The scales of curriculum planning: why sequence isn't king.
Updated: Sep 19, 2021
In the UK, the knowledge curriculum seems to be enjoying high levels of popularity. The pendulum has swung (and rightly so) away from planning for generic skill acquisition, towards planning for domain specific expertise. But the knowledge curriculum as a concept is in danger as current trends are over-simplifying their models for how expertise is obtained.
What I see from my perspective of the field is that learning is being reduced to a model of: knowledge acquisition equates to understanding. This is highly parsimonious, but too much so, in my opinion. The model works something like this: Knowledge is to be learnt sequentially, with great explanations, lots of examples, and lots of practice. This alone, the message appears to be, is enough. I disagree.
This is not an argument against any of these practices in isolation as my own students enjoy a good explanation, retrieval practice, and a carefully sequenced curriculum. My argument here is that when the focus becomes solely on these concepts, then the model is too reductionist, as it suggest that the road to expertise can be explained by only considering the elements of a curriculum at its smallest scale; the day to day accrual of knowledge.
There are many scales of curriculum. We can zoom into the smallest components, the individual explanation, or the individual question, but we can also zoom out again to view how these interact to form a cohesive lesson. We can zoom out yet more to see how lessons interact to form a cohesive topic, et cetera, until the largest scale of all is the full five years of secondary school curriculum.
The best curriculum planning, and the most fruitful curriculum discourse, is explicit in its aims at every scale, but more importantly, how the different scales of curriculum interact vertically. Let's dig into this concept a bit further.
The most problematic feature of any curriculum is its linear nature. We are obliged by the nature of our universe to proceed lesson by lesson, all while attempting to represent a highly non-linear domain (Kinchin, 2016). Subject domains are highly non-linear. The connections are messy, they are everywhere, and it is why concept maps are quite difficult to represent complex relationships; they only have two dimensions.
A concept map in three dimensions would hardly fit the bill either to clearly show all the connections from all the biological contexts we meet in the curriculum. Thus, only a model based on many dimensions could really accommodate an entire curriculum. Such visuals just cannot exist, and so any attempt to visually show the path of a curriculum is doomed to failure. The strand curriculum, the spiral curriculum, et cetera, all represent linear models.
Yet the expert, the specialist teacher, holds a mental network of great complexity that is hidden from the students (Kinchin, 2016). This complexity of mental models is our goal for secondary students, but this view is only visible when zooming out to the larger scales of curriculum.
There have been occasions when in discussion, that it has been suggested to me that the solution to my problems is merely a matter of the correct sequence. Others have suggested that sequencing is obvious, it is just a matter of the hierarchy of knowledge. What is the hierarchy of knowledge? Hierarchy and linearity are closely linked in these phrases.
When the discourse around curriculum design remains closely associated with the smaller scales of explanation, retrieval practice, and linear sequence, then the sight of the forest becomes lost for the trees. What is interesting is the current upsurge (rightly so) of explicit teaching; making sure students can see what they are supposed to see. We cannot leave learning to chance via implicit cues, this for me is of central importance.
Nevertheless, an explicit curriculum must be so at every scale, and not just at the scale of the individual explanation in a linear sequence. It must be explicit in its attempts to move student thinking away from linearity, and towards non-linearity, at the scale of the lesson, the topic, the term, the year, and the whole of secondary education.
Currently, at least in my specialism, I perceive that passionate teachers are achieving fantastic innovations in explicit education at the scale of the lesson. Diagrammatic representations, carefully designed questions, non-examples, et cetera. But for the goal of building expertise it is the organisation of knowledge at a much larger scale that matters most.
The formation of highly networked schema is a role fit for the specialist teacher only, as only they can help students transform a linear sequence into a complex mental model. Only they have the foresight of the path beyond them and only they can bring in the right questions and the timely nudges that add complexity to their thinking. As such, the specialist teacher brings the nuance to the linear curriculum.
It is the unplanned dialogues of the classroom, those that deviate from the the small scale planned explanation that also add to the complexity of student thinking. This occurs only when curriculum planning becomes explicit at the larger scales in addition to the smaller scales.
Sequence is not king, and expertise will not be built via small scale curriculum planning alone. Just as biologists most zoom in about out of the scales of organisation, the specialist teacher must be constantly doing the same with the scales of curriculum. Sequencing is important, but it is curriculum at a single scale, and is constrained into an artificial linearity.
Only the expert has the ability and foresight to help students make non-linear connections. Thus, there can be no correct sequence as a curriculum must be transmitted through the medium of a teacher and then again through the medium of the student, all subjective beings, who have their own personal network of understanding based on the history of their experience.
Curriculum is like a complex system of interactions, just like a human is a complex system. We have learnt relatively little from sequencing the entire human genome (focusing on the smallest scale of life), and I see parallels in curriculum design. When we change our focus to larger scales of curriculum, we may find that our students are not as expert as we thought.
Student progress observed on a lesson to lesson basis, on a practice question to practice question basis, may only show learning at one scale, a linear sequence. We must zoom out to see the expertise, and consequently we must also zoom out during curriculum design to ensure we are explicit not just with minutiae, but with underpinning theory, core principles, ways of seeing, and major connections in a network of complex learning.
Sequence isn't king, but the point here is that there is no king. There are perspectives at different scales of curriculum which all require careful thought, and therefore the need for a multi-scale view.
Christian Moore Anderson
@CMooreAnderson (follow me on twitter)
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Kinchin, I., 2016. Visualising powerful knowledge to develop the expert student. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.