The knowledge-rich curriculum fad

Is it all a load of nonsense?

We all know education has its fads. The worst one I ever endured was Building Learning Power. At the end of each lesson, and ideally throughout, we were required to discuss which ‘learning muscles’ students had used. Resources were consumed training teachers and students. There was a diagram of a brain that had been split into sections titled ‘resilience’, ‘resourcefulness’, ‘reflectiveness’ and ‘reciprocity’ - the supposed learning muscles. None of this seemed to be based upon solid research evidence and the whole exercise struck me as pointless. I was glad to move on.

When examples of such fads accumulate, it is tempting to conclude that all educational initiative are fads. The cynical and nihilistic maintain that improvement is an illusion. It is unrefined to be eager and naïve. Instead, the cool kids light a Gauloises, grab a strong espresso and raise one eyebrow as the parade passes by.

Lately, it is the concept of curriculum that has drawn cynicism. Matthew Evans, a UK headteacher and co-author of The Next Big Thing, suggests that school leaders are constantly on the lookout for a big red button to push and curriculum is the current favourite. Curriculum offers us a solution to a problem we never knew we had - the problem of supposedly ‘powerful’ knowledge. If curriculum has a positive, it is to soothe the memories of the previous big thing that failed.

I don’t buy this. Not at all. However, before explaining why, it is important to acknowledge that bad things are being done in the name of curriculum.

If you are endlessly ripping-up units of work and rewriting them from scratch, then you are probably doing it wrong. Once you have decided on the content you want to teach then curriculum should be an iterative process. One reason for moving away from a poorly defined curriculum is to prevent the busywork of everyone reinventing the wheel and Googling worksheets at 2 AM. If you replace one form of busywork with another, that’s a missed opportunity.

And pseudo-philosophical navel-gazing about the intent of the curriculum is also a waste of time. If you can purchase a curriculum that does what you want, and you understand the logic behind it, so that when you inevitably adapt it over time, you do not undermine this logic, then that seems fine to me.

In my 24-year teaching career, I have worked in four schools. In three of those schools, contrary to the nihilist narrative, I have been involved in processes that have made meaningful improvements. Objective measures have shifted and less tangible aspects of culture and atmosphere have subjectively improved. I cannot prove cause-and-effect to the extent needed for a research paper, but I would attribute these improvements to four broad agendas - the adoption of a whole-school behaviour policy, a focus on teaching explicitly, adopting principles of formative assessment*, and a focus on developing a clearly defined, knowledge-rich curriculum.

Formative assessment, under its 2000s UK managerial mutation into ‘Assessment for Learning’, received a lot of valid criticism, but the basic idea of testing what students have learnt at different time-scales and then responding to that, is worthwhile and still underpins a lot of what I do today. A few years ago, it became popular on Twitter to suggest that a focus on teaching methods, such as explicit teaching, was misguided and curriculum was far more important, as if the two are independent of each other (I discuss this more here). Now, it is the turn of curriculum to be criticised.

These arguments risk disposing of the valuable aspects of these initiatives before they have had a chance to embed, undergo iterations and start to improve anything.

The logic of a knowledge-rich curriculum is, in my view, compelling. Knowledge is what we think with. Building robust schemas in long-term memory improves our ability to think and, not least, our ability to comprehend new sources of information. Many of the skills that we pursue when we don’t focus on knowledge are poorly defined and dubious. In contrast, we have agency over teaching knowledge. If you want to build critical thinking capacity, build knowledge. As cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham suggests, memory is the residue of thought. When we plan a curriculum, we plan what we want students to think about and so we plan what residues we want to leave.

And there are additional advantages to having a well-defined curriculum. Apart from the efficiency of not requiring everyone to reinvent the wheel, you also have an object for review and improvement. Curriculum necessarily exists, whether well-defined, knowledge-rich or otherwise. But a defined curriculum acts as a ratchet rather than a wheel. Next year, you can start from where you left off this year. If aspects of the curriculum were less effective, you know what they were and you can improve them. In my experience, these improvements are small, often tiny, but they add up over time. However, you cannot make a small change to a worksheet sitting on the laptop of a teacher who left six months ago, just like you cannot make an iterative improvement to a unit of work you have trashed and replaced.

There is plenty to debate about the curriculum. To aid reading comprehension, we may conclude that students need shallow knowledge of a wide range of topics. To develop critical thinking, we may pursue a deeper understanding of a smaller field. And none of this can easily be resolved by appeals to research because research often runs on short timescales, whereas curriculum has a cumulative effect over long periods of time. We are beginning to see research showing positive effects of knowledge-building on reading comprehension (e.g. here and here) but, at present, the case is more a logical extension of other findings. If we wait for curriculum to pass and the next big thing to emerge, we risk never grappling with these complexities and we risk them remaining unresolved until the next time curriculum comes back into focus.

What we teach, how we teach and the learning environments in which we teach are constants. We should pay attention to all of them all of the time. Teachers and schools waiting for the fashion for curriculum to pass is like doctors waiting for the fashion for treatment to pass. Instead, the question should be about what should be in the curriculum and what should not.

For me, that means learning muscles are out and disciplinary content knowledge is in. I will continue to focus on curriculum, just as I will continue to see the value in discussing approaches to behaviour management, teaching methods and assessment. These are always with us. Ignore any one of them and yes, it will pass you by, but not in a good way.

*In my view, formative assessment overlaps with explicit teaching. Explicit teaching is highly interactive and formative assessment principles should guide this interactivity.