Updated: Jun 27, 2022
Lekha Sharma recently wrote a short but very provocative blog post about the connectedness of the primary curriculum. It prompted an interesting discussion on Twitter between some people who know their stuff and it prompted me to write this.
My other prompt was an afternoon of lessons that I taught in a year 4 class. This post is not about my teaching, or even about pedagogical choices, it's more simply about how a well-designed cross-curricular approach to curriculum design can aid learning.
One of the main aims of our curriculum – and a key influence in its design – is the idea that when we learn we retain new knowledge by connecting it to knowledge that we already have stored. This process is called building schema. It’s basically the process of our brain categorising information and saying ‘Aha! I know something about this already, so I can file this new thing here with that old thing – they make sense together.’ By designing a curriculum this way we have kept the end user in mind (the child) and have stayed true to our aims of helping children to learn new things.
There are other mechanisms and artefacts built into our curriculum design and the pedagogical choices that we have made, but for now, let’s focus on how the deliberate connectedness of our curriculum works. To do this, I’d like to share a case study – the aforementioned afternoon in year 4.
Before we go any further, I’d like to share my (sort of strange) way of looking at two contrasting types of curriculum:
The Biscuit Curriculum: this was inspired by an image that was shared on social media. It shows how one could use biscuits to teach all of the primary subjects. If this were indeed an actual plan for a unit of work in a primary school (I happen to know it isn't) we would have to conclude that some of the links are weak and tenuous – it would appear that the design of this curriculum unit has started with the idea of biscuits and worked from there, rather than starting with the subjects and the content that needs to be taught. Like biscuits themselves, this kind of curriculum is prone to crumble.
The Anne Robinson Curriculum: ‘You are the weakest link; goodbye.’ Most of us remember this iconic figure and her catchphrase – she shook up the whole TV quiz format by basically being quite unkind to the contestants (frosty at best). If Anne were to design a primary curriculum she would have no truck with the kinds of weak links that appear in Biscuit Curricula. She would only design a curriculum which has strong, relevant links: meaningful connectedness.
In case in needs spelling out to you, the Anne Robinson Curriculum is clearly the superior one – no contest.
Clare Sealy, in her seminal blog post about 3D curriculum talks of three kinds of link: vertical, horizontal and diagonal. This blog post will focus on the horizontal links: links that can be made across subjects, within a year group (and in our case study, across subjects, within one afternoon).
An afternoon in year 4
The Do Now
One of the artefacts of our approach is to have Do Nows as part of our transition routine. They allow children to engage in something meaningful from the moment they step into the classroom – typically these take place first thing in the morning, after morning break and after lunch break. They also might feature where there is a transition between two lessons. Do Nows can be a range of things, although, as mentioned, should have a purpose relating to the curriculum.
The Do Now that the year 4 team had planned for me (I was covering ECT time) centred around a beautiful piece of artwork from Peter Doig entitled ‘Red Boat (Imaginary Boys)’. The questions were open-ended and weren’t designed to attempt to shoehorn some reading practice in, although children were required to make inferences and to activate prior knowledge. It seemed like a wise choice not to equate making inferences from a picture with making inferences from a text (which is a much more complex process). The true purpose of the task was to engage the children in thinking and then to encourage them to give reasons for what they thought about the painting. Not only did this bring art into the day (which is never a bad thing) it also generated discussion, and gave the children a chance to practice some of the most essential skills that they would need later on in the afternoon.
The Reading Lesson
One part of our process of teaching reading is reciprocal reading. Reciprocal reading provides a structure for teachers and children to engage in the development of some core reading comprehension strategies: predicting, clarifying, questioning and summarising.
The text that had been chosen was ‘I Asked the River’, a poem by Valerie Bloom. Why? Because the year 4 unit of work this half term is led by the question ‘Where Does All The Water In The World Come From?’. Also because its just a really good idea to feature poetry in the reading curriculum. When it comes to texts linked to the curriculum, it’s not just this poem that has been selected; the class fiction text is ‘Journey to the River Sea’ by Eva Ibbotson and the unit is supported by many excellent recently-published non-fiction texts.
The focus of the poem is on what a river’s natural state should be and how it has been altered by mankind’s pollution (that’s my summary of our summary in the reciprocal reading session). We started off hearing the poem read (I did that, so that children got a chance to hear it read fluently, and with rhythm and flow – especially essential for a poem about a river), we then moved onto clarifying some of the words, providing definitions and discussing contextual meaning. To finish with, children had to answer three simple questions which focused on a general understanding of the text.
We could have read any poem, but it made sense to read one that linked to the unit of work. Was this a forced link? Of course not – it’s just common sense. Throughout the reading lesson we were able to begin to explore ideas about water pollution, unpicking metaphors and personification, giving the children an excellent starting point for the following lesson.
The Geography Lesson
The geography lesson began almost seamlessly with us moving on from a discussion about why the poet describes the river as having lungs (to mark it out as a living thing which by logic can also become a dead thing) to an exploration of the causes and effects of water pollution. I say ‘almost seamlessly’ because prior to this new content we completed a multiple choice quiz on their prior knowledge about rivers - another of our artefacts is that each unit has a set of around 10 clearly defined pieces of knowledge that all children must learn and one of the mechanisms for this learning is retrieval practice of various kinds. This particular quiz involved aspects of this essential knowledge, as well as the retrieval of more secondary, but no less interesting, pieces of knowledge.
Another reason it wasn’t too seamless is that we stopped briefly to observe the fact that the content we were about to learn comes from a discipline called ‘geography’. In a connected curriculum it is important to ensure that children understand this, not just so that they can tell an inspector what they’ve learned in geography, but so that they have a better chance of connecting new learning to prior learning.
To be honest, there was nothing much more remarkable about this lesson other than the fact that its content and place in the curriculum exhibits how good, strong connections can be made across subjects within a year group. On reflection, and after some recent conversations with the new geography leader, we could do with developing the pedagogy around the teaching of geography to ensure that the content is delivered in a way that truly showcases just how interesting it actually is.
The Science Lesson
I didn’t teach this part of the day, but I was interested to note what the content of the following lesson was. Having put together the curriculum overviews as well as the long term curriculum plan, it was me who chose to match this science unit to this geography unit.
This particular unit of work is what we would call geography-led and it is matched to the science unit on Change of State/Solids, Liquids and Gases. It also covers the science objective relating to the water cycle. Is it a reach to link all the following objectives together under one unit of work? I don’t think so.
· Geography: describe and understand key aspects of physical geography, including: rivers and the water cycle
· Geography: name and locate counties and cities of the United Kingdom, geographical regions and their key topographical features (including rivers)
· Science: compare and group materials together, according to whether they are solids, liquids or gases
· Science: observe that some materials change state when they are heated or cooled, and measure or research the temperature at which this happens in degrees Celsius (°C)
· Science: identify the part played by evaporation and condensation in the water cycle and associate the rate of evaporation with temperature
Understanding the water cycle is key to understanding what a river is and how it works. Understanding changing states of matter, in this case water, is essential to understanding how the water cycle works. The sets of objectives from each discipline go together well and to teach them in tandem (in a logical sequence of course) makes sense – it would also make sense if the geography objectives followed the science objectives in any kind of sequence.
A word on further links
This curriculum unit is characterised by its key concepts: Environment, Responsibility and Natural Process. The first concept is one that has been touched upon several times before in our curriculum; the second two are concepts that are introduced by this unit and returned to in subsequent units, both in year 4 and beyond.
For example, later in year 4, in a unit led by the question ‘What if there were no more rainforest?, children continue to learn about the environment and our responsibility for its wellbeing. They also focus on the Amazon rainforest which requires essential knowledge about rivers, learned in the unit we’ve been discussing above. In year 6, when children learn about mountains and volcanoes, understanding of natural processes, such as erosion, as well as just the concept of what natural processes are, is required for them to understand aspects of mountain formation.
With regards to the key concept of environment, this key concept provides a link back to prior learning not only within the domain of geography, but also that of history: children have previously learned about how the environment in Neolithic times changed and how it influenced how the people lived.
Anne vs. Biscuit
Although I would always, always advise schools to steer clear of the biscuit curriculum, I’d also point them towards developing a good Anne Robinson curriculum over and above designing a curriculum where subjects are taught completely discretely. It’s a balance – one that is not easy to find, but one that is worth finding. When teachers are confident that strong links are baked into the curriculum, and when teachers know what those links are and can refer to them, and when they can be sure that the prior knowledge that their units depend on have actually been taught, children will have a much better chance of learning and remembering new material.
If we can be deliberate in this – why on earth wouldn’t we do it?