“Never do anything by halves if you want to get away with it. Be outrageous. Go the whole hog”
So said Matilda in Roald Dahl’s brilliant book of the same name, the inspiration for generations of children up and down the country, including myself at their age. And a devil-may-care mantra was the one that we adopted when thinking about how to revolutionise our curriculum to make it knowledge-rich. In seeking to affect a sea change in our Trust’s practice and pedagogy, we were determined to not only be bold and decisive in our thinking, but also to leave no stone unturned in creating the knowledge-rich learning experiences that they deserved.
It was again to the words of Roald Dahl that we turned when throwing our curriculum up in the air. This time, though, it was my favourite of his books – his beloved BFG. When the BFG moves stealthily through the night air with his dream-trumpet and his case full of dream jars, it is to share magical dreams with sleeping children, that he might bring inspiration and excitement to their lives. In trying to bring inspiration and excitement to the teaching of our students, the Amethyst Trust asked our teachers and leaders to cease to be bound by earthly constraints and to dare to dream again.
We asked them to devise their Dream Curriculum.
The BFG tells Sophie “We is in Dream Country… where all dreams is beginning”, and it was with the curriculum that we truly began our journey towards a knowledge-rich school – because the curriculum is the foundation on which all of the other aspects of our new approach were to stand. So we asked our teachers to think about what their dream curriculum would look like in their subject… and then we let them do it.
A talented colleague who is responsible for the curriculum led the process to go back to the drawing board of what their five and seven-year curriculum should look like. We gave them a few key questions, a long roll of wallpaper and the freedom of some valuable INSET time and asked them to consider one question, simple-sounding yet complex in its execution:
What is the knowledge that our students need to have, and which is the best order to teach it to them?
Starting with the end of the educational journey, departments and teachers worked backwards, redesigning the curriculum pathway that our students would work. First, they agreed on the key knowledge that students would need to have by the end; next, they plotted the best sequence of learning, thinking about the needs of students and not their own convenience; finally, they planned in when students would be asked to revisit this knowledge, considering proven knowledge-rich approaches such as the forgetting curve, interleaved assessment and spaced learning in order to aid retention and consolidation of knowledge in both the short and long terms.
It was inspiring to hear high-level professional dialogue between colleagues about how their subject should best be taught, and of course there were arguments and disputes along the way. But, as Roald Dahl said, “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams”, so there cannot be creativity and magic without a little noise and destruction. He also said that “those who don’t believe in magic will never find it”, so we gave our teachers every chance to persevere through the challenges of throwing out every one of their preconceptions in devising a dynamic knowledge-rich curriculum.
We asked our teachers to go back to the first reason that we all have in mind when we are considering an enriching life in teaching: because we want to share the love of our own subject with others. We want children to love our subject as much as we do!
We asked our teachers to think about the best way to convey their expertise and knowledge, without first being hogtied by the demands of the timetable, the challenges of new qualifications or by the pressures of inspection frameworks.
We asked our teachers to create subject experts.
Thinking about how to move our curriculum towards being knowledge-rich meant that we had to move away from qualification-obsession and the narrowing of educational experiences at the earliest possible juncture. Many of the students in our schools do not come to their education knowledge-rich; many have not had the experiences of more affluent youngsters, and have not acquired the cultural capital and contextual grounding that happens in other households. But to deny them access to the richest knowledge of the subjects that they can study at school seems perverse and cruel. Instead, we started with the principle that if our students are knowledge-rich, well-informed and passionate they will achieve well in their examinations, whatever future changes to exams may come.
It has been positive to see OFSTED move with this year. The future inspection framework puts the curriculum at the heart of the conversation that inspectors will have with schools, and the choices that school leaders make about the knowledge that students will acquire will affect the judgments made on them. So, we in the Amethyst Trust feel that time could not be more right for schools to reconsider their curriculum, and be excited at how far we have already come in making ours future proof.
But ultimately, we must return to what is best for the young people under our charge. We are asking our teachers to be like the BFG, using their metaphorical dream-trumpets to pour their inspiration into the ears of young people, and to continue to do it until our students are filled not only with knowledge but with the passion they we have for our subjects.
This may seem like a dream to some, but after all, we is in dream country now…
In another of Roald Dahl’s great books, Grandpa Joe speaks of wondrous chocolate factory when he says “I’ve heard tell what you imagine sometimes comes true”. In making our curriculum knowledge-rich, we asked our teachers to begin use their imaginations again, in the hope that we can make our students feel just like Matilda did, brave and bold, ready to take on the world with knowledge at their fingertips.
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. Don’t miss out on a great opportunity to visit and learn from schools that are already 12 months into their journey to a knowledge-rich curriculum. Tickets are £15 per delegate and can be booked through the eventbrite website linked below.
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