Questions for subject leaders and teams
Subject leaders and subject teams are already working hard on planning for September – for what they will teach, in what order and in what way – in order to meet the challenges of a return to full-time school.
It will not be possible just to switch the curriculum back on. Most pupils will be returning after an extended break from regular teaching and learning, and will have made very different rates of progress during this time. Some may have made little, and some may not have retained all of what they learned before. Planning within subjects will need to take all of this into account.
However, this should not mean that the curriculum narrows, or becomes backward-looking, but that it becomes more agile and more responsive. The government’s guidance for full opening (2nd July) itself demands:
“Teach an ambitious and broad curriculum in all subjects from the start of the autumn term, but make use of existing flexibilities to create time to cover the most important missed content.”
And schools will want to keep this “missed content” in proportion. John Hattie (2020) points out that after the 2011 Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand, a prolonged closure of schools had minimal impact on pupil attainment. He warns against focusing instruction on assumed “gaps” rather than on what pupils actually need.*1
The following are some possible considerations for subject leaders and subject teams, which may be helpful as they plan for the resumption of the curriculum in their particular domain. Because they are generic questions, they will apply in different ways, and possibly not at all, to different subjects. However, I hope they might help to drive the sort of expert, domain-centred conversation out of which strong subject planning emerges, and which will now be more important than ever.
Any comments, suggestions and counter-suggestions very welcome, as always.
Are teachers, pupils and parents being given positive messages about the curriculum?
As the curriculum resumes, it will of course be important that we don’t project anxiety onto pupils, and that there is a spirit in schools and classrooms of confidence and eagerness, rather than of crisis.
There has been a lot of unhelpful, doom-laden language in the national discourse, referring to ‘lost generations’, to ‘damaged’ and even ‘scarred’ cohorts of children, and to educational ‘catastrophe’. Not only does this massively exaggerate the effect of home learning on children’s education, but it also risks creating a sense of fatalism and helplessness.
Even some of the language being used in schools has become all about deficit. If we talk about ‘lost learning’, ‘gaps’ and the ‘need to catch-up’ then we risk these things becoming self-fulfilling.
Many schools, therefore, are trying to use positive language around the resuming of the curriculum: ‘keeping up’, ‘stepping up’, ‘moving forwards’, ‘building on’, ‘re-establishing’, ‘securing’, ‘consolidating’, ‘opportunities to revisit’, ‘onward’, and so on.
Some schools are using the language of ‘reconnection’ when discussing the curriculum*1. This reflects the importance of reconnecting pupils with knowledge, but also with school and with classroom learning.
What principles will underlie the resumed curriculum?
However subject leaders or teams plan to resume the curriculum and to begin to address the needs of pupils, it seems important that it is driven not by a sense of emergency, or by resigned pragmatism, but by the principles which they hold as subject experts and which underlie the discipline. What version of the subject does the department or team teach and what values underlie it? What sort of knowledge do they want pupils to be acquiring, and how? What relationship with that knowledge do they want pupils to be developing? What makes curriculum in this subject coherent and meaningfully organised? And what makes the subject here, in this school, distinctive?
How can these principles be reasserted in the team’s planning? How can they be revisited with pupils, as they reconnect with the subject? And how can they remain strong if there are pressures to adapt, narrow or prune the curriculum post-Covid?
What will pupils actually have missed?
However positively schools are framing the resumed curriculum, planning will still need to take account of what hasn’t been taught during the pandemic.
Some pupils will have thrived on home learning, and many will have made excellent progress. However, we cannot expect pupils generally to have learned as much as they would have done in school, even when they have worked their hardest.
To an extent, this is a function of practicalities. Some activity can’t be replicated at home – the practical aspects of science, or the exploratory conversation which drives so much learning in English, for example. This will be a starting question for subject teams when planning for a resumed curriculum: what hasn’t been covered?
But even where content has been taught – either through the setting of independent work, or through live or recorded instruction – this may not have been embedded as well as in the classroom, where the teacher’s modelling, explanation, questioning and feedback is live, properly responsive and always more subtle.
So another question for subject teams will be: which learning may be less secure, even though it has been ‘covered’?
In what ways might some pupils now be further ‘behind’ than others?
As well as analysing general areas of learning which will need strengthening, subject planning will need to be very aware of likely differences in individual progress.
There has been a lot of discussion around the impact of a period of home learning on the existing ‘attainment gap’ between more advantaged and more disadvantaged pupils. However, it will be important not to make any assumptions about which individual pupils will need most support or will have made least progress.
Perhaps the most significant ‘gap’ will be simply between those who have been more engaged with home learning and those who have been less engaged. Of course, there will be a gradient of engagement – few will have disengaged completely. But this will probably be the main determining factor in how far ‘behind’ individual pupils have become. (See ‘How might we address the ‘engagement gap?’ below.)
However, there are a number of other reasons why individuals may have fallen further behind, even when they have engaged positively with home learning.
Some of the differences are relatively straightforward:
- Pupils will have more or less natural or learned ability to concentrate for periods of time.
- They may have more or less confidence or resilience when things are hard.
- Many will have been hampered by a lack of equipment or other resources.
- And some will have had no or little active teaching and support from parents.
Other reasons are more complex:
- One is the level of pupils’ study skills – how proficient they are at making the best use of their own time and energy. Do they know how to memorise content efficiently? Do they know how to pace their work, in order to maintain focus? Are they good at using reference sources?
- Another is the particular extent of their dependence on the scaffolding, prompting and ongoing feedback which is available to them in the classroom but not at home. This, in turn, may relate to a variety of factors; it may be to do with the efficiency of a pupil’s working memory, or with how secure their prior learning is on a particular topic, or with the embeddedness of particular threshold concepts.
- And another is their level of literacy – how independent they are as readers and writers. Slower or less confident readers will miss the support they might normally have in the classroom, and many pupils will miss the constant glossing of vocabulary that happens in classrooms, for example.
How will pupils’ new, individual ‘baselines’ be assessed?
Teachers will already have a fairly good idea of how individual pupils have fared with home learning, and how well they have assimilated knowledge, from their engagement with work and with any virtual teaching. However, there will need to be a period of careful, in-school assessment to drive ongoing curriculum planning.
Summative testing will be of limited value: mocks or exam-style assessments (in search of levels or grades) will only sample pupils’ learning, and won’t reveal in detail what they know and can do in relation to what has been taught.
Instead, assessment will need to be more forensic and more subtly diagnostic. This might include the testing of core knowledge with low-stakes retrieval activities, focusing on likely misconceptions, and on key or threshold concepts. But it will also be through talking to pupils, and by observing how they cope with and respond to ongoing teaching. The work which pupils do upon returning to school will need to be designed to build, as quickly as possible, a picture of each pupils’ immediate needs.
Interestingly the government guidance explicitly recommends “avoiding the introduction of unnecessary tracking systems” (Section 3). Attempting to map pupils’ knowledge with checklists or with grids of summative statements is unlikely to be helpful.
How quickly should new conceptual material be introduced?
The design of the resumed curriculum is likely to allow for an element of revision and consolidation, to re-secure prior learning and to establish a firm base from which to move forwards. The government guidance notes:
“Substantial modification to the curriculum may be needed at the start of the year, so as to prioritise teaching time to address significant gaps in pupils’ knowledge and aim to return to the full planning curriculum by summer term 2021.” (Section 3)
However, this shouldn’t mean that new learning stops. In most cases, subject teams are likely to opt for a model which interleaves the teaching of new material with the spaced revisiting of previous learning. In planning for this, subject teams will need to consider how much they are loading on pupils cognitively. How new material is introduced might well vary according to teaching group or to area of study.
Below are some possible models for designing a unit of work, having thought carefully about what prior knowledge may need revisiting in order for this new learning to be successful.
How will the resumption of learning be made exciting and challenging, even where old ground is being re-covered?
Even when there is consolidation and revision before moving forwards, it is important that pupils are still given a sense of forward momentum from the outset. We need to avoid signalling to pupils that they are just duplicating previous efforts, or that they are not learning anything new.
Also, while curriculum coverage may have slowed during lockdown, children and young people will have continued to mature. In fact, the current crisis may have accelerated this, bringing new perspectives and a wiser view of the world. The content of lessons needs to acknowledge this, even if prior learning needs to be revisited or even begun again.
So, if previously-taught material needs to be revised, how can this be done as deftly as possible, employing low-stakes quizzing, playful recall activities, discussion and debate? And if already-covered concepts need to be revised, can this be within new contexts and in relation to new examples?
Some subjects, such as English, are at an advantage here, in that they are highly recursive anyway. But there is an element of spiralling in all subjects, as pupils continually apply knowledge, concepts, techniques and skills to new content. In this sense, all teachers are skilled at simultaneously referring backwards, revisiting and re-consolidating, while also challenging, striving for depth and extending pupils’ thinking.
How might we address the ‘engagement gap’?
Perhaps the most significant ‘gap’ will simply be between those who have been more engaged with home learning and those who have been less engaged. Of course, there will be a gradient of engagement – few will have disengaged completely. But this will probably be the main determining factor in how far ‘behind’ individual pupils have become.
When planning for any interventions, tutoring and mentoring to help pupils to close this gap when back in school, it will be important to remember that there is a range of reasons why particular individuals may have been disengaged from online or distance learning.
- Apathy or malaise
- Low levels of self-organisation and self-discipline
- Parental absence or detachment
- Demotivation through lack of contact
- Lack of technology
- Chaotic home life
- Competing economic or cultural pressure to work
- Competing social or peer pressures
- Competing leisure activities (e.g. gaming)
- Mental health issues
- Family crisis or bereavement
- Literacy or language barriers
It will also be important to remember that pupils who have not engaged with home learning are not necessarily those who disengage when at school, or who are lower attaining generally. When planning support for pupils’ learning in the autumn, it may be helpful to think in terms of the following quadrant.
What might the National Tutoring Programme offer?
Subject teams will need to be alert to the opportunities offered by the National Tutoring Programme, and by whatever approach the school takes to working with it. The programme is, of course, explicitly for ‘disadvantaged’ pupils.
How will pupils be best prepared for exams in 2021?
Ofqual are consulting on how best to adapt the 2021 exams, following Covid-19. Until there is further guidance from Ofqual, subject teams will need to consider how to focus learning in new Year 11 and Year 13 classes.
They may well decide to concentrate initially on identified core concepts, that are foundational to other learning within the subject. However, whatever form external assessment takes in 2021, subject teams will want to be cautious about adopting a ‘cramming’ approach to content, which may bypass the building of deeper disciplinary understandings.
How might pupils’ knowledge of the pandemic be integrated into subject learning?
For older pupils especially, this period will have had a profound effect on their awareness of the world. They may have become much more aware of current affairs and news. They will have started to follow and to learn the language of at least some of the public discourse around the virus – political, medical, emotional, social, economic. And they may have gained a new sense of their personal relation to world events.
Subject teams may feel a responsibility to find ways in which pupils can process this knowledge within the curriculum. They may also look for the opportunities it presents, in terms of hooks for learning, texts and contexts for teaching, and a new and important lens for looking at the world.
How might learning in core subjects be supported across the curriculum?
Schools have welcomed the DfE’s guidance that subjects should only be dropped by individual pupils in exceptional circumstances, and that the Key Stage 3 curriculum should be “ambitious and broad”. However, the guidance does go on to note that “schools may consider how all subjects can contribute to the filling of gaps in core knowledge, for example through an emphasis on reading.” Subject leaders may want to be able to articulate how they are already doing this, if only to protect their own subject’s position.
Where there is already strong integration of explicit maths teaching into other subjects, including science and design and technology, then this will not be asking subjects to do more than is already good, disciplinary practice. However, all subjects might think how they can more consciously promote pupils’ spatial thinking, mathematical reasoning and numerical processing.
Where there is a well thought-through, whole-school approach to literacy, there will already be attention to reading and writing in subjects other than English, but it will – quite rightly – be indistinguishable from strong, disciplinary practice. And English teams know that much of their pupils’ success already relies on the breadth and richness of their learning across the whole curriculum.
However, during a sustained period of home learning, the gap between those who are most and least secure in the so-called ‘basics’ of literacy will have widened. We may see a deterioration in some pupils’ standards of spelling, punctuation, handwriting and presentation. And many pupils will at least feel less confident in their ability to pick up a challenging text and read, or to pick up a pen and write at length. This may need acknowledging and addressing in subject learning, to avoid widening the confidence gap, or building in errors and poor habits.
Subject teaching might productively:
- allow more time than usual for reading, especially of more challenging texts;
- involve more reading aloud of texts to pupils, with more time than usual spent on unpicking meanings and emphases;
- put extra emphasis on the proofreading and editing of written work;
- break written work down more than usual, and model clear, precise expression at sentence-level;
- provide more scaffolding than usual for written work, including model texts, sentence stems, paragraph plans and helpful vocabulary.
How might curriculum planning need to reflect changes in pedagogy?
The layout of furniture and the restriction of teacher and pupil positioning and movement within spaces will have implications for curriculum planning. Subject teams will need to consider carefully how to adapt to the challenges around practical work, collaborative work and anything requiring movement around the room.
This may mean re-sequencing elements of the curriculum, so that – for example – practical work is delayed until a later time, when restrictions might be eased. It may mean altering planning for units of work, to make physical and tactile elements more virtual or more theoretical.
How will subject teams plan for ongoing blended learning?
As the DfE guidance stresses, there will be a need for ongoing provision of “remote learning” which “is high quality and aligns as closely as possible with in-school provision.” (Section 3) This will be required for pupils who are isolating or unwell. Given the possibility of further local (or even national) lockdowns, schools may well also be a contingency for all pupils.
At subject level, this may mean planning each unit or area of learning with an eye on how it could translate into virtual or remote practice, if necessary. For example, it might mean preparing booklets or text-based resources which could be used by pupils at home as well as at school. It might even mean having procedures and infrastructure in place for recording lessons, or for allowing simultaneous online access to classroom teaching.
Will curriculum planning need to acknowledge the possibility of some non-specialist teaching?
These same preparations may also make non-specialist teaching easier. Ongoing staffing uncertainty means that non-specialist teaching may be a possibility, and subject curriculum planning may have to be ready for this.
How can as much specialist, subject expertise as possible be captured and held within shareable resources and materials? How can written plans be as accessible and intelligible as possible to non-specialists?
Will subject teams need to make adjustments to their usual Year 7 curriculum?
It will be important not to assume that the new Year 7s will be less well prepared academically for secondary school than usual. Most will have been in school since May Half Term, without the usual interruptions of conventional end of term events and activities, and much of what they have missed will have been test preparation rather than new curriculum.
In fact, primary schools have reported Year 6s displaying more maturity than usual, as they return to school from lockdown. It will probably be wise to keep curriculum plans just as challenging and ambitious as normal, while remaining alert to any unanticipated needs.
What threshold concepts do pupils need to secure?
Because threshold concepts*4 unlock further learning, make sense of particular content and tie together disparate ideas within a domain, they can be a useful way in to thinking about what the curriculum will need to revisit or to secure before it can move forwards – what foundations need securing or mending before more is built on top.
And because threshold concepts can form the core of a spiral curriculum, they can be a useful way in to thinking about how to move forwards. The question may be not ‘What are the next chunks of content to be covered?’ but ‘What central disciplinary concepts shall we visit, and what content can we use to do so?’
Considering which particular threshold concepts pupils have been missed, or which could well be less secure, may therefore be much more productive than identifying which chunks of content haven’t been covered. And it will be essential in planning when and how it will be possible to move forwards with new conceptual material. (See ‘How quickly will new conceptual material be introduced?’ above.)
What words have pupils missed?
All pupils’ general vocabulary will have continued to grow over the last few months, through talk, play, gaming, reading and watching TV and films, and many will have been engaged in challenging talk and conversation. However, some will have been in less rich language environments, and those not in school will not have benefitted from the planned instruction or immersion in vocabulary which the curriculum offers.
A useful thought-experiment for subject teams might be to consider which words pupils may have ‘missed’, and which may need to be woven purposefully into the resumed curriculum.
Most obviously, this will include technical, tier-3 vocabulary*3 – subject-specific terminology, which may not have been taught or consolidated. But there is a wealth of less subject-specific language which also may be less well-embedded, because pupils have not been immersed in it in the classroom. This is the so-called tier 2 vocabulary, which can be essential to academic success, but which doesn’t always feature in subject planning. How can this language consciously be injected into planning for the resumed curriculum?
For example, a ‘missed’ history unit might have included tier 3 words such as ‘totalitarianism’, ‘autocracy’ and ‘fascism’, amongst others. But it may also have relied on pupils being fluent with a range of less subject-specific tier 2 words, such as ‘characterised’, ‘potentially’ or ‘encompassing’.
How can we make up for missed talk?
One component that will have been mostly missing from home learning will be classroom talk and dialogue. Subject teams will want to assess the likely impact of this on learning in their subject. They may want to ensure that lessons and learning back in school are planned to be as rich as possible in talk, in conversational turn-taking and in thinking aloud, driven by strong, teacher-led questioning. In planning, there might need to be a conscious avoidance of a rush to write, at the possible expense of essential oral expression.
*1 Hattie, J. (2020). Visible learning effect sizes when schools are closed: What matters and what does not.
*2 Thanks to Kath Jordan at Nidderdale High School, and to Kate Owbridge (@kateowbridge) at Ashdown Primary School in East Sussex, where they are planning a ‘curriculum for reconnection’.
*3 Beck et al (2002)
*4 Threshold concepts
The term ’threshold concept’ is well established, but seems important enough to this post to warrant glossing.
Coined by Jan Meyer, it refers to the key ideas that are needed to make progress in a subject. “A threshold concept can be considered as akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress.” (Jan Meyer & Ray Land, ‘Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising within the Disciplines‘)
Among other things, Meyer and Land write about threshold concepts as being:
- Transformative. They change the way pupils think about a subject. They can be initially hard to grasp, but things become easier when they have been understood.
- Irreversible. They are difficult to unlearn, because they become part of how pupils think.
- Integrative. They help to bring different ideas together to make sense, and may reveal connections between different aspects of a subject.
- Discursive: understanding the concept leads to the development of new language
In geography, an example might be that the globe is a three dimensional sphere, not a two-dimensional surface. Without properly grasping this, children can’t make sense of maps, navigation, travel, politics, trade and how land masses are formed. (Thanks to @EnserMark for this example.)
In English, an example might be myth. Once a pupil has grasped that ‘myths’ are not very old tales, but are the ways that cultures tell stories about and try to explain themselves, then this unlocks so much about the workings of literature, film and the media.
In history, children need to understand the concepts of change and continuity, of causality and of civilization; in science, they need to grasp the idea of energy, of hypothesis and of evolution; and in design, they need to understand what developing an idea means.
Of course, in a spiral curriculum, pupils visit and revisit these concepts again and again, adding layers of understanding each time. And that layering is important – for grasping relevance, for securing understanding and for accruing connected vocabulary, and for building strong schemata.
There is no set list of threshold concepts in each subject. There are some obvious big ones, but there are lots of others that will be needed depending on the content of a school’s curriculum, and which may well be mapped out in some form.