I wrote this article for HWRK magazine. To view the original, please click here.
The recent heatwave in September was a reminder of the very visible effects of human-made climate change. Despite the widespread complaints of the summer weather’s late arrival, muggy classrooms, and disruption to sleeping patterns, the increasing temperatures of these heatwaves nearly always result, at least on social media, in both celebrations and denials of one of the biggest risks to society’s future. The complexity of climate change, and its far-reaching effects on many aspects of society, can be challenging for many adults to appreciate: if adults do not study geography or science beyond KS3, their knowledge of its effects is likely to be limited at best. Just like immigration, the cost-of-living crisis, and access to healthcare, climate change is but one of the many significant issues facing modern Britain.
But does our education system ensure that if pupils stop their study of subjects like geography at the end of Year 9 (or Year 8 in some schools), they have a sufficiently solid understanding of the local, national, and international issues for which they will elect politicians to resolve? Moreover, does our education system ensure that pupils have the knowledge they need to be able to feel empowered to take action to resolve (or at least play a meaningful role in resolving) some of these issues themselves?
This article will explore the role of curriculum design in the primary years and how consideration of curriculum outcomes for our children, which sit above those of individual subjects and the National Curriculum, might lead to a more empowered and informed society.
Subjects, Topics, Disciplines or Ideas?
When we consider curriculum design, we are often encouraged to start with the outcomes in mind and plan backwards. More often than not, this can lead to carefully designed teaching sequences which ensure that children are able to know more, do more and remember more over the long term. Over the last ten years, there has been much discussion surrounding the identification of the key concepts across the different subjects of the National Curriculum and the considerations which have been necessary due to the lack of specification for many of the foundation subjects. Many schools have moved away from topic-based curriculum, instead favouring the teaching the different disciplines more discretely than was more common before the 2014 National Curriculum. However, there is a strong argument for going one level of curriculum planning above that of subject disciplines when we are determining curriculum content.
The lack of specificity in the 2014 National Curriculum provides curriculum designers with a complex mix of freedoms, responsibilities, and considerations. Schools have the freedom to design a curriculum which meets the needs of their pupils and communities; the responsibility to make the right choices in relation to these needs requires no explanation.
Once the curriculum outcomes have been decided, schools need to consider the provision and time required to achieve them. A cursory glance through the Primary National Curriculum reveals almost paradoxically both a torrent of curriculum concepts for each subject yet scant detail regarding the content to be taught. Treating these concepts as outcomes as an end in themselves satisfies the requirements of the curriculum, but this approach can fail to appreciate some of the bigger ideas which transcend subject disciplines.
Knowledge-rich or rich knowledge?
Whatever one regards as the principal purpose of education (whether it be to prepare individuals to make positive contributions to society, to reduce inequality, or to engender a love of learning) curriculum design plays an essential role in achieving these purposes. Despite the somewhat heated discussions about whether a knowledge-rich curriculum is appropriate for primary pupils, there are some ‘big ideas’ which require intentional teaching for children if they are to be given any chance of understanding them. Not including this knowledge at KS1 and KS2 can restrict learning at KS3 and in some cases mean that some children in society will have a much more limited understanding of important issues thus disempowering them and contributing itself to social injustice.
Key bodies of knowledge, such as food production, sustainability, justice, and climate change, are not specified in the Primary National Curriculum yet depend on a strong grasp of the content from KS1 and 2. The foundational knowledge provided at primary needs to be sufficiently robust for children to understand the nuance of content at KS3 and KS4 and be able to make connections relevant to the world in which they live.
Empowering children to understand their world
Long before universal education existed, the practices of agriculture would have been a key component in any farming child’s education. When Britain was an agrarian society, much of the knowledge related to food production would have been passed down from generation to generation. Without this education, crops might have failed, thus incomes would have dwindled, and hunger would have eventually ensued.
These days, food is something which might as well appear by magic on the supermarket shelves. In my school, a Y1 child told their teacher quite confidently that vegetables came from ‘Abel and Cole’ (a premium vegetable box subscription service). As children develop tacit knowledge about ‘food growth’, they might begin to understand that food availability depends on the time of day, or day of the week, that a supermarket is visited.
Despite it being so fundamental to our survival, our advanced economy means that agricultural practices need not be taught to every member of society. However, when our pupils grow older and are eligible to vote, hold positions of responsibility, and generally live their lives, they need to understand about so many of the factors that relate to such a fundamental need if they are to have any chance at making informed decisions.
Food production is but one example.
Others include concepts such as sustainability, justice, health, and conflict. Whilst teaching this content directly to young children is not always required or developmentally appropriate, teaching the content that enables understanding of these concepts most certainly is.
For children to understand the complexity of food production, they need to know, among other things, about the necessary conditions for plant growth, the places in the world where types of foods can grow, the dependency of these vegetation belts on climate and ecosystems, the environmental impact of food transportation, the seasons in which foods can grow and how this affects availability. All of these concepts can be taught at primary, and many are indeed specified outcomes of the science and geography curriculums. While vegetation belts, for example, may not immediately appear as a central curriculum topic, their importance becomes evident when viewed through the lens of how comprehending them contributes to a broader, more profound understanding of larger concepts. This perspective underscores their significance within the curriculum and justifies the allocation of curriculum time to their study.
In what is perceived to be an already overloaded curriculum, how might it even be conceivable to allocate further curriculum time to seemingly minor concepts? This article isn’t, however, an argument for allocating more time to any curriculum area, rather it is an argument for how these considerations might be made. Considering the level of understanding we want our children to have is a helpful way of selecting and sequencing curriculum content, as well as informing necessary curriculum time and significance. When these considerations are made at a level above that of the individual subjects, leaders can make more informed decisions based on the significance of disciplinary concepts in achieving the wider goals of the school’s curriculum offer.
Although I have mentioned concepts such as climate change and sustainability, this article is not an argument for politicising the curriculum. Rather, it is about making the curriculum more democratic. If knowledge which unlocks understanding of complex issues isn’t taught to our children in a meaningful way, we run the risk of closing doors to pupils rather than opening them. A democratic curriculum ensures that our pupils become adults who can make informed decisions about the world in which they live. The intent behind each subject’s curriculum in terms of the depth of understanding we want our children to achieve is critical to how well our children will be able to engage with the more complex, multi-disciplinary ideas that they encounter as they move through secondary education and into their adult lives. Designing the school curriculum to enable pupils to understand these broader ideas means that we can move from a curriculum of content coverage to one which can truly change lives.