The single highest-impact curriculum activity: writing Core Questions

Everyone’s talking about curriculum right now. Intent, implementation, long term memory, retrieval practice, knowledge organisers, sequencing, subject specific pedagogy, powerful this, that and the other…there’s lots of it around. Of course, within education we are quite partial to a good thing becoming a fad, and curriculum is no exception. Unsurprisingly therefore, I’ve seen quite a bit of stuff online that looks fairly fishy, and falls broadly into two overlapping camps in its fishiness:

Camp 1: the outright misunderstanding

This is where someone has taken something that on the face of it is quite sensible, and then turned it into something very much not sensible. For example, Ofsted introduced the term “curriculum intent” to refer to the work that teachers and leaders engage in when they decide what they are going to teach and why. But then when teachers are asked to write “statements of curriculum intent” and save it in the “Ofsted” folder in the S drive, they are somewhat missing the point, or at least they are according to Heather Fearn, one of the architects behind Ofsted’s new inspection framework.

Another example might be the proliferation of some very attractive but relatively un-substantive tube-map-style curriculum learning journeys. The point of sequencing your curriculum is to think hard about the connections between topics, which should come first and which should come later, and where you should draw out these connections. As an aside on this specific issue, a good rule of thumb in general should probably be: if it can be written as a list without losing any of its meaning, maybe just write it as a list.

Perhaps even more fundamentally, a good curriculum is a dynamic thing, changing in response to teachers’ experience of delivering it in the classroom. A pretty poster stuck to the wall (printed in colour mon dieu!) sends completely the wrong message about curricular dynamism.

Camp 2: the rebrand

Periodically, companies will do a “rebrand” to change their image and hopefully appeal to their market. Substantively though, little changes: it’s more about window dressing than much else. When thinking about curriculum, this might be rebranding your standard obligatory mini-plenaries as “knowledge checks” or copy and pasting all the worksheets for a unit into one document and calling it a “booklet.”

Naturally, there will be overlaps between the two camps. For example, I recently saw a science “knowledge organiser” that was little more than a vocab list with a couple of diagrams shoved on. The diagrams had way more detail than the target students needed (Golgi apparatus in year 7?) as they had just been filched from the internet, and the vocab list was alphabetical. This has the hallmarks of a classic rebrand, where someone has just taken the vocab list they were already using and popped it on an A4 landscape page. It also misunderstands the purpose of a knowledge organiser: the vocab list was ordered alphabetically, whereas one of the defining characteristics of a knowledge organiser is that it organises knowledge according to sensible and logical characteristics, rather than arbitrary properties like “which letter of the alphabet this word happens to begin with.”

Solutions?

So what can we do that will have an impact? There aren’t any easy answers here. Claire Stoneman, one of the most strident proponents of thinking deeply about curriculum, argues that:

I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about curriculum and building a couple from scratch and, in my search for “one thing that will make a big difference”, Core Questions makes it to the top of the list. The idea is simple: you take a unit and detail everything you want to teach in that unit, delineating that content as a series of questions and answers. The list then becomes the central guide to the unit, from which explanations, models, practice work, assessment and more spring into being.

An example of some Year 7 Core Questions
An example of some Year 7 Core Questions
An example of some year 7 Core Questions in a Carousel question bank

If you want to learn more about technically how that’s done, click here, but the principle is that this approach allows you to:

1. Be specific about what you want teachers to teach

No more variation between classes, with some groups often learning completely different material to the group next door them. The Core Questions are a floor, not a ceiling, so teachers can go beyond them if they choose, but the consistency of “we all teach x” can be a powerful thing.

2. Share expertise

Not all teachers are subject experts in everything they teach. Collaborative Core Question writing allows those with more knowledge of a particular topic to support and share with those who have less.

3. Think hard about sequencing

Writing the questions is an exercise in sequencing: should this question come before this one or should it come after? Only teachers can decide that, and you’ll find that the richness of the discussion bleeds over into other areas of practice, focusing your consciousness on how you craft explanations and practice work, as well as guide your class over the long term.

4. Anticipate misconceptions

In one of my Core Question banks, I put the question “what is between the nucleus of an atom and its shells?” To be sure, I want students to know the answer — “nothing “— but perhaps more importantly I want to discuss with them why the answer isn’t “air.” I therefore explicitly build in this question as a reminder and a springboard for pushing my students further.

5. Give students a powerful knowledge-building tool

It’s all very well having great classroom resources and the like, but if students aren’t doing the grunt labour of committing stuff to memory then sadly, come back in a couple of weeks or years and all that beautiful content you taught them will be forgotten. Much of that grunt labour will have to be done by themselves, independently, and often at home. Yes, this is a Carousel post on the Carousel blog, so obviously I’m going to say that Carousel is the best tool for supporting them in this labour, but to be honest just use whatever works for you. Whether you go with Carousel or some other (inferior 😉) program is up to you, so long as you actually do it. Students who don’t do regular retrieval practice because they don’t have a resource which helps them do it are students who are being set up to fail.

My advice therefore is simple: if you want to start thinking deeply about curriculum, try writing some Core Questions. I pretty much guarantee that you’ll enjoy the process, and your students, colleagues and curriculums will be all the richer for it.

Carousel is a retrieval practice and online quizzing tool that helps students to embed knowledge in their long-term memory.