How to build a knowledge-based curriculum for primary pupils

6th July 2018 at 00:00
The best way to nurture creative, critical thinkers who will succeed in secondary school is to pursue a curriculum rich in knowledge, argues Clare Sealy. Here, she offers her top tips to get you started

The term “knowledge-based curriculum” frequently provokes consternation. “Surely all curriculums teach knowledge?” comes the bemused response.

Well, allow me to take you back in time to when I was teaching Year 4 about the Romans. I’d found this lesson plan for explaining how the Romans made roads – it suggested getting children to reproduce the structure: using pebbles for one layer (which we made out of clay), gravel for the next (I think we used cat litter) and then Modroc for the top layer. It took ages and was very messy, and possibly quite fun.

The knowledge inherent in all this activity was pretty tenuous, though. Probably what the class remembered was some vague picture of making a lot of mess. What was not covered was how the fact that Romans had effective road-building technology (while others did not) contributed to them being able to establish their vast empire. We did not discuss how this facilitated trade or troop movements. We did not contrast their technology with that of the people they conquered. I don’t even think we learned the word “conquered” for that matter, let alone any detail of who exactly conquered whom and when or why.

A knowledge-based curriculum is one that makes sure that teaching is geared towards learning key knowledge as its main objective. This is in contrast with other types of curriculum that have something else as their main objective. For example, although we didn’t call it this, I was probably teaching an activity-based curriculum. Activities came first – fun things to fill the afternoon, lightly flavoured with a hint of Romans. This, in turn, could be contrasted with a skills-based curriculum that is geared towards promoting things such as collaboration or resilience.

Activity-based curriculums are fairly easy to dismiss. Surely, in our role as educators, we want to teach the children something, not just get them to do stuff.

Skills-based curricula are much more serious rivals to knowledge-based curricula. The argument is between those who believe that we should be teaching generic skills such as inference or explanations – where knowledge plays a secondary role as a vehicle to the skill being learned – and those who believe that we should be teaching knowledge and, by so doing, we will be giving children the very tools they need in order to make inferences and proffer explanations.

Those who argue for the second do so because they believe that skills-based curricula do not take account of the importance of knowing specific stuff in order to be able to think critically and creatively and transfer learning from one context to another independently. Put simply, we need knowledge to think with. Knowledge is the “teeth” in the gears of understanding. Without knowledge, understanding cannot gain any traction.

If we want to think critically about the success of the Roman Empire, we need to know a fair bit about it in a very specific way. If we want our children to grow up to be the kind of adults who can critique and resist imperialist claims for themselves, for example, then having secure knowledge of what made different empires succeed and fail will be rather helpful.

To build a knowledge-based curriculum requires schools to think hard about what exactly they want children to actually learn and remember in the long term. Instead of just “doing the Romans”, schools need to think about what is the specific knowledge about the Romans that they want children to learn. Given that there is an almost infinite amount of stuff children could learn, how are we going to decide what is really important? What kinds of knowledge are most likely to serve the child well, way beyond the confines of their primary education? How can we make sure that pupils are suitably equipped to handle demanding content in secondary school and beyond, having been given what Cambridge academic and Inspiration Trust director of education Christine Counsell calls “a well-developed hinterland of knowledge” from which to draw?

We need to ensure that this hinterland is well stocked with vocabulary, concepts and specific examples from each of the specific subjects we teach, if we are to do give our pupils the kind of curriculum that will help them thrive at secondary school.

Introducing knowledge organisers is one way to start. A knowledge organiser is a document – ideally just one piece of A4 – that outlines the key facts, vocabulary, concepts and examples that you want children to have learned by the end of the topic. That does not mean that you will only teach what is on the organiser. You will want to make sure that this knowledge is analysed and applied in a variety of contexts. But it forms a sort of bottom line; whatever else they do in their history lessons, by the end of the topic, they will know these dates, these names, these events, these reasons.

After that, you need to consider how the knowledge acquired term by term fits together to tell a larger story. Are concepts that are learned in one year subsequently revisited in different contexts so that pupils’ understanding becomes richer and more nuanced? The curriculum should be crafted so that, for example, by the time they leave primary school, children have studied not just plants but these specific plants, deliberately chosen because they exhibit a range of adaptations to different environments, and the specific detail should contribute to richer, more generalised understanding of the deep structure of biology. Or they should have studied not just empires but these empires.

Deciding to move over to a knowledge-based curriculum can be daunting. However, the work of discussing as a team what should and shouldn’t be on your curriculum is, in itself, valuable. Doing so will strengthen the subject knowledge of your teachers as they make choices about what is crucial and what is peripheral. Given the size of the task, ideally schools should work together in clusters to do this. Inviting a subject specialist secondary colleague along can be really helpful, too.

The pressures of the accountability regime have warped our understanding of what a great education consists of. It’s not simply about getting great Sats scores in English and maths. It’s about empowering children with rich knowledge that will sustain them throughout and beyond their secondary schooling; knowledge that enables them to become the creative, critical thinkers we came into the profession to nurture.

Clare Sealy is headteacher at St Matthias School, a primary in East London

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