How I am teaching with more purpose and meaning this year – Part 1: Curriculum design for the whole person

When you first decide to take the plunge into teaching, you have these wonderful visions of being Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society and inspiring young people with your words of wisdom! Now don’t get me wrong, I still love to get up in front of a group of young people and deliver a motivational speech, however the longer I have taught, I have also realised those magical words generally lack any sort of long term impact.

Previously, I have written about How meeting your new class is like getting married on MAFS and that the initial impressions can set up or set off students for the rest of the year. So, with that sort of pressure, how do we set ourselves and our students up for success?

Curriculum Design

There are two types of teachers when it comes to curriculum development, those that have their year planned ahead and those that plan on the run. Those who are for planning on the run argue that you can address student needs and teach towards their interests. While those who prefer to plan in advance say that you are able to ensure students are exposed to a wider variety of concepts.

E. D. Hirsch, Jr. the founder and chairman of the Core Knowledge Foundation, argues that knowledge is needed to increase our cultural literacy. Which basically refers to what we need to know in order to be able to participate equally in society. He says that we need to look at the key concepts, information and themes and teach it in a structured, cohesive manner to ensure that we close the knowledge gap in our society. You can the Core Knowledge Sequence here.

For this to occur, there needs to be a well-thought out curriculum that is collaboratively put together with staff members from across the school. I have put this Curriculum Design Process in place as a way to guide thinking and conversations.

My curriculum design process

I try to plan in advance as much as possible (if only we had more time!) and I have put together this planning process to guide my thinking. When I look at all the different factors that interrelate, I find it extremely difficult to properly plan lessons without a clear sense of purpose and knowing where I am trying to help my students get too. 

For anyone that has read any of my previous blog posts, you will know that I am a stickler for systems and processes. I have put together this set of four steps as a way of systemising the curriculum design process.

Step 1. Designing for the whole person

In schools, we can fall into the trap of working in silos. That might be individually, only as Stage groups or in faculty teams. If this is the case, it is even more important that as a school, every teacher knows what the end goal is. What sort of person does our school want to have walking out the doors on their last day as a student? Importantly, do the school’s goals align with what the students want? Too often I have seen school leaders pushing for academic results when it is quite clear that the majority of the students are not that way inclined. 

On that note, do we know what the parents, carers and community expectations are? Are they on the same page as the direction the school is going in?

This vision needs to be clear and thought about when putting together a scope and sequence. How does each unit of work help our students become the type of people we want them to be? What skills and knowledge do I want my students to have developed after 1 year of learning. After 6 years of learning?

Step 2. How can our curriculum lead to developing that sort of person

Now you know what sort of person we are trying to help develop, how can our curriculum help them get there? Every activity, every lesson and every unit of work should be purposeful and meaningful. 

Key themes, concepts and questions

In Understanding by Design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe talk about the importance of working out what the key concepts, themes and questions are for your subject. What relevance does what we are teaching have to our students? What are they learning (not doing) and how will this new knowledge help transfer over to the type of person we are trying to mold.

“A common misconception is that for knowledge to be powerful it must be widely shared and used. But knowledge isn’t powerful because we use it a lot or because it’s commonly discussed, but because it transforms our conceptual understanding of the world.” David Didau, Making Kids Cleverer.

Daisy Christodolou wrote in her blog on mastery, “instead of repeating the same concepts each year, you make sure pupils understand a particular foundational concept before moving to the next one. And you build in far more frequent recap and review from one lesson to the next – not from one year’s unit to the next!”

Educational Research

If teachers don’t use the recommendations from educational research, there’s not really any point in it. As I will talk about in Step 3 and 4, time needs to go into allowing teachers to develop. However, teachers also need to be intentionally looking at best practice when planning our curriculum. A great place to start is looking at Rosenshine’s Principles in Action by Tom Sherrington. A clear guide to using the findings of cognitive science in practical strategies in the classroom.

Sherrington and Oliver Caviglioli have put together this awesome guide, Teaching Walkthrus which goes through a lot of the key teaching techniques in 5 clear, concise steps. This handbook can also be used when instructional leaders are working with teachers as a way to guide professional development. Another one is Carl Hendrick and Robin Macpherson’s What Does This Look Like in the Classroom? It does a great job at explaining what the research says and then providing practical examples. 

Also, closer to home the NSW Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation has put together a What Works Best Update which has been beautifully laid out in these graphics from the Vision Hub.

One area that I have taken a keen interest in is Cognitive Load Theory. Dylan William has stated Cognitive Load Theory as, “the single most important thing for teachers to know.” Does your plan take into account what you will pre-teach or how you are going to segment each task? Below you can see a summary I have put together of Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory in Action by Ollie Lovell.

Specific Subject Models and strategies for Teaching and Learning

For every subject, there are various curriculum models and points of view on how to teach that subject. 

In English, we have seen the rise of the Science of Reading, which focuses on using evidence-based practice from cognitive scientists on how we learn to read. This approach has strongly pushed against many methods that are still being used in classrooms today. Louisa Moats, puts forward a strong case in Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science.

In PDHPE, there are models such as Teaching Games for Understanding, Sport Education, Personal and Social Responsibility, Health Related Physical Fitness, Cooperative Learning and Adventure Education. They each have a specific purpose and features that are a part of the model and knowing what your learning intentions are can help you decide what model/s you choose to use. Having a clear purpose in what you are trying to achieve as a teacher, can ensure that the sequence you develop is more meaningful for your students.

However, no matter how much you read and learn, the Dunning-Kruger effect can still get you! Daniel Willingham in When Can You Trust the Experts: How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education, acknowledges that teachers don’t have the time or the resources to go through all the “educational research,” so he says that we can go through these four steps:

1. Strip it. Clear away the verbiage and look at the actual claim. What exactly is the claim suggesting a teacher or parent should do, and what outcome is promised?

2. Trace it. Who created this idea, and what have others said about it? It’s common to believe something because an authority confirms it, and this is often a reasonable thing to do. I think people rely heavily on credentials when evaluating education research, but I argue that it’s a weak indicator of truth.

3. Analyze it. Why are you being asked to believe the claim is true? What evidence is offered, and how does the claim square with your own experience?

4. Should I do it? You’re not going to adopt every educational program that is scientifically backed, and it may make sense to adopt one that has not been scientifically evaluated.

This year, I am teaching K-6 Physical Education. I had been having my own internal debate about how to fit my understanding of explicit instruction and cognitive load theory within constructivist approaches, which many PE teachers are advocates for. However, what was pointed out to me in conversation with Justen O’Connor and Shane Pill was that we can still use the principles of Cognitive Load Theory and strategies of explicit instruction when teaching student-centred lessons. Dr O’Connor explains it well in his article, Explicit Teaching for Learning in Physical Education: Some thoughts.

The Spectrum of Teaching Styles (thanks for the tip Shane), takes the approach that it’s not necessarily that we have to choose one way or another, but that we have a broad set of styles or models at our disposal. They are like tools in our toolbox and we choose the right tool/s (model/approach) for the specific task (learning objectives). 

Syllabus requirements

There’s no denying that whatever your State or National requirements are, they must be included in your curriculum planning process. However, in Back on Track, fewer things, greater depth, Mary Myatt asks the question, “How can we address the syllabus outcomes, without being driven by them?” She highlights the importance of thinking about every learning moment.

  • Why are we teaching this? 
  • Why now? 
  • Why this way? 
  • What might happen? 
  • What has happened before?

Have you looked at how each outcome will be addressed across the whole Stage or just the year group you are currently planning for? 

When looking at syllabus requirements, how will you assess they have learned what you have been teaching? How will you use summative and formative assessment?

Emeritus professor, Dylan William is one of the most respected educational experts and his take on formative assessment has shaped a lot of the ways we look at evidence of student learning. 

  • How will they show their learning?
  • What background knowledge will they have?
  • What misconceptions will they have?
  • How will I check for understanding?

How can they show that they know? There are so many ways for students to show their understanding, but sometimes we get caught up in feeling we need written evidence. Unless you are actually assessing their writing, what about:

  • Sketching
  • Answering verbally
  • Peer assessments
  • Self assessments
  • Reflect on their decision-making process and where they went wrong/right and why they made those decisions.
  • Completing a multiple choice quiz
  • Doug Lemov’s Show me technique using mini-whiteboards or hand signals
  • Give three worked examples and have the students choose which one is right/best and have them explain why

Can your students go a step further and apply their learning? For example they could:

  • Create their own quiz
  • Teach someone else
  • Create something new using the knowledge they have gained

Finally, how will you use the data collected from assessing to move their learning forward? 

Learning behaviour

Learning behaviours or dispositions refer to the behaviours that successful learners exhibit. In Fear is the Mind Killer, James Mannion and Kate McAllister get us to think about whether or not it is possible to teach students how to learn. How can we develop self-regulated learners? What skills and knowledge do they need in order to get there? 

Guy Claxton has identified the following behaviours as what people do when they are learning, they: 

  • are good at practising
  • watch people who do it well
  • attend closely
  • gather information
  • experiment
  • ask questions
  • ask for help
  • check processes

The NSW Department of Education identifies some common dispositions such as persistence, agility and flexibility, motivation and drive to learn, metacognition and problem-solving and questioning.

Whatever the key behaviours are, understand that if they are not explicitly taught, you can’t expect your students to have them. I will go into this later when looking at Steps 3 and 4.

If you have skipped Step 1 and haven’t got a clear understanding of what sort of person your students want to be, you might struggle to get them to connect with your content and therefore won’t show you the sort of learning behaviour they are capable of. Learning can be hard, but can it not be fun as well or at least satisfying? How can we help our students experience the feeling of success?

How I am teaching with more purpose and meaning this year – Part 2 and 3

My next post, will look at Steps 3 and 4 and what barriers might get in the way of their learning and how we can address them. In the third part, I will go through how I have put this into practice in my physical education curriculum.

I’d love to know what sort of process you go through when designing your curriculum!

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