I think of deciding to make massive changes in our curriculum and teaching model as being like the moment that Harry Potter faces the brick wall in Kings Cross Station, knowing that he needs to run straight through it to reach Platform 9 and ¾ to something so much more exciting – so much more needed. There were rumours of wondrous things on the other side, from people who said that they had been there: the magical wizardry of a knowledge-rich curriculum. Having spent the best part of a year researching knowledge-rich and knowing deep down that this was the right thing for our students, still I had doubts. As I stared a red brick wall made up of traditional expectations, conventional ideas, and, most powerful of all, my own preconceptions about teaching, I was full of conviction that we were doing the right thing, even in a climate where so few dare to be radical.
Plucking up the courage, I gathered my belongings, my wand, my faithful schemes of work… and ran straight at the wall, closing my eyes and hoping…
The first step to creating and embedding a knowledge-rich approach in the Amethyst Trust was to consider the challenges of new qualifications and twenty-first century life from all possible angles. My head was filled with questions: Why was it important to take a more knowledge-rich approach? What knowledge did we need students to have? How could we adapt our teaching to make the teaching of knowledge as successful as possible? How might we assess differently to track students’ growing levels of knowledge? And how could we use all of these changes as an opportunity to tackle some of the problems of the profession, such as teacher retention and workload burnout?
It was at this point, when finding myself excited by the possibilities of answering these questions, that I realised that the first piece of the puzzle was staring me in the face – Questions!
Dusting off well-worn and successful lesson plans, I was struck by how stale and unhelpful I now found some of the things that I had always considered to be part and parcel of strong teaching. Like Harry staring dumbfounded at his letter from Hogwarts – a school not yet part of a MAT, as far as I know – I glimpsed the possibility of doing things differently, and I felt instinctively that we needed to do one thing to begin to make the change towards a more knowledge-rich experience.
We needed to get them excited about answering questions again.
At the heart of all knowledge-rich teaching is one simple premise: that questions need answers. And, even more than this, that there are some questions so fundamentally important that all children deserve to be given the chance to be equipped to answer them. Looking at the lesson planning that I had done during the first decade of my career, I began to consider how much time and energy I had spent devising, revising and summarising learning objectives – and how little time students had spent really engaging with them. I also thought back to all of the times I had led CPD sessions with teachers about writing learning objectives “properly”, and how many time I had observed learning experiences and judged them primarily on how effectively these objectives. Had it all been a waste of time?
I don’t believe that learning objectives are without merit, but too often they are just window dressing which makes us think that we are planning effective learning – a false sense of security. My first thought in moving towards a knowledge-rich curriculum was that we needed to strip back this layer of unnecessary bureaucracy, and focus on what really makes a difference in the classroom: getting students answering the right questions. Indeed, Learning.
Over the Spring Term, the Amethyst Trust moved away from using learning objectives to structure learning sequences, and instead moved to a system of Big Questions and Small Questions. Simply put, the Big Questions stretch over a sequence of lessons and are something that students should be built up to being able to answer; there is a Small Question for each lesson which helps students to have a clear frame of reference for a lesson, and allows both teachers and students to judge how successful the lesson has been more easily. This was rolled out across both Moreton and Aldersley, with all departments and teachers moving over to using Big and Small Questions instead of learning objectives, supported with appropriate CPD and developed in department time and by facilitating additional INSET opportunities.
With all of these questions flying around the Amethyst Trust, like the owl-delivered letters flying through the Dursleys’ fireplace in Privet Drive, I was left with one more Big Question:
If we could change learning objectives, what else could we change?
I didn’t hit the red brick wall. Instead, I emerged on a platform of possibility, packed with like-minded educators who were ready to jump aboard the train in search of new experiences and possibilities. As the engine chugs into life and we head off into unknown adventures in a knowledge-rich world, I am again excited by questions, excited about asking questions about the best ways to educate the students of the twenty-first century.
As responsible teachers we should always be trying to ask great questions of our students, but the most powerful and telling questions of all should be the ones that we ask ourselves, in order to make sure that we are always striving to make learning full of magical moments, conjuring wonderful experiences with the wizarding gifts that we have been fortunate enough to have been given.
On Friday 16th November the Amethyst Academies Trust will be holding a conference where we share our journey towards a knowledge-rich curriculum. In addition to talks from colleagues there will be an opportunity to tour the schools and see our curriculum in action. Tickets are £15 per delegate and can be booked through the eventbrite website linked below.
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