Curriculum Planning – Finding a Path

14th September 2019

Curriculum Planning – Finding a Path
By Tim Taylor
This article was originally published in the NATD Journal for Drama Education

I think of the curriculum as a landscape, a place to be explored and charted. Some areas are open and welcoming, dappled with rolling hills, winding rivers, and clear, well-kept pathways. Others are dark and mysterious, overgrown, hidden, and rarely visited. There are parts that are methodically designed, tended regularly, divided up into straight symmetrical lines, like a garden created for a Renaissance stately home. While others are more chaotic, full of twisted forests, unexpected ruins, and dark cold caves that disappear under the ground.

During a child’s time in school there will not be enough time to visit every place, not enough time to really get to know every important monument or feature, not enough time to map every region. Some parts will inevitably go unexplored, unvisited, and unknown. It is the nature of the landscape; it is just too large for a complete understanding. What we have to do as teachers is to guide them to those places we feel will provide them with best understanding they can develop in the time they have.

Some of the pathways will be well-worn, trod by every visitor who comes, while others will be quieter and less visited. For me, it is important not to spend all my time with them in the places where everyone goes, the places that have been made safe and domesticated through time and use. I want to take them to the other places, the ones on the edge of the map, the places that require a long trek and a compass to find our way back. It is not that the tended gardens, with their sculptured hills, deliberately made ruins, and manmade lakes are of no interest – they have their role – it is just that they are not everything. The darker, more remote places, might be harder to get to (you can’t just roll up), but they offer something different, something more mysterious, more chaotic, more… dangerous.

Walking round the garden of a nice safe stately home is all well and good, but it’s not that exciting if you’re seven. Have you noticed how children of that age find the maze the most interesting part of the day or rolling down the grassy slopes? There’s a good reason for that, children crave excitement, they want to be on an adventure, they want to imagine taking risks and battling uncontrollable forces – storms, monsters, and pirates – it’s why their imagination goes there whenever it can.

Our challenge, as their teachers, is to design a curriculum that meets both the needs of their learning and, at the same time, the drives of their imagination. If we can find ways to combine the two, then we have a powerful vehicle for teaching – a combination of required components and standards, along with the strong incentive to travel and visit places.

This article is an outline of how to go about making such designs. It looks at the various elements involved: the challenges of meeting the requirements of the prescribed curriculum – coverage, progress, and depth; the different dimensions of knowledge, skills, and understanding; the progression of learning through the stages of acquisition, application, and development; and how curriculum learning can be planned and mapped in advance. It will also explore how these elements of the curriculum can be framed within contexts children find exciting, meaningful, and challenging. It is this territory, of learning and enjoyment that is my main focus. I will offer some guidance, some directions, and some thinking tools, and I will share some examples of curriculum planning, which I hope you will find useful and practical.

Early Years and Key Stage 1

Many of the kinds of things children find exciting involve danger, risk, and insurmountable odds, but not all. Some involve activities that are domestic, ordinary, and common-place, while others require methodical thinking and repetition. The key elements in all these types of activity are the application of agency and the involvement of the imagination. Children enjoy the opportunity to make decisions, to be the ones getting things done, the ones deciding how things will work out. They welcome challenge, and like things to be difficult (but not impossible).

When designing a curriculum it is worth bearing these things in mind. Especially with regard to Early Years and Key Stage 1 where the National Curriculum is less content heavy. Later on, in Key Stage 2 (with the introduction of specific areas of study in History) the scope becomes more constricted. But, more of that later.

It is a mistake to think young children can’t imagine things outside their scope of experience. The argument is self-evident: How many children before they start school, for example, have ever sat on a boat, climbed a mountain, or driven a car, let alone fought a monster, explored a cave, or seen a dinosaur? Yet children can grasp all these things (and many more) because of the faculty of their imagination. Our jobs, as their teachers, are not to limit the scope of their imagination but to widen it at every opportunity. Of course, we can’t give them direct experience of all these things, some are impossible, but we can allow them to have experience of them indirectly through stories, pictures, films, and drama.

This is how imagination works, allowing us to explore things outside our direct experience through words, images, and sounds. When a teacher asks her children to imagine they are a team of explorers parachuting onto a tropical island, she is using the words of her story to help them imagine that experience. None of them will have had it directly, in fact their teacher probably hasn’t either, but they can still imagine the air rushing past their face as they fall through the air, the landscape of the island growing nearer and nearer, the sudden tug of the parachute as they pull on the cord, the slow decent and the jolt as they land on the beach. This is what stories do; they take us out of our current experience and widen our horizons.

With that in mind, here is a list of the kinds of things I and others have found children are interested in and the kinds of things that occupy their imagination:

While offering different content, anyone of the subjects on the list above will create contexts for developing learning in Early Years and Key Stage 1. Dinosaurs might not be in the National Curriculum, but learning about dinosaurs can provide opportunities for study across wide subject areas, if planned and taught carefully.

The key is to contextualise the study within a narrative the children will understand and find interesting. I’m not talking about old style ‘topic’ – a term now much derided – where the children encounter the subject through a series of unrelated and often disconnected activities, but a coherent and well planned scenario where the study of dinosaurs has meaning and purpose.

For example: imagine an unexplored island full of creatures that have somehow survived the extinction of dinosaurs 95 million years ago. A team of scientists are parachuted onto the island to map its geography and study the animals living there. They have been commissioned by the United Nations to land on the island and carry out the work, on the understanding that they must not damage the island or change it in any way.

After inventing the context the teacher maps on out the curriculum and designs activities that will develop the students’ learning within a context that gives their learning meaning and value. Of course I’m not suggesting this will work for the whole of the curriculum (there are some subjects which are best taught discretely) but potentially there is a substantial amount that can be taught this way and across a wise number of subject areas. Here is a short list:

I could go on, but you get the idea. The point is once you have a context (one you know will interest the students) thinking of activities and linking them to learning comes easy. On the Mantle of the Expert website you will find a generic list of the kinds of tasks we’ve found crop up again and again using this approach . As you look through the tasks have a go at applying some of them to the context of a team of scientists working on an island populated by dinosaurs, it shouldn’t be difficult.

The key is to keep a close eye on your school curriculum while looking for opportunities to develop learning through activities created by the context. Not every aspect of learning (as I mentioned earlier) will fit naturally into the context and not every contextual activity will meet the requirements of the curriculum. Discretion and professional judgement are required, so teach discretely when that works best and use the context when that does the job. The context is your teaching tool, not a strait-jacket, and you’ll want to avoid making superficial, silly links. Something Topic has often been accused of.

Let’s take a closer look.

A Year 1 teacher is examining the English curriculum she has to teach for the term. Among other things is a requirement to develop the students’ phonic knowledge in line with the school’s reading policy. With that in mind, the teacher sets aside 20 minutes a day, between 9:00 and 9:20, to teach a range of phonic knowledge and skills. She plans to do this on the carpet using a direct teaching method.

Further on in the policy, she notices there is also a requirement for the children to engage with a range of texts, including non-fiction. She thinks about the context she is planning to use and decides to create a selection of A4 information sheets about dinosaurs which the children can read and use for writing reports, something she has already planned to do during their writing sessions.

Carrying on in this way she goes through the curriculum for the term. Some areas (like phonics) she allocates to times during the week when she will teach them discreetly, others areas she allocates to times in the week when she will teach them by means of the context. As she has become more experienced in using this approach she’s noticed the mix shifts from week to week and she has learnt to be adaptable.

She’s also noticed that the context is particularly useful for creating activities that allow her students to use and apply knowledge and skills they are developing in other (sometimes discreet) lessons. For example, in maths they have been measuring and using shape, and this area of learning finds a use when they are mapping out their camp. She points this out to the children while they are working.

This dimension of the approach is particularly important to stress. While acknowledging that subject divisions and knowledge domains are important and have their place (particularly in academia), these domains are not separated by hard, unbreachable, lines and it is important to see where their content overlaps and compliments each other. Writing, for example, needs content so why make things difficult by planning separate activities for teaching aspects of writing when a context which is already meaningful and interesting to children will do the job just as well, if not better?

Spend a minute or two thinking of the types of text we want children to develop while at primary school and see how these might be taught using a context like Dinosaur Island. It’s easy:

Information text – writing about the island, the plants, the landscape, the weather, the dinosaurs.
Chronological report – writing about how the team arrived and set up camp.
Posters – around the camp informing people about policies, procedures, and threats.
Planning – preparing for an exploration of the island.
Lists – the kinds of equipment the team will need.
Stories – tales told about the island by sailors (written in an old log book found in a cave).
Letters – the team write up about their experiences (careful not give away any secrets).
Instructions – how to approach a sick or injured dinosaur safely and provide medical aid.

All of these scenarios might be developed during the time the teacher puts aside in the timetable for English. First using drama (including dramatic-action), then conversation (talk for writing), and then time spent drafting and redrafting, with the teacher providing support and resources, such as the information sheets mentioned earlier.

In this way much of the curriculum the children encounter during the week will be complimentary and meaningful, fitting into a context the children know well and are invested in, and not just a series of disconnected, unrelated activities that only seem to fit together because of the time the teacher allocates to them on the timetable.

Key Stage 2

Things get more complicated in Key Stage 2, but only because of the extra content generated by the KS2 history curriculum.

Without going too deeply into the past, the history curriculum is the product of political interference by (some might argue) a well-meaning secretary of state who remembered his own history education fondly and wanted all children to learn in the same way. This meant chronological and it meant packing several thousand years of history into four short years of learning between the ages of 7 and 11. Thankfully after the intervention of Dr Simon Schama (among others) the secretary of state backed off and the history curriculum was drastically slimmed down and schools were relieved of the requirement to teach it chronologically. (It is likely someone informed Mr. Gove that several thousand children in tiny rural schools across the country were in mixed age classes and would have to be taught some areas of the history curriculum out of order, something he seemed either not to know or not to care about).

It is, therefore, a minor miracle, that the primary history curriculum is as good as it. It still tries to pack too much into too little time, but at least the areas of study are manageable and will fit into 16 terms over 4 years.

Furthermore, history is a great subject for developing contexts for learning. It naturally lends itself to narrative, has great characters, bags of tension, and wonderful stories. A KS2 curriculum based around history will include all the elements that can make learning exciting for children.

Of course, it can also be deadly dull. We all remember lessons in history that seemed to drag on for hours. But the reasons for this are easily remediable and are to do with emphasising the ‘facts’ of history – the dates, the names, the locations – before the stories – the people, the events, the pressures. Facts, of course, are important (vital, even: what sense can children make of the past without a knowledge of the dates, etc.) but learning them without context is a dull business that can switch people off history for life. The key is to think about them as stories, stories that can tell us about the past, but also grab the imagination, and excite the emotions. Children (as we have discussed) want to be bothered, they want to feel something; they want their hearts to be racing, sitting on the edge of their seats. Stepping into a context that feels dangerous, feels immediate and feels urgent will grab their imagination and get them interested in learning. Once they’re interested they’ll want to learn the dates, the names, and the locations – just as my son, who is obsessed by football – wants to learn and can remember thousands of obscure facts about teams, players, and results that would be of very little interest otherwise.

Putting history at the centre of the KS2 curriculum has a number of advantages. One, as we’ve just discussed, is that history is full of great stories – invasions, dynastic wars, migrations – and fantastic characters – tyrants, heroes, warriors, scholars, engineers, scientists, and social campaigners. The second is that history as a subject is great at connecting other areas of the curriculum. It naturally provides content for writing – reports, letters, diaries, descriptions, etc. – but also creates opportunities for using and applying knowledge developed in other domains.

For example, imagine the context of an old Tudor manor house in need of restoration. The family that owned it has bequeathed it to British Heritage who have commissioned a team of historians to research the house’s history and (once the building has been restored) open it to the public. The house is full of artefacts from the past, things that have a history of their own and are themselves of interest.

The teacher plans the context and introduces it to her class through a discussion of the building, whilst drawing a floor plan of the house as she goes. The first task for the students is to think about what kinds of artefacts there might be in the house and to then draw them on separate pieces of paper. To do this they will need to do some research since they don’t know what they don’t know. In anticipation of this the teacher has prepared some information sheets – with pictures, dates, and descriptions – and has visited the library to get together books on the Tudors. The students set to work, drawing and reading – using skills they have learnt in other subjects.

After a while, the teachers asks them to think of something that might have happened to the object they are drawing and to write a short story (in less than forty words) including the elements of time, location, events, people, and tension. As they work she goes round the class providing support and guidance. Seeing an example of something she can use, she asks everyone to stop and brings them together:

“Thank you,” she says, “I thought you might like to listen to this, it’s something Rosie is working on.”

Rosie reads her story, it’s about a metal bowl found in a cupboard in the kitchen. The bowl is unremarkable, but its history is interesting. Through her research, Rosie has learnt that people who lived in Manor houses during Tudor times often had dogs for hunting and (being interested in dogs) she has written a short story about a large dog that would drink out of the metal bowl after it had been out hunting. Once the class have listened to her story, the teacher asks them how Rosie has used the ‘five’ elements, there is a discussion, where they identify four of the five:

Time – after hunting.
Location – the kitchen of the house.
Events – the dog comes in and drinks from the bowl.
People – the people who take the dog hunting; the person giving the dog water.

The one element missing is tension. The teacher asks them how tension might be added to the story, the students struggle with ideas. The teacher, recognising this is a difficult question, suggests that as the dog drinks from the bowl the water might begin to turn red.

This provokes a murmur of consternation as the students recognise the implications. Grabbing her chance, the teacher takes the opportunity to discuss what the dog might have been doing while on the hunt. She provides new information about hunting and the role of working dogs during Tudor times, and then asks Rosie if she has thought about whose job it is to look after the dogs and where the dogs are kept:

“Are they allowed in the living quarters?”

She asks. There is another general conversation. The teacher asks Rosie if she could draw on the map where the dogs’ kennels are and if she could write a bit more of her story, perhaps something that happened with the dogs, something that people in the house remembered, something that might have been written down in a diary and could be found later by the historians in the house library. She then asks the other students to go back to work.

“It’ll be interesting,” she says, “to hear what other stories come out of our research.” The children go back to work.

In this way, through research, creation, review, and revision, the class slowly build up the backstory of the house and the people who lived there. This is not a fairytale, where the children make up whatever they like, but a work of fiction based on their research into real history. The work requires rigour and knowledge of the past, and it is the teacher’s job to keep things on track by offering support, resources, and guidance.

Over time the students become invested in the history of the house and through this investment become more and more interested in the history of the time. The commission (to research the house and open it to the public) requires the historians to generate materials and resources of various kinds. The teacher plans the tasks required to produce these materials and matches them to subject areas across the curriculum:

We could obviously go on, but you get the point. As I said earlier, I’m not suggesting everything on the curriculum could or should be taught through a context such as this, but the opportunity is there to teach a great deal. Teachers who use this approach often teach up to 60%-70% of the curriculum content this way and the rest in discreet lessons. The key is to keep learning as the main thing and not to shoehorn in pointless activities that have no purpose just because they are related to the context.

Lastly, I’d like to talk about the role of drama in all this. Drama is a subject which has slowly been marginalised in the curriculum. Back in the 2000 version it was a subject in its own right and was considered an important part of a broad and balanced curriculum, but the architects of the latest curriculum see it as an extra, something rather frivolous and unnecessary. This is a mistake. Drama has an important role to play, not just as performance and academic study (where it does feature in the English programmes of study) but as a medium for learning, something that can be used to contextualise children’s learning and make it more meaningful and engaging.

Throughout this discussion drama has been lurking in the background – there but unexamined. When we talked about the students cast as scientists on the dinosaur island, the teacher might have used drama to create opportunities for them to step into the fiction, to imagine themselves creeping through the jungle, hiding in the undergrowth, waiting for a dinosaur to approach, and taking ‘photographs’ (represented by their drawings, created while looking at pictures provided by the teacher). Furthermore, some of them might have wanted to take on the role of a dinosaur coming into the clearing, following the smell of the bait, wanting to eat it, but wary of being out in the open.

At each stage, the teacher could use the opportunity created by the drama to teach – using her knowledge and linking events and ideas to the curriculum.

For me, this is the great benefit of using this approach. It puts curriculum learning into a context that has meaning and purpose, that will excite and interest children, and that they can get into and want to be a part of. We know what children are interested in, we know what they pay attention to, we know stories have been used for thousands of years to organise and convey information, and we know if we engage the emotions learning is more likely stick, so, why don’t we build a curriculum based on this knowledge, one that will teach the kinds of learning we want our students to develop, while giving them a good time in the process? It makes sense to me.


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