Flat packed curriculum – David Didau

Cortez Deacetis

“It is so easy to be wrong – and to persist in being wrong – when the costs of being wrong are paid by others.”

Thomas Sowell

Why do we buy so much flat pack furniture? First, it’s many times more affordable than bespoke hand-made furniture, and second, it also saves us the not inconsiderable cost of having to make it ourselves from scratch. It also allows to replace outdated, unfashionable old pieces handed down from our grandparents and apply our own taste to the homes we live in.

In implementing the KS3 English curriculum we’ve developed at Ormiston Academies Trust (see here for details) we have found the flat pack metaphor a helpful one for explaining to departments and teachers what it is we intend them to do with it. Like IKEA, we’ve supplied all the pieces needed to construct a chest of drawers or a wardrobe, and all teachers need to do is carefully read the instructions, bring along their own metaphorical equivalents of a screwdriver and a hammer, and start turning the raw materials into beautiful sequences of lessons.

This is intended to be an antidote to the ‘plug and play’ approach to English teaching characterised by Barbara Bleiman here:

Previously, I’ve argued against the use of PowerPoint as a means for implementing the curriculum and share some of Barbara’s concerns at the way teachers are increasingly expected to simply deliver a set of slides written by someone else. But, as has been raised by many English teacher responding to Barbara, the alternative seems fairly bleak. My teaching career, which began in the late 1990s, was far from the halcyon idyll eulogised by some. My first head of department gave me a copy of 101 Red Hot Starters and told me to teach whatever I fancied from the stock cupboard. I had no clue what I was doing. Needless to say, the students I taught were badly let down. Had someone been able to give me a fully resourced, sequenced curriculum I’d have bitten their arms off. Instead, I worked into the wee hours planning pointless activity driven lessons which – I desperately hoped – would appeal to my students enough that they’d sit in their seats and stop trying to stab each other with scissors. This was long before lesson resources were routinely uploaded onto the internet and my only choice was to cobble together wonky schemes of work myself or wing it. This was what my more experienced colleagues seemed to do. They never seemed to write anything down and just emptied the contents of the minds into the classrooms, often to mesmerising effect. It rarely worked that way for me though.

Sadly, it wasn’t until many years later that I was fortunate enough to work in a department where we worked collaboratively on schemes of work which we had collectively agreed upon. But even then, teachers would upload their slides to the shared area for other teachers to use or adapt as they saw fit with very little understanding of what the purpose of the curriculum was.

When, in 2015, Ofsted published Key stage 3: the wasted years? it was a pretty fair critique of everything I’d experienced. Years 7 to 9 was an interminable holding ground where children circled until they were allowed to start studying GCSE specifications. No wonder so many schools chose to annex Year 9 into Key Stage 4.

Our curriculum is – we hope – far better than some scuffed middle ground of tired consensus. Instead, it takes the best of the present and the past and presents teachers with everything they need to teach fantastic, lively, exciting lessons that induct children into the wonderful mysteries of language and literature. It took at team of 5 English lead practitioners hundreds of hours to create. Each has then been piloted in at least one of our schools and feedback taken where there are kinks to iron out and improvements that need to be made. This iterate process by no means makes our curriculum perfect, but it has resulted in a quality of resources which few school-based teachers would be able to match. The student anthologies and teacher guides we provide are mini masterpieces of design, craft and thought.

We are fully aware that whatever a central planning team might conceive is always mediated (sometimes awesomely, sometimes disastrously) by teachers. So, we’ve embraced this inevitably and presented teachers with everything they need to know and enable them to assemble it as they think most appropriate for their students.

This is all some teachers need. But many others need support putting into all into action. With this in mind, we come up with 5 core pedagogies which we’ve found to be simple to put into practice and highly effective at helping students make meaning from their lessons. These are:

  • Couch to 5k writing – this sentence level approach combines ‘the deconstructed essay’ for analytical writing and ‘slow writing’ for creative and transactional writing. This includes lots of stealth grammar teaching, but it’s all in support of meaning. There are 9 deconstructed essay sentences and 30 creative writing sentence types that are specified across KS3.
  • Reading fluency – a strategy not only for improving students’ orthographic awareness but one which also has an impact on comprehension. It includes lots of oral analysis which builds up to performances of short sections of texts. It makes for some of the most exciting lessons I’ve ever taught or experienced and when it students make it work, it’s electric! (See more here.)
  • Structured discussion – this is our oracy strategy which is also designed to help students orally rehearse their ideas and thus improve not only their ability to debate but also to write. (Here’s a blog I wrote about this approach some years ago.)
  • Say it, Spell it, Know it – an approach to teaching subject terminology and topic vocabulary which does exactly what it says. It involves lots of fun with etymology and morphology.
  • Retrieval and hinge questions – we partnered with Carousel Learning to ensure retrieval practice is fast, fun and effective and encourage the use of mini white boards for hinge questions. I’ll write more on this at a later date.

Most of our schools have adopted different approaches to lesson structure to which teachers are meant to adhere and these 5 pedagogical approaches must be flexible enough to be used with any lesson structure. Of course, teachers can choose not to use any or all of these core pedagogies, but once they’ve seen them in action, most teachers never look back. And, equally obviously, there are many other ingredients to great English teaching – we encourage teachers to use whatever approaches they find enjoyable and effective – but these 5 provide a solid foundation for making sure everything else you might want to do is more effective.

For those who have the time and skill to create a curriculum that is as good or better than the one we have designed, they are welcomes to adapt any of our resources or are equally welcome to ignore them. But if you’re going to argue what English teaching should be and hark back to a lost world of children dancing happily through secret gardens then you need to know that the past wasn’t like for most of us. It was hard and bleak and frustrating. Try to remember what it was like to be a new teacher, caught in the headlights of alien routines and sullen students and consider the possibility that what you with all your decades of developing expertise might prefer is unlikely to work as well for the average ECT.

Maybe they’d benefit from a high quality, flat packed curriculum.

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