On the Whole: Big Picture Curriculum

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

What do you call a poetry writing PE teacher?

What do you call a textiles teacher that runs triathlons?

Ok, these aren’t the set-ups for jokes (but feel free to think of your own punchlines!). These are just examples of some interesting teachers at my current school. Teachers that model what we want for our students: they live life fully because they have the confidence and ‘cultural capital’ to do so. Their lives are richer for their interests beyond their subject specialisms.

If these are the kinds of lives we want for our pupils, how does a school curriculum ensure it?

Just like these teachers, our pupils are not confined to subject specialisms either. They literally cross the boundaries: when pupils walk from the Maths corridor to their Science Lab, they bring their knowledge of equations with them; when a pupil leaves a history lesson about the Poor Law and picks up a copy of Oliver Twist in English, there are connections to make. The question is, does our whole school curriculum allow for this? Is it deliberate or left to chance? Is the sequence of learning across subjects accidental or planned? When a teacher launches into another ‘retrieval quiz’ to start a lesson, they may be overlooking that another form of retrieval is probably taking place too, connections made to learning in other classrooms with other teachers. A pupil’s ‘schema’ (as cognitive scientists put it) extends beyond the knowledge of a given subject. All of which begs the question: are teachers fully aware of the potential connections and prior knowledge gained from the other subjects in the school? Recently, I have started to think this is the most underappreciated aspect of whole school curriculum leadership.

As the ripple effect of the new Ofsted Framework continues to grow, it is worth taking stock of what whole school leaders might do to really support the curriculum. Providing the conditions that nurture the growth of great subject specialists is arguably the most important role school leaders have to play, something Michael Fordham makes the case for brilliantly in his recent blog ‘The Importance of Subject Leadership’. The other important, less talked about role is to help join the dots and see the big picture: the curriculum in its entirety, with all the connections between subjects as lived and experienced by our pupils. It is right and proper that subject leaders are the experts that shape their own curriculum, but senior school leaders have a role to play in uncovering where these curriculums might better work together.

It’s not just a question of which prior knowledge from one subject is relevant to another. I think other questions are ripe for exploration too. Which aspects of a pupils’ spiritual, moral, social or cultural education are being developed, when and where? Which subjects are supported by which enrichment opportunities? Does the whole curriculum support the progress of pupils’ literacy and numeracy? If pupils are being developed as readers and writers, to what extent is there a coherent understanding of each other’s approaches across departments? Are pupils getting conflicting essay writing advice for example? Do they PEEL in one subject, PETERC in another, and never actually grasp what an essay actually is, the form and features of discursive writing and the common principles of academic writing across subject disciplines? And what about classroom talk? Are there similar opportunities for developing Oracy? Can we step back and see where pupils discuss and debate in our curriculum, and are our expectations of talk working together or in conflict? If we see ‘personal development’ as part of the whole curriculum, we should ask similar questions about behaviour and classroom routines too.

In short: how well do we know what is happening in the classrooms beyond our own? What is it we don’t know and what is the impact? This for me is one of the most effective purposes of a learning walk for senior leaders, to find the threads and see what busy teachers can’t. That is more meaningful than employing the sort of ‘learning-walker-joy’ sheet so pithily described by Sarah Barker in a recent post.

Department Echo Chambers

No subject curriculum exists in a vacuum. Which means secondary school departments should not become echo chambers.

My current school is the smallest I have taught in. Here, most of our heads of departments and a range of many different subject teachers eat lunch together on a daily basis in the staffroom. This was a suprise to me when I joined the school years ago because my previous school was much larger and I was accustomed to camping out with my tribe of English specialists, talking about books and theatre and writing, all in our own corner of a much bigger building. Whilst this developed our subject knowledge and fueled our planning, I’m not sure we thought much at all about the lessons taught beyond our corridor.

Looking back further, I realise now that before I entered the profession, I had not realised how much the identity of a secondary school teacher was synonymous with their subject. Of course, I am proud to fly the English teacher flag (#TeamEnglish!) but there are times when I want to be seen as the person I felt I was at University. My experience of studying an English and Film degree was seeing the boundaries between subjects come down. The reading list for my degree had overlapped with the students of history, philosophy, art history and theatre studies. All of which brings me back to those colleagues in our schools who demonstrate more than their love of their subject, the science teacher that coaches the football team, the maths teacher that plays trumpet in the school orchestra – these are all colleagues I have known.

Clearly, as human beings and not just teachers, we have a love of learning and a thirst for knowledge and experience beyond the narrow boxes of our specialisms. So how is it that we sometimes miss the details of the wider school curriculum being taught beyond our own classrooms. As ever, the answer is the lack of time and the structure of our busy school days.

What can school leaders do to help remove the tunnel vision?

I think creating time and space for curriculum conversations between senior and middle leaders is invaluable. I share the nervousness of others about schools who have adopted ‘deep dives’ in order to simply ‘inspect’ the subject curriculum, mocksted style, but having professional dialogue and learning as much as we can about each subject from each subject specialist leader, surely that is worthwhile? Especially if it helps piece together a fuller picture of the whole curriculum. Looking at pupils’ work and hearing the story of the curriculum from the specialists who planned it is a highlight of my job. The most fascinating aspect is that I am starting to see the whole picture and the school curriculum its entirety.

My mind is now full of questions, and these questions have a similar theme:

What does every English teacher need to know about the Art curriculum?
What does every Art teacher need to know about the History curriculum?
What does every History teacher need to know about the RE curriculum?
What does every RE teacher need to know about the PSHE curriculum?
What does every PSHE teacher need to know about the Geography curriculum?
What does every Geography teacher need to know about the Science curriculum?
What does every Science teacher need to know about the Maths curriculum?
What does every Maths teacher need to know about the Computing curriculum?

And so on…  and so on…