I had the privilege of speaking with Alex Pethick recently about all things primary curriculum and it really got me reflecting on the many nuances of a connected curriculum. Talk about curriculum coherence is commonplace within the current discourse and refers to organising parts of the curriculum so they lay the foundations for cumulative knowledge building over time. But connectedness, is less discussed due to the contention associated with how the primary curriculum ‘should’ be structured and debates surrounding ‘topic-based learning’ vs discrete subject disciplines. But does it have to be one or the other? Can we reconcile these two constructs to maximise pupil learning? If we really drill down to why connectedness matters in the primary curriculum a few arguments can be made:
-Cognitive principles underpinning how we best learn suggest that our knowledge and understanding develop best when ‘pinned’ to our existing and prior knowledge (Deans of Impact 2015)
-By connecting different areas of the curriculum we give our pupils the opportunity to deepen understanding of individual concepts and ideas and transition between inflexible knowledge (the state that knowledge exists in when initially acquired) to flexible knowledge (the state that knowledge exists in when it has been developed in sufficient depth and can be understood in multiple concepts) (Willingham 2002)
-A connected curriculum offers ample opportunity for pupils to retrieve and therefore strengthen their knowledge, meaning it’s remembered and they can use it. (Karpicke, J. D., & Roediger, H. L. 2008)
This makes the work of curriculum design in primary a complex business involving intentional choices being made around how best to select knowledge (the content of the curriculum) and create meaningful connections both within and across subjects (the connectedness of the curriculum.)
As with all curriculum choices there are as Alex eloquently described ‘opportunity costs’- we have to be able to make the hard decisions about both content and connections and a key part of this is the collective sense making process that underpins curriculum design work. By making this process as collaborative and rigorous as possible, we can ensure decisions are made with the right mix of subject expertise (derived from subject specialists and curriculum designers) and craft expertise (derived from teachers who actively deliver the curriculum day to day). One need not come at the cost of the other!
Maintaining a close link between the two ensures that the top-level curriculum design is rooted in the realities of the classroom and how knowledge will be actively mobilised. If divorced, curriculum design becomes a shiny paper exercise that captures an idealistic intended curriculum that never comes to pass and offers minimal benefit for pupils, no matter how structurally sound.
All of the above is not easy work, but connection seems to be a recurring theme and perhaps that’s a good place to start.
-Connection in our curriculum subject.
-Connection between the evidence base and the curriculum design.
-Connection between curriculum design and delivery.
-Connection between curriculum delivery and curriculum refinement.
‘Eventually everything connects- peoples, ideas, objects. The quality of connection is the key to quality per se’ Charles Eames