Beware The Reverse-Engineered Curriculum (or The Potential Pitfalls Of Retrieval Practice)

Beware the reverse-engineered curriculum (or the potential pitfalls of retrieval practice | Aidan Severs Consulting

Aren't Knowledge Organisers brilliant? Isn't Retrieval Practice just the bees knees? As for Powerful Knowledge... sigh - the stuff dreams are made of.

Over the last couple of years, many of us have taken the outcomes of relatively recent research and applied it to the way we teach and we are pleased with how it's going - children are actually learning, retaining and retrieving information, something which, if we're honest, didn't always happen before.

But what seems to me to have happened is that we have found something that actually, reliably works, and we have made our curricula work for it. We've realised that retrieval practice does make a difference and we've begun to design a curriculum which focuses on what can be learned by that method.

What Sort Of Knowledge Do We Mean?

Sure, there are other arguments for teaching Powerful Knowledge - it's supposed to ‘enable students to acquire knowledge that takes them beyond their own experiences’ (Young et al., 2014, p. 7) and for this reason it is often held up as essential for children from disadvantaged backgrounds who we see as needing to be upwardly-mobile socially. Powerful Knowledge is seen to be the answer to closing the gap between the rich and the poor. Perhaps it isn't even Powerful Knowledge that we're even talking about here, but actually what is known as Declarative Knowledge - facts and information stored in the memory. I'm not sure Powerful Knowledge could be defined so narrowly. Powerful Knowledge is supposed to be more than that. Whatever terminology we use, the focus on knowledge is potentially narrowing what is taught and how it is taught. And this narrowing is perhaps now coming as a result of the most vaunted method of teaching the knowledge from a knowledge-rich curriculum: retrieval practice. And more specifically, the activity that seems to have become synoymous with retrieval practice: quizzing.

What CAN We Use Retrieval Practice For? Because retrieval practice works so well, we seem to have searched out the things that best suit the method: the sort of information that can be retrieved and recited e.g. history dates, word definitions, geographic processes, scientific theories and outlines of philosophical concepts, for example. But is it right to have allowed a certain understanding of the concept of Powerful Knowledge to reduce our curriculum to the identification of exactly which pieces of information we are going to teach, and to the teaching of that information using retrieval practice techniques? Indeed, possessing Powerful Knowledge, and being able to retrieve it, is supposed to be so much more than rote learning; more than memorising and regurgitating facts. Done right, it should, lead to better understanding and it should improve complex thinking and application skills. But is an approach to teaching and learning which is satisfied by children who can simply recall information really what's best? The recall of information is not the end of the story. A high score on a (supposedly low stakes) quiz should not mean job done.

Beyond Recalling Facts Actually, I'd argue, once the facts are memorised, that's when the real teaching and learning begins. Once children know the facts, that's when they can start to use and apply them in various ways. Powerful Knowledge is supposed to allow us to generalise and use what we've learned to think beyond the immediate context. And don't forget procedural knowledge - how to do things. You can't teach writing, artistic techniques or how to use a tool just by teaching facts. Any time we model something (and this is something we should do a lot in teaching) we are teaching procedural knowledge. This procedural knowledge is separate from 'common sense' knowledge which we gain from everyday life, and therefore lands it more in the realms of Powerful Knowledge. However, the focus on bolstering the curriculum with declarative knowledge has the potential to leave procedural knowledge behind. A balanced approach is needed.

Reflection Time Does your recently-re-written curriculum (all 'i's dotted - intent, implementation and impact) allow the learning to go beyond the retrieval of facts? Or has a child who has learned all the dates on the knowledge organiser and filled in the gaps in the booklet succeeded in all you set out to do? And did that child get the opportunity to do anything else that half term, or did they spend all of their time ensuring they knew all the facts? If we reverse-engineer the curriculum based on one teaching method which allows one aspect of what might be taught to be taught, then we might not end up with the curriculum we really need. Those of us involved in curriculum design or review should think carefully about the problems we are trying to solve in order to decide on the criteria we need to set for our curriculum development. We should definitely identify the declarative knowledge we want children to learn - the facts, the information - but we should also be thinking about other kinds of knowledge too.

Things to think about

  • Don't narrow your curriculum down to just the things that can be learned through quizzing.

  • Think more broadly about how a greater range of retrieval practice techniques can be used to help children learn things from a wider knowledge base than just simple facts and figures.

  • Ensure that your curriculum really meets the needs of the children in your school and let them be your starting point.

If you would like Aidan to work with you on curriculum design, use the contact details on this page or click on the links below to make a booking:

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