The curriculum is a ‘hot’ topic right now. I have been head of department for only a year or so and my perception has been that for much of that time, issues around the curriculum have been common threads in public discourse within education.
The school-based discussions I have been part of on the subject have been predominantly shaped by our shared initial understanding of the requirements of the new Ofsted framework. Within my first few months in post, for example, we were treated to a full 360 of the department and naturally the curriculum loomed large in the discussions I was part of. Predictably, intent, implementation and impact were three words that were used heavily. I found myself wanting to dig deeper than a three-column pro forma and questionable ‘intent statements’ (which Ofsted themselves state are unnecessary) to discover work by thinkers who have already trodden this path and read more widely around this topic than myself. It was in this context that I opened the ResearchED Guide to the Curriculum for the first time.
Somehow this book left me feeling more connected to the reason I became a teacher: to help impart knowledge for its own sake and on its own merits. The chapters are short and accessible and each presents a unique perspective, with a variety of theoretical perspectives represented. Two key points for this post:
The place of cognitive science. Some key practices have gained prominence within education in recent years and with good reason. These can be powerful and should be pursued. There is a risk that tightly defined concepts such as retrieval practice and spacing that are defined by research become nebulous buzz-words (I was recently told in some external CPD that “the most important thing is that you decide what interleaving means to you in your context” – a point premised on the idea that the word is already too ubiquitous within education to possibly retain its original specific meaning) but this should be resisted at all costs since the power of these elements of practice lay in their specificity. Powerful as cognitive science is, however, its concepts and techniques must not be seen to take the place of subject-specific pedagogical knowledge itself. In my current setting, most of our team don’t hold maths-majority degrees and half of our staff have qualified within the past five years. We are a determined bunch who take our own CPD seriously, however were we to drop our focus on maths itself during our department meetings in favour of talking only about interleaving or retrieval for example, our practice and our students would be the poorer for it. Cognitive science is not a silver bullet and cannot replace a deep understanding of the curriculum within your own discipline.
The community of practice. A common thread running through many chapters was that subject disciplines transcend individual institutions. This sounds like an obvious thing to say: I am well aware that mathematics is bigger than my school. Yet is this how I behave in the way in which I engage with the mathematical community? Do I engage with the broader community at all beyond my cosy bubble of local heads of maths who regularly get together to support one another? Thinking about how practitioners can know that they are teaching the best possible material in the best possible way, for example, it seems obvious that institutions who have developed an authority within a subject discipline should have a role to play in helping heads of departments like me, for example, to make decisions.
This was one of the most surprising things to come out of my first reading of this book (I am sure I will be back for a second reading again soon enough): I have re-joined the Institute for Mathematics and its Applications and the Chartered College of Teaching and I’m looking into membership with either the Mathematical Association or the Association of Teachers of Mathematics, too. This is not to say that the self-directed CPD I get almost every day on Twitter isn’t valid. But why leave it to chance that I will happen to catch the best of what has been thought and said as I casually scroll through my timeline at the end of a working day? There is a whole community of mathematicians and mathematics teachers out there who I would benefit from engaging with. I read regularly into research on leadership, evidence-informed practice and cognitive science. But how often to I engage with research on the subject matter I am actually teaching day in day out?