Why curriculum matters: a response to Tim Oates, Dylan William and Daisy Christodoulou

Ed Tech Now

curriculum_300Why the views of our leading educationalists on the curriculum don’t add up

This is an expanded version of the talk that I gave at ResearchEd on 9 September 2017. In it I argue that Tim Oates, Dylan Wiliam and Daisy Christodoulou, all educationalists whom I admire, have nevertheless got much wrong in their account of the curriculum. 14,000 words. You can bookmark individual slides by right clicking on the “SLIDE X” caption and selecting “Copy link address”. Slides can be enlarged by clicking on the slide.

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The Curriculum WHY

Simon Sinek advises us to start with the WHY.  This ensures that we articulate our purpose, our vision that will inform the HOW and the WHAT.  I believe that the curriculum WHY in many schools is quite fuzzy, but could probably be articulated in a good couple of hours by a capable and diverse leadership team. Before doing so, it would be quite interesting to ask a wide range of colleagues for their curriculum WHY.  At NIS, the Senior Education Team took a morning to look at our assumptions about curriculum and to articulate a common WHY. Our Head of Middle School, having just returned from PD on Adaptive Schools, took us through a thinking protocol called “The Assumption Wall”.  Each person wrote down a number of assumptions that s/he had about the curriculum WHY.  Then we each crafted one succinct phrase that reflected our assumption(s).  These were written on A3 pages and laid out on the table. Then, one person chose a statement and asked a number of probing questions to the writer to help him or her dig deeper into the meaning of the parts of the statement and better articulate what lay behind the meaning of the words.  No discussion or cross-talk was permitted.  We continued through each of the statements.  This then led us into a less formal, open, honest discussion about our curricular values, and in the end we came up with a common WHY for curriculum: to build a foundation of knowledge and skills that supports inquiry, cross-curricular connections and creativity throughout PreK – Grade 12.  At a first read, it might not seem like much, and the statement might even seem somewhat traditional, but I assure you that each part is laden with meaning and supported by intense discussion about values. Stay tuned to hear how our statement beautifully supports rigour, agility and personalised learning.

Confronting the “Googleable” Paradigm Shift in Curriculum

We hear constantly about how information is at our fingertips, a few keystrokes away.  As a result, we embrace the myriad of positive changes towards great education that has shifted and evolved over the past few decades.  Educators are challenging both the structures that have driven formalised learning, and consequently, curriculum.  These important changes enhance student voice and choice and personalised and authentic learning, designing opportunities for students to be agile and creative. In the enthusiastic and often topsy-turvy R&D of this transformation, sometimes the focus on curriculum is purposeful; sometimes it appears to be relegated as insignificant or irrelevant.

At Nanjing International School, we’ve been part of an exhilarating shift among agile international schools that are rethinking students’ learning experiences for a largely uncertain future.  This shift has embraced the vital elements of inclusion, creativity, international-mindedness, and personal excellence, the four pillars that drives learning at NIS.  We have seriously revamped our structures to really focus on big ideas in student learning.  Our Heads of Section are pedagogical leaders, and we no longer subscribe to the silos of department heads.  Under the guidance of Ewan McIntosh from NoTosh, we clarified two Big, Hairy Audacious Goals (aka BHAGs): ‘Burst the Bubble’ and ‘Student Voice & Choice’, known to all NISers as ‘Strategy’.  Our Strategy is realised through 8 cyclical projects, without a restrictive timeline.  These projects are driven by colleagues who have exciting, insightful ideas with purposeful outcomes, and are support by a newly created seven-member Strategy Team whose the sole purpose is to support colleagues in prototyping forward-thinking learning both in and beyond school.  Last year’s prototypes were diverse, ranging from pedagogical approaches, learning spaces, and changing mind-sets about topics that traditionally may have been seen as outside of the purview of schools.   The excitement behind the prototypes is contagious, and in and of itself offers authentic professional development for teachers.  Our journey towards our Strategy is conveyed in The Little Book of Nanjing International School (available on iTunes).

One area of learning  in a Strategy-driven school is the evasive role and implementation of ‘curriculum’.  In the next few posts of this series, I’ll clarify what I mean by curriculum, will use Sinek’s Golden Circle to dig into the WHY, HOW and WHAT of curriculum, and challenge the Googleable paradigm shift.