Design Principles

I recently facilitated some workshops with primary Head Teacher colleagues where we sought to explore ways in which our curricula reflected the design principles of Curriculum for Excellence.  One or two asked if I would follow this up with a blog post.  What follows is inspired and influenced by reading and by conversations with colleagues, but is shot through with my own opinion.  Please assume anything here that’s good comes from my collegiate discussion with colleagues and any dross is entirely my own.   For anyone outside of a Scottish perspective, the design principles of CfE are:

Depth

Progression

Breadth

Relevance

Coherence

Personalisation and Choice

Challenge and Enjoyment

  The first point to note it that CfE is not a standardised curriculum that all schools will implement in a uniform manner (listen to the Cabinet Secretary discussing this with Matthew and Steve on Inside Learning here).  Rather it should be treated as a process curriculum and one that design and development carried out in, and by all schools.  For a review of CfE much more eloquent than I could ever produce, please see Mark Priestley’s wonderful blog here.

So where do the design principles fit with CfE – what are they for?   Firstly, when we talk about the curriculum, we are referring not only to what goes on in Maths, English, Science and other subject lessons, but also Inter-disciplinary experiences, opportunities for wider achievement and the ethos and life of the school.

The goal and purpose of the curriculum is encapsulated by the 4 capacities (I feel obliged to point out that I am referring to the full set of attributes and capabilities associated with these capacities, rather than the ‘soundbitey’ titles).

If that is the ‘why’, the ‘what’ is drawn from curricular areas and the knowledge and skills within the Experiences and Outcomes.  That leaves us with the ‘how’ and this is where the principles for curriculum design come in.

On the face of it some seem to be straight forward and nothing much new; ‘progression’ was a key principle of 5-14 and the National Curriculum for England and Wales that I taught to in my early days of teaching. Others are less familiar and some seem almost controversial.  Should all aspects of the curriculum be enjoyable?   These curriculum design principles overlap and interweave to such a degree that extricating any one from a curriculum in practice becomes a difficult and futile pursuit.  However, for the purposes of clarity and definition, I took each in turn, both in school and in the aforementioned workshops, and delved.  The following are thoughts that I have heard and shared over the recent weeks.

Progression

This describes how children build knowledge and skills, how that knowledge becomes more intellectually challenging and sophisticated and how these skills become more rigorously applied and how the amount of knowledge and number of skills increases. In broad terms it describes the ‘value added’ from when we first encounter children in pre-school or P1 and subsequently each year through to their leaving us. In finer focus, it describes what children will know and be able to do at the end of any learning experience that they didn’t know or could not do before. It can describe progress through curricular areas as well as pupils’ contributions to the school as a society.

Breadth

All subject areas are covered, and all aspects within subjects are given a proportionate amount of weighting (key aspects will be covered more frequently). Breadth also describes the contexts for learning – within class, within the wider school environment, within the community, on field trips beyond the school’s community etc. Pupils have an entitlement to a range of learning experiences and pedagogical styles.  Teachers will tailor learning to suit the circumstance.  Sometimes deliberative practice is needed, at other times rote learning, at others cooperative learning, at others learning with technologies.  Sometimes didactic approaches will work best, and sometimes learning through pupil discovery will be better.

Depth

“There should be opportunities for children to develop their full capacity for different types of thinking and learning. As they progress, they should develop and apply increasing intellectual rigour, drawing different strands of learning together, and exploring and achieving more advanced levels of understanding.” – Education Scotland

Depth also means how embedded learning becomes and how easily recalled it is– can pupils recall key facts, or apply key skills a week after learning?  How about after a month, three months or after a longer period?   It describes the extent to which pupils know information and whether they really understand it. And if they can s see a problem and select a previously learnt strategy to apply in its solution. Many schools are using a taxonomy of thinking skills to assist deep learning and higher order thinking, Bloom’s (updated) and SOLO are two examples.  The work of Marzano and Kendall also offers insights into how learning can become deep. Pupils who achieve the expected learning outcomes faster than their peers can be given opportunities to build upon this learning, research or apply further knowledge rather than being moved straight on to the next topic.

Personalisation and Choice

The curriculum should be responsive to individual needs and strengths.  Through effective use of assessment, learning is tailored so that every child progresses at his optimal pace.  As pupils move through school, they develop the skills and knowledge to exercise responsible personal choice.  This is of course predicated on effective breadth in the curriculum. Some lessons might have an element where the teacher identifies a choice of tasks that the pupils have, all of which offer an opportunity for pupils to apply, consolidate, develop or demonstrate their learning. Some aspects of learning are not context dependent and pupils might choose the context they frame their learning in.  For example, when writing reports, the teacher might display a set of success criteria for a report, but pupils might choose topics they have an interest in, or knowledge of to report on. Teachers should, of course, be the arbiters of learning and thus decide what is to be learnt, but pupils can and should be involved in deciding how success of learning can be demonstrated – in other words, if pupils and teachers work together to establish rigorous success criteria for learning, pupils will more effectively be able to self and peer assess.

Coherence

The curriculum is the totality of children’s experiences in school.  Aspects of extended learning activities draw strands of learning together.  This can be done through Interdisciplinary Learning Projects and cross-curricular aspects of learning as well as learning themes spanning several school contexts. Teachers often ask me how they can balance breadth with depth and my answer is by ensuring the curriculum is coherent.  If we are to cover every aspect broad curriculum, yet devote enough time and attention to the key aspects, where do we find the time?  A coherent curriculum where data handling skills are taught hand in glove with historical knowledge and place value is taught in a way that develops aspects of Health and Well-Being (for example through Cooperative Learning) ensures the key aspects are given the time and attention needed to ensure they are developed in a challenging, progressive and deep manner.

Relevance

Pupils should understand the purpose of their activities.  If they can see exactly how an activity is taking their learning forward, or that their learning is relevant to their life then they are much more likely to see the value of working hard and therefore to succeed.  Marzano and Kendall refer to Self System thinking – the growing ability of students to examine importance, efficacy, emotional response to tasks/subjects and motivation.  A relevant curriculum in Primary education allows pupils to develop and apply this Self System.  Relevance is a vital factor if motivation, and the application of effort is to become intrinsic and pupil generated.

Challenge and Enjoyment

Learning should be challenging.  It should be difficult and require effort.  This requires a teacher knowing the children and their capability so that independent tasks required of pupils occur within what Vygotsky called the Zone of Proximal Development.  Tasks that are too easy will not enhance learning and potentially lead to disaffection and discipline problems that will effect other pupils, just as surely as will tasks that are too difficult for a pupil to attempt.  Thus appropriate challenge is a balancing act. Enjoyment in learning has been the subject of a huge debate on Twitter recently after David Didau tweeted “’The kids absolutely love it’ is my least favourite endorsement of a learning strategy.”  This led to many people misinterpreting David’s words (see his wonderful blog for details).  In my opinion learning should be enjoyable, but ‘enjoyable’ is not necessarily synonymous with fun.  Learning can be like climbing a mountain or running a marathon where each step is tough, challenging and anything but fun, but enjoyment comes with the rewards of the hard work children put in.  It is linked to the sense of achievement they have on reflecting upon a job well done. Challenge and enjoyment are pre-requisites for Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow – that optimal zone where performance is maximized.

During the workshops I heard many stories and examples of curriculum design  and I will compile them into a blog post in a week or two but one theme that came through loud and clear is that no two curricula will be identical. The ways in which we apply each of these principles in small schools will be different in many aspects to how we apply them in large schools for example and curricula, whilst being as intellectually rigorous in all schools, should reflect the community in which each school is located.   The definitions and examples here are not exhaustive.  Readers of this blog might have better definitions and ideas than I have included; if that’s the case, please leave a comment below to help others, and me, as we continue to develop our curricula.

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3 thoughts on “Design Principles

  1. Great post, interesting reading even at this time of night! We have been discussing progression a lot on my course recently, the balancing act when working with ASD seems to be even more difficult to get a handle on. Many are happy when the child is simply ‘being dealt’ with or not causing a disruption rather than trying to ensure that they are moving forwards, however, finding the challenging zone without causing distress isn’t easy! I think it’s interesting to think about the principles in relation to ASD and other ASN, as you know I’m very lucky in my class and think implementation must be more challenging in a more challenging setting with a wider range of needs. Thanks for getting me thinking again! 😊

  2. Thanks Emma, all pupils have a right to be appropriately challenged. There is a social as well as intellectual aspect to this with all kids, especially those with ASD I think. This is why a personalised curriculum is also essential.

  3. Hi Jay. I really enjoyed reading this post- I thought your explanation of the why, the what and the how was spot on. It is so important to have clarity and understanding of the why and the what so that we can take forward the how in a meaningful, effective and relevant way. As we discussed at our workshops, we need to ensure we are clear and have ownership of our vision for CfE- the 4 capacities and their capabilities and attributes- what we are aspiring to develop within our children. A shared vision with a clear understanding of the ‘why’ and the ‘what’ will lead to amazing, relevant, deep, meaningful and of course coherent ‘hows’ across Scotland!

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