Curriculum design is much like a dress pattern – it gives form to what we teach, but it takes a skilled specialist to add rich fabrics, to embroider, create patterns, to weave together different threads; to make something beautiful. For this to happen, the curriculum needs to be carefully designed and many thoughtful decisions need to be made. Whether those decisions are about its style – be it thematic, chronological, conceptual – or about the underlying structures that offer the foundation one year to the next – we could call that the corsetry though perhaps that takes the metaphor a little far. We then need to consider the patterns and embellishments, the alterations and additions, that will offer our students a curriculum that is enriching and powerful. But where do we start when drawing out our initial pattern?
I’ve been asked quite a few times recently about the process of designing a curriculum. When Rebecca Foster (@TLPMsF) and I presented at Ed Fest last week, it struck me that we talked a lot about what was included in our curriculum and why, but not much about the process to get there. Gone are the days of walking into an English Department and being told to just choose a book from the cupboard and teach it; we need to think deeply and carefully about the texts we teach and the power they have. I also hope that with the more explicit OFSTED focus on curriculum, schools might be more open to finding money to buy the books required for a coherent and carefully sequenced curriculum so that English Departments can make thoughtful decisions about curriculum design rather than be constrained by whether there are enough copies in the cupboard for a class set.
If these conditions are available, then we can make really meaningful choices about our English curriculum.
Someone tweeted the other day that science and maths teachers can only look on in bemusement whilst English teachers appear to have an existential crisis about which texts to teach, when for most other subjects the choices are perhaps more limited. The aim of this blog is to explain the process I use to make text choices in English. By no means is it definitive, nor am I assuming that others should follow this process or make the same decisions. However, a lot of the ideas surrounding curriculum design have come from much better-informed people than me and I have used this to distil and influence the decisions I have made. The greatest influence has been the work of Mary Myatt and Christine Counsell, both of whom I would like to be when I grow up. However, what you won’t see here, is a list of texts I have chosen or a curriculum map, as these decisions need to be made based on school context. Instead, this blog aims to help teachers through the process of choosing the texts that are most appropriate for their students, in their context.
The first thing I would start with are the concepts I want students to understand and the texts that best lend themselves to exploring those concepts. These might include concepts such as social justice, allegory, allusion, political commentary etc. I would then consider which literary movements and forms I want them to know about before the end of KS3 – I know I want them to have some knowledge of Romanticism, the Enlightenment, medieval literature, Roman mythology, war poetry etc. as these form an important part of the subject discipline. At this point, I can start thinking about which texts offer an archetype for particular literary movements and which texts offer a vehicle for teaching my concepts – this is likely to be a long list, but it gives me a starting point. There may be several overlapping concepts and movements in one text that offer an opportunity to explore several aspects of what I want students to understand. Therefore, these texts are likely to make the short list.
From here, I can start thinking about GCSE texts. I need to consider what foundational knowledge will be needed for students to understand the texts at GCSE. This does not mean teaching the GCSE texts and I am certainly not thinking about the Language papers – other than that I will want to teach students about writing creatively and persuasively throughout KS3 which happens to be a section on the paper. However, I am not planning to teach these forms of writing because they’re on the Language paper, but because they are part of the subject discipline. The Language papers assess students’ proficiency in comprehension, analysis, evaluation and comparison. These are aspects of the English discipline that will develop through the teaching of literature, and so will manifest themselves through careful teaching of literary texts – both fiction and non-fiction. However, Language Paper Q5 is not part of the subject discipline and should therefore never feature as a unit in a KS3 curriculum. What I do need to think about is what knowledge (substantive, disciplinary and procedural) will ‘manifest itself powerfully and critically in future learning’ – this is from Christine Counsell and is probably the single quote that has helped crystallise my thinking around curriculum.
So, what do I know about my GCSE texts? I know that there are many allusions in Macbeth – both to mythology and biblical testament so I am going to include both in KS3 – perhaps when looking at Roman mythology and allusion. I know that there is a lot of phantasmagorical imagery in Macbeth. This form of imagery is rich for analysis and I know it appears in Alice in Wonderland, which offers an opportunity to teach a canonical Victorian text as well as, through the Jabberwocky, exploring how writers play with language. Therefore, Alice potentially gives me lots of opportunities for teaching different concepts and styles – plus, Year 7 love recreating a Mad Hatter’s tea party complete with writing from the perspective of the dormouse – so Alice is likely to win the battle of the KS3 texts. If I then take my thread of phantasmagorical imagery a little further, I can weave this into teaching war poetry in Year 9 and Jekyll and Hyde in Year 10. So, I have a good thread that takes me through Year 7, 9 and 10 plus anything in between. This is clearly just one single thread, there are many more, but it is perhaps a good example of using threads to weave through a curriculum to help create coherence and help me with my text choices.
I also know that I don’t want the first time I teach Romanticism to be a brief comment about Wordsworth being a Romantic poet when I teach one of his poems in the GCSE anthology. I want students to come to that point in the curriculum with a secure grasp of Romanticism as a literary movement. So, the Romantics need to be in my KS3 curriculum. The same principle applies to wanting students to have a good understanding of what it means to be a tragic hero so that when I teach Macbeth, they only need to revise the concept and apply to Macbeth, rather than be taught all about Aristotle in the finite time I have to teach the GCSE. Aristotle will therefore be found weaving his way through the KS3 curriculum, particularly when teaching war poetry, with hubris being one of my threads in much the same way as phantasmagoria.
Now that I have my concepts, literary movements and threads of knowledge, I can start thinking about text choices. I like to think of the texts as a vehicle for the aspects of the discipline I want to teach – so I need texts that are ripe for linguistic analysis, that allow me to teach contextual influence, and that are rich in vocabulary. In addition, I need texts that will allow me to teach students about narrative perspective and structures, character development, setting, form etc. All these aspects will influence my choices.
I also know that I want students to understand English as a discipline and therefore understand how literature has developed over time; I want my students to recognise that literary texts do not appear in a vacuum. I need to teach my students how one literary movement or text is built on the foundations of what came before and influences what came after. Plus, how social, cultural and political shifts are mirrored in the literature of that time. In my view, the best way to do this is to include chronological sequences of texts, whether across one unit or within the curriculum as a whole. This helps students to understand the subject as a discipline in terms of how the texts we teach came into being and their place within history and culture. This will also help my students to recognise that literature is a force for social change and political commentary so that they can gain a better understanding of the power of great literature.
I hope this process demonstrates how we can begin to weave together a coherent and beautiful curriculum – with careful thought given to the threads and patterns and embellishments that hinge on carefully chosen texts.
Rebecca and I will soon blog about our Ed Fest presentation on how our curriculums have come together based on some of the principles outlined here. We will also be at the researchED National Conference talking about designing a powerful curriculum – we hope to see you there!