Redesigning a curriculum

Effective reform must start with the understanding that the curriculum is the central focus and the central business of schools. Effective curricula are the sina que non of the system that is capable of delivering a quality education to all kids.

Siegfried Engelmann

At the start of the year I foolishly asked what the good people of Twitter would like me to write about. The message came back, loud and clear, that you wanted to know my thoughts on the Key Stage 3 curriculum. Well, whadda you know? Through my usual process of bathing in ideas until good and clean, I now have what I think is a way forward.

Three main considerations have been playing on my mind throughout this process:

Not on *my* watch!

1. Knowledge is power. (But France is not bacon) The more you know, the easier it is to learn. It’s no good dismissing knowledge and saying, you can just look it up, because whilst that is undoubtedly true you need to know a stack of stuff to make sense of what ever it is you’ve looked up. How much quicker and easier to just know that Copenhagen is the capital of Denmark and that Vespasian was the Roman Emperor that eventually succeeded the Julio-Claudians, and that the Julio-Claudians were a loosely knit family of inbreds, perverts and sociopaths who oversaw the transformation of Rome from a bloated oligarchy to a slightly more streamlined monarchy? Or something like that. Anyway, the point is that I want our curriculum to enrich our students’ cultural capital; to give them access to a broad base of interesting and useful cultural concepts into which they will be able to contextualise new ideas and knowledge in a rich tapestry of learning. To this end, I want to try delivering English through a range of good quality texts that will increase students’ ability to make links and connections between their cultural heritage and the world in which they live.

Also, what you know informs your ability to think. If you don’t know something, you can’t think about it. Texts which demand background knowledge which most students don’t already have will mean valuable time can be spent placing the texts in context and exploring elements of society, history and the literature that the author assumes his audience will have read. Now I know the pronoun in that last clause will have set some readers’ teeth on edge but the fact that most of our great literature was written my dead, white men is not a reason not to study it. Arguably, the more alien the culture of great literature is to your students, the more you owe it to them to permit them entry into this foreign country. Simply deciding that ‘kids like these’ won’t understand, or be interested is an inexcusable cop out.

This does not necessarily mean that we should only teach the ‘canon’ (although I do think we need to do some of this) but it does mean that it’s not OK to use store cupboard favourites like Stone Cold as class readers. Whilst this may be a perfectly enjoyable read, it’s not particularly worthy of study. I think even Swindells would be reasonably content to agree this point. So, while we should encourage students to read anything and everything, we should only actually study texts which build cultural capital.

2. Knowledge of grammar is particularly important. Every subject has its own grammar; a domain specific body of knowledge which needs to taught if students are to make sense of the content and apply the skills they are meant to develop. In maths this might be times tables and number bonds, in science it might be the scientific method and the period table. In English the grammar is, well, grammar. As Ted Hughes said, “Conscious manipulation of syntax deepens engagement and releases invention.” Clearly this is something every English teacher ought to be concerned with. But there is a wider importance to knowledge of language; students need to be able to navigate their way through the strictures of academic register. Obviously kids know how to speak and by and large they’re almost all able to read and write by the time they arrive at secondary school. To a point. As Daisy Christodoulou pointed out in her workshop at TLA Berkhamsted, students tend to write things like this:


It makes sense but clearly they have little or no understanding of what a sentence is. Does this matter? Clearly they can communicate their thoughts; why burden them with knowledge of grammar? Well, my thinking is that knowing the rules allows you to break them. If you don’t know what’s ‘right’, you’re not able to make an informed choice. Another problem that Daisy highlighted is that if you don’t have grammatical knowledge you can’t express yourself with any precision. Take this example:

JB Priestley also presents Mr Birling as confident he says to Gerald with no hesitation at all ‘But what I wanted to say is there’s a fair chance that I might find my way into the next Honours List’ he shows he’s confident in his business and in himself and he’s not telling Gerald he’s going to have a knighthood he’s boasting.

This is an able student but their inability to express themselves precisely is getting in the way of their ability to interpret and analyse the scene. Daisy offered us this improved version to demonstrate how a little grammatical knowledge can improve the quality of students’ thought and uncover hidden knowledge:

JB Priestley also presents Mr Birling as confident when he says to Gerald with no hesitation at all: ‘But what I wanted to say is there’s a fair chance that I might find my way into the next Honours List’. Here, he shows he’s confident in his business and in himself. He’s not telling Gerald he’s going to have a knighthood; he’s boasting about it.

Daisy advocates the need for separate lessons that involve deliberate practice and offers the following as a model for teaching this knowledge:

  • Activate prior knowledge
  • Teacher explanation
  • Guided practice
  • Feedback
  • Independent practice
  • More feedback

The concept of deliberate practice is one what has occupied me of late and is perfectly in line with my thinking on how students should be encouraged to learn. So, to this end, I’ve incorporated Daisy’s idea of a lesson a week of decontextualised grammar drilling as a key component in our curriculum. If you want to read more (and you really should) she writes eloquently on her own thinking here.

3. What cognitive psychology tells us about learning. Ever since being confronted with Robert Bjork’s concept of ‘desirable difficulties’ I’ve been puzzling out how best to make use of his ideas of spacing and interleaving instruction in order make use of the role of forgetting in the retention and transfer of what they’ve learned. As we forget, we make space for information to be relearned. This space and relearning promotes knowledge moving from working to long term memory. Bjork makes the point that “people tend to learn in blocks, mastering one thing before moving on to the next.” If instead we interleave what we want students to learn we will get reduced performance. This is troubling to both teachers and students in a world obsessed by rapid and sustained progress. But over time, the benefit of “seating” all these small pieces of knowledge pays dividends. Bjork says, “If information is studied so that it can be interpreted in relation to other things in memory, learning is much more powerful.” Spacing works in a similar way: “When we access things from our memory, we do more than reveal it’s there. It’s not like a playback. What we retrieve becomes more retrievable in the future. Provided the retrieval succeeds, the more difficult and involved the retrieval, the more beneficial it is.” So, if you take notes after a class instead of during the process of struggling to remember what was said will act on your ability to remember it in the future. There it is in black and white: copying off the board is not useful!

But English has always been a subject which in many ways is detached from a specific body of knowledge and has always been subject to the idea of threading together warp and weft. Do we interleave instinctively? Well, mebbe, but I don’t want to leave the process to chance. I’ve written before about using the learning loop to continually revisit knowledge but now I’ve applied some of this thinking to curriculum planning. This is what I’ve come up with so far:

Screen Shot 2013-06-10 at 10.01.17

In the past we built up over a term to either a reading or a writing assessment. But if the components of reading and writing are interleaved throughout the year, students’ progress should be stronger over time. We’ll see. The idea is that the essential ‘threshold concepts’ of English will be taught and built on explicitly through great texts. Each text will provide opportunities to build the context of writing in a variety of genres, applying the discrete grammar lessons in a more functional setting.

Anyhoo, here’s the first draft of our Key Stage 3 programme of study for next year based on a conflation of the 3 points discussed above:

Screen Shot 2013-06-19 at 21.03.59

As always, I’d welcome any feedback. This is a work in progress and I’m aware that there may be some weak points. Please note however, the omission of ‘media’ is quite deliberate. Non-fiction articles that link to the texts being studied will be read and analysed, but no more studying popular culture. Sure it’s ‘engaging’ but kids can use their own time for this. School is for the breadth and depth of stuff they would not otherwise be bothered to learn.

Related posts

What to know: the importance of cultural capital
Does creativity need rules?
The problem with progress part 1: learning vs performance

And do take some time to read Joe Kirby’s post of the subject: How knowledge is being detached from skills in English

47 Responses to Redesigning a curriculum

  1. Penny says:

    Totally agree with the idea of interleaving as a way of understanding students’ learning throughout the year – it is one of the things that is driving me nuts at the moment – the idea that students’ development happens in easily assessable half termly blocks. This incremental developmental of skills and knowledge needs to be planned for quite carefully. Out of interest – why have you decided not to include any explicit media teaching as part of your KS3 curriculum?

  2. Nigel Rees says:

    “This is an able student but their inability to express themselves…”

    It seems from the context that the sentence begun with this phrase refers only to the singular ‘able student’ but, if so, ‘their’ and ‘themselves’ should be ‘his’ and ‘himself’ or ‘her’ and ‘herself’. Perhaps the first phrase should instead be ‘These are able students’. Perhaps I misunderstood and ‘their and ‘themselves’ refer to the prior paragraph’s reference to ‘students’ .

    That’s the problem with writing about grammar — the slightest mistyping by the author and his words’ impact is diminished!

  3. learningspy says:

    Penny – the final paragraph goes some way to explaining the lack of explicit media teaching.

    Nigel – I take it the last sentence is a witty joke? Thanks for the constructive feedback.

  4. James McEnaney says:

    “no more studying popular culture. Sure it’s ‘engaging’ but kids can do all that at home. School is for the stuff they would not otherwise be bothered to learn.”

    I entirely disagree and, to be honest, remember this very philosophy very nearly destroying my love of English in high school.

    School is about so much more than this, and I’d argue that pop culture is a necessary part of the English classroom (probably more than any other subject) precisely because it is everywhere. I don’t think I’d like to be in a classroom (either as a teacher of learner) with this sort of approach.

  5. learningspy says:

    James – you’re welcome to disagree but can you perhaps justify your position? What value can there be for studying popular culture? Just saying ‘it’s everywhere’ is hardly a reason to study it.

    Teaching culturally rich texts is hardly at odds with enjoying English. If you’ve read some of the other posts on my blog you’ll know that I take great pains to make my lessons inspirational and that approach will, of course, underpin our curriculum.

    I’d be interested in your responce, David

  6. James McEnaney says:

    No problem David,

    My experience of this type of approach was the implication (which wasn’t actually always particularly implicit) that the things I was interested in were not worthy of studying, because school wasn’t “for” that sort of thing – consequently, my huge enthusiasm for English started to evaporate and I only got it back when I started to ignore these ideas and do the things that I wanted to do (ie. an RPr on Banks rather than something from the ‘canon’).

    I think we have a responsibility to help our students to actively analyse and engage with the world in which they live, and it is therefore extremely important that what you call ‘pop’ culture does have a place in the classroom. I think that to dismiss ‘popular culture’ as something that is no concern of an English teacher is a mistake, and would disagree that the kids can ‘do all that at home.’

    ‘Cultural richness’ is not automatically at odds with ‘popular culture’ and, whether you intended to or not, this is what has been suggested by your initial post and your response to my comment.
    The road to hell is paved with false dichotomies.

  7. Dawn Bellamy says:

    Hi David

    I keep returning to this post because I have real issues with what I am required to teach at KS3. I suppose I’m searching for inspiration (and perhaps justification for my dissatisfaction).

    I’m intrigued by your points about ‘Stone Cold’: Whilst this may be a perfectly enjoyable read it’s not particularly worthy of study.

    What, in your opinion, does or doesn’t make a text ‘worthy of study’? I’m genuinely interested as I think it’s a key aspect of planning a KS3 English curriculum. Are we guardians of our students’ reading at all times in the classroom or are we responsible for equipping them with the skills to be discerning, to decide what they do and don’t like and, more importantly, to be able to justify those opinions? If that is the case, then is there not a place for texts like ‘Stone Cold’?

  8. learningspy says:

    James – you say, “‘Cultural richness’ is not automatically at odds with ‘popular culture’” – I guess that depends on your definitions. My definition of pop culture is stuff kids already know about (Facebook, The Simpsons, Batman.) As such, they do not need to be taught about these things because doing so will in no way broaden their horizons. The best way to help students analyse and understand their lives is by help them to contextualise them within the richness represented by great writing from the past and from cultures other than their own.

    The road to hell is actually paved with good intentions, and I’m sure yours are exemplary.

  9. learningspy says:

    Dawn – I consider a text to be worthy of study if it is well written, contains insight into corners of the world which student may not already be aware of, and helps them to access a broader understanding of our cultural heritage.

    We should in no way be ‘guardians of our students’ reading’; in fact we should encourage them to read anything and everything. However, just because a text should be read does not mean it should be studied in school. To that extent there is certainly ‘a place’ for Stone Cold but it shouldn’t be on the curriculum.

    Does that make sense?

  10. Dawn Bellamy says:

    Yes, absolutely, it makes sense. Please don’t think I was advocating the ‘guardians of reading’ stance – just typing that phrase took me back to a heated disagreement I had with an ex-colleague. I just wonder if we’re in danger, sometimes, of reinforcing a pseudo-canon in the texts that we teach, rather than opening up a broader textual world. As you can probably tell, I’m open to persuasion on this.

  11. James McEnaney says:


    My intentions are, evidently, not as ‘exemplary’ as yours.

    I suppose part of the issue is perhaps that I see a huge amount of ‘cultural richness’ in popular culture (my definition of which is a bit broader than yours) and as a consequence feel it is important to develop students’ understanding of it – yes, they may ‘know’ about these things, but how well do they really understand them in any depth?

    A favourite example of this is the American documentary ‘Louder Than a Bomb’ which I used to introduce my S3 students to poetry – I wanted to show them that the world in which they live (ie. one of digital consumption and ‘pop’ culture) is very much one in which work of significant cultural value does exist. What I want to avoid is the impression that the things they like are not worthy of study, because this is only likely to substantiate the commonly held belief among many young people that their world is somehow separate or less important than the great works of history.

    Of course it is important that they have access to “great writing from the past and from cultures other than their own” (and the bulk of my teaching focuses on this) but I still believe that a blanket dismissal of pop culture would be, in the end, counter-productive. As I said in my initial reply, this approach very nearly turned me off English altogether in high school, and I owe a debt of gratitude to the teacher who showed me another way of looking at things.

  12. […] David Didau’s blog, he discussed looking into redesigning the curriculum.  His first thought was that knowledge […]

  13. Tom says:

    I couldn’t agree more on the discrete teaching of grammar, although frankly I surprise myself a little at that – I used to be a huge sceptic about that but after reading so many essays that are just like Daisy’s I can see the value. It needs to be taught well, mind, or else it’s much more damaging than helpful.

    I’m curious about ‘engagement’, though – there’s some quite dense texts in your suggested KS3 curriculum, albeit exciting and rich ones. Is there a major focus on getting them engaged with a particular text, making links with where it fits with popular culture or history etc, or do they just accept that this is what they have to do and so they need to get on with it? I ask because I could see some of my students totally switching off if asked to read, say, Beowulf, and I was wondering how you address that.

  14. […] Learning Spy wrote about redesigning curriculum and some philosophy on that in his post Redesigning a Curriculum. I don’t fully understand all that he is getting at because he is referring to something in […]

  15. […] Week 12 Reflection Category: Uncategorized – Tags: refection, Teaching, the learning spy – Kelsie Strohmaier – 1:54 am The Learning Spy–Redesigning a Curriculum  […]

  16. […] it. My beliefs have shifted quite a lot. I am now firmly convinced of the need to teach students a curriculum which is predicated on expanding their horizons and giving them knowledge of the world beyond the […]

  17. learningspy says:

    James – I’m not advocating a “blanket dismissal of pop culture”, I’m just not prepared to allocate precious lesson time to learning it. They already have all the access they could ever require to pop culture and they already have a fully formulated opinion of its worth. That said, ‘pop culture’ is the way in to other texts. I would teach the cannon by making reference to, and drawing parallels with, the texts that pervade the modern world. Far from destroying anyone’s love of English, this approach establishes a grounding in what literature is, and a means of connecting it to the world around us.

    Tom – the only way a fantastically exciting and dramatic text like Beowulf would switch anyone off is if it were taught badly. Just asking them to read it would a recipe for disaster. There’s a wonderful animated film (a pop culture text, incidentally) that I use to get them interested in the story, and we would only closely analyse smaller chunks of the text. As you see from the programme, the intention is to link to Tolkien’s writing and show Beowulf’s influence on the fantasy genre.

    Also, Heaney’s translation of Beowulf is very accessible and beautifully written.

  18. […] the comforting and familiar background to lessons, and introduce spacing and interleaving to redesign your curriculum.  These ‘desirable difficulties’ will slow down performance but lead to long term retention […]

  19. Juli Morgan-Russell says:

    Hi – as a school we have been working on re-doing our curriculum, ready for Year 7 to start in Sept this year (only Yr 7 atm, with Yr 8 next year etc). Our work has been based on a skills based idea after talking to the kids and parents – and, weirdly, teachers!

    In English, we have opted to return to a theme based idea: longer units of work based on a ‘topic’. Each year we will start with a short focussed unit based on writing skills, which will develop from Yr 7 (word classes, sentences etc) to Yr 8 (semantics). Our first unit is Relationships and, within that, we will work with different text types; film, novel, poetry, non-fiction etc, all of which will focus on the way ‘relationships’ are presented. We can go from Toy Story as moving image to extracts from Black Beauty v War Horse to poetry to non-fiction such as problem pages (or, in order to stretch those wonderful more able …) the relationship between England and the rest of Europe as presented in the news.

    In terms of skills, and building of these, we still use the National Strategy APP materials which we have adapted slightly – they are clear and show progression.

    Not sure now whether this is a relevant response but, as HoD, I am very much looking forward to the new academic year!

  20. Hannah says:

    Thanks for the post, having read Daisy’s book I’m also spending a lot of time thinking about the KS3 curriculum. Out of interest, why have you decided to start with Anita and Me? Also how are planning on teaching writing in Years 7 & 8? Will you teach different genres of writing explicitly (i.e writing to advise, to persuade, narrative writing etc) or focus on writing analysis of what they’ve read and creative writing responses?

  21. Julie Eatwell says:

    Working in a short stay school, we often have mixed or wide ability groups at KS3. Mnay of our students have big gaps and little cultural literacy. We are putting together a curriculum for English that will run for two years in order to allow for those who stay or return and which will expose them to as much literature and literacy as we can fit in. It is gratifying to see that your ideas of interleaving and re-addressing are similar to ours.

  22. Alison Stewart says:

    Dear David and James:

    I taught GCSE English at FE last year, I’m a mature trainee and my MA qualification is in Writing not English specifically. So, I don’t pretend to have your expertise or experience. I teach students (16 – 60+) who arrive at the college not wanting to study English, having studied and failed, having no confidence, often seeing English as elitist. I left school some 30 years ago with no real qualifications or prospects, and that same inferior complex regarding English. The saddest truth is that I love stories and art and drama and writing and language… I was placed in the CSE group at school, not good enough for O level. My employer wanted me to teach English and I protested – I’m not good enough! The turning point for me, David, was reading John Hattie, Ian Gilbert and you (The Perfect Ofsted English Lesson)! I know FE is vastly different from school, I used media and popular text to involve my learners, we used Hillsborough for role play: Phil Scraton, Jimmy McGovern and Carol Ann Duffy. I read Nina Jackson and used music in the class. All very mindful and purposeful. I would love to study The Odyssey (if my teacher made it interesting) and I am keen to understand Greek mythology and all those references that go over my head (not because ‘I’m not good enough’ but because I have yet to be enlightened…). I have yet to make connections and prioritise some missing links. I can manage that for myself but needed a good teacher to take my hand when I was at secondary school – not close the door. I am taking a stab and saying you are both good teachers. Your messages above speak volumes of your passion and likely impact on youngsters. I see adults at college who come cap in hand because they don’t feel good enough, they don’t know how to spell or string a sentence together… What gives me hope, is that teaching and learning has changed since my days at school. We try to avoid making youngsters feel stupid… We are no longer elitist but we encourage high standards and aspirations… Above all, we set out to know our students well and know our impact on them… There is a place in teaching and learning for all manners of text, how we deliver and vary them to our youngsters is what matters, right?

    • David Didau says:

      Thanks Alison – some lovely feedback.

      I’m afraid though that with limited curriculum time we really can’t study everything we might want to so we are forced to chose which texts will have the most impact on the lives of our students. I maintain that if we only teach texts with which they are already familiar, we are limiting their understanding of the world. It’s not (just) that canonical texts are better, it’s that they provide greater cultural capital and the knowledge on which civilisation is founded.

  23. Hannah Cusworth says:

    Perfect. What I meant by teaching different genres of writing was exactly what you talk about in your Mind your Language post.

    From what I can see on your draft curriculum you haven’t specified when you’re going to teach the different genres or in what order you’re going to teach them. I can’t see any explicit teaching of writing until Year 9 and then (correct me if I’m wrong) it’s primarily writing to show reading rather than teaching conventions of different genres of writing.

    I’ve been heavily influenced by the work of Gibbons and Halliday (probably as a result of being taught by a fantastic Australian tutor in my ITT year) and I’m currently thinking about how to sequence the different genres in the KS3 curriculum to support long-term progress. If you’ve got any thoughts about how you’re planning on doing it, I’d love to hear them.

  24. David Didau says:

    Hannah, the detail of my thoughts about how threshold concepts ought to be interleaved throughout the programme of study is outlined above. Progress is a much misunderstood concept and our programme is designed to focus on long term retention and transfer of what we teach.

    As you know, I too am a fan of Halliday and functional grammar. However the bastardised form of genre pedagogy that’s blighted the National Curriculum for years is not the way I wish to go; I’m thoroughly sick of endless ‘writing to persuade’ units. Instead various genres of writing will be deconstructed, modelled & scaffolded through the great texts we plan to teach. Does that make sense?

  25. […] the comforting and familiar background to lessons, and introduce spacing and interleaving to redesign your curriculum.  These ‘desirable difficulties’ will slow down performance but lead to long term retention […]

  26. […] Having determined the shape of the year, I was concerned about the text choices. David Didau (@LearningSpy) had posted about the importance of studying texts with cultural capital in his blog post: Redesigning a Curriculum. […]

  27. […] course I attended earlier in the term. Inspired by David Didau (@learningspy) and his posts on interleaved curriculums, I have redesigned how I teach Year 12 History. I teach the AQA History Unit1F AS course which is […]

  28. […] Back in March 2013, I wrote about the principles underlying my redesign of a Keys Stage 3 English cu… It received a mixed response. Since then Joe Kirby and Alex Quigley have published their ideas on redesigning this area of the curriculum and have, in different ways, influenced my thinking. […]

  29. […] fascinating suggestions regarding the English curriculum, notably from Joe Kirby, Alex Quigley and David Didau. But when David Didau asked where my curriculum was, I had to confess it rested unpublished. […]

  30. […] Principled curriculum design: the English curriculum Is there a way to avoid teaching rubbish in English? Redesigning a curriculum […]

  31. […] it. My beliefs have shifted quite a lot. I am now firmly convinced of the need to teach students a curriculum which is predicated on expanding their horizons and giving them knowledge of the world beyond the […]

  32. […] the twin strands of creativity and analysis are experienced holistically.’ In an earlier post, Redesinging a curriculum, Didau includes an image of a learning loop using these concepts to teach reading non-fiction, […]

  33. […] the twin strands of creativity and analysis are experienced holistically.’ In an earlier post, Redesigning a curriculum, Didau includes an image of a learning loop using these concepts to teach reading non-fiction, […]

  34. […] David Didau’s post here on a new curriculum for KS3 has got me thinking. I’m lucky to work in a school which gives me […]

  35. […] increase retention of the knowledge and allows practice of a skill over time. Read more about it in this post by David Didau. The idea is based on. Ebbinghaus’s ‘forgetting […]

  36. […] topic. Here are lots of ideas from Tom Sherrington around the idea of curriculum models. Here is a blog from David Didau on redesigning a curriculum. Blog from ResearchEd Birmingham 2018 on […]

  37. […] of foundation topic. Here are lots of ideas from Tom Sherrington around curriculum models. Here is a blog from David Didau on redesigning a curriculum. Blog from ResearchEd Birmingham 2018 on […]

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