You learn many skills in teacher training, but how to design an exciting, engaging curriculum isn't usually one of them.
"We have a generation of teachers and leaders in schools who have only ever taught the national curriculum, often using `off the shelf' schemes of work," says Sue Hellman, director of UK consultancy and knowledge transfer at London's UCL Institute of Education (IoE). "Teachers today have not been trained to design their own school curricula."
This is unfortunate. Constantly reviewing and updating a school curriculum ensures that teaching is relevant and informed by the latest research. Such reviews are also useful for tailoring learning to a school's unique context. And although the national curriculum is a statutory requirement, it allows for a lot of autonomy.
Thankfully, help is now at hand in the form of the Grand Curriculum Designs (GCD) project. Over the past 18 months, the programme, run by the IoE and the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), has set out to help teachers at the 60 participating schools to design exciting and unique curricula.
"Those engaged in the GCD programme undertake a research-informed curriculum innovation project within their own school, engaging students, parents and the community," says Hellman, who is leading the scheme.
Joe Hallgarten, director of education at the RSA, explains that the idea was prompted by the introduction of the new slimmed-down national curriculum.
"There is space beyond the national curriculum, and schools can exploit that space in an innovative way, thinking about their own aims, priorities and values," he says.
The 60 schools on the programme are now ready to share the benefits of their experience, with a 14-point plan for designing your own curriculum.
1 Know what you want to achieve
Before you consider what you deliver and how you're going to deliver it, think about the purpose of your curriculum. How does it link with your school's vision? What kind of children do you want your pupils to be? How can the school help them to become those people?
One London school with a diverse student population, for example, wanted its students to become global citizens, engaged with the culture on their doorstep. As a result, every aspect of the curriculum was designed with this aim in mind.
2 Forget the national curriculum at first
A primary school in rural Devon altered its planning so that instead of teachers delivering discrete topics, they devised a shared question for the whole school: would you rather be a cow in North Devon or India? Teachers arrived at this question by ignoring the national curriculum in the first instance. Instead, they made the aims and values of the school their starting point, informed by discussions with parents, children and staff about what they thought was important and interesting. Only then did they bring in the national curriculum to see how it could fit. The resulting schemes of work included learning about the local area and the wider world, and researching topics such as milk production, farming and vegetarianism.
3 Have a clear definition of success
At one school, teachers and children were asked to draw a stick figure and label it with the traits of a "successful learner". Children equated success with being "good" at subjects, whereas teachers highlighted competencies such as independence and resilience. Clearly, the teachers' values were not being communicated by the curriculum. "That simple exercise was a powerful tool for us to look at the gap in our values," the deputy headteacher says. The curriculum was then redesigned to focus on desired behaviours and the way the students learned, as well as what they learned.
4 Concentrate on competencies
It is tempting to focus entirely on what you want your students to "know" through the curriculum, but it is just as important to work on what they can do.
It is useful to introduce a weekly element into the curriculum to celebrate this. One school chose a different characteristic each week - for example, the ability to work collaboratively - and students would nominate each other when they saw that characteristic in action. The best examples were then shared with the school in a weekly session.
Another school, a primary, used puppets to support this idea. If a child struggled with being resilient, for example, the puppet "Resilient Rosie" sat with them to lend a helping hand.
5 Learn from other schools
Find out about curricula in other countries and visit local schools to share ideas. It is easy to get stuck in your own bubble; looking outwards can bring ideas and self-reflection.
"Grand Curriculum Designs gave us the opportunity to talk to colleagues from around the country and abroad," one school leader says. "It's about having that professional conversation."
6 Work with your community
"A curriculum that is solely controlled by teachers is just as damaging and dangerous as a curriculum that's controlled by politicians," says RSA director Hallgarten. "If schools are given the freedom to develop their curricula, they need to work in partnership with their community to do that."
One London school focused on creating learning experiences with outside cultural organisations. Instead of a dance troupe or a theatre company coming in to the school for a one-off event, they met school leaders and attended classes before eventually delivering one themselves. They appreciated the pupils' prior learning and adapted their lessons accordingly.
7 Get pupils' opinions
Children are less likely to be passive learners if they have a say in what they study. In one school, a project on the First World War began with teachers directing the learning. Then the children's interests (weaponry and the role of women in war) guided the second phase of learning. Another school developed a curriculum task force to engage children in its planning. A third created a "pupil parliament", with a "treasure and trash" activity asking children what they liked about their learning and what they would dump.
8 Engage with the local environment
One school in Devon was close to the coast yet a lot of its children had never visited the beach. So the new curriculum factored in seaside trips and taught them about their local area. "We wanted to give the children an appreciation and an awareness of where they lived," the headteacher explains.
Likewise, a London school realised that learning about the capital was absent from its curriculum. So it introduced London-based topics and trips, and turned the school into a museum about the city for the parents to visit.
Another school, housed in a listed building, allowed children to research its past for the first time. "It's bonkers that our locality had never been considered before," the deputy headteacher says.
9 Take your time
Redesigning a curriculum is not a quick fix. If it's going to be exciting, you need time to think as well as space to take risks.
"We have an ethos that everyone's a learner, including staff," one leader says. "We've given every member of staff an extra hour of CPD and we encourage them to read, research or record lessons."
Another headteacher says that study topics used to be thought up a week before the holidays but are now devised six weeks earlier - although they're not put into practice until parents, children and other stakeholders have been consulted and agreed on a course of action.
10 Include families
Engaging parents makes them feel more involved in their children's education. Ask their opinions and you will probably receive some great ideas.
11 Create cross-curricular links
One primary school had been repeating a unit called "What keeps teddy dry?" for years. Children would soak their bears and learn the science behind the process of drying. It was fun but not connected to anything else.
Now teachers do things differently. The school is based in London so it was decided that pupils would study the Great Fire of London. First, they built wooden models of a 17th-century town. Then they visited a local museum and researched the event. They finally took their towns into the playground and set fire to them to investigate the way that materials burn.
"We wouldn't have had the confidence to join up so many things before," one of the teachers says. "The children absolutely loved it."
12 Be innovative
"We're not saying there is an off-the-shelf curriculum solution for every school," Hallgarten says. "It's about getting schools to think deeply about their aims and purposes, and to structure the curriculum to meet the interests of all their learners." Schools should not be afraid to make bold choices and to test-drive extreme ideas.
13 Measure the impact
After each scheme of work, it is essential for schools to explore students' and staff members' reactions. "At the end of a unit, children say what they enjoyed and what they didn't enjoy and we adjust our planning accordingly," one teacher explains. "Before, if a unit didn't work, we weren't sure what to do about it."
Teachers involved in the programme insist that pupils are now more engaged in class, with one saying: "In terms of the richness and quality of their work, it's much more impressive."
Another adds: "The children are more absorbed in their learning and more reflective."
14 Keep on moving
To design an innovative curriculum, you should do away with a fixed mindset.
"We're very keen to move away from a two-year rolling plan," one teacher says. "We also want planning to be different each term so that we are thinking about what our children need at that point in their lives."
Another says that the programme has helped to get children ready for a world that is constantly changing. "A lot of the jobs they'll go on to do don't even exist at the moment," she says. "We need to prepare them to be learners in any context."
Kate Bohdanowicz is a teacher in East London. Learn more about the Grand Curriculum Designs programme.
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