The codification of curriculum into booklets or other documents and materials is a powerful tool for resourcing lessons and developing staff thinking and planning. This blogs outlines a useful sequence of steps for guiding the production of booklets – though as the first step suggests, a sequence like this should never be used as a definitive recipe or set of steps to be stuck to at all costs. By analysing the thinking processes that go into booklets we can get a starting point for structuring this thinking in another context. But if we take listed suggestions and turn them into lists of requirements then we inevitably end up with distorted curricular thinking, even if all of the suggestions are good ones. Curriculum is ultimately a very human product and humans tend to come at things in diverse ways. Structure is good for developing thinking; straightjacketing never works if what you want is really thoughtful, specialist work on curriculum within a subject. With our boundary conditions set, as it were, let us proceed with the suggestions:
1: Eschew absolutism
I don’t know why anyone would ever seek to skin a cat, but apparently there is more than one way of doing it, and the same applies to booklets. I’ve seen absolutely brilliant examples of booklets that are completely different in the way they’ve presented the content, the structure, the sequencing of the questions… discussion over the best way is definitely healthy, and there are lots of terrible ways to do things, but don’t get hung up on finding the single optimal version of something: chances are, there is more than one.
2: Understand what booklets can and can’t do
Booklets can never be your whole curriculum. They can’t replace teacher expertise, subject knowledge, planning, handling of a class, and teaching. However, they can be a highly effective minimum guarantee of content, explanation, sequencing and practice, a way of bringing quality text into every lesson, a way of providing Shed Loads Of Practice (SLOP), and a powerful CPD tool and discussion point. They are so so worth the effort, but if they are taken as being something they are not, then you will have problems.
3. Look at what others are doing
It’s always worth engaging with the subject community and seeing what other people are doing. It’s possible you might be able to use part or all of something created by somebody else – although don’t be deceived into thinking that means no further work is needed – the curriculum must be thought through just as much if it has been built elsewhere. Thinking is what makes it work in the classroom. Approach others’ work with a critical eye as well though: what they have done may not be what you want for your department and you must have the intellectual courage to recognise this where it is the case. Articulating what you don’t want to take from other contexts and why is an excellent route into clarity about what you do want and is therefore a very valuable activity.
4: Start with the big picture
No booklet should ever be written without a wider curriculum plan spanning the key stage or stages. The knowledge within a booklet must play a part in a whole; it must build on prior learning and prepare for learning still to come. None of this can be reflected in a booklet unless the big picture has been mapped out first.
5: Work backwards from progression
What do you want students to be able to do after having studied the unit covered by the booklet, that they couldn’t do before? This will depend largely on the type of knowledge in the subject – will they just be able to answer questions on an expanded domain – i.e. they know about the stuff in the booklet and before they didn’t know about it? Will they be better at certain processes, be able to write or produce a certain standard of response to a certain type of task? If mapping of the big picture has been done effectively, these progression questions will be easy to answer – if they need a lot of thought then it is probably worth going back to that big picture and making sure you have given the progression across the whole curriculum the thought it deserves.
6: Strands of knowledge
What content will you include in the booklets to support the students in their journey along the progression you have identified? What explanations? What examples? Depending on the subject, examples might be manifestations of a principle or phenomenon in real life, worked examples of problems solved or pieces of scholarly writing or other material from experts in the discipline itself. You might have considered substantive and disciplinary knowledge, or theory and practice, or any number of classifications of knowledge. Look to the subject community, to blogs, books, and articles, and to the National Curriculum and exam specifications to prompt your thought about the different types of knowledge in your curriculum.
7. Sequencing of content
When writing an essay we are often advised to write out all our main points across a page, and then number them to form a logical sequence, and the same process is useful for ordering the knowledge for a booklet into a meaningful sequence. Remember point 1 above: there is probably more than one good way; if a sequence has been carefully thought about then it has a good chance of being successful. Various principles can apply, moving from simple to complex, from easy to hard, from component to composite, from familiar to alien or following a chronological path are all valid; although never absolute. In sequencing material, we are telling a story for meaning, and building up knowledge for understanding. Your intuition and sense of narrative and challenge will be important guides.
8. Quality of explanation
What are the things that will make it hard for students to understand the content of your booklet? It the knowledge very abstract? Is there a lot of challenging vocabulary or sentence structure? Are there a lot of inferences to be made? Are there a large number of components interacting to produce a complex outcome? Your explanations should make hard content as easy as possible – through modelling, labelling, dual coding, explaining small parts in a logical order, using analogies and concrete examples. Andy Tharby’s book “How to Explain Absolutely Anything to Anyone” is an excellent resource here.
What are the questions and activities that you can set for students in order to force them to spend time thinking about the knowledge you want them to learn, and practising the processes you want them to internalise? Comprehension questions? Application questions? Problems to solve? Partial completion problems? Activities from The Writing Revolution? Exam-style questions? You probably can’t include all the questions that would fit all the groups, and that’s ok, this work can and should be supplemented by teacher planning. But what is a really good set of questions for everyone to start their planning from? How can the sequencing of this practice build students’ confidence, proficiency and understanding?
10. A cycle of review
Being able to record thoughts on the contents of booklets, discuss at an appropriate point/s as a team, and feed this discussion into future iterations of the booklet, is a mark of a healthy department. As the booklets steadily develop, so too does the team, as the thought and conversation that is needed is precisely thought and conversation about what you are teaching the students, what works best, what doesn’t and why. For a curriculum-led department, what more could you ask for?