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Blog post Part of special issue: Reimagining a curriculum for teacher knowledge

Curriculum development: The practitioner’s view

Sarah Seleznyov, Co-headteacher at Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam

Attending the BERA/BCF Re-Imagining A Curriculum for Teacher Knowledge event enabled me to develop a deeper and broader understanding of recent thinking about the curriculum in England.  Ofsted’s new focus on curriculum in England has thrown many schools into disarray.  Very few schools managed to maintain the integrity of their curriculum through recent years, in which English and maths results seemed to be all that mattered to the powers that be.  So, this recent change is a welcome opportunity for many school leaders, but also a leap into the unknown, with a teaching team whose skills have dwindled.

‘As a Teaching School we strive to get the balance right for our teachers, in a climate in which time to learn is restricted by increasingly tight budgets and accountability pressures’

Several of the speakers at the event recognised the importance of getting teacher education right, in order to ensure that teachers can become active participants in curriculum design for their pupils. Moira Hulme (Manchester Metropolitan University), Linda Clarke (Ulster University), Gary Beauchamp (Cardiff Metropolitan University) and Beth Dickson (University of Glasgow)  explored how Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales have shifted their approaches to teacher education in recent years, recognising it as a process that needs to be career long and one in which universities should take the lead.  These changes are not without their practical challenges: there must be funds made available to match the proposed changes and the historic separation of ITE and in-service CPD must be addressed.  As a Teaching School we strive to get the balance right for our teachers, in a climate in which time to learn is restricted by increasingly tight budgets and accountability pressures: both school and teacher attitudes towards release time for professional develoment have become problematic over recent years.

And as Beth Dickson (University of Glasgow) highlighted, the challenges are not just practical.  Beth described the tension between declarative and procedural knowledge, which underlies the theory-practice debate we face in teacher education in England.  Any teacher education curriculum must give teachers the declarative knowledge they need to teach, but such knowledge remains latent until it is explored through cycles of reflective practice, with cohorts of pupils in different contexts, and over time in a rapidly changing society.  Getting this balance right is one which we struggle with for the students on our School Direct programme.  Only by a careful combination of both declarative and procedural knowledge in teacher education, will we have teachers who are able to develop such careful curricula for their pupils. 

For many teachers engaged in debates about curriculum development, the biggest challenge has been understanding Ofsted’s call for consideration of ‘intent’.  Both Martin Mills (UCL Institute of Education) and Laura Colucci-Gray (University of Edinburgh) offered valuable advice on this issue.  Mills called for schools to focus on developing a curriculum for social justice, through redistribution, representation and recognition.  Teaching in an area of London that spans areas of both significant wealth and significant deprivation, we must ensure we distribute to all pupils a common curriculum.  This curriculum must ensure all voices in the community are represented, and that even the least advantaged pupils have a voice. It must recognise the value of the diversity in our multicultural community, build on pupils’ own experiences and connect them to the wider world.  Colucci-Gray described the challenges of engaging pupils in curriculum development in this way, mirroring those we face in south London.  Our local schools must fight against decisions about curriculum content that are taken by those outside the community and premised on subjective notions of ‘cultural capital’; they must be aware of how the pressure of external accountability can distort curriculum choices teachers might make. 

Similarly, Kevin Smith (Cardiff University) articulated a tension between knowing and knowledge, as exemplified in the Twitter-sphere debates currently raging in relation to ‘traditional’ versus ‘progressive’ approaches to curriculum development.  He describes the complicated relationship between knowledge and experience, and placed teachers clearly in the driving seat of curriculum decisions as ‘experts’ on their own pupils, deciding not only curriculum content but also how learning experiences should be sequenced.  Those of us who work in schools know that the ‘lightbulb’ moments for pupils, those instances of real learning, are always a result of the interplay between knowledge and experience. 

Sharon Jones (Stranmillis University College Belfast) exemplified the challenges we face with local curriculum design in her exploration of a curriculum for Northern Ireland, one which must consider both the connections between and integrity of the disciplines, enable pupils to see themselves within their own historical and geographical context, and engage pupils with their peers and the wider community to reduce increasingly pervasive social isolation.   

And Rachel Lofthouse (Leeds Becket University) offered us a practical route to achieving this complex balancing act: using mentoring and coaching to support teachers engaged in curriculum design to think creatively, to develop a sense of shared purpose and a deep understanding of context, and to be open to critique.  She closed the circle of thought on the day, by reminding us that effective curriculum development, relies on a knowledgeable and continually developing teacher workforce.

So the implications for those of us working in schools are threefold:

  1. Since effective curriculum development relies on a continually developing workforce, how do we achieve continuity in learning from ITT through to longstanding teachers?
  2. How can we enable teachers to develop a deep understanding of curriculum ‘intent’ so that they can get the curriculum right for our pupils and their community?
  3. How can we provide opportunities for teachers to work together with pupils to develop exciting curricula that fuse both knowledge and knowing, and that promote both social justice and global awareness?