teachers grouped them according to whether they were A* to E in quality. We then met as a department, saw how consistent the judgements were, made some adjustments, and assigned a numerical mark out of 25 to each script. It was a low tech version of comparative judgement, which seemed to work pretty well.

The correlation between pupil outcomes in the multiple choice questions, with pupil outcomes in the essay, was 0.7. Most helpfully, this highlights for our department those pupils who understanding what we study, but still struggle with written work.


Next year, we will use a selection of this year’s essays as exemplification material for each grade band, replacing the need for a mark scheme.

So that you can see how WLFS pupils are getting on with a knowledge-based curriculum, here are the Year 8 exemplification essays we will use. Each grade band contains three exemplar essays. Having been written under timed conditions, during exam week, on an unknown question, the quality of did take a dip compared with the essays pupils have written throughout the year. However, I was still pleased with the way in which pupils were able to organise their knowledge into convincing historical arguments.

There is still much to work on (particularly on the explicit teaching of different lines of argument – more to follow), but I am happy that our KS3 curriculum is now equipping pupils with a deep well of powerful knowledge to inform their historical thinking.

A star-grade exemplars

A-grade exemplars

B-grade exemplars

C-grade exemplars