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In order to better prepare children and young people for a future which is significantly altered by changes in global climate systems, sustainability education needs to be enhanced (Rushton et al., 2023). A key contributing factor to realising this ambition is the provision of access to high-quality teacher professional development. This blog piece shares the impact of a British Curriculum Forum (BCF)-funded curriculum investigation project which enabled primary pupils (aged 7–11) and their teachers to engage with the complex concept of sustainability (Swift, 2023).

During the project, we, as four teachers responsible for primary geography in our settings, quickly realised that we, ourselves, needed to be better informed about the concept of sustainability in order to design coherent curriculum sequences for our pupils. We adopted the Brundtland (1987) definition, ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’, recognising that sustainability is built on the three pillars of society, environment and economy. We recognised that this succinct articulation can be interpreted as being too human-centred.

We took coherence in curriculum design to mean the construction of reasoned, logical and examined selections of knowledge, specialised and organised through disciplinary means in order to open up productive and accountable educational potential for learners (Swift, 2023).

We contrasted the term ‘coherence’ with that of ‘alignment’. Alignment is used to describe curriculum solutions that accept pre-published frameworks and are evaluated in relation to their fidelity to the original. We argue that the concept of curriculum coherence sustains teacher professionalism while the requirement for teachers to simply align their curriculum design sequences to published materials is more likely to limit both teacher agency and teacher professionalism. In order to both nurture and sustain our professionalism we drew on the curriculum design coherence (CDC) model (Rata, 2019, 2021).

A visual representation of the four elements that comprise the CDC model can be found on page 11 of the BERA project report (Swift, 2023). Each element is inter-related with the others and includes the careful selection of subject concepts, the connection of the selected subject concepts to specified content (knowledge-that and know-how-to) and the evaluation of the impact of the selection on pupil progress. The realisation of each element involves a slightly different application of the same selected concepts so that curriculum coherence is enabled in an iterative rather than a linear manner. A key aim of the CDC model is to require teachers to ‘design their programmes, courses and topics, according to the epistemic structure of academic knowledge’ (Rata, 2021, p. 465). The CDC model’s coherence mechanism means that teachers need to be familiar with the knowledge about knowledge.

During our project, our knowledge about knowledge expanded in a number of key ways. We soon recognised that we were more likely to empower our learners if we gave them access to evaluative criteria. These should be disciplined and systematic, rather than being inappropriately objective or subjective. We argue that it is only by intentional and coherent curriculum design that meaningful connections can be made between systematic knowledge, and the specific propositional and procedural knowledge that form the content of a sequence of learning. Without such connections, pupils’ evaluative capacities are limited. Pupils are less likely to access the means to weigh up choices and actions in an informed way, and so are less likely to be able to live sustainable lives.

‘I now design the curriculum so that I can plan more meaningful lessons, ones that enable the previously missing link between know-how and know-that knowledges to be more visible, giving an evaluative purpose to learning.’

Such curriculum coherence is more forthcoming when teachers are given opportunities to actively grapple with the complexities associated with curriculum design, rather than being provided with pre-determined schemes. As one of the project teachers noted, ‘I now design the curriculum so that I can plan more meaningful lessons, ones that enable the previously missing link between know-how and know-that knowledges to be more visible, giving an evaluative purpose to learning’. This is effortful work and so this piece ends by posing three reflective questions:

  • How can we design our curriculum to enable children and young people to weigh up choices and actions in an informed way?
  • How can we enable teachers to continually engage with scholarship in relation to the concept of sustainability?
  • How can teachers engage with the process of curriculum design, rather than be reliant on solutions developed by others?

This research project was funded by the British Curriculum Forum Curriculum Investigation Grant. Read the full project report here.


Brundtland, G. (1987). Report of the world commission on environment and development: Our common future. United Nations General Assembly document A/42/427.

Rata, E. (2019). Knowledge-rich teaching: A model of curriculum design coherence. British Educational Research Journal, 45(4), 681–697.

Rata, E. (2021). The curriculum design coherence model in the knowledge-rich school project. Review of Education, 9(2), 448-495.

Rushton, E., Sharp, S., & Walshe, N. (2023). Global priorities for enhancing school-based climate change and sustainability education. British Council/University College London.

Swift, D. (2023). Towards curriculum design coherence in primary geography education for sustainability. British Educational Research Association.