In a subject as multi-dimensional as English, it’s crucial that our focus on curriculum sequence and substantive knowledge doesn’t limit strong disciplinary practice
I learned to drive in my early twenties. I was a bit older than many of my friends, who had eagerly begun at seventeen, but needs must, as they say, and having accepted a job in a school fifteen miles away from home, my time had come. My first instructor, Terry, was a nice guy, but he was extremely cautious in his approach to tuition. He would always drive us to a ‘safe location’ before I was allowed to get behind the wheel. When I eventually did, we’d spend the whole lesson driving round the same neighbourhood, doing junctions one week then roundabouts the next (the same junctions and roundabouts, I should add) until he felt I’d ‘got it right’, after which he’d drive me home.
Friends were surprised when I told them about the limited opportunities during lessons to actually drive, to get some broad experience on the road. As the weeks went on, I felt I was making little progress. My confidence and engagement were pretty low and I was getting nowhere fast.
Someone recommended another instructor, Steve, who took a very different approach. During our first lesson, I was behind the wheel from the get-go. We’d rarely visit the same places twice, and before long, my confidence in dealing with new situations had increased dramatically. Steve understood that in the real world, learning to drive is quite literally about getting to new places independently. With the knowledge and skills he taught me, a whole new world opened up, and I was free and able to explore it. His teaching was built around what Ofsted would probably consider ‘cumulatively sufficient knowledge and skills’ for my future as a driver.
It is clear what end points the curriculum is building towards and what pupils need to know and be able to do to reach those end points.School inspection handbook
I wonder if sometimes, heavy-handed curriculum design in English can inadvertently put the brakes on progress, in much the same way as Terry did all those years ago. The increased emphasis on curriculum in the Education Inspection Framework has been very welcome, but perhaps Ofsted’s emphasis on retaining and retrieving knowledge has turned the dial down on other, equally important aspects of the English discipline.
A department redesigning the curriculum might build a very prescriptive model of progression that specifies exactly what content will be learned and when. Year Seven students might be taught how to use quotations in the first half-term and to analyse them in the following one. The teachers might look at what cultural capital their curriculum should offer, planning when and how students will retrieve knowledge about Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Dickens. The department members might organise learning at Key Stage Three around assessment objectives or questions from GCSE specifications in order to provide foundations for exam success at Key Stage Four.
…the provider’s curriculum is coherently planned and sequenced towards cumulatively sufficient knowledge and skills for future learning and employment…Education inspection framework
At first glance, these might seem like sensible and coherent plans that work cumulatively toward ‘clearly defined end points’. But the scope of this will always be limited. Given the wide-ranging nature of English as a subject, some students may already be very accomplished in certain areas, whereas others might still need to learn some important content that, ideally, they’d have already secured before moving on to what comes next in the curriculum model.
Furthermore, as secondary school teachers, there can sometimes be a temptation to assume that our Year Seven students are encountering knowledge, skills and concepts for the first time, when in reality, this is far from the case, and it’s crucial to be aware of what students have encountered at primary school before we plan, for example, a sequence of lessons on sentence types, dismembered from anything else.
The curriculum should be a model of progression, but it’s important to ensure the scope is wide enough to be responsive to everyone’s needs. We need to think carefully about what ‘substantive knowledge’ we want to teach, but in English, given that this knowledge is often mutable and subject to reconstruction, it must be placed alongside emphasising strong ‘disciplinary’ practice.
Progression should reflect the journey young people make as they grow from childhood to adolescence to becoming young adults
As we progress throughout Key Stage Three and beyond, we should plan for progression in terms of the fundamental shifts our young people make as they move from childhood to adolescence, widening our scope to consider age-appropriate experiences of young adults and grown-ups. In doing so, the English classroom can become a place where we can feel the resonance of what we read in our own lives.
Structuring a curriculum by theme, a method for which I’ve advocated before, allows students to engage with a variety of forms, genres and subjects as readers and writers and to develop control over these various forms — and to revisit them regularly. Themes that reflect common human experiences offer students the opportunity to engage with the powerful notion that reading and writing helps us to make sense of the world we live in and the experiences we have, providing conceptual schema that allow students to see patterns, appreciate deeper layers of meaning and make connections across literature, language and the media.
When we’re sequencing our themes, Carl Jung’s theory of archetypes is a powerful lens to look through: birth, initiation and death, for example, are common, cross-cultural archetypal events that form part of what Jung saw as a ‘collective unconscious’. We can find these events manifested in literary and artistic endeavours, sharing common structures and ideas that bind together to create schema, shared reference points and tropes.
… [Teachers should consider] how the curriculum has been designed and taught so that pupils read at an age-appropriate level…School inspection handbook
In the department I lead, we begin Year Seven exploring the craft of narrative: what happens when codes and conventions are adhered to and what happens when they’re not. Through the theme of ‘journeys of discovery’, we explore the idea of initiation and through the theme of growing up, the concept of coming of age. In Year Eight, we explore the theme of survival, speculative fiction and writing as a force for social change. In Year Nine, we begin with the Gothic exploring the notion of context — of how the written word is shaped by social and cultural forces — before tackling marginalised voices, subversion and social class. Texts are age-appropriate not just in terms of reading age, but in terms of emotional and affective age-appropriacy.
Threshold concepts can serve as broad markers of planned progress
We built our thematic curriculum on the foundations of the threshold concepts we believed would be most transformative. We aimed to set the bar high and to build on what students could already do and what they already knew. Some students might be insecure in knowledge and skills we’d hope they would have learned in previous key stages, and of course, it’s important to have effective intervention for those who haven’t, but that’s no reason to hold them back in other ways too. When planning schemes of learning, it can be helpful to document how the learning ‘builds on…’, ‘consolidates…’ and how it ‘prepares students for…’ their next steps.
Emphasising the most significant threshold concepts provides a series of signposts or waymarkers that can allow a curriculum to offer an increasing level of challenge and sophistication as students progress throughout their time at school, in terms of emotional maturity and personal growth, but also in terms of disciplinary complexity: the written and spoken responses students make to texts.
In the English classroom, a wide range of experiences and encounters with texts can facilitate cumulative depth
English as we understand it as a subject in schools is a hybrid of different approaches and rationales, a combination of academic disciplines such as literature studies, linguistics and media, performance such as drama and oratory and real-world workhorses like transactional writing, journalism and spoken language. Our concept of the English curriculum should quite rightly be just as broad. Like Steve’s approach to teaching driving, a carefully planned thematic curriculum model, as well as providing breadth, can also offer opportunities for increasing depth, as links are made between things we read and write and as students’ confidence in making responses increases.
English is not a subject where knowledge and its application is necessarily sequential or hierarchical, but an English curriculum can certainly be cumulative, as students’ experiences in the classroom equips them to make connections, see patterns and apply what they’ve learned about reading and writing to new texts and contexts. Strong departmental practice might ensure consistency of terminology and concepts and a centrally planned curriculum can enable teachers to refer back to previous learning and make links and connections, helping students to ‘remember in the long term the content they have been taught and to integrate new knowledge into larger concepts’ (Education inspection framework).
We should see the curriculum sequence not as the entire disciplinary domain but representative of it
‘A successful history, geography, RE or literature curriculum,’ Christine Counsel has argued, ‘in which the disciplinary was visible, will leave pupils absolutely clear that even the curriculum itself, as they received it, was one such selection, and must not be confused with the whole domain.’
In a subject such as English, a curriculum is not by any means the entire disciplinary domain and nor can it be. Rather, it is representative of it. It’s a planned and sequenced journey of learning that leads students to be more secure, more successful and more competent. It should empower students to be able to read and write effectively when encountering texts, contexts, forms and genres that are new to them and to draw upon schemas that enable independent exploration.
When we’re considering the principles behind the sequence of a curriculum, time is often better spent deciding what to take out rather than what else to add. A curriculum sequenced by literary chronology might be designed to construct schemas for students, but might not necessarily provide opportunities for deeper thinking outside of a literature studies approach.
We should plan for a development of ‘substantive’ knowledge whilst emphasising strong ‘disciplinary’ practice
During a recent professional development day at school, colleagues from all departments discussed the concepts of ‘substantive’ and ‘disciplinary’ knowledge. These are potentially useful tools to use when when we’re planning, but given the ascendency of ‘substantive knowledge’ in education discourse, it’s worthwhile considering its applicability and relevance in English.
Some of this ‘substantive knowledge’ — for example, of word classes, sentence construction and textual cohesion — might frequently be revisited, as might critical concepts and tools such as narrative theory (narrative structure, protagonist, antagonist). But students will also encounter texts from across a range of subdomains: fiction, poetry, transactional writing and so forth. Substantive knowledge might therefore also be subdomain-specific, such as understanding of particular forms, genres and conventions, or understanding the context of texts we read, although of course, even this substantive knowledge of form, genre and conventions is always open to reconstruction, growth and challenge, as these are mutable constructs.
The processes by which we read for meaning, listen to interpretations, shape collective understanding and express concord or discord might well be thought of as ‘disciplinary’ knowledge, as could the processes by which we write to respond, create and show understanding and engagement.
Making sure the study of ‘substantive knowledge’ and the practise of ‘disciplinary knowledge’ are complementary lies in the process of a class of students and their teacher learning together. We should make sure that English isn’t taught as a series of absolutes, definitive interpretations and closed discussions. For instance, in teaching the graphic novel Sweet Tooth for the first time this year, members of my department have worked with students to collectively explore a medium that’s new to many, if not all, to establish through discussion the codes and conventions at work and to relate these to the discipline of English studies at large.
Although the degree of depth and challenge could be considered by mapping when and how students will encounter subdomain-specific ‘substantive knowledge’, all the time being aware that some may have encountered it before in a previous context, we must complement this with the establishment of good habits for the teaching of ‘disciplinary’ knowledge — the synergy between reading and writing, the role of effective speaking and listening as crucial ways of establishing and critiquing meaning in the English classroom. This can empower students to handle new forms, genres and conventions, and all of those other aspects of ‘substantive knowledge’ – in new contexts, both in and out of the classroom.
Adopting these maxims can liberate us from an over-wrought curriculum that breaks down the power of the whole into impotent, constituent parts. It can help us to avoid planning content that asks students to rehearse things they’ve encountered many times before. It also empowers teachers to grow in their professional practice and to become confident in fielding discussions, asking challenging questions, helping students to voice their own opinions and ideas.
Counsell, Christine (2018) ‘Taking curriculum seriously’
Ofsted (updated 2021) Education Inspection Framework
Ofsted (updated 2022) School Inspection Handbook
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.