Tiering curriculum development to supporting curriculum cohesion

Recently, I’ve been thinking about curriculum alignment especially between subjects. How do you develop subject curriculum so between them there are no content clashes?

A new blog post by Victoria Morris (@MrsSTeaches) on curriculum planning a KS2 Geography curriculum highlights in particular the importance of alignment, and uses the example of science and geography, when planning a school curriculum. In response to a short conversation about Victoria’s blog I raised how, in the UK, the science national curriculum can be adapted by schools I said:

“There in lies the big challenge of curriculum development. Having multiple moving pieces which need to work in harmony”

This in turn led to me thinking, how do we achieve harmony? How do you get the curriculum working as one whole rather than a collection of subjects that sometimes reinforce but sometimes conflict with each other?

In recent work I’ve been doing I’ve been flagging to curriculum developers how, while subject integrity is important, we must remember that a child has a wider experience. Children don’t experience a science curriculum, then an English curriculum, then a history curriculum and so on they experience one curriculum.

This is especially true when developing curriculum as often nations, and schools, do not just change one subject – they review and change the whole range of subjects. Even if one subject is being changed (edited, added, removed) this affect other subjects connected to it. What also tends to happen is because of deadlines all subjects are reviewed and reformed together, concurrently. This presents issues if subject connections and dependencies are identified too late or, worse, not at all.

When developing curriculum then is there a preferred order you develop the subjects in to ensure connections are identified and taken into account?

Tiering subjects

When thinking about this question I’ve devised a tiering system into which subjects can be placed. The idea being the subjects in the lowest tier are developed first and these curriculum are used to inform the curriculum development of the subjects in the tier above and so on.

currriculum dev tiering

Tier 1: Communication subjects

Tier 1 is focused on the subjects that are the basis of human communication and used to express our understanding about the world. To me this means the language subjects and maths. Without these subjects in place all the other subjects become almost meaningless. This is partly what drives the arguments that primary schools should be focused on language and maths. (I did toy with music and art being here as well but ultimately decided they belonged in tier 2)

Tier 2: Concepts and understanding about the world.

This tier includes subjects that establish concepts and understanding that underpin how we live in the world and rely on the communication subjects for either language rules or mathematical principles or exemplify or develop the communication subjects further. They are also quite abstract. Science is here as it applies mathematics such as data handling, measure and algebra. For ICT/Computing/Digital Literacy mathematical rules and language skills underpin these subjects and they are becoming integral for how we live in an increasingly technological world. It could be argued digital literacy and/or computing may become a tier 1 subject in time but the dependencies to the fundamental subjects are so strong they need to be developed later. Music/Art are in tier 2 (rather than 1) as they require language rules, we need to be able to express our understanding of music and art, and music has links to mathematics.

Tier 3: Application of concepts and understanding in practice

This tier is focused on applying the tier 1 and 2 subjects to the real world, and the subjects are less abstract. Aspects of geography rely on understanding statistics from tier 1 maths, and science established in tier 2. (In Victoria’s blog she assumed that science was fixed and a geography curriculum is built to align to science which this development model supports). Physical Education has direct links to science, especially about nutrients, body structure/system (muscles, skeleton, circulatory system) so should be developed after the science curriculum is drafted. Design and Technology builds on tier 2 through applying science and art. If engineering is accepted to be a common subject I would place that in tier 3.

Tier 4: Social subjects and the human condition

Tier 4 Is about the social subjects; less about real world or interpretations of it but focused on what it means to be human, so RE, history, citizenship and others (economics?) could fit into this tier. History in particular pulls on content from all the curriculum developed in earlier tiers – if the science curriculum is in place history of science can be included, if you have design and technology curriculum drafted historically important designs can be included, if art and music progression has been considered the history curriculum can reference famous artists or musicians in appropriate years. History can also simply acknowledge other subjects may have already covered aspects of history during their development and build off or reinforce those aspects.

Interactions between tiers:

Of course, curriculum development is more complex than developing each tier in order and then you are done. It may be that developing a tier 3 subjects highlights there is a gap in a tier 2 subject, or even a tier 1 subject. It may be that as part of developing a tier 2 subject notes are made about what could be included in a tier 4 subject.

Curriculum development is an iterative process and this development model does not prevent iteration taking place. Time would need to be provided for edits and adjustments to be made to earlier tiers.

This however could get messy. For example if design and technology (tier 3) developers identified an issue with science (tier 2), science developers may in turn identify an issue with maths (tier 1) and then physical education developers (tier 3) may have to adapt their curriculum because of changes in science from the design and technology development feedback.

This problem however exists when all subjects are running concurrently, the benefit of a tier system for curriculum development is it should be easier to resolve the impact of changes more efficiently as you don’t have all developments trying to influence each other at the same time.

Interaction within tiers:

As well as interaction between tiers, there will be interactions within tiers, however these interactions should be minimal.

For example, in tier 2, there are minor links between science and music as science will cover what sound is and how sound can be changed while in music learners benefit from knowing the scientific reasons for how sound, and therefore music, is formed even though learners do not require the scientific knowledge to meet the music curriculum.

This means when developing subjects within a tier, having developers across the tier meet occasionally to discuss their subjects will benefit each development even if developers are simply acknowledging the connections rather than acting on them.

If the interactions were significant then one of the subjects being developed should be moved into a different tier to recognise the dependencies. 

Final note

This is the first time I have written down my thoughts about tiering the curriculum developments of different subjects and I’m sure it will change, as I’m sure there are some who disagree with model, the subjects I’ve suggested and/or the placement of the subjects I’ve included.

Context of individual developments may also affect the model. I also know there are a myriad of other subjects in existence, or to be developed, some of which are very specific to a country, region or school which may fit within this model or require the model to be adapted (maybe more tiers, maybe a more refined representation of how the subjects interact)

It is worth saying the order does not imply curriculum ‘importance’, it represents what curriculum developments need to happen first so all subjects fit together to form a cohesive whole. If curriculum developments were happening concurrently this tiering can act as a starting point for establishing which developments need to work more closely with each other. For example, getting the science and PE developments happening in the same place as well as the same time and having developers of the two subjects regularly communicate would be beneficial to both subjects.

By considering curriculum dependencies during the development phase, whether at national level or school level, we build in alignment between subjects from the beginning and minimise the work teachers must do in finding alignment and planning alignment into their teaching.

There is no one way to develop curriculum but what I hope I’ve blogged about is another way to think about the links between subjects and how these links need considering.

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