How to build a primary curriculum

Ofsted is making curriculum a top priority in its inspections from next year – and the move has already proved controversial, with criticisms about potential ideological preferences and fears about workload. The move will also put a huge strain on primary schools in particular, argues primary headteacher Clare Sealey, but by following the research into what makes learning effective, excellent curriculum design is possible for all schools
9th November 2018, 12:00am
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Clare Sealy


How to build a primary curriculum

It's official: your curriculum now matters. From 2019, Ofsted says, schools should be ready to account for the intent, implementation and impact of their curriculum. Her Majesty's chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, has even gone as far as to say that "the vast, accumulated wealth of human knowledge, and what we choose to pass on to the next generation through teaching in our schools (the curriculum), must be at the heart of education".

This should be good news for teachers. There is not a single person in a school who subscribed to the view that exam results were an adequate measure of what a school did, or how much the children in their care knew. There is not a single person in a school who believes that a narrowing of education to maximise exam performance is healthy or ultimately in the best interests of the child. And there should not be a single person in a school who thinks that what is taught to our pupils is unimportant.

And yet, the immensity of the task that schools have now been set and the huge responsibility it places before us should not be underestimated. We are being given the role of deciding what it is that children will learn over the years they are with us. No longer can we simply fill the slot on the timetable labelled "history" with any old activity that somehow satisfies the brief hinted at by the topic title. We must now think hard about precisely what we want our children to learn and remember.

Unfortunately, on this we teachers are clearly out of practice.

Hard choices

The challenge is all the harder in a primary school context, where we do not have specialists across the spread of subjects that we are expected to teach. An audit of my own school, for example, revealed that geography was particularly badly served by teachers' qualifications. Only two staff had studied it beyond key stage 3 and their study of the subject ended when they left school.

This matters because hard choices need to be made. There is so much that we could teach, yet time is annoyingly finite. In order to undertake the educational triage that necessarily rejects many potentially worthy subjects of study, we need some basis by which we can decide what is really central and what is peripheral.

So, here's my attempt at some assistance.

Some of the primary schools that have already started looking at their curriculum have found some alternative arbiters of worth to make up for the lack of a secure enough subject knowledge base.

For many, the key factor in deciding what will claim a precious spot on their curriculum seems to be how engaging and exciting something might be. All around me, schools are proclaiming how exciting their revised curriculum now is, as if "excitement" were the substance of education.

Alongside "exciting", I also often hear that curricula are "innovative" and "engaging". Superficially, these sound like persuasive descriptions of great learning, especially if you contrast excitement with boredom, innovation with stagnation and engagement with distraction.

The problem with "excitement", though, is that it's not a great way to ensure the kind of learning that is durable in the longer term or that transfers from one context to another. In other words, it might be fun at the time but it is less likely to result in long-term learning.

After exciting lessons, you run the risk of remembering the excitement, rather than the learning. To understand why this is, it helps to understand the difference between episodic and semantic memory.

Episodic memory is where we store the "episodes" of our life; the narrative of our days. This is the autobiographical part of our memory that remembers the times, the places and emotions that occur in events and experiences. We don't have to work hard or particularly concentrate to acquire episodic memories; they just happen whether we like it or not.

Semantic memory, by contrast, is where we store information, facts, concepts. These are stored "context-free"; that is, without the emotional and spatial/temporal context in which they were first acquired. These memories take effort; we have to work to make them happen. That might sound a bit boring, compared with episodic memory. Yet it is our amazing ability to store culturally acquired learning in our semantic memory that makes us so successful as a species. Semantic memory is how we know stuff. Without it, human culture would not exist.

Total recall

The problem with episodic memories is that, while they may be acquired effortlessly, they come with several drawbacks in terms of acquiring skills and knowledge. For example, they come tagged with context: the sensory data - what a child saw and heard during a lesson - alongside their emotions, becomes part of the learning. These emotional/sensory cues are triggered when they try and retrieve an episodic memory. Sometimes they recall the contextual tags, but not the actual learning. Because it is context-bound, it does not transfer well to different contexts, either (1).

Luckily, our brains also have semantic memories. These have been liberated from the emotional and spatial/temporal context in which they were first acquired. And once a concept has been stored in the semantic memory, it is more flexible and transferable between different contexts (2).

That said, there isn't a complete divide between episodic and semantic memory; the boundaries are fuzzy. We need semantic memory with its store of words, categories and concepts to make sense of our everyday experiences. When an experience is repeated many times - frequent visits to the seaside for example - this autobiographical, episodic memory leads to durable memory formation. The child who has often been to the beach just knows 'effortlessly' what the seaside is like because of repeated experience, not because of a special attempt to learn its features.

Where children lack rich autobiographical experiences, schools need to try and provide them. The child who has no autobiographical memory of what beaches are like will have to learn everything about them from scratch. The key point here is that the educational rationale for a trip to the beach is to provide richer episodic memories rather than an 'exciting'' experience.

So, what type of memories should we be attempting to facilitate through the curriculum in schools?

"Understanding" is the word we use when we have a well-developed schema for something - it is what happens when we have lots of organised, connected knowledge, as opposed to a handful of unconnected facts (or no facts). It's the connections between facts that is understanding.

When we don't understand something (as opposed to misunderstanding it), that is because we have not made enough connections yet. If we only know one or two facts about something, understanding is hard because the potential to make connections is so limited. Our two lonely facts may seem a bit meaningless.

If, however, we know hundreds of different facts about a topic, that changes the nature of our thinking; we can now weave a rich web of understanding because there are so many connections that can be made. Because of the wealth of connections, we can think deeply and creatively.

This is why progression in a subject necessarily involves acquiring more knowledge. As more knowledge is acquired, more links are made, more nuanced application is possible. Because understanding is literally made out of knowledge, it is possible to know something without understanding it, but you can't understand it without knowing it.

This being the case, I would argue that the main substance of education - the backbone of it, so to speak - is the deliberate construction of strong semantic memory; the passing on and further development of the knowledge built up over centuries for the next generation; how to read and write, how stories work, how to use mathematical reasoning to solve problems, science with the amazing power it gives us to predict the future, how people in different times and places are so different and yet so similar, and myriad other concepts, ideas and practices. We want children to understand concepts and facts rather than just remember events and experiences. We want children to know how to use and apply this knowledge in flexible and creative ways.

The view is sometimes misunderstood as an argument for a curriculum full of "know that" rather than "know how", which therefore downplays the physical skills inherent in sporting and artistic prowess.

In fact, these sorts of skills, known as procedural knowledge, are also a form of semantic memory. Honing these sorts of skills comes down to regular practice, not to exciting, innovative experiences (3).

"But we want to help children to grow into people who can think critically for themselves, solve problems and be creative," I hear you cry! Well, I share those ends. However, we should not confuse the ends with the means. If we want children to be able to think critically and solve problems, then they need something to think critically with. For this, they need knowledge, and the kind of flexible knowledge that is durable and transfers between contexts. This necessarily involves using semantic memories stored in the long-term memory. If we want children to be creative and innovative, they need knowledge of the tradition upon which they are going to innovate.

As Professor Daniel Willingham explains, it is very difficult to teach critical thinking as a detached skill; what you can do is teach various metacognitive strategies such as "consider both sides of an issue". Of course, this only helps if your students know what both sides are, so these metacognitive strategies need to be taught and applied within a specific context.

In other words, teach someone about something and then give them opportunities to think critically about it. Don't start off a programme of study with critical thinking or problem solving. Instead of trying to start off with generic skills, lay the groundwork first, carefully and systematically building the requisite knowledge so that then students can apply their knowledge, using it to solve problems, possibly generating creative, novel solutions.

Knowledge is power

So, as a starting point for your curriculum choices, engagement and generic skills need to be rejected. Instead, we need a rich and varied body of knowledge, taught in such a way that facilitates semantic memories to be formed, and that enables a schema to be built on a topic.

But that still leaves us with the thorny issue of which knowledge to choose.

The national curriculum only goes so far. While it is pretty specific in science and locational knowledge in geography, for the rest of geography and for history, it is fairly vague. When we get to subjects such as art or music, while it outlines the procedural knowledge that children are to gain, it leaves decisions about the context in which this procedural knowledge is to be applied to us. This is both a blessing and a curse. Freedom is all very well, but with it comes great responsibility.

A good starting point is to look at the first paragraph within each programme of study in the national curriculum. These tell us about the purpose of study - what the subject is for. For example, for geography it says that pupils should "deepen their understanding of the interaction between physical and human processes, and of the formation and use of landscapes and environments".

For history, it says that "history helps pupils to understand the complexity of people's lives, the process of change, the diversity of societies and relationships between different groups, as well as their own identity and the challenges of their time".

Whatever else we do, we need to make sure our curriculum meets these various purposes.

To do this, let's go back to our aims: a well-organised schema built on semantic memories. In order to help children understand and think deeply about important concepts, we need to help them build schema that grow progressively more and more complex and sophisticated over time. What we need to identify for our curriculum, then, are the high-dividend concepts within subjects that come up again and again. We want to structure our curriculum so that children encounter these concepts repeatedly in different contexts.

In geography, for example, I suggest that these concepts thread through many aspects: atmosphere, climate, continent, landform, terrain, environment, resources, biome, fertile, vegetation, settlement, population, region, trade, development, sustainability, diversity.

In history, I would suggest these: civilisation, culture, empire, invasion, monarchy, tyranny, rebellion, oppression, democracy, society, community, taxation, source, evidence, chronology.

Certain concepts span across subjects and so are particularly rich. For example, the concept of "source" relates to historical sources of evidence, the source of a river in geography, energy sources in science, sources of authority in RE and news sources in English. Into these concepts, the more specific vocabulary and events of time and place can fit.

Neither example list above is exhaustive or beyond challenge - that's the risk you take in making curricular choices. You make some choices rather than others based on the best understanding you have at the present and your experience. Every curriculum should be a provisional curriculum.

While science content is much more explicit, it still leaves us the task of deciding the breadth of examples that we are going to expose our children to. So instead of just teaching plants in general, we need to think about which specific plants we will choose in order to build an appreciation of biodiversity or illustrate a specific biological process, or because they are important for cultural literacy.

The practical challenge of building a curriculum is, I imagine, becoming ever more worrisome as this article goes on. And even after we sort the "what" of the curriculum, we still need to tackle the "how": questions remain about how the teacher will make this material come alive and how this knowledge will be applied by the children; through writing, debate, a performance of some kind? Is there a conceptual thread running through each subject year on year, so that over time children make progress as their conceptual framework becomes populated with a wealth of examples? How is the knowledge revisited so that it isn't forgotten?

Teachers will also need to deepen their subject knowledge so that they know what is really important about what they are teaching and what is a less crucial detail. They need to know what kind of misconceptions children are likely to make and be careful not to reinforce these and, where possible, pre-empt them.

Big implications

I think we have to be realistic. The shift to a curriculum focus has big implications for teachers' professional development and resourcing. We have been set a massive job and it makes sense to try and spread the load by working in groups of schools rather than one school at a time.

In addition, while many teachers are averse to the idea of using textbooks in the classroom, surely a decent textbook would be useful for the teacher (if not the class), to help bring their knowledge up to speed? Unfortunately, quality textbooks at the moment are few and far between. Our secondary colleagues could perhaps make a very useful contribution to improving primary teachers' subject knowledge in the interim while better textbooks being produced.

All of the above is not an argument against the focus on curriculum - quite the opposite. With the right support, collaboration and resources, primary schools are more than capable of creating truly impressive curricula. Instead, this is an attempt to light the path ahead so we do not rush on and get lost or decide the way ahead is too hard. We should not opt out or cut corners or be waylaid by a desire for "engagement" or "innovation".

We should use the research available to us, we should use our experience and the experience of others and we should use the natural collegiate nature of teaching to seize this opportunity and to do it well. Because if we fail, we may not get an opportunity to prove it can work again for some time. And successive generations of children would pay a huge price.

Clare Sealy is a headteacher in London


1. Brooks, DW, Kauffman, DF, Shell, DF, Trainin, G, Wilson, KM and Herr, LM (2009) The Unified Learning Model: how motivational, cognitive, and neurobiological sciences inform best teaching practices (Springer), p32

2. Tulving, E and Donaldson, W (1972) Organization of Memory (Academic Press Inc), p381

3. The Unified Learning Model, p41

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