I started teaching in the Gove years; a time of enormous curriculum upheaval with all three secondary key stages seeing major changes in a bid for increased rigour, higher standards and improved performance on international assessments. In recent months, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman has continued to increase the public awareness of curriculum matters through speeches and policy and, if the education commentariat are to be believed, “curriculum” is the buzz-word of the moment.

But curriculum is a bit of a chameleon word. To some, it means the substance of what is to be taught in a given subject or topic. To others, it represents the broad offering of content offered to students at a particular institution. Many will intertwine it with pedagogy and include discussion of teaching resources and approaches within their discussion of curriculum. Others see it through a political and sociological lens, a topic to be studied in terms of its ramifications on society and status as a support for political authority and hierarchy. Still others see it simply as the exam specification: the things my students need to know and understand to pass an exam.

To be fair, it is not a word which lends itself particularly well to a single definition. Only starting to be used extensively at the start of the last century, it is apparently descended from the Latin currere, which relates to running and dynamism; often used to describe the “careering” of a chariot.

curric graph
Graph showing the increased use of the word “curriculum” with time

This “careering” of the chariot indicates dynamism, movement and journeying. I therefore like to think of curriculum as the body through which a student moves on their journey from being a disciplinary novice to becoming a disciplinary expert. Their journey might “career;” it may stutter and start and appear disjointed and fragmented. But, from the wide angle of time, forward movement is occurring.

I think this is also what is meant by the word in its recent public appearances. What comprises the key content of a particular discipline? How are its ideas structured and related? Which concepts must be included and which can be optional? These are difficult questions, and many of us do not have the training to adequately address them. For a long time the educational focus has been not on curriculum, but on pedagogy. Curriculum was set centrally by the government, and it was teachers’ role to implement. But in recent days political freedoms and changing accountabilities have enticed schools to take a more active involvement with their curriculum, not just in terms of understanding its structure and purpose, but taking a role in its fashioning. Individual schools or multi-academy trusts will never have full control over their curriculum, but there has been an “awakening;” a movement towards teachers having a different, more dynamic, relationship with the curriculum.

I consider myself to be utterly untrained in this area. Despite having delivered close to ten different curriculums in my few years as a teacher, I still lack the technical knowledge and disciplinary jargon to discuss curriculum in a meaningful or scholarly manner. With respect to the study of curriculum, I am a novice. I also suspect I am not alone. With few exceptions, curriculum has not been a focus of initial teacher training, Masters programmes or leadership qualification courses. But with the gaze of Ofsted fixing itself on this area, schools will no doubt go into overdrive to find solutions.

With such widespread activity, the spectre of genericism looms large. No doubt, school leaders will be sent to one-day courses on the topic of “curriculum” and will become the schools’ “curriculum leads.” In a bid to apply partial knowledge and skill to a whole school in need of consistency, measures may be imposed across the board. We might see departments being told that their curriculum must be modelled against Bloom’s taxonomy, or core school values. Departments could be instructed to use their curriculum to support whole-school values and emphases like resilience or growth mind-set. The “cross-curricular” fad will rouse from hibernation and teachers will have to shoehorn geography into drama, and chemistry into art. Using catchy buzzwords, school proformas will be used to write “knowledge organisers” for each subject, with the same proformas used in science, maths, English and history. Imposition, imposition, imposition.

Such activity does violence to the very item it seeks to promote. For curriculums are unique and distinctive, based on the discipline they represent. The way that knowledge is structured, organised and sequenced in science is radically different to how it is structured, organised and sequenced in maths, English or history. And this is to say nothing of the disciplinary rules that underpin this knowledge. How is knowledge generated in science? How is it generated in maths? What epistemological rules are used to say “yes, this knowledge counts and can be admitted, but this knowledge does not, and must be dismissed”? Genericism threatens the rich disciplinary thinking that the focus on curriculum is supposed to promote.

This symposium seeks to anticipate and pre-empt such genericsm. Following our AfL in Science Symposium I am incredibly excited to be hosting a running series tackling the knottiest and thorniest of issues within UK Science education. Our contributors range from frontline teachers, through Initial Teacher Trainers and education academics. We are also delighted that Ofsted themselves will be contributing towards our discussion. Over the coming weeks, a new article will be published every few days, often trying to build and develop on the ideas introduced previously, concluding with a summary and remarks from Christine Counsell. We hope that interested teachers of all subjects (though especially science) find the articles to be meaningful and helpful, and look forward to the ensuing discussion.

Full list of contributors: Rosalind Walker, Tim Oates, Jasper Green, Pritesh Raichura, Niki Kaiser, Gethyn Jones, Matt Perks, Andrew Carroll, Alan Passingham (Ofsted), Christine Counsell 

Read Ruth’s piece here on foundational vocabulary for discussing curriculum

Read Gethyn’s piece here on how to build a curriculum with misconceptions in mind

Read Jasper’s piece here on the big ideas of science

Read Tim Oates’s piece here on the new practical endorsement and its history

Read Pritesh’s piece here on what material should go into a science curriculum and why

Read Matt Perks’ piece here on designing a subject knowledge enhancement curriculum

Read Niki Kaiser’s piece here on a memorable curriculum

Read Andrew Carroll’s piece here on constructing a PGCE science curriculum

Read my subsequent pieces on Core and Hinterland here, and sequencing a curriculum here

Read Ofsted’s short findings paper into primary science curriculum here