A Chemical Orthodoxy

Schools, Science and Education

Search results


Thinking Curriculum: The One Stop Shop

Thinking deeply about curriculum is new to most of us. For a long time, we’ve focussed a lot more on the how than we have on the what. Recent changes in mood have been revelatory to me and, I imagine, many others. Perhaps ironically though, most of us who are now interested in curriculum, didn’t follow a formal curriculum when learning more about curriculum. As such, and I’m happy to only speak for myself here, my knowledge came in drips and drabs, bits and pieces and stops and starts. That’s probably just the nature of the beast.

I was asked by school to deliver some training on curriculum, and argued that the thing that would be most useful would be to introduce staff to some of the key terms that are bandied around when thinking about curriculum. Familiarity with these concepts isn’t just important in and of itself, but is crucial for deepening and enriching curricular thought. Rolling these ideas around in your head forces you to contemplate your subject in a slightly different light and spurs you on to delving deeper into what it all means.

I remembered Ruth Walker’s marvelous blog from the Curriculum In Science symposium. In it, she introduced us to a number of terms and how they might find application in science. Essentially, I wanted to copy and build on her ideas based on some of the stuff I’ve been reading over the past couple of years. A document started to take shape, which I’ve called The One Stop Shop. It contains 22 curricular terms that I have personally found very useful in shaping my thinking about curriculum. Each term has a definition, a couple of examples from a range of subjects, some thoughts about how the term is useful to teachers on a day-to-day basis, and a section with further thoughts and extra reading.

I’ve also put together a short slideshow which just highlights a few of the highest leverage concepts. The slideshow is designed to be an accompaniment to the main document and used when introducing people thinking about curriculum.

At the end of the slideshow, there is a slide with some provisos for use, which I wanted to reproduce here:

  • This is not for Ofsted, this is because it is important
  • My list is my interpretation, it is not objective fact
  • “One stop shop” notwithstanding, there is much more out there!

Please do bear all that in mind, and if you have any questions or contentions do not hesitate to be in touch. As ever, enormous amounts of gratitude to the wonderful thinkers and writers (most of whom are linked in The One Stop Shop) who have been so pioneering and inspiring. Enjoy!

Thinking Curriculum – The One Stop Shop v2

Thinking Curriculum – The One Stop Shop – powerpoint

Curriculum don’ts

Everyone’s talking about curriculum these days, and this is a Good Thing. As I’ve argued before, we’ve spent too long talking about generic “teaching and learning” or “pedagogy,” without the realisation that content must precede delivery. There is no point talking about how without first establishing why.

However, there are two problems with the discourse as it is playing out: problems that are distinct, but also highly related. The first is that a lot of the change is coming from Ofsted’s new Education Inspection Framework. This isn’t a problem intrinsically, but it’s no state secret that for a long time schools and the CPD industries that spring up around them have been using fear of Ofsted to drive changes, and often bad ones. Sometimes the fear was legitimate, sometimes it wasn’t. But institutional memories live long and we are now in a situation where people are starting to think about their curriculum through that narrow lens of “what do Ofsted want?” rather than “what is the right thing for my school?”

The second problem is our lack of training and vocabulary. There is a wealth of deep curricular thinking out there and though it might have always been a minor thread in teacher education and training, it’s out there, and making a resurgence. But when it comes to implementing changes (in the aforementioned shadow of Ofsted) a lot of the time we lack the conceptual tools not only to express and communicate our ideas but to actually shape them.

Unfortunately, it already seems like people are making mistakes when it comes to curriculum and responding to Ofsted. Following Claire Stoneman’s wonderful blog on curriculum clangers here, I wanted to expand on her list based on some things I have seen, with headlines in the image and explanations below. Buckle up.

Curriculum Don’ts

1. No statements of curriculum intent

I’ve now seen a couple of dozen people online looking for help writing statements of curriculum intent. This is not the point. Michael Tidd’s excellent article argues that any such statement is likely to be vacuous and banal. This is because the intent of your curriculum resides to a much greater extent in your schemes of work than it does in any vague and platitudinous opening statement. See also comments like:

Where I think there is a bit of nuance here is thinking in directions like this:

A response to that of course is that schools that haven’t been thinking about curriculum or paying attention to the changes in the educational zeitgeist are unlikely to be able to think particularly deeply or with much sophistication about their intent. It might seem logical to think about intent before you start planning, but I think it’s more reasonable to actually go out and read stuff on curriculum first. If you think “oh ok I’ve written a statement about my curriculum intent: box ticked, job done!” you are wrong. You need to go read stuff and build the necessary conceptual frameworks to have meaningful conversations about intent. Once you’ve done that, if you really feel like a document of intent will help you then go for it. But if you’re doing it because something something Ofsted, you should stop.

Oh, and if the above wasn’t enough Ofsted don’t even count documents like “statements of curricular intent” as a source of evidence in inspections.

2. No forcing subjects to conform to whole school curricular aims like “big ideas” or soft skills

Big ideas might be incredibly useful in history, or English or psychology or whatever. I am personally not of the opinion that they are helpful in science. Some science teachers disagree, and that’s fine. But our subjects and our interpretations of them are different, fundamentally so. It doesn’t make sense to have all the different subjects in your school follow the same philosophy as their very essences differ in the way they approach truth, reality, generation of knowledge and meaningful experience.

I’ve seen some people talking about whole school curricular aims in a general sense like “creativity” or “critical thinking” or whatever. That’s great, but ultimately it isn’t going to be substantive, not because these soft skills are incredibly context dependent (which they are), but because they mean different things in different subjects. The creativity of a scientist is fundamentally different to the creativity of a writer or a geographer or an artist. Umbrella terms fail to understand this crucial distinction, and should therefore be avoided.

3. No assessing/evaluating curriculum without deep and extensive conversation with subject experts

Subject experts are kings of their curriculum. If you aren’t a subject expert, it’s going to be damn hard for you to really get to grips with what it is they are doing. If you’re a senior leader then you must make sure that you trust your people and hear them out properly. They will be the ones who can explain the reasoning behind the decisions made and without them your thoughts will be extremely superficial. Without their guidance, you’ll end up focussing on meaningless surface details like curriculum intent statements or whether it contains buzzwords like knowledge, metacognition, resilience or 21st century skills.

4. No snapshot lesson observations to assess curriculum implementation

Curriculum plays out over the long term, and you will only ever be able to see a small part of it. If in your observation cycle (if you have one) you get lots of time to see people, plus pre- and post-observation conversations so much the better. But if you don’t get that be incredibly humble about what you can see and what you can infer. One 20 minute observation a term isn’t going to cut it. You’re better off dropping in regularly and not just to one teacher. If you line manage science, get into as many science lessons with as many science teachers as possible. That’s the only way you’ll really get a feel for the quality of the curriculum a department is delivering.

5. No use of GCSE grades/sub-levels as progression models

I can’t stress enough how wrong this is. GCSE grades aren’t a progression model. Students aren’t supposed to progress from a grade 3 in year 7 to a grade 4 in year 8 and so on. The grade isn’t the progression model, the curriculum is the progression model. I’ve written before about this here, but you can also see this:

Or this, or this or this. Using GCSE grades as a progression model is not just silly (as that isn’t what they are for) but it warps your school’s practice and turns it into a factory aimed at delivering exam results, rather than delivering a beautiful curriculum.

6. No curricular omissions for different “groups” (e.g. PP, SEN, LPAs, M/F)

This has just got to die. You need to be rigorous and ambitious for all your students, and not allow the soft bigotry of low expectations to exclude students from the intellectual inheritance that is theirs no matter what their personal circumstances or key stage 2 scores. I’d recommend Ruth Walker’s now seminal E. Coli blog for more on this,

Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby also put this well in Making Every Lesson Count, in a sadly all too familiar story:

Alternatively, catch Bart Simpson’s take on this here.

To be sure, there will be some contexts where breaking this rule is justified (like special schools). But those cases will be the tiniest minority and your general rule should be a powerful and ambitious curriculum for all.

7. No using the word “knowledge” to repackage old ideas (e.g. “knowledge checks” to replace mini-plenaries)

This is one of Claire’s ones, so check out her elaboration. An extension to this of course is to be mistrustful of any CPD provider who is selling you the same product as they were selling you last year, just with a few different words. Which leads me on to…

8. No shelling out the big bucks for dubious CPD

If your inbox is anything like mine, then you’ve been inundated with emails selling CPD on curriculum. Obviously telling people to “be discerning”, isn’t particularly helpful, especially if we are dealing with something that people don’t already know a lot about. It’s hard to give any simple rules of thumb, but the below could be loose indicators:

  • If the provider are contradicting any of the don’ts on this list, then that’s a bit of a red flag
  • Mentioning Ofsted a million times is a red flag
  • People selling platforms (especially ICT ones) which are just rebranded versions of their old ones is a red flag
  • Research the presenters. If they’ve never written anything about curriculum then you don’t really have any reasonable grounds to ascertain if this CPD will be worthwhile. If they do, then you can judge whether it’s the kind of thing you are looking for.
  • See point 9…

9. No making changes until you know your stuff

Getting clued up on curriculum should be an utterly fascinating journey into the roots of the knowledge and understanding that comprise the very fabric both of your subject and the education your school provides. There are lots of incisive and thought-provoking writers out there, and as well as all the links above you can find further reading here, here and here. Go forth and work curriculum wonders!

Curriculum in Science: A Symposium

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

KS3 Science Curriculum: Some Tentative Thoughts

Last night on Twitter I reached out to hear people’s thoughts on how to go about writing a KS3 science curriculum bearing cognitive science in mind (1). I got some really interesting responses from people who are a) more knowledgeable than I am and b) more experienced than I am. I wanted to get down some tentative thoughts here, not because I think they will be exhaustive at all, but because it helps me to frame the debate. All of the things I am going to mention below could be the subjects of longer blogs (and maybe one day will be).

The Problem With KS3 Curricula

  1. Since the SATs were abolished, in many places there has been limited emphasis on KS3 science. In an era of high stakes accountability this is understandable
  2. The proliferation of KS3 bought-in schemes of work has enabled teachers to take the back seat when it comes to science curriculum planning
  3. In conjunction with 1.2 there are now thousands of different KS3 science resources floating around, all related to different schemes of work and different curricula, with different emphases. This has led to a very laissez faire approach to what is actually taught
  4. KS3 assessments tend to be very poor (in the four or so schemes of work I have used) and do not focus on the actual science that a student needs to know and focus a lot more on the scientific process. This means they are not a reliable or valid indicator of what the student actually knows. Add to this that some of the questions are just appallingly worded and based on an obsolete level-descriptor model.
  5. A lot of science teachers I speak to from across the country are struggling to deliver the new GCSE syllabus: it is more voluminous and conceptually demanding than any of the past. It is imperative that KS3 prepares students appropriately.
  6. Building on that, it is incredibly distressing to me that students appear to reach KS4 and have highly sparse background knowledge. This could be a function of both curriculum and teaching but is necessary to be addressed.

The Big Ideas of Science: What’s the Big Idea?

A number of people referenced this ASE document which details the Big Ideas of Science and says that all teaching should be in reference to them. There’s a lot of language in there that doesn’t really suit me (2) but I wanted to unpick a bit of the debate surrounding them last night (and today).

  1. What is the purpose of the Big Idea?
    1. The Big Idea could be there to kind of tie everything together so we don’t have a list of “disconnected facts”
    2. Is this a “thing in and of itself”? I.e. it should not be thought of in reference to its utility to some other goal (e.g. helping students to learn and systematise knowledge) but is important in its own right.
    3. Are these more of a planning tool than a teaching tool?
    4. It also could be there as we think this is something fundamental to understanding new science when presented to us, so we can fit it into a pre-organised and arranged system. Which leads me on to…
  2. Are these the same as “schema”?
    1. If they are, then that has implications for how we go about teaching them. As i have written before, the lack of reference to cognitive science in academic educational science writing is incredibly frustrating to me.
  3. Can you teach Big Ideas without reference to its “application”?
    1. I had a great discussion with Helen Rogerson and Helen Harden about this. Take for example statement BI “all the material in the universe is made of very small particles.” Presumably an “application” of that would be statement A “atoms are very small particles, which are, in turn, made of even smaller particles”In what order to you teach these BI and A? Do you start with BI and then give examples like A? Is it possible to understand BI without examples? But then what if you just teach A and then BI? Have you properly shown students that science is a coherent system with overarching principles?

      Would a compromise approach be to start with a lot of examples and then halfway through your course start introducing big ideas and then continually reference them?

  4. Who decides what these Big Ideas are?
    1. I haven’t read the document cover to cover but it gives a fairly extensive justification of each of the ideas
    2. Unfortunately in their panel, actual classroom teachers are massively under-represented with only a couple of the “senior” members ever having spent time in a classroom. No current teachers. This shouldn’t necessarily take away from the substance of the report but still irks me.
    3. Some of the principles seem a little, “unweighty.” Take for example “objects can affect other objects at a distance.” Yes, that’s true, but it’s hardly on par with the conservation of matter, which is not included in the list. It seems like someone took a list of topics like magnetism, gravity and radiation, figured out that they all involve objects affecting other objects at a distance, and categorised them based on that.
  5. Is there any systematic evidence to suggest that students who are taught using the big ideas are more effective scientists? If not then why should we pay them any heed?

Building a curriculum for knowledge

Something I suggested was to write a list of 600 questions that you want students to be able to answer by the end of KS3. You can then build your scheme around those questions, constantly referring to them and using knowledge organisers or some other method to engage in spaced and interleaved retrieval practice.

The obvious question is how do you decide the questions? This could be mediated by:

  1. Core knowledge that people need to access society (Hirschian approach?)
  2. Core knowledge that people need to make informed scientific decisions (e.g. vaccines, climate change etc.)
  3. Core knowledge that students need to succeed in KS4 (and make the KS4 teacher’s life easier)
  4. Things that are “awesome” and “wonderful”

There’s also the possibility of throwing the “how science works” stuff into the mix. My feelings on that are pretty strong, but will have to be a blog for another time.


Common misconceptions need to be realised and thought about in planning. This is a very tricky area and I’m currently researching more about how misconceptions arise (in evolutionary psychological terms) and if they can be overwritten or if the best we can hope for is suppression.

History of science

George Pidgeon pointed out that the history of science is important too in terms of the way our ideas have developed. In my opinion this is important for a number of reasons:

  1. It gives students a coherent narrative. Perhaps could even replace the “Big Ideas”
  2. Can preempt misconceptions: for every daft idea you hear in the classroom, there will be a towering figure from the history of science who believed it was true
  3. Gives a more nuanced view of “scientific enquiry” than the usual “let’s plan a practical!” approach

Ease of delivery/preparation

There is also the rather pedestrian concern of actual delivery. Any curriculum would need to be deliverable by all teachers and properly resourced and assessed (though assessment is decidedly less pedestrian).

Compromise position

In short, there is much to think about. I don’t yet know what my dream KS3 curriculum would be, but this is a good starting point. Presumably there would have to be a compromise at some point – you can never please everyone!



(1) The background to this is that our department’s KS3 coordinator is leaving and this provides a great opportunity to go back to the drawing board. My recent thinking on this pays some debt to Michael Fordham’s piece. I am also aware that there is a gibongous amount of literature on curriculum design. I’m just a teacher though, so I have raised issues here as I see them.

(2) the Ten Principles of Science Education section is highly objectionable

I want to go back to school

It’s currently eight minutes past eleven at night. I finished my day’s work about forty five minutes ago. My heavily-pregnant wife works for the NHS, so every day she goes up to our loft at 8am and works through till 4pm. Meanwhile, I look after our three year old daughter. At 4, we swap over. I start ploughing through my emails, trying to complete the myriad jobs and tasks that are the day to day bread and butter of a head of department; managing my team, supporting them to set work, setting work for my own students, tracking which students are working and which ones aren’t, preparing a budget for next year, coordinating curriculum planning for next year, working towards our sixth form which is (supposed to be) opening in September, developing resources for use now and next year, chasing up students who need support or cajoling, answering queries about students from other teachers, from heads of year, from this, from that, from the other.

In the middle of that, I stop to help with bath and bed time, do the various chores and household tasks that build up, go shopping when we need to and so on and so forth. Then I go back to work again, aiming to finish by ten, but often going much later.

I’m also a teacher for the Oak National Academy, helping to provide distance learning to millions of students across the country. Therefore during the week I need to plan my lessons and develop my resources, have my work quality assured and peer-reviewed, do the same for my colleagues’ work, read up on the training and briefings that I can’t attend live and so on and so forth.

My wife doesn’t work Fridays, so she looks after our daughter then and I try and work all day to get a bit ahead of myself. Sundays I film all my lessons for Oak, which is both time consuming and exhausting. In total, that means I’m working a six day week, with four of those days done entirely in the evening, having spent the daylight hours trying to be as good a dad as I can be to my daughter.

I say all this not because I’m looking for pity. I’m fully aware of the fact that many have it significantly worse than we do. Both myself and my wife are – thank God – healthy, and we are both still gainfully employed. Believe me when I say that I count my blessings every day. I’m saying this because I want to make one point really clear: I want to go back to school. Desperately.

I love working and I know that I signed myself up for a career that isn’t easy even in the best of times. But I’m struggling now because it’s hard, and these times fall far deeper into the “worst of times” end of the spectrum. It’s hard to balance all those different jobs, to be a teacher in two schools, a head of department in one, a father and a husband at home – all at the same time, six days and six evenings a week. When school is on I can take hats on and off with ease, and I’m not burdened by the crushing guilt each day that I’m not being a good enough dad to my daughter. There’s a reason I chose to teach in secondary, and I love her to pieces but it’s a simple fact that I can’t provide the education or social interactions that she got at her childminder. My head knows that I’m doing a good job, but my heart aches for her – for the friends she doesn’t see or no longer remembers, for her grandparents she can’t hug, for the strangers she refuses to wave to like she used to. I know she’ll be fine, but it’s hard. And in among that, competing for legroom in my emotional energy reserves, is the nagging guilt that that I’m letting my own students down. I know there isn’t much more I could be doing, but that doesn’t really help. The feeling is still there, the certainty that for my toughest students – the ones that worked so hard to catch up with their peers – for them I’m not doing enough, and the gap will widen.

So I want to go back to school. Because when school is on I know I’m really good at my job. I’m organised at work, I can get stuff done and I can do what I love doing – teach students – and I can do it well. And then I can get home and I don’t need to worry about whether my girl is getting a good deal during the day, and I can be a good dad and husband and help out doing all the things that need doing.

I hope you believe me then, that you trust me when I say I want to go back to school.

And I hope you’ll trust me – and this is the important bit – when I say that every teacher I know and have spoken to wants exactly the same thing. The emotions I feel are the same as any teacher’s. We are a madly driven profession, one wildly and chaotically in love with its work, one which feels the strongest pulls of vocation – of being called to labour. Whether things should be like that is a different question – I’m not here to discuss the teacher-as-martyr complex and how we go about building a sustainable profession. The simple fact is, we want to go back to school. I’d be surprised if you found a teacher who didn’t.

The problem is, just because I want something, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. We live in more complicated times than that, and however much I wish the virus was all gone and finished and cleared up and over and into the green and into Covid Alert Level 1 – it isn’t. And the question of when we go back is not answered by assessing how much I want to go back. If it were, we would have been back six weeks ago. The question of when to go back is answered by assessing whether or not it is safe. Safe for teachers, safe for non-teachers, safe for students, safe for the people the students live with and could carry a deadly virus to. Is it safe to go back? Whether or not I want to go back has nothing to do with it.

So when I see members of the chattering classes saying things like

Or articles like this

Or comments like this

Or front pages of massive national newspapers like this


I get worried. I get really worried. Lord knows I’ve had my problems with the Unions and have taken many a public position against them. But isn’t it possible that the reason why unions and teachers are saying we shouldn’t go back isn’t because they don’t want to – as I’ve said, we want to go back to work – but because we don’t think it’s safe yet? You might disagree, and think it is safe, but you surely have to at least acknowledge that it’s possible someone could disagree with you, not because they are some feckless over-unionised work-shy wastrel, but because they don’t think it’s safe? I am “stepping up.” I am working hard. I don’t need “R and R.” I am quite “brave” enough, thanks. I don’t much fancy the idea of “being a hero.” And I really, really don’t like being accused of advocating “child abuse” when I’m worried about the safety of my school community. And if I’ve read the guidelines and suggestions and FAQs and policy documents and thought “oh boy they haven’t thought this through,” it’s not because I’m enjoying my lockdown sipping lychee martinis on the veranda and don’t want to go back to year 10 period 5 on a Thursday, but because I don’t think it’s safe. A friend and colleague told me that they cried after seeing one of those tweets that I quoted. That they felt they had already given so much, and then to be accused of obstructing the one thing they cared about most – their students’ welfare – it’s just too much.

So here’s the question: can you acknowledge that teachers know a little something about children and schools and might have a different opinion to you, an opinion that is not based on 1980’s union belligerence but is based on expertise and knowledge? I hope you can.

I hope you can listen to teachers. I hope you can listen to them without rejecting their voices out of hand. Because if you do reject them, if you ignore their experience and skill and fail to invite them to the table, then some very bad things could happen. And again, urging caution and hesitation rips at the very fabric of my being because, as I might have mentioned, I really, really, want to go back to school.

Key Stage 3 Science Resources

Key Stage 3 science has always been a bit of a hobby-horse of mine, as I think it’s in an extremely poor state nationally and needs sorting. At my last school, we built a really strong scheme which you can read about here.

Recently at my new place I’ve been trying to write booklets to fit with the MAT-wide curriculum which we use. I didn’t want to share them until I had more but given the expediencies of the time I thought I’d just chuck them up here.

Please note that they are our booklets for our curriculum. That means it might not have the same level of detail, nuance, use of language or sequencing that your curriculum does. If you want them, you are more than welcome to them but don’t expect them to be able to seamlessly plug into your curriculum. They also aren’t perfect and I haven’t had as much time as I’d like to make them so. I’ve also attached two retrieval roulettes for our year 7 and 8 course respectively which may help.

If I get time over the coming lock-down I will try to write more KS3 material, so keep an eye on this page as I’d like to get additional content up.

Year 7 MQ (mini quiz)

UL Y8 MQ (mini quiz)

7PE Energy

7BR Reproduction booklet

TTA 8BD Digestion booklet

8PE Electricity booklet

How to not screw up retrieval practice

This is the first blog in the CogSciSci symposium on retrieval practice in the classroom. You should read the introduction to this symposium here before reading this article. 

Retrieval Practice in the Classroom: Lethal Mutation?

In the introduction to this series, it was noted that retrieval practice (RP) can go wrong and is in danger of lethal mutation. In this entry I’m going to look at how RP can be implemented in the classroom to try and anticipate and mitigate some of the concerns raised. 

In the introduction, Coe’s non-exhaustive list of potential pitfalls with RP was noted:


  1. Teachers might generate retrieval questions that focus solely on factual recall (these questions are easier to generate) rather than requiring any higher-order thinking.
  2. Questions might be too easy and boost confidence without providing real challenge, which is likely to be a key ingredient for generating the kind of learning hoped for.
  3. Teachers might allocate too much time to the quizzes, effectively losing the time they need to cover new material. 



My perspective as a teacher is a little different to Coe’s, and I want to add a couple more to his list:

4. Ideas become tangled together and students associate concepts which should not be associated, leading to error further down the line

5. On a motivational level, students who day after day, lesson after lesson, get questions wrong in Do Now activities are going to get worse, not better

6. Feedback: if students don’t get good feedback, they will embed the wrong answer in their long term memory

7. The curse of genericism: my experience is that once something becomes policy in a general blanket way, bad things happen

I think Coe’s framework of skill, understanding and commitment is incredibly powerful and has helped push my thinking on this. My slightly reformulated version is:

  • Skill: do teachers have the classroom tools and craft knowledge to be able to implement RP effectively?
  • Understanding: do teachers understand the conditions under which RP is effective?
  • Commitment: how does a programme of retrieval practice affect teachers’ workload? Is it easily implementable? What is its opportunity cost?

I think it is important to add that if it turns out RP is too difficult to get right, I will be the first to argue that we should stop doing it: if an intervention is hard to pull off and carries many likely negative outcomes then it shouldn’t be done– find something easier instead. 

What follows is a description of how I try to use RP in the classroom that attempts to take into account points 1-7 above from within Coe’s skill/understanding/commitment framework. I don’t make any claims to have got it perfect yet, but I think it’s a strong start. I’ve included a summary table at the end because the different strands get a little tied together throughout what follows. 

Do Now

In my department’s policy, every lesson starts with the retrieval roulette on the board, other than if we are doing a practical or an assessment. For those who don’t know, the roulette is a simple Excel program. You put questions and answers in and it spits them out onto your board in a random order. 

It’s very plug and play: I built it to make that commitment bit a little easier for people. But the work for effective roulette use starts before you enter the classroom. Writing the questions and answers is damn difficult as you have to balance:

  1. The need for brevity generally (longer = harder to memorise and assess)
  2. The need for precise language (which often leads to brevity)
  3. The need to sequence them correctly 

Essentially, the questions and answers become a curricular tool. They help you, as classroom teacher, come to grips with what it is exactly that you want students to know and remember in the long term. They force you to think about the order in which you are going to teach different ideas and how concepts lead one to the next. If you take it seriously, writing the questions is an empowering process, and this is all completely independent of the actual RP in the classroom (for more see here).

Back to the chase. The lesson starts and the Do Now is on the board. Students have their heads down working from memory on the questions. Now is not the time to sit back and enjoy a few minutes of emails and lesson admin. Now is the time to get round the class as quickly as you can, looking at as many student responses as you can. Things you have to do:

  • Make sure all your students have actually started the damn thing. Narrate compliance (“well done for getting started Daniel…”) and use Least Invasive Intervention with students who need to get a move on
  • Some students may get stuck on a question and just stare off into space. Remind them to just move on to the next one
  • Some students may start using their notes. Tell them to stop doing this until they have tried all the questions from memory. I occasionally allow students to then use their notes and update answers in a different colour pen
  • Have a general scan at some of the responses, particularly ones which you think will be common errors. For example, I recently saw a student answer the question “which state or states of matter can be compressed?” with “gases and liquids” – I’ll come back to this later
  • Don’t bother spending ages with one student – gather data now, come back to it later
  • Keep an eye on timing. You don’t want it to drag out, but equally you want students to have as much chance to answer as many questions as possible. This is why sometimes the “go back into your notes and check” thing can work well with students who have blitzed through it 

Random or prerequisite knowledge?

The roulette is set up to do random questions from the entire course. You can also set it up to assess prerequisite knowledge for today’s learning. All teachers should start a period of new learning with a period of retrieval practice on prior knowledge. This can either be done by manipulating the roulette to give you questions relevant to today, hand picking a few yourself or just going over it verbally. None of that stops it being crucial to regularly revisit old material that isn’t relevant to today’s learning, and the random element of the roulette should ensure good coverage over time. 


Once you’re happy enough students have had a good crack at the questions, it’s time to review and give feedback. Target a student to answer your question, and do the usual thing. Make sure it’s right, ask other students if they agree, that kind of thing. Let’s say you ask a student “which state or states of matter can be compressed?” and they say “gas,” make sure you then go to that student whose work you checked before and say “Dave, what did you write? Why is that wrong?” Without this, there’s good odds Dave will just tick his answer as correct, not knowing that the answer “gas” really means “gas, and only gas.”

One thing you shouldn’t do is to just stick the answers on the board. You want students to reflect on their work deeply, and if you put the answers on the board they won’t do that. They’ll just speed through at whatever pace and just try and see if there is something on the board that vaguely matches what’s on their page (even if they are well trained). Much better to go slowly one by one with you leading the discussion. 

Where’s the challenge?

This is also a good opportunity to build in further challenge and encourage higher order thinking. “Ok that’s great, we know that gases can be compressed. Can somebody put their hand up and tell me why gases can be compressed…[wait time]…Amy?” 

Coe argues that we need to think about the challenge of the questions, and as I’ve written before I don’t think that means just how many things are in the question (e.g. in what three ways can you increase gas pressure) or the abstractness (e.g. what causes gas pressure), but also the spacing introduces a desirable difficulty. An “easy” question like “what is the word for the process of a gas turning to a liquid” can provide adequate challenge if the elapsed time between initial teaching and retrieval is lengthy (for a more extended discussion of this please refer to Damian’s upcoming blog in this series.) 

It’s important to be able to look at the set of questions on the board and know which ones are the most challenging because that affects what you do with the questions afterwards and during. Sometimes I’ll see a question like “in what direction are the oscillations in a transverse wave” and think “actually they aren’t ready yet to give me a good definition” and I’ll ask them to draw a diagram instead. Equally, if a particular question for this class at this time is not challenging enough, I’ll need to have a follow-up prepared. 

As a department, an activity we do in meetings is to put a mini-quiz on the board and order the questions by challenge for our classes as they currently stand. We can then really delve behind the questions and discuss – in a subject specific, disciplinary way – what it is that makes them more or less challenging and what we will do about that in the classroom. 

I would agree with Coe that the format doesn’t lend itself to really “higher order” questioning in the sense of “application” or “transfer” questions, but that isn’t really their goal. The goal of the roulette is to prepare students so that when they are faced with questions like that (as they will be in class drill work or in assessments) they have the intellectual building blocks to formulate strong answers. 

Draw the links

During the review session, take the opportunity to show the links between some topics and to discriminate between others. Sometimes I might spend five minutes between question 1 and 2 asking further questions to the class until I get to a point at which they blend one to the next. For example, if I have question 1 asking for the word equation for anaerobic respiration and question 2 asking about the root hair cell, I might ask a ton of questions about where the various substances involved in respiration come from and go to, the purpose of respiration, where it happens, what kinds of cells need to do a lot of it, active transport and then the function of the root hair cell in transporting mineral ions into the plant. 

Obviously a lot of the time that isn’t feasible. When it’s not, make sure to distinguish between topics by being super explicit about where certain concepts come from and how they are separate to others. Don’t be afraid of saying things like “ok this is a question about electrolysis which has very little to do with bioaccumulation.” To be sure, given an hour you might be able to get from one to the other but this probably isn’t a good use of your time.

Get data

It’s vital to use the retrieval practice as an opportunity for you to gather data about your class’s burgeoning knowledge. The quickest and easiest way to do this is by doing a simple “hands up if you got question 1 correct…2…3…” and so on. 

Take a note

Let’s say there’s something a lot of your students got wrong. At this point you have two options: re-teach is option 1, and option 2 is to take a note, move on and pencil it in to tackle another time. Here’s an example of the kinds of thing each one might be appropriate for:

Reteach Take a note and move on
Something that won’t take you long Something that will take you a very long time
Something that is prerequisite for today’s learning (i.e. without it students cannot access today’s learning) Something that isn’t prerequisite for today’s learning
Something you feel confident just going straight off the bat on  Something you really want to check your subject knowledge and instructional design on first
Something you can think of practice work on the hoof for (or you have stored somewhere easily accessible)  Something you want to print or design some resources for

How long does all this take?

This is a good question, and there is no easy answer. Sometimes, I will only take five minutes over the Do Now. Other times, it could take the bulk of the lesson. This is where teacher agency is important and you have to take a departmental line. Personally, I don’t believe in content coverage for its own sake. If students are forgetting the stuff you taught them a few months ago, unless you change something you’re going to find yourself in exactly the same place in another few months’ time. So if you need the time, take the time. As above, you may prefer to put a particular topic to the side and come back to it later; that’s also fine. 

Part of this is a change in philosophy that thinks less about “how am I going to secure progress across this lesson” and more about “how am I going to secure progress over time,” where progress over time is anchored in an understanding of students’ long term memories increasing in size and complexity. 


If your students keep getting lots of things wrong in RP, you need to stop, and you need to stop today. It’s just going to make things worse. Instead, you need to take an approach which allows them to slowly but surely start to get things right, described here and here. In short, give students a way to start feeling some success in the Do Now and more success will follow. 

We send a soft copy of the retrieval roulette home for students to access. We give them a yellow exercise book and expect them to complete and mark a set number of mini-quizzes each week (5 to 7 normally). Once a week we take in the books and have a quick scan. I take a note of students who are getting them all correct (fishy), not doing their marking properly or just generally struggling. I’ll use whole class techniques to address these issues first by literally saying “Andrew’s work was great because he was really careful to make sure that all his answers were perfect. David’s wasn’t as good because there were times where he put a tick but there was definitely detail missing from his answer. For example…”

Once the majority of your students are in good routines it becomes that much easier to have targeted conversations with those who are struggling for whatever reason. 

Hold to account

As time goes on and students get used to the process, it’s easier to hold them to account in class for their responses. It’s a lot easier to say “I’m disappointed that you don’t know that” etc if you have:

  • Given them a resource to help them “know that”
  • Got them in a homework routine to help them “know that”
  • Offered a ton of support already to help them “know that”
  • Already done this question in class a few times to help them “know that”

If you aren’t doing these things then sometimes it can feel pretty unfair. If a student in your class hasn’t been repeatedly exposed to material from six months ago, then is it really surprising that they don’t remember it now? Is it really their fault?

From a motivational perspective it’s also worth explaining why you do these mini-quizzes. Make it clear to students that it’s the best way for them to learn, make it clear that you think it’s part of your job to make sure they don’t forget things and – perhaps most importantly – make it clear to them that with a bit of hard work they can get really good at this business. 

Monitoring and tracking

Lots of options here, but the key thing is to make sure your monitoring of students is supportive and keeps the stakes low. You don’t want to stress the students out as that will ruin the results. You want them to know that it’s ok for them to get stuff wrong, that this is about strengthening their memories and making them into brilliant students. At the same time you may want to give a slightly more formal one every couple of weeks on a piece of paper that you can have a look at just to give you a less biased position on where your students currently stand. 

Policy: does it have to be at the start of the lesson?

No. Lessons are arbitrary and silly units of time. But, if you want to get into the habit of doing it, the best time is at the start of the lesson, every lesson. You also save time – students come straight in, they know exactly what to do with minimal fuss and delay. Of course you should trust your team to decide if on a particular day they want to do things differently, but having department-wide consistency and agreement on this kind of thing is very powerful. 

Policy: getting buy-in

If teachers don’t know why they are doing this, then it won’t go well and they won’t be doing most of the things I was talking about above. You need to explain it, and repeatedly. Send people studies. Have them do (FREE) online courses on retrieval practice. Invite members of the team to present for five minutes about something interesting they discovered about their class’s knowledge after a Do Now. There are lots of different things you can do to bring people in, so try to do so. 


To allay the concerns regarding… Make sure…


Factual recall and higher order thinking …that the Do Now is only the start of your lesson; use it as a springboard for further questioning
Challenge …that you know which questions are most challenging, which ones are the least, why, and what you are going to do about it.
Time  … to squeeze the most out of your time, even if it feels like you are going very slowly
Tangling ideas …to explicitly point to links between ideas and to discriminate between them when necessary
Motivation …to give your students a route to retrieval success and celebrate their achievements 
Genericism …to trust your team to create the questions, formulate how they will be used and then train to have the skill to implement in the classroom

Anyway I hope that helps and look forward to the discussion!

Working with a bottom set year 11: how I do it

The emotional, physical and mental exhaustion of working with a bottom set year 11 class has its own characteristic flavour. You feel frustration at students who have switched off, annoyance at students who disturb others’ learning, fear for students who are working but not getting anywhere and, ultimately, inadequacy that you aren’t doing a good enough job.

You all know the kind of class I’m talking about, and we don’t need to go into minute and granular detail about its challenges and the characters that typically make it up. If you are going to have high expectations and standards for a class like this, you are certainly in for a challenge. I know from my own experience I’ve often felt like giving up or lowering my bar, and sadly sometimes those feelings have become reality.

I thought about having that sentence read “and sometimes I have let myself down by allowing those feelings to become reality,” but in truth I don’t know if I let myself down. It’s damn difficult trying to keep a brave face, calm demeanour and relentlessly high expectations. I reckon if anyone says that they’ve managed this the whole time they’re pulling a fast one. The perhaps unwarranted feeling of inadequacy lurks, but I think it’s important to be able to say to yourself “I’m doing all I can, and there’s a limit to what I can do.”

The above notwithstanding, it is what it is, and we need to deal with it. I think there are two very broad areas that need addressing when dealing with a bottom set year 11:

  • Lack of motivation
  • Lack of knowledge

These issues are of course not unique to year 11, but they do reach their peak there. These are students who, over the course of four years, have grown used to knowing little and caring less. An urgency is reached in year 11 that borders on panic: we must get these students some grades- we cannot allow them to leave school without the qualifications they need to lead happy and productive lives.

The lack of motivation and lack of knowledge are not unrelated. Often, students much earlier on in school miss out on crucial learning for whatever reason. This makes it harder for them to succeed. Experiencing failure time and again then tells them that this is what they will always feel and there is therefore no point in even trying. Obviously, it’s a little more complicated than that, but my approach to these classes tends to focus around that relationship between competence and motivation: the extent to which our competence in a particular domain affects the way we feel towards that particular domain.

Broadly, the philosophy behind the route outlined below is that helping students get good at something, helping them to feel some success, can be massively empowering and motivating, especially for students who are so unused to that feeling (more here). I really don’t want you to think that it’s a completely “fool-proof” route, or that other ways won’t work. It’s just what I’ve done and has worked a bit. It’s also not easy: it’ll take you time and perseverance as you combat deeply engrained issues and an inevitable feeling that you aren’t getting anywhere. I also have no idea if it would work outside of science as I have no experience of that. With those provisos in hand, I hope it helps.

  1. Get yourself a list of Core Questions

I’ve written before about the power of Core Questions in supporting students’ long term retention. Take a small part of your course, and turn it into a series of questions and answers. Try and keep them short and snappy, with no superfluous or redundant information. You might want to be judicious as well about high leverage ideas. There are some areas of your course which come up every single year, but also allow students to understand later concepts. Focus on those. A list from biology might look like the below:


You can see how tight the language is. As I’ve written about before, you might quibble with individual definitions’ wording here and there, but by and large it’s a good start.

  1. Take a small chunk and print it off

Choose a section that is both coherent in terms of content, but also manageable in terms of amount. Print it off nice and big, and fold it vertically so it looks like this:


  1. Show students how to use it

The goal here is to move to quizzing (retrieval practice) with the sheet really quickly. There are a number of different ways to do this, but so long as they are actively speaking or writing their answers (with writing being better) then they are doing good retrieval. With each of the below it may be best to encourage students to just try the first five and then slowly increase the number they are focussing on.

  1. Next to book and write

Pop the question sheet next to the book and write out the answers next to the questions. If you can’t remember one, leave it blank and wait till the end. Then get a different colour pen, turn the paper over and mark and make corrections. Rinse, repeat.


  1. Cut up

You or the students could cut the questions and answers up into mini-flashcards, with questions on the front and answers on the back. Students can then mix them up and use them for quizzing. Those of you who lovely glitzy resources could even make some kind of hat to mix them up in and pull them out.

  1. Verbal self-quiz

Both of the above work with individuals self-quizzing and speaking out their answers. I think on balance it’s better for students to write their answers, but speaking should work too.

  1. Peer-to-peer quiz

This can work really well with students working in pairs. However, there are two additional variables at play. The first is that it is more likely they will go off task and talk to each other, and the second is that if one student is asking the other student, only one student is actually doing retrieval practice. This potentially cuts effective learning time right down (if not entirely by half) so it’s worth considering.

  1. Don’t do it that way!

I guarantee at least one of your students will start trying to use the resources you give them badly. They’ll start highlighting, or just copying them out or just staring at them. They’ll say to you “this helps me sir” – it doesn’t. You’re the boss, you’re in charge. Get them quizzing.

  1. Circulate

Whilst all this is going on you need to be going round the room checking up on students, re-focussing their attention and helping them learn more. Some of the steps involved in that follow:

  1. Right is right

Students need to make sure they aren’t doing the classic “yeah that’s what I meant” thing. If they wrote x and not y, they need to be held accountable to that. You need to be really explicit with them that only right is right, and anything else isn’t good enough. If one student spends an entire lesson on one question just to make sure they get the correct phrasing: that’s not a bad use of time.

  1. Encourage

Students will go through periods of feeling like they haven’t got a clue and ones where they feel they are actually getting something. When they are in the former, remind them of the latter. When they are in the latter, remind them of the former and how proud they should be that they persevered through and have managed to really learn something.

“well done, that’s some great work there”

“you’re really getting this – I hope you’re proud of yourself!”

“yeah you got this, top job. Doesn’t that feel good?”

“see what you can do when you put your mind to it?”

“that’s some great work, but don’t give up now. I know you can do a bit more.”

I avoid using rewards, but do try to use praise for effort. Don’t praise activities that don’t deserve it, so if a student has done nothing for 40 minutes then spent 10 minutes working don’t praise them unreservedly, instead say things like “it’s good that you managed to do this work now, but it’s a massive shame you didn’t start earlier when I know you could have achieved so much.”

  1. Introduce variation

Once students start to master a list (and they will) introduce a bit of variation to maintain difficulty (see more here). Sometimes, all you need to do is change the order of the questions in the list to introduce enough difficulty as to maintain the challenge. Other times you might want to simply flip answers for questions and have students try to figure out the question from the answer. A little bit of rewording can go a long way too, saying things like “where does protein synthesis happen?” instead of “what is the function of the ribosomes?/where protein synthesis takes place.”

  1. Shake it up baby now

A room full of silent year 11s writing self-quizzes down three times a week for a year is probably not going to happen. Let’s be honest. You’ll definitely want to shake the routine up every so often, either by activities mentioned already in part 3, or by:

  • Book an ICT room and have them do mini-quizzes via the retrieval roulette
  • Give them questions as a semi-formal assessment to be done in silence and marked as a class
  • A bit of whole class teaching if there is something that you think needs more explanation
  • Leitner method work
  • Some straightforward old exam questions

Every so often I get tempted to do games or a competition, but I think we need to be a bit wary around stuff like that. Students have an ability to win learning games without actually learning anything and competitions can often just serve as a massive source of distraction “sir, he’s looking at his notes!” but I suppose it’s up to you. Hopefully nobody unfollows this blog if I say it’s ok to do a game once in a while.

  1. Low and slow

I’ve written before about the tension between covering content and trying to be thorough. Using this route, you probably won’t finish the course. But put it like this: is there any point in finishing the course if they don’t remember anything?

  1. Hold the line

It’s not easy to teach like this. It’s damn hard work and you need to be on top of your game. You aren’t going to manage that every lesson, but you need to try, and not let it get you down if it flops now and then. I remember one class I had the students used to bicker among themselves. Every so often there had been a flare-up in the playground or whatever: no learning happened the lesson following. It is what it is, and you need to be realistic. It could be that, it could be the afternoon, it could be a full moon, it could be anything. Pick up, and get back on it tomorrow.

  1. A lesson for life

None of the above is ideal. It shouldn’t be the case that you have year 11s turning up on day one who don’t know anything. Sadly, it is the reality in many schools. So here’s the thing: if you did all of the above, but in year 7, what would your year 11 bottom set look like? If you got them quizzing and retrieving and working at home early as they power through an ambitious curriculum that motivates through fascinating content and a growing feeling of mastery, what would your year 11 bottom set look like? Do you like what you see? Well, you’ve got five years. Get to it.

UPDATE: 11/05/20

Amelia Kyriakides has made this excellent video showing how to use a number of the techniques outlined in this blog. It looks very student friendly and could make a massive difference to your students.

Final note: you could of course buy your class a set of knowledge quizzes. I don’t want this blog to be an advert for them as I know budgets are tight and I don’t think it’s appropriate for this blog anyway. But they will do a lot of the work for you, and the feeling of having a book completed and full of work will be powerful for your students as well. If you do want to order bulk copies, John Catt will do a discount.

What’s the Big Idea?

In 2010, the ASE published the Principles and Big Ideas of Science, the product of a conference involving a number of prominent figures within the academia of science education and edited by Wynne Harlen (1). Other than Millar and Abrahams’ article on effective practical work, I think it’s probably the most commonly referred to article within UK science education. I remember reading it during my PGCE, and not being particularly swayed by it. At the time, I was a little grumpy that there was only one of the Big Ideas (BIs) that was strictly chemistry, and that the omission of collision theory or the conservation of mass was a mistake.

With a resurgence of thought around curriculum, lots of people have been writing about BIs within science as a tool for shaping or framing science curriculums. As such, I’ve revisited Harlen’s BIs to try and get my head around it and see if, and how, I should be thinking about it more deeply. As I read through the document I realised that it wasn’t really just about the Big Ideas. It was about philosophy, ideology, pedagogy and curricular studies all rolled into one, so my discussion below is about all of those things. If you aren’t particularly interested in Big Ideas of science per se, do read on anyway: there’s lots of stuff in there that you may find interesting.

This is a really big area. Really big. There’s no doubt I won’t be able to do it complete justice here, but I’ve done my best and, as ever, look forward to the debate. This is certainly one for the curriculum nerds.

Frames of reference

It’s worth noting at the outset that there will be major disagreement between myself and the BIs. The first page of the BIs starts with “principles of education,” with number one as:

Throughout the years of compulsory schooling, schools should, through their
science education programmes, aim systematically to develop and sustain learners’
curiosity about the world, enjoyment of scientific activity and understanding of
how natural phenomena can be explained.

I’ve never seen a programme that systematically develops students’ curiosity, and I would be interested to see a curriculum that looks like that – I doubt it’s possible, and evaluation and measurement would be incredibly difficult. Either way, in my view, the last part of the sentence should come first. I think the purpose of a science curriculum is to systematically increase the amount of knowledge and understanding that students have of natural phenomena. A discussion for another time is where enjoyment and curiosity come in (but, broadly, once you know more stuff you find the world more interesting too), but it’s important to note that there are two very different frames of reference and understanding of purpose and aims here.

The ideological breaks continue down the principles. Principle 2 says that:

The main purpose of science education should be to enable every individual to take
an informed part in decisions, and to take appropriate actions, that affect their
own wellbeing and the wellbeing of society and the environment.

I think this is an important purpose of science education (and the authors acknowledge other ones) but would stop short of saying it is the “main purpose.” Where is the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake? Where is the best of what has been thought and said? Where are the cultural treasures that are the intellectual inheritance of every member of humanity? I think those things are important too and, as above, we have to note that there are different frames of reference.

The other principles have similar differences in ideology. Principle 5 for example requires that content should be of interest to students and relevant to their lives, which I don’t generally agree with, normally following curriculum theorist Michael Young in arguing that:

…for a curriculum to rely on the experience of pupils alone limits what they can learn to that experience….It is this structuring of knowledge independently of the experience of pupils that offers the possibility for pupils to think beyond their experience and enable them, as the sociologist Basil Bernstein put it, ‘to think the unthinkable and the not yet thought’ (Bernstein, 2000).

Continuing with problems in the principles, for some reason principle 9 mentions the importance of formative assessment. I don’t really know why it’s there: assessment is a vitally important classroom tool, but there are many classroom tools and formative assessment seems to be the only one that makes it into the list.

I think part of the purpose of this section is about emphasising differences. There are people out there who assert that all of the new developments in education have already come before and science teachers have always thought like this. The Big Ideas should show this not to be true: such an influential and prominent document with such clear differences to the contemporary zeitgeist cannot be ignored or passed off.

What do we mean by “Big”?

Before I revisited the document, I thought about how many different ways we could think about the word “Big” as it pertains to ideas. I came up with the below potential definitions and examples:

  1. Explanatory:  an idea like “collision theory” explains rates of reaction
  2. Encompassing: an idea like “energy” encompasses thermodynamics
  3. Historically important: an idea like “natural selection” has an enormous imprint on the history of science and society
  4. Politically/societally important: an idea like “climate change” is important in staving off disastrous planetary consequences

My understanding of Harlen is that the BIs are framed as an antidote to a number of problems:

  1. Students do not find science interesting or relevant
  2. They see the subject as disconnected internally (isolated strings of facts)
  3. They see the subject as disconnected from the world around it
  4. Learning science in school has elitist historical baggage and is still seen as not for everyone
  5. Abstract ideas in secondary school are not connected to concrete experiences “from which they should be built”

I think whether or not these things are still true is up for debate. If they are still true, I think whether or not BIs can solve them is certainly debatable (as we shall see). As one final “think”, I think we’ve had schools implement Big Ideas by now, and it’s incumbent on their advocates to run an evaluation and tell us whether or not these metrics have improved. To my knowledge, no such survey exists.

In terms of addressing a solution to the problems listed above, the authors argue that:

Part of the solution to these problems is to conceive the goals of science education not in terms of the knowledge of a body of facts and theories but a progression towards key ideas which together enable understanding of events and phenomena of relevance to students’ lives during and beyond their school years (my emphasis)

A bit later on, we get to what actually defines the Big Ideas:

Here we are using the term ‘idea’ to mean an abstraction that explains
observed relationships or properties. This is different from the everyday
use of the word ‘idea’ as a thought which is not necessarily based on
evidence. A ‘big’ idea in science is one that applies to a range of related
objects or phenomena, whilst what we might call smaller ideas apply to
particular observations or experiences. For instance, that worms are well
adapted to living in the soil is a small idea; a corresponding big idea is that
living things have evolved over very long periods of time to function in
certain conditions (my emphasis)

Which looks a lot like what I’ve called “explanatory” BIs above. After reading through an extensive discussion about the purposes of science education, the authors finally get to the criteria for selection of certain ideas about science:

  • have explanatory power in relation to a large number of objects, events
    and phenomena that are encountered by students in their lives during
    and after their school years
  • provide a basis for understanding issues involved in making decisions
    that affect their own and others’ health and wellbeing, the environment
    and their use of energy
  • provide enjoyment and satisfaction in being able to answer or find
    answers to the kinds of questions that people ask about themselves and
    the natural world
  • have cultural significance – for instance in affecting views of the human
    condition – reflecting achievements in the history of science, the
    inspiration from the study of nature and the impacts of human activity
    on the environment.

Other than bulletpoint 3, that looks quite a bit like my list. What I’ll do now is briefly examine a couple of their ideas in light of the stated criteria. I’m not going to dive into their “ideas about science” now, and will limit my discussions here to the “ideas of science.”

Big Idea 1: All material in the Universe is made of very small particles

This, the first of the BIs, is my terra firma. I imagine this one was selected for its explanatory power and for its importance in the history of science (2). My problem, though, is with how it actually has explanatory power. It seems to me that what the authors are proposing is a process that goes a bit like this:

  1. Gather naive ideas as a child
  2. Slowly have those ideas challenged and experience cognitive conflict due to teacher-facilitated activities and inquiries (more on this later)
  3. Learn about specific “small ideas”
  4. Start to appreciate the “big idea” that explains the “small ideas”
  5. Be able to use knowledge of the “big idea” in an unfamiliar context

My problem here is with the sequencing and commonality. Let’s take particles as a simple example. We’ll skip over steps 1 and 2 for the minute, because 1 is obvious, and 2 probably a waste of time. Let’s think about the sequencing of small ideas to build up to our particle big idea.

In Year 7, I might teach students about the atom, molecules, giant structures and chemical bonds. Throughout all of that, I might emphasise that it’s vital to recognise that all substances are made of these tiny little particles. In future years, when doing separation techniques I might talk about what happens in terms of particles when substances are dissolved and filtered. In a later year still, I might talk about rates of reaction and collision theory. All of these illustrate the big idea. They have that in common. But there are two problems:

First, the big idea might be fully understood (as well as all the other information the BIs document includes within this big idea), but the student utterly incapable of making prediction based on it. As an example, let’s take dynamic equilibrium. You can’t really understand that without understanding that all matter is made of particles. But this particular Big Idea is laughably inadequate as a tool for explaining how a reaction might reach equilibrium. There are so many other things you need to know as well before it even begins to make sense. Put another way, if I had two students, one of whom had seen this Big Idea illustrated by filtration, and one who had missed that lesson, do I really think the first one is more likely to understand or predict equilibrium? Not a chance.

Secondly, I don’t even think it’s the most interesting thing that these topics have in common. I have some really outstanding year 11 chemists at the moment. If I asked them what do rates and filtration have in common, the least interesting answer possible would be “they are both explained by conceiving of matter as made of particles.” Even if we took closer concepts like rates and equilibrium, the most interesting answers would be about the effect of changes to the system, like pressure or temperature. And sure, those effects are explained by a kinetic and particular model, but that isn’t the interesting bit. The interesting bit is what is actually happening. The fact that we just have particles isn’t exciting, it’s obvious: tacit. The way they move, collide and result in observable effects is exciting. If I spent any time at all in class trying to tell students “hey look! These both involve particles! Scientists never used to be able to understand this, because they didn’t realise matter was made of particles but thought it was about earth, wind, water and fire!” they would look at me like I was nuts. And that’s for the two topics that are probably closest in their relation. Fractional distillation also relies on a particular model, but that’s probably the least exciting commonality it has with rates, equilibrium or any other such topic in chemistry.

Big Idea 2: Objects can affect each other at a distance

Absolutely. 100%. They can. And if you don’t understand that, you can’t understand gravity, electrostatics or magnetism. But if I asked my year 7s “I have just lifted a pen, and then let go. It fell to the floor. Why?” and someone answered “because objects can affect each other at a distance” they wouldn’t be wrong, but it isn’t right either. It’s not enough. It’s more of a threshold concept: you need to get over this to understand more, but it isn’t going to actually explain anything. And if it can’t explain anything, then it fails the tests that the authors set.

Not a Big Idea: Surface area to volume ratio

I’ve made the bold claim before that surface area to volume ratio (SA:V) is the most powerful concept in the whole of school science. In opposition to what’s been mapped out above, it explains:

  • Adaptations for heat loss
  • Adaptations for travelling on sand/snow
  • Structure of cells like the root hair, alveoli or microvilli
  • Heat loss
  • Effect of SA on rates
  • Nanoparticles’ odd properties

And so on, and so forth. But it doesn’t qualify as a “Big Idea.” And I wonder why not.

Big Idea 5: The composition of the Earth and its atmosphere and the processes occurring within them shape the Earth’s surface and its climate

This is also true. And it’s important: really important. I doubt there is a more important general topic than climate change at the moment. And yes, this doesn’t explain much, but remembering the authors’ selection criteria, it could satisfy two other bulletpoints: relating to individuals’ abilities to make decisions about their life and things of general cultural importance. But I don’t know why you need a “Big Idea” per se for this. I want students to know an absolute ton of information about the climate as it changes. I need them to know this so they can make informed decisions about the future of humanity. But that means that this “big idea” is really just a heading, a title. It’s the name of the topic, but no more than that. It’s general enough to encompass smaller topics like global warming, combustion, how the emergence of life has affected the composition of the atmosphere, but it doesn’t do more than just encompass them. It doesn’t explain them, predict them or make them any more readily understood. So one can legitimately ask: do we need a Big Idea? What’s wrong with just a list of topics?

Principles of awesome

I like the list that the authors have written. Every item on the list is a scientific construct that is important, and is necessary to understand other, “smaller” ideas. But they are not even close to sufficient. To me, they just represent some really awesome things that humanity has discovered over time. Genetics, cellular theory, thermodynamics: these are all awesome. But claiming that you can reduce them to one “Big Idea” that has some kind of power all of its own doesn’t work for me.

Curriculum, pedagogy and social constructivism

It’s worth noting that throughout the document, the authors argue in favour of a social constructivist model of education, with a heavy emphasis on inquiry learning. For example:

Appreciation of how science knowledge is developed should be derived at
least in part from experience of undertaking scientific inquiries of different
kinds…participation in forms of inquiry provides the experience for students to develop understanding about science and how scientists go about their work…Implicit in all of this is that students are taking part in
activities similar to those in which scientists engage in developing

I’ve written extensively before about why this isn’t true. In short: our students are not generating new scientific knowledge: that’s what scientists do. They are learning old knowledge, and to say that because scientists use inquiry students should too is to make a category error.

The promotion of inquiry-learning does not stop there:

An inquiry-­‐based approach is widely advocated and is being implemented in many different countries across the globe. Inquiry, well executed, leads to understanding
and makes provision for regular reflection on what has been learned, so
that new ideas are seen to be developed from earlier ones…There is growing evidence that this has a positive influence on attitudes to science

And here:

Undertaking scientific inquiry gives students the enjoyment of finding out
for themselves and initiates appreciation of the nature of scientific activity,
of the power and the limitations of science.

Of course, this is 2010. And then, the orthodoxy was indeed to promote inquiry learning. We now know differently, and many are shifting their practice towards explicit teaching in light of extensive evidence (I have written a bit about this starting here). And it’s also important to note for those who deny that inquiry was ever promoted in the highest echelon, that it was. It really was. And completely uncritically (3).

Pedagogy dictating curriculum?

Later, the authors argue this:

Inquiry-­‐based teaching is demanding, both of teachers’ skill and of time for teaching and learning. Inquiry-­‐based learning can lead to greater depth in understanding but as it takes more time the corollary is that the breadth has to be reduced. Thus identifying big ideas in science is a natural, and indeed necessary, accompaniment to promoting inquiry-­‐based science education.

To me, this is highly problematic. It is essentially arguing that because we want to do inquiry, we should change what we are going to teach (4). This is all wrong in my head. We need to decide what we are going to teach before we decide how we are going to teach it. A teaching technique is only useful if it bridges the gap between the student’s brain as it is now, and what I want my student’s brain to look like in five years’ time. To me, that is self-evident (and more here).

Can you build a curriculum without Big Ideas?

I’m really proud of the science curriculum that we’ve built at my place. It’s incredibly powerful, and our students know loads of science which they can apply in other contexts. They are excited, curious, and deeply knowledgeable. But, we have not referenced a single “big idea” in our planning, explicitly or implicitly. Sure, we include things like “everything is made of particles” or that “objects can affect each other at a distance” when we are teaching, and we spend the requisite time on them. But they don’t frame the curriculum: they aren’t the end goal. The end goal is students who know an absolute ton of science and can use it to be creative, inventive and brilliant.

A further problem: specificity

If you view your students as intrepid explorers of the physical world; guided all the while by wise and facilitating science teachers, then it makes sense to leave your curriculum pretty open. You want teachers to personalise instruction to the students in front of them: their interests and personal experiences. Under a model like that, the BIs make sense because of how much they encompass. You can frame a curriculum pretty loosely around them and fulfil your curricular intent.

Obviously though, if you view school science as a specific package of knowledge that you want your students to have, the loose model starts to break down. You start to see your students not as individual exploring mavericks, but as novices progressing through a predetermined body of knowledge and understanding. Teachers must respond to their class, both in their pedagogy and what they choose as their hinterland (all the content they use to embellish and elaborate on the core material), but sensible curricular leadership appreciates that specificity – all teachers knowing exactly what to teach and when to teach it – is a powerful model that, perhaps paradoxically, liberates students to “think the unthinkable and the not yet thought.” Big Ideas might still be relevant in such a model, but they cede primacy in curricular design to careful delineation and sequencing (5).

More useful constructs

If the Big Ideas are going to get people thinking about curriculum I’m on board. But I think there are better lenses (or constructs) through which to think deeply about curriculum. I really recommend the maps and visualisations that Ruth Walker has put together on this – trust me, you won’t regret reading her blogs (6).


I wrote this blog because I’ve seen a lot of people asking about Big Ideas, with the three scientific learned bodies all using it to frame their curricular work over the last year or so (7). Here’s my advice: if someone asks you to write your curriculum around Big Ideas (Harlen’s or otherwise) follow these steps:

  1. Check that it isn’t driven by progressive/social constructivist pedagogy. If yes, challenge.
  2. If no, ask why? Are these really the most helpful constructs for framing our curriculum? Or is it just a cute idea that doesn’t really aid our thinking?



(1) There are no serving teachers on the editorial board. It looks like a couple of contributors did teach, but it is underemphasised relative to their academic achievements. That’s not to say that academics and scientists do not have a right to an opinion: they do, and their right and expertise is important. But teachers have that right too, and it seems odd for there not to be any teachers included. It’s also worth noting that part of the distinctiveness of the current focus on curriculum is the number of frontline teachers involved.

(2) Many thanks to Bill Wilkinson for pointing out that Feynman argued that: “If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.”

(3) Many thanks to Gethyn Jones for prompting me to think about this

(4) Though there are many who no longer endorse Inquiry methods, I was recently condemned for publicly criticising the December 2018 issue of the SSR for containing 7 articles about inquiry presented completely uncritically. If you are aware of all the evidence against inquiry learning and you still think it’s a good idea that is your right, of course. But it is completely disingenuous to pretend like there is no evidence against it.

(5) As a side note, it is worth noting that traditional or explicit methods to teaching are hardly easy or without effort. I challenge anyone to look at my SLOP booklets and tell me I haven’t worked for them. I just focus my efforts in other directions: instead of desperately trying to manage behaviour in a busy and moving classroom, or direct my energies towards gently coaxing students to discover correct answers for themselves, I spend time thinking about sequencing, practice and quality of explanation.

(6) I’d also recommend her blog for the Curriculum in Science symposium which provides a glossary of important vocabulary and conceptual tools by which to think about curriculum.

(7) Even if they conceive of them as “big questions”, which strikes me as the exact opposite of Harlen’s Big Ideas. BIs are not questions – they are answers.

Blog at

Up ↑