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Effective Curriculum Design & Learning the Lessons from Sport

Updated: Jun 26, 2020

Any kind of educational reform, even at a school level, is not easy to implement. Speak to any Headteacher who has tried reform the school’s uniform, or the assessment policy, they will tell you how difficult this can be to manage. The kick back from various stakeholders can be biblical at worst, and epic at least. In many of the worst cases these changes reach the local and even the national press. Dealing with this kind of unwanted attention was certainly not part of any of my teacher/ leadership training. Yet this kind of professional scrutiny is the reality for many headteachers and senior school leaders today.

With that in mind changing a nations curriculum, is akin to trying to turn an oil tanker around in the middle of a force 10 gale. I am sure that the educational minister Kirsty Williams, and her team would agree with this? Furthermore, there are many teachers and headteachers who feel frustration and in the dark about how they are supposed to go about getting their curriculum right.

Many schools are only focusing on the content of the curriculum, rather than considering some the wider issues, and in so doing are not seeing the bigger picture. The best way I can explain this phenomenon is by using sporting analogies. Well more specifically rugby, and I make no apologies as a proud Welshman and egg-chaser.

During time playing student rugby league our coach, a huge Yorkshireman with hands like shovels, used to drill us with mantra; “you can’t fire a cannon out of a canoe”. In other words; if the foundations of a team aren’t sound you will never be effective in a game situation; If your defensive structures aren’t correct, then you will never be able to launch effective attacks; and at a personal level if your core strength and fitness are not good enough, you won’t be an effective team player. This mantra has come back to me, over and over again in this time of dramatic educational reform. Dylan William, the baldheaded guru of assessment for learning explains the most important principles of curriculum design:

“A bad curriculum well taught is invariably a better experience for students than a good curriculum badly taught; pedagogy trumps curriculum. Or more precisely, pedagogy is the curriculum.”

Many schools are at very different points along their curriculum’s journey, however in all too many cases schools are trying to tackle their curriculum, without first seriously looking at the quality of pedagogy on offer to learners, as well as considering other important issues. In other words, and as my rugby coach might insist, these schools are ‘trying to fire a cannon from a canoe’.

To try and bring some clarity I often explain meaningful curriculum development in my programmes in the following manner:

The Importance of School Context

Unlike any curriculum reform that has gone before, the content of the new curriculum for wales should be decided by the school. And so, the obvious starting point for any curriculum development is to consider first and foremost:

What are the specific needs of our children, in our context?

What opportunities does the immediate locality provide?

For many inner-city schools this could involve trips to museums, art galleys, shops, opportunities to get involved in commerce or even government. In more rural areas this might involve agriculture or lots of ‘outdoor’, ‘real life’ learning experiences. It is important for schools to consider how they are providing meaningful learning opportunities with purpose. Based on what’s available to them in the locality. After all a good school community is a reflection of its wider community.

The Importance of a Vision; Ask Why?

Simon Sinek, the world-famous business guru, has made his career around a concept. 'Start with the why'. He believes that the only way a team pulls together is by having a higher purpose. This personal sense of connectedness creates highly successful business and sporting teams. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Barcelona FC. The Camp Nou, the hallowed ground where they play, is one of the most intimidating and exciting places in football. Here football is more than a game. It is a rebellion. Why? When you play for Barcelona, you are not just playing a game of football, you are playing for Catalonia. This why, is a very powerful glue that binds players, fans and has been responsible for their past success. Likewise, teachers do not become motivated by data, benchmark quartiles or progress charts. School leaders might want to ask some of the following deep questions of themselves and their staff, inorder to find the why behind your curriculum change:

· Why I am here? What is my purpose?

· Why is this school here? What is its purpose? What are we really trying to achieve?

· What skills/ strengths do I have to bring to this purpose?

· What skills and strengths does my team/ school have to bring to this purpose?

· What does an aspirational learner look like in our context?

· What does an excellent teacher/ leader look like in our context?

· What skills do our children need in their rucksack, when they leave us to be successful and happy in life?

· What do I need to take personal responsibility for, which if I don’t it won’t get done?

· What does this school need to take responsibility for, in our community, which if we don’t address it won’t get done?

If your curriculum can answer these questions, then you have a clear vison of what you are trying to achieve. A clear vison, well communicated is what keeps teams energized, focused, and moving forward. As Daniel Pink, puts it in his book Drive “human beings are motivated by purpose, autonomy and a drive towards mastery”

The Importance of Developing Pedagogy Continuously.

To return to the sporting analogy, sports people spend hours every day honing their skills, and building their physical capacity, to ensure when they are in the pressure cooker of competition they can perform. Perhaps the most famous example of this is seen in the All Blacks, the most successful sporting team of all time. One part of their exceptional success is attributed to their training methods of “practicing under pressure” Like the US Navy SEALs the All Blacks place a great emphasis on ‘exceptional training’. In other words, they train under pressure, and the coaches throw problems at them. This way they train in real time, as they would play in a match. The Author James Kerr, puts it best in his book Legacy, 15 Lessons in Leadership from the All Blacks;

“most people have the will to win; few people have the will to prepare to win.”

Like world class athletes, teachers and leaders should be striving to improve pedagogy in the same way an athlete would train to win. This focus should be deliberate and continual. We do not make huge leaps in performance overnight, or by simply buying in a new scheme of work or implementing a new strategy. This is trying to fire a cannon from a canoe. Instead pedagogical development is slow and happens in small increments. Like water dripping on a stone, the consistency and action and inevitability of time, mean the rock will slowly be shaped by the water. In schools were pedagogy is the ultimate focus, the results take care of themselves. It is what the All Blacks refer to as “improving 100 thing by just 1%”. By finding the 100 aspects of teaching and learning that can be done even 1% better, you achieve marginal gains which creates an incremental and cumulative advantage in performance and results. Like wise every teacher improving their feedback by just 5% will have a greater cumulative effect than 1 teacher improving their feedback 50%.

The Sutton Trust point out the impact of high-quality teaching on outcomes for more socially and economically deprived pupils:

Therefore, it is not a surprise that Professor Graham Donaldson began his design for a new curriculum with his ‘12 pedagogical principles’. The question leaders should be asking is, how I am refining pedagogy to ensure the new curriculum is successful? What aspects of pedagogy do we really need to improve to ensure the curriculum is engaging and relevant for all pupils? Or as the former all blacks coach Graham Henry explains, ‘it is about the players having skin in the game.’ Likewise how can we ensure that our learners have ‘skin’ in their learning?

The Importance of Assessment

This is perhaps the most difficult area to consider, as we are not clear on how the curriculum will be assessed, and what any future examinations might look like. Having said this, the focus on the new curriculum is very much on formative rather than summative assessment practices. Furthermore the Educational Endowment Foundation, and John Hattie both point to the impact of high quality feedback on taking learning forward. Schools must be looking carefully at their marking and feedback policies. Classrooms must be places where teacher’s role model and teach pupils how to give and receive effective feedback through meaningful self and peer assessment practices. Perhaps this best visual example of the power of high quality peer feedback, can be seen in Ron Burgers work, made famous by the you tube clip ‘ Austin’s Butterfly. In which a Year 1 child drafts and re-drafts his picture of a butterfly six times. Each time acting on the advice of his peers, with extraordinary results. The All Blacks have a similar mentality to coaching. They believe ‘leaders are teachers’. In other words, it is not the sole responsibility of the coaching staff to improve standards. Everyone from the kit man to the captain have a shared responsibility in developing each other, for the good of the team. Put in classroom context, it is not just the teachers’ responsibility to give feedback on performance, and improve standards, it is the responsibility of everyone in the class. Great leaders are teachers first and foremost and teaching someone else is bar far the best way to learn. James Kerr refers to the All Blacks mantra:

‘Better People Make Better All Blacks’

It is their commitment to self-growth, and personal performance that makes the team better on the paddock. Like wise ‘Better People make better teachers’…. or perhaps ‘Better people make better learners?’ or even ‘Better learners make better teachers?’ You are better placed to complete the sentence.

In conclusion, if you are only considering the content, and organisation of your curriculum over development of pedagogy and assessment practices, your curriculum will be no different from the last. You will be trying to fire a cannon from a canoe. As William points ‘pedagogy is the curriculum’.

If you enjoyed this blog then you may enjoy some of the other blogs on the site. Such as iLearning the future of education. This blog looks at what needs our future learners will have based on the world they are going into, which includes climate change, Brexit, the rise of Asia and increased automation.


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