Coherence in the curriculum
I recently had the pleasure of attending a summit on textbooks. I know, not the most glamorous of topics but actually incredibly important and the day got me thinking about lots of things, not just about textbooks but about the concept of coherence.
Over the past two years there has been a huge amount of talk around curriculum, almost to the extent that you could be fooled into believing that curriculums didn’t exist prior to 2016. The majority of schools in this country do and did have science curriculums, which outline, often in some detail, what students should learn. This could be a published resource or the accumulation of a department’s hard work in creating lessons and medium-term plans. Much of this work is excellent and provides rich and detailed information on how to teach specific topics.
However, this is not the problem we are trying to solve in education. We know it’s fairly (!) easy to teach a lesson/topic and for students to learn the key ideas. What is much more difficult is getting children to retain ideas, develop upon them and construct a deep understanding of the wider concept and subject. The problem is made difficult because of coherence, or lack of.
When you think about how we learn new ideas, we generally are relating these to what we already know. Learning is therefore an elaboration of what has come before and so we must be explicit at organising and structuring the curriculum so that knowledge is developed upon and not simply added in. In this way we want to create a coherent curriculum. So, how can we achieve this?
Coherence between different Years and phases
A curriculum must be coherent across all phases of education so that learning builds on what students already know with no unnecessary repetition of ideas. This is where many curriculums fall short if they are written for discrete phases i.e. primary, Key Stage 3 or Key Stage 4. Whilst GCSE specifications and programmes of study go some way to help structure this coherence, they typically don’t specify enough detail, at each age, to be useful. Take this example below from the science programmes of study:
- Yr1: identify and describe the basic structure of a variety of common flowering plants, including trees
- Yr2: identify and name a variety of plants and animals in their habitats, including microhabitats
Because we haven’t defined the names of common flowering plants in Year 1, it’s hard to ensure coherence with what is being learnt when we teach plants in Year 2.
Coherence between lessons and units – terminology and connections
Just as we need coherence between Year groups, we also need coherence between lessons and units. What students learn in lesson two of the cells unit (cell structure) should directly build upon the learning from lesson one (cells, tissues, organs, living and non-living). This could involve revisiting lesson one ideas through a short quiz/ do now, or we could ask students to use lesson one knowledge in the context of lesson two; for example, are organelles living or non-living? In a similar way, we want ideas developed in Year 7 to directly link to ideas developed in Year 8 and beyond to create an overall sense of the subject itself.
Coherence between subjects – how and what is taught
And then we need to ensure that there is coherence between what is taught in science and what is taught in other subjects and how this is taught. For example, as science teachers we shouldn’t be using triangles to artificially support students to rearrange equations. We should be teaching them to use units to understand rearrangements as they do in maths. When science teachers and maths teachers teach the same concept in different ways, students see one concept as two concepts and so coherence, and the opportunity to understand the same concept, is lost.
Coherence between resources – consistency of terminology
We also need coherence between resources used to teach and assess the curriculum. How often do we find the textbook definition for diffusion to be different to the PowerPoint, to the assessment, to the specification and to the scheme of learning?
- Diffusion is the spreading out of the particles of any substance in solution, or particles of a gas, resulting in a net movement from an area of higher concentration to an area of lower concentration (AQA GCSE specification)
- Diffusion is the movement of particles down a concentration gradient (PowerPoint)
- Diffusion is the mixing up of particles – it’s why we can smell fish and chips from across the road (teacher guide)
Teacher guides, textbooks, assessments and lesson resources must all work together in a coherent way to ensure consistency of terminology, whilst allowing for progression over time; this requires significant investment (time and money) in the production of resources and necessitates the need for MATs, publishers and others to work together. Good textbooks can provide a powerful role here in helping to organise all this knowledge, presenting it in a coherent way that reflects the formal structure of the subject being learnt. Beware of digital resources – useful for the expert to find information but sometimes challenging for the student who needs to appreciate the overall structure of the subject first.
Coherence between classrooms
And finally, we need to ensure that there is coherence between teachers. If Jamie is taught Chemistry by Miss Smith in Year 7, then Mr Brown in Year 8 should have a clear idea of what Jamie has learnt – it’s not for individual teachers to choose what knowledge students are taught – not because they can’t but because they shouldn’t – if they do, they risk breaking the coherence that the curriculum is working so hard to create. This doesn’t mean that all teachers need to teach in the same way, or indeed teach exactly the same content. Rather, what’s important is that the curriculum provides sufficient detail about what pupils are learning. This enables two teachers teaching adjacent years to connect the curriculum to form an overall narrative.
So, the primary goal of any curriculum is to create coherence. Coherence provides teachers with a map to understand how what they are teaching now, relates to what has come before and what will lie ahead. In this way, coherence enables progression of the same idea to take place and avoids unnecessary repetition. One purpose of a curriculum is to mitigate individual teachers from distorting and fracturing models of progression that have been planned for. In some ways, then, the role of the curriculum is to constrain what individual teachers can do. But, far more importantly, the curriculum serves to empower teachers so that they can work in a framework that develops a coherent and consistent journey throughout school for any individual student and subject.