Why a thematic curriculum?
Spoiler alert. In the excellent film Arrival (2016, Denis Villeneuve), Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, an interpreter who is called upon to make sense of the multimodal scrawlings of intergalactic visitors to Earth. The denouement of the film is mind-blowing, when Banks realises the aliens’ perception of time isn’t linear, like ours. And there’s more: she’s been gifted with the ability to perceive time in a non-linear way. For the audience, it’s an illuminating moment in which we’re asked to imagine understanding in multiple dimensions. It takes Louise Banks a serious effort of willpower to comprehend that the way thoughts and ideas relate to each other is invariably more complex than she, and by extension we, might assume.
In the real world, we have a tendency to relate ideas to each other in ways which make the most sense. We perceive things as linear, cumulative, consequential. We categorise, compare, rank order, append status, narrate, explain. Hence, an English literature curriculum might commonly be thought of as a chronological schematic that situates texts firmly within the social and cultural context of their making. Or when studying English literature, students might find their reading list clustered by literary form, tackling poetry in one term, prose in the next and drama in the last. Of course, it might well be argued that this is the job of a teacher – to make the complex make sense. By explaining things in terms of chronology or category, we aim to make the knowledge ‘sticky’ by providing ‘schemas’ that allow students to make sense of new information.
But what if, in doing so, we’re preventing our students from seeing and understanding more? What if we’re creating an illusory sense of cause and effect, of consequence, of cohesion, when in fact, the reality is much more complex and nuanced?
For instance, in teaching English chronologically, we can perpetuate some assumptions about values that perhaps we don’t subscribe to. Given the constraints of time in the classroom – and the disproportionate amount of time that men have monopolised the literary canon – such an approach could foreground a homogenous world-view in which the written word and the leverage it affords those who manipulate it are the preserve of the privileged, especially if practitioners of this approach don’t actively encourage a more critical dialogue. Yes, selecting texts is always going to be exclusive, in that by making choices, we must exclude material from our curricula, but we must be extremely judicious in our decision making.
More prosaically, but most importantly, a chronological approach remains essentially a literary one and it excludes other aspects of English studies which assert an equally important claim to curriculum time. This multi-disciplinary nature of English teaching has long been something which we’ve had to grapple with, balancing the realm of the imagination with that of the transactional and the linguistic. Prioritising literary form, with a nod to non-fiction and media texts, doesn’t really feel equitable.
Structuring a curriculum by theme, however, provides a conceptual schema that allows students to see patterns, appreciate deeper layers of meaning and make connections across literature, language and the media. Themes tell us something about the human condition. They can transcend cultures and allow students to engage with the broad idea that reading and writing helps us to make sense of the world we live in and the experiences we have.
When I became Head of English in 2015, I had a perfect opportunity to completely re-imagine my department. I wanted all of our students to benefit from an engaging curriculum that would immerse them in a wide variety of texts from different forms, periods and genres. I wanted to develop the quality of classroom discussion, I wanted to help students make connections between forms, genres and ideas. I wanted a curriculum that was abundant in texts and plentiful in thinking. I didn’t want to devise a curriculum that reinforced a ‘grand narrative’ that students might feel excluded from.
The decision to base Key Stage Three around thematic concepts was therefore a bold statement about what we wanted the department to look like. I knew it would create scope to populate each theme with experiential learning that drew from literature, non-fiction and the media that focused on writing. I wanted students to engage with a variety of forms, genres and subjects as readers and writers and to develop control over these various forms.
How did we plan our thematic curriculum?
‘The purpose of schooling should be to help each child find their element, and the only way to do that is to ensure that each child has a broad and balanced curriculum.’ Redesigning Schooling: Principled curriculum design by Dylan Wiliam.
The initial planning behind our thematic curriculum involved all of the members of the department, away from the classroom for a day, brainstorming ideas, themes and texts. We began by discussing which themes would allow us to make sure we had a breadth of ideas and a depth of intellect; we debated which themes would reflect the agendas, structures and motifs that are part of our cultural landscape.
In ‘Telling Tales’ in Year Seven, we explore narrative structure, archetypes, the hero’s journey, allegory and myths and legends. In ‘Journeys of Discovery’ we begin to investigate genre, considering how the narrative structure we learned about earlier in the year is evident in literary non-fiction such as travel writing and transactional writing, such as advertisement. In ‘Growing Up’ we examine the bildungsroman and the role of the story in how we reflect on our life experiences; we make links to contemporary writing, film and popular culture.
In Year Eight when studying ‘Struggle for Survival,’ we juxtapose Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men with narratives of survival from literary non-fiction, considering how human beings interact with the natural world; how it nourishes us as well as how we deal with its hostility. We develop our thinking about genre, exploring how, in the case of science-fiction, the codes and conventions reflect context, reading extracts from War of the Worlds in its fin-de-siecle setting alongside 1950s B-movies, when Cold War anxiety was at its height. We explore the popularity of dystopian texts in our own time, in the form of The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner. In ‘Visionaries’, the language of people with ‘big ideas’ and how they use narrative and words to compel people to do things, such as Steve Jobs, is juxtaposed with the Romantic poets; the clamour of Blake’s ‘London’ and his ‘dark, Satanic mills’ set alongside Silicon Valley; the chimney sweep next to Generation X.
In Year Nine, ‘The Supernatural’ combines ghost stories, fairy-tales, myths and legends from the ancient world, Tennyson and Dickens’ A Christmas Carol alongside contemporary urban legends. We ask how a writer can compel, frighten and speculate. We ask how the epistolary 19th century novel might continue to resonate in film (‘the events you are about to see are based on a true story…’). We explore the experiences of those on the margins of privilege with novels such as To Kill A Mockingbird and The Outsiders alongside poetry that depicts the experiences of the marginalised from across a broad cross-section of time. We conclude Year Nine by studying Romeo and Juliet, investigating the dramatic form and how meanings are conveyed, before exploring the Gothic as we begin to transition students into Key Stage Four, making links to everything that has come before.
What are the benefits of a thematic curriculum?
It allows for a genuinely diverse range of texts.
A thematic curriculum allows us to explore texts that might be considered ‘canonical’ alongside contemporary texts and multi-modal texts. Alex Quigley has helpfully considered the idea of ‘the canon’ in a much more pluralistic way than some might have it. ‘Balls to the binary thinking of classic versus modern…’ he has said. ‘I want to ensure my students love reading their canon and love great literature.’ It’s difficult to disagree with this. It encourages those of us perhaps wrestling with these binaries to find common ground between the canon and more contemporary texts, or books from the Young Adult genre.
Michael Gove might point to a need for ‘rigour’ when selecting texts, emphasising that they should be thorough and demanding, but as Dylan Wiliam has reminded us, ‘any subject matter can be taught in a way that is faithful to the discipline or field from which it is drawn.’ There’s no reason why a novel by say, Cormac McCarthy can’t be taught as ‘rigorously’ as a Dickens novel. Similarly, the multi-modal perception of a ‘text’ as something that transcends the written word is crucial. Borrowing Jean Baudrillard’s notion of Disneyland as a post-modern ‘text’ that has been constructed with a variety of codes and signifiers and can thus be decoded and analysed, we can see that such an approach is rooted deeply in linguistic and structuralist thinking. These disciplines have just as much right to claim a place in the multi-displinary English studies curriculum of secondary school as their literary counterparts and the knowledge and skills therein.
The media is arguably the primary symbolic code of our time. It can empower and subjugate; it can create tribal identity. We need to understand and embrace the dialogue between the media and the written word, rather than consigning media to the domain of the everyday as a subject we assume young people are already familiar with. They need to be able to think about it judiciously, to critique and unpack what’s going on around them. Furthermore, the power of the written word – linked inextricably as it always has been to illustration and photography – is now irrevocably tied to moving image and wider, memetic cultural constructs. As such, the media makes a powerful claim for curriculum time.
The curriculum is at the heart of what we do as English teachers. It reflects nothing less than our educational philosophy and priorities, whether these be developing literacy, nurturing creativity or facilitating social mobility. But in striving to achieve these altruistic goals, it seems especially regressive to consider inclusion in a ‘canon’ of literature as the only determiner of value when thinking about the written word as ‘cultural capital’. To make students literate in the broadest sense of the word means providing opportunities for them to become proficient in the cultural momentum of the here and now, as well as what has gone before.
It avoids an illusory meta-narrative of progress, chronology and unity that comes with a chronological approach to the canon.
In choosing ‘canonical texts’ exclusively and in teaching them chronologically, we reinforce the notion that there is a cohesive ‘narrative’ of understanding and experience whilst excluding those whose own narratives don’t fit. It’s important to ensure that students are able to question and critique some of those meta-narratives which have functioned as ‘absolute truths’ in Western society, the hierarchies of which have begun to be dismantled in wider cultural orthodoxy.
Furthermore, a chronological approach to teaching the canon fails to grasp the cultural moment of post-modernism, which has traded linear, legitimising meta-narratives for something much more plural. Hence, a curriculum structured around the meta-conceptual idea of English literature as a chronology reinforces the idea that there is a cause and effect, chronological, linear, explaining, coherent meta-narrative of storytelling and by association, experience. A thematic curriculum, however, centralises universal experiences that transcend cultures and which are common to the human condition, whilst at the same time, allowing us to teach students about notable literary achievements or cultural movements in which these themes have been central.
It builds transferable powerful knowledge which can be applied in future encounters with ideas and texts.
‘In knowledge-engaged schools, knowledge is seen as underpinning and enabling the application of skills, although the latter are often taught alongside knowledge, and school leaders express a desire for both to be developed. Leaders and teachers in these schools do not perceive a tension between knowledge and skills, and instead see them as intertwined.’ Education inspection framework overview of research
The concept of the ‘knowledge-rich curriculum’ has gained a great deal of traction in recent years. It’s difficult to disagree with the postulation that knowledge is foundational. But English isn’t just about knowledge. It’s about a broader set of skills, or an application of knowledge. When deciding what ‘knowledge’ we value, it is important to think about ‘transferable knowledge’ – knowledge which helps students to lay foundations of understanding which they can then apply to new texts, in different contexts or in different forms of writing. The importance of this is – more or less – acknowledged in the Education inspection framework overview of research, which suggests that ‘knowledge-engaged schools’ recognise the importance of this relationship between knowledge and skills.
Ultimately, the knowledge our students acquire should be usable. English is a subject concerned with teaching students to be deft readers and controlled writers. Useful knowledge weighs in pretty impressively against knowledge which comes with limited applications.
To this end, I planned our curriculum around those threshold concepts I believed would be most transformative. Exploring some of these threshold concepts in more detail – and deciding how we intend our students to work through them – reveals the kind of genuinely ‘powerful knowledge ‘that takes [students] beyond their own experiences’ (Young et al., 2014: 7). It is powerful knowledge of form, of convention and genre, of how a text is framed, of textual structures, of grammar, of vocabulary, of themes and motifs, of authorial intention. This is knowledge our students can do something with. This is knowledge that gives them expertise and agency, rather than simply stockpiling facts about Dickens.
It is important to consider how knowledge and skills are sequenced so they can develop and grow. Much has been made in the new Ofsted framework, which suggests that a ‘provider’s curriculum… [should be] coherently planned and sequenced towards cumulatively sufficient knowledge and skills for future learning and employment.’ But rather than imagining sequence as akin to bricks and mortar, thinking about it organically, like roots and new growth, is more useful.
It makes students apprentices in the domains of reading and writing, bringing language and literature together and removing boundaries around reading and writing.
The aim of allowing students to become authentically ‘real’ readers and writers was central to our vision. In our Year Eight project on Robert Swindells’ Brother In The Land, for example, students re-imagine the novel as if it were a film. We study film posters and annotate how the posters establish genre, narrative, setting and character archetypes. The students use Photoshop to produce film posters for a conceptual Brother in the Land film, considering the impact of background, foreground, title and tagline. We write a treatment and consider casting decisions, all of which prompts analytical thinking and evaluative decision making. Students then write a review of the ‘film’ they have planned, but which refers to and explores the novel.
Blogging students’ writing is a crucial part of making sure students know that their writing has a genuine audience. The music department shares students’ creative work in their twice-yearly concerts; the art department displays students’ pieces in the summer term in a pop-up gallery. It should be no different for the English department. A student’s writing is the artefact of their experiential apprenticeship into the discipline, and it should be shared as such. I’ve recently begun to expand the scope of my own attempts to blog my students’ writing and establish an audience for their work.
‘We can teach history as if it is about facts and dates, or we can teach history as an epistemic apprenticeship into the discipline of history involving facts and dates and understanding bias in historical sources and chronology and cause and effect.’ Redesigning Schooling: Principled curriculum design by Dylan Wiliam, pp24-25.
We can paraphase Dylan Wiliam when thinking about the thematic curriculum in English: we can teach English as if it is about subject-verb agreement, parataxis and scecis onomaton – or we can teach English as an epistemic apprenticeship into the discipline of English involving subject-verb agreement, parataxis and scecis onomaton. Our thematic curriculum avoids the organic, fluid experience of reading and writing being broken down into decontextualised constituent parts. Students experience grammar as part of a process; as a set of tools that they can apply with confidence and with the intention of deliberate effect; methods that they can discuss with confidence and precision as critics of their own work and of others.
In a thematic curriculum, reading and writing can be very closely aligned. A sequence of learning works toward the planning of a writing assignment which is drafted and redrafted. Research and further learning take place not just before, but in the middle of this process in order to inform the written assignment. The assignment itself is not ‘assessed’ for solely ‘reading’ or ‘writing’, but as a combination of these two aspects of English. Feedback is focused entirely on moving the student forward. Measuring attainment and progress against an agreed standard is shared with students only through the whole-school ‘tracking’ report, four times in each academic year.
It allows staff to contribute to a shared planning process…
When establishing what themes are to be included in the curriculum and the texts which are to be taught, staff can bring their own interests and specialisms to the table. Staff in a typical English department might be linguists. They may have specialisms in media, which makes a great bedfellow for more traditional English studies. They might have a post-graduate degree in medieval literature and perhaps might feel that they’ve hitherto had little opportunity to feel like the ‘expert’ in the department. Collaborating on a thematic curriculum means staff have a huge amount of buy-in.
As a school with G Suite, we used Google Drive from the outset to plan the curriculum, schemes of learning and resources. The ability to plan collaboratively, to work together in real-time and to know that each and every element of our planning is always a ‘live’ document was very powerful. In re-imagining the department, we wanted to increase our professional autonomy as we grew, rather than to limit it. We wanted to provide a context for growth, not to control growth. To this end, the collaborative planning established a standard of working, a sort of built-in accountable autonomy. Planning templates were deliberately constructed with phrases such as ‘suggested activities’ or ‘possible differentiation tools’ to acknowledge that staff were encouraged to do things differently and to try new ideas, with the expectation that they would bring these back to the planning, and that review, refining and culling of material would be an organic, on-going process.
It provides opportunities to revisit form, knowledge and skills, to teach concepts needed later at GCSE more creatively and to make connections between things we read.
‘…the elation of being alive in the language…’ WS Graham
There is something rather disheartening about a Key Stage Three English curriculum which frames the teaching of English as preparation for GCSE examinations, whether with a three-year GCSE that cuts the key stage short, through teaching to GSCE-style tests or by populating Key Stage Three with Assessment Objectives. There may well be pressure on departments to produce good outcomes for students, and no one doubts the impact of good GCSE passes on the life chances of students. But to focus solely on this is to ignore the fact that education is something more than a means to an end. As James Durran has argued, ‘without… ‘fundamental preparation’ [explicit exam preparation] will always be weak.’
There’s no reason why, at Key Stage Three, narrative structure, for example, can’t be taught creatively through moving image, rather than as part of a test. There’s no reason why students cannot become familiar with poetry through Directed Activities Related to Texts, in which a student might be instructed to reconstruct or resequence a text. An activity might encourage students to think about the form of the text, the structure, or the recurrence of particular types of language. There’s no reason why students can’t collaborate on a fictional construct, learning about the craft of storytelling in a genuinely experiential way.
One of the problems with a curriculum structured around literary form is that students might experience poetry in, for example, the Spring term, and might not revisit poetry until the same time the following year. But a thematic curriculum allows students to read poetry alongside a novel, literary non-fiction or transactional writing within the space of a few weeks, making connections and understanding the relationships between form. This frequent revisiting of form keeps things fresh, continually developing and consolidated.
It does all of this and more at GCSE, where interleaving and revisiting are powerful ways of consolidating what students know and can do.
We quickly realised that there would be huge benefits in extending our thematic curriculum to Key Stage Four. Students would be familiar with the process, but there would also be benefits for their explicit preparation for examinations. We begin Year ten studying the theme of Transformations, reading Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde before exploring extracts from both fiction and literary non-fiction and looking at structures for great creative writing. We move on to ‘Belonging’, studying Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers before reading the ‘Power and Conflict’ poems which explore cultural conflict. We read non-fiction texts about migration. We then move on to ‘The Natural World’, looking at those poems from the cluster such as ‘Storm on the Island,’ Ozymandias’ and ‘Extract From the Prelude’ which depict the power of the natural world. We write creatively about the 1996 Everest disaster, before using the excellent extracts from Matt Dickinson’s The Death Zone and Arthur Munby’s diaries (AQA’s ‘Specimen Assessment Materials 4’). In Year Eleven, we begin with ‘Conflict’, studying Macbeth and the remaining ‘Power and Conflict’ poems.
The thematic curriculum naturally lends itself to interleaving and revisiting. Alongside this core content, we can revisit earlier texts. When thinking about ‘Belonging’, we can consider the extent to which Mr Hyde is an outsider. When studying ‘The Natural World’, we can explore the tension between science and primality in Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. When studying ‘Conflict’, we can think about discord in Blood Brothers.
Matthew Arnold is often appropriated by those seeking to argue the primacy of the canon in the place of the English classroom. But Arnold, who thought of culture as ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world…’ went on to say that we should ‘through this knowledge, turn… a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits.’ In Arnold’s vision, knowledge of culture was something that could renew, invigorate and help us to think differently.
These imperatives are exactly what I want my Key Stage Three to offer students. We can build on what they have learned at Key Stage Two and enable them to apply their knowledge and skills in a wider range of forms, genres and text types. We can help them to become proficient readers who understand the issues of authorial intent and to become writers who consciously manipulate language and structure.
This feels like genuinely powerful knowledge. A thematic curriculum allows us to learn about those all important touchstones of literary study, but to cast the fundamentals of storytelling and language alongside the cultural totems of our own time. In helping students to see the links between reading and writing and to understand the shared structures, motifs and tropes across a wide range of texts, we give them the capacity to find their own voice and to use it with confidence. The certitude and assurance that comes from being in control of language is genuinely transformational for our students, and I don’t think we can settle for anything less.
Read the follow up to this blog post: Devising a scheme of learning as part of a thematic curriculum: an in-depth example‘.
Meyer J H F and Land R (2003) Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge – Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising in Improving Student Learning – Ten Years On. Oxford: OCSLD.
Wiliam D (2013) Redesigning Schooling: Principled curriculum design. London: SSAT (The Schools Network) Ltd.
Young M, Lambert D, Roberts C, et al. (2014) Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice. London: Bloomsbury.