Thursday, 25 March 2021

Three Characteristics of a Supportive KS3 Curriculum

The curriculum in key stage three can be one of the aspects of the year 7 experience which most supports the transition from KS2 to KS3. In my all-through academy, the redevelopment of year 7 and 8 in order to better support transition has begun with a revamp of the curriculum. Here are some of the principles we considered as we carried out this work:

A Key Stage 3 Curriculum

  • Should be aspirational and supported in this by logistics
  • Should not focus solely on the learning of facts, but also on the organisation, use and application of facts
  • Provides another opportunity to extend aspects of the primary experience

Should be aspirational and supported in this by logistics

Year 6 children, despite being like rabbits caught in the headlights at times, are not devoid of knowledge, skills or ability. Year 7 is not their first educational experience and therefore it figures that they know stuff and can do stuff already. Sure, the primary and secondary curriculum don’t really join up that well – as acknowledged by its creators – but that’s not really the children’s fault, is it? It is the job of primary and secondary schools to work together to ensure this gap is bridged.

Part of what inhibits this gap being bridged is the fact that Year 6 staff have a dual goal to work towards with their children: helping the children to become secondary-ready and helping them to be SATS-ready. Although I suggest that secondary schools should be more primary-ready (I like that I’ve heard of a school who call their year 7s ‘year 6.5’ to begin with), I do concede that primary schools can be doing things to help year 6 children to be secondary-ready, but SATS get in the way.

Another inhibition in this is a lack of knowledge from both primary and secondary of each other’s curriculum. To this there are two strands: one strand is that teachers are unlikely to have an in-depth understanding of the National Curriculum for anything other than the phase they teach in and the other strand, which is much more understandable, is that teachers are unlikely to have any knowledge of the specifics that are taught in either the secondary schools they feed or the primary feeder schools. Obviously, this is where much work needs to be done both on national and local levels with more training and collaboration clear necessities.

However, even if this work is non-existent or in its infancy, it is possible to aim high with the secondary curriculum. It is most likely that a great many year 7 children have been given the chance to think deeply about a wide variety of matters, that they have been exposed to some high level material in several subjects and have had high expectations placed upon them in varying social and academic situations. Whilst this might not be true for all, it will be for some: a knowledge of feeder schools, including how and what they teach, and to what standard, would enhance the transition for children with regards to what their prior knowledge and skills might be like.

Whilst it is often the case that content needs to be revisited, and in some cases taught for what appears to be the first time, it is worth considering how the brand new secondary school experience might be impeding a year 7 child’s ability to recall prior learning. In stressful situations even the greatest minds struggle to remember things that ordinarily, in less pressured times, they would be able to recall with ease. When year 7s come to a brand new building (a huge one at that), with new peers (and sometimes a lack of old peers), new adults, new rules, an increased expectation of independence in certain matters (getting to school, getting to lessons, following a timetable, bringing correct equipment) and so on – all that stuff that makes secondary so daunting for some year 6/7 children – it might just be that their ability to both recall previous learning and undertake new learning is affected adversely. The cognitive load of starting secondary school is potentially huge.

If this is the case, then surely it would help new children if logistics were changed to allow for the most important thing to take place: learning. Secondary schools might see children settling in better during year 7 if there wasn’t such a wholesale change to the way they do school. Remove particular expectations (don’t lower expectations) regarding some of the above ‘newness’ and use the mental capital gained to focus on learning.

By doing this, year 7 children will be able to engage in debates about the main protagonist in a novel. They will be able to carry out complex calculations. They will grasp new scientific concepts. They will learn new geographical terms. They will be able to use their prior knowledge of historical periods when learning about new ones. They will be able to organise and play team sports. If they aren’t worrying about which lesson is next, what the teacher will say when they find out they’ve forgotten their protractor and so on, they will be able to concentrate on their learning better. If a school is serious about removing these kinds of barriers, they will have to assess and recognise the potential obstacles that are particular to their school and their students.

Should not focus solely on the learning of facts, but also on the organisation, use and application of facts

In the majority of secondary schools, children come from many primary feeders and therefore come with a wide variety of differing curriculum experiences. Some will have learnt about the Tudors, some won’t – the primary National Curriculum is open enough to allow this to happen. Some will have covered aspects of the KS3 curriculum already, and some won’t. This is a source of concern for secondary teachers, one which can often lead to the easier route of planning with the assumption that children haven’t had the necessary prior learning.

This approach certainly means that a teacher won’t be disappointed if children don’t already know something, however it means that some children can become demotivated. Children have an understandable aversion to feeling like their current knowledge and skills are being overlooked; most children like to be challenged and to feel like they are learning something new, or doing something new with what they have already learned. Just as we adults hate sitting through a training session about something we can already do, children can react negatively to being taught the same things over again.

So a curriculum for year 7 needs to be developed with three things in mind:

  1. Stress brought about by great change may be masking the fact that they do actually have the necessary prior knowledge.
  2. Children from different primary schools will have learnt different things
  3. Not all children have the same level of prior attainment, even those coming from the same primary school

What should this curriculum focus on? Of course it should focus on the delivery of knowledge and skills, the balance between the two will be subject-dependent. However, in order to cater to the above three considerations, it should do more than that. It should also focus on the organisation, use and application of facts.

If a curriculum goes beyond the learning of facts, then it can better cater for the variety in prior learning. Whilst some children in a class might need to major on just learning the facts because they are entirely new to them, the children who already know the material from primary school can get on with organising, using and applying the facts. Without going into too much detail (because there is probably a book’s-worth of stuff to say about all that that might encompass), this organising, using and applying boils down to doing something with what they know beyond writing it in their book and storing it in their minds ready to be recalled at a later date.

Framing a unit of work or even a single session with a question that must be answered is a quick way of doing the above. Having a concept-based unit of work where children must think about how particular pieces of knowledge are linked to a given concept could provide opportunities for children to organise facts. Designing units of work that encourage children to draw together knowledge from multiple disciplines provides the scope for children to build schema. Planning sessions and units which require children to make links between the knowledge they have learnt and current events, their own experiences and things that matter to them can provide scope for learning beyond fact retention. Creating a logical sequence of units where children are expected to make explicit connections between prior learning and current learning allows children to do more than just learn the current set of facts or practice the currently taught skills.

The above approach does mean that in any one classroom the depth at which children are accessing the material may differ from child to child, however it does allow for more children to be receiving the level of challenge that they need. Planning a sequence that takes children from learning facts and then on to organising, using and applying them doesn’t have to be an onerous task although it does mean that a traditional three-part-lesson might not always be the order of the day and that groups of children will have varying starting points in each lesson.

It is at this point that I yet again acknowledge that I really need to blog about the development of our own KS3 curriculum!

Provides another opportunity to extend aspects of the primary experience

This point is entirely contextual – specifically based on the experience that year 7s have had in their primary school. When considering how, alongside more primary-like logistics and expectations, a secondary curriculum might give KS3 children a smoother transition from primary learning to secondary learning, it will be necessary to survey feeder schools to gather more information on their curricula.

In our all-through academy the primary curriculum is cross-curricular, particularly in the arts (including English) and the humanities – maths and Science (for the most part) are taught discretely. We have been developing a year 7 and 8 curriculum which bears more resemblance to this approach than it does to a more typical secondary curriculum where subjects are taught separately (again, more of this to come in a future blog post).

The above brief description of our KS3 curriculum may be totally irrelevant to some secondary schools though, where their feeder primary schools teach each subject discretely with no cross-curricular links. Many secondaries will be receiving children who have varied experiences of how their primary curriculum was set up. Moving to a cross-curricular curriculum in KS3 where this is the case may not extend the primary experience at all.

However, at primary school, the majority of lessons in the majority of schools are taught by the same teacher who knows the whole curriculum for the year (something which will probably never be replicated in secondary). Having a KS3 curriculum with deliberate, in-built explicit links would allow multiple teachers to be more aware of the broader picture of everything that the children were learning, meaning that they had a curriculum overview more akin to that of a single primary teacher. Having several teachers of different subjects who know about the whole curriculum is potentially a better next step for year 7 children than having several teachers, none of whom know much about what they will be taught in all their other lessons.

And curriculum is only one step away from pedagogy. It’s difficult to think of one without the other, especially for teachers who have to take the school’s curriculum and work out how it should be taught. Secondary schools could consider their KS3 pedagogy, adapting it to both reflect the primary experience and to prepare for the KS4/5/HE/FE experience: it doesn’t have to just be one or the other, it could form a distinctly different bridge between the two.

Again, context is important – different primaries have different pedagogy and there is no particular way that all year 6 children will have been taught. However, there could be more digging to do here – if primary schools have taken on the whole concept of making children secondary-ready, it is likely that children in upper key stage 2 have already been weaned off things like outdoor learning and more playful experiences. Just because this has already happened, doesn’t necessarily mean that those ways of teaching shouldn’t be present in secondary schools. If secondary schools were willing to employ such pedagogies for their younger pupils, it might then impact back on the pressure that primaries feel to conform to such ways of teaching.

It would seem that a primary lesson will often look quite different to a secondary lesson. There isn’t necessarily any right or wrong in what might be seen as a stereotypical lesson in either phase – each phase could learn things from the other, I’m sure. Some cross-phase observation and conversations between teachers would help to develop ways which KS3 teachers might teach to ensure that their teaching is age-appropriate and not just an attempt to teach 11, 12, 13 year olds in the same way one might teach an older teen.

Whether it is in its design or delivery, the KS3 curriculum can and should support the transition from year 7 to year 8.

Further reading from my blog:

Making Secondary Schools Primary-Ready

Working Towards a Middle Phase in an All-Through Academy: Potential Logistical Changes for Years 7 and 8

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