The Second Pillar of Principled Curriculum Design: Content

SSAT’s ‘Four Pillars of Principled Curriculum Design’ now has versions for mainstream primary, secondary and special schools. Over the coming weeks, SSAT’s senior education leads, Alex Galvin and Colin Logan, will be looking at each of the four pillars in turn. Today, Alex and Colin consider the second pillar: Content. 

Last week, Colin reflected on the first pillar of SSAT’s Four Pillars of Principled Curriculum Design – Intent. Since curriculum intent outlines what you want pupils to learn,  in theory, decisions about content should flow naturally from how you define your intent. However, decisions about content are complex.  

Unless you are starting with a blank page, content decisions in most departments are shaped by numerous factors. When explaining the story of their curriculum, many subject leads will describe the influence of previous heads of department, various iterations of the national curriculum, the interests of particular individuals, prior experience as well as the need to meet current national and school priorities. And none of this is wrong. All of these may be very valid reasons for doing what you do. The question is whether everyone knows why you teach what you do and whether everyone is satisfied with the answer. 

Translating intent into content decisions is also not always straightforward. Intent statements may translate readily into a tool for checking content decisions against, but they often do not – or at least not for all departments. Discussions about intent and content need to be ongoing and two-way, focusing as much on whether the stated intent reflects the reality of decisions being made at department level as on whether department heads  are considering whole school intent when making choices. A few useful questions for leadership teams who are considering the relationship between curriculum intent and content decisions are: 

  1. Can all subject leads explain how whole school curriculum intent informs their decisions about content? 
  1. Do all subject leads have a shared understanding of the practical implications of your curriculum intent? Do they feel that the intent statements reflect what they do in practice? 
  1. Are you expecting to see all aspects of your curriculum intent lived out in the curriculum plans of all subject areas – or do certain subjects take the lead in making particular elements of your intent a reality? 

During curriculum training sessions we often use an activity during which attendees consider who or what drives content decisions in their department. Staff preferences? Student interest? National priorities? Whole school curriculum intent? Spending some time considering what informs decision-making can be an interesting exercise, prompting consideration of not only how things work currently, but also how you would like decisions to be made in the future.  

Considering content takes you to the heart of what you want for your young people – back to the question of what education is for. What kind of knowledge and skills do your pupils need? What does it mean to be a successful pupil in different subject areas? 

A useful question when reflecting on curriculum content is ‘what is this piece of content doing? In other words, why do we feel this is sufficiently important to include? What knowledge/skills does it develop? How does it link to what goes before or afterwards? This kind of thinking supports the evolution of a clear narrative and leads naturally to consideration of structure, pedagogy and sequencing. More on that next week. 

Diversity in curriculum planning

When considering the curriculum content and the messages that your choices send, consciously or unconsciously, considering the diversity of your curriculum plans is key. This might be about considering whether your students see themselves and their experiences in the curriculum, but it goes further than that, into what you want your students to understand of the world. Feedback from students and staff is key in this review process, to avoid making assumptions about how different pupil groups feel about what and how they learn. It involves content choices – for example recognising the different narratives around a particular event in history, reviewing which musicians are studied in music and the way in which world issues are presented in geography. However, it also requires careful consideration of unconscious bias, whether that relates to race, gender or sexual orientation.  

If you are reviewing the diversity of your curriculum, Diverse Educators have collated a really useful range of resources and articles to support your thinking:’diversity%20in%20the,equitable%20distribution%20of%20curriculum%20content. 


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