Marching kids through an aged-based curriculum 

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It has become something of a truism in education that we should not seek to march students through an age-based curriculum. There is a wide range of ability within any year-group. As Geoff Masters notes in a recent piece for The Conversation, this could be anything up to six school years. So it seems obvious that we need to cater to these individual needs rather than deliver a standardised curriculum regardless. This reasoning has some merit although I do believe that many approaches to differentiation create significant practical problems.

Yet I also believe that there are positive arguments for exposing students of the same age to the same curriculum and I don’t think these are often aired.

1. Some concepts are not hierarchical and you gain coherence from studying the same things

Many areas of curriculum content do not necessarily build upon one another. There may be a good argument for sequencing the teaching of history chronologically but it would be eccentric to argue that the cognitive demands of studying the Middle Ages are greater than those of studying Ancient China or that understanding of the Middle Ages is somehow dependent upon understanding of Ancient China in the way that, say, understanding of multiplication and division depends on addition and subtraction.

Similarly, which should come first; reading informational texts about health and exercise or reading informational texts about the local town?

In practice, few schools would have some students in a year-group studying one area of history and others studying a different area and so it is implicitly recognised that marching all students through the same contexts is fine.

And there are advantages to such curricula coherence such as the way in which teachers and schools can build resources over time, plan yearly field trips and so on. Moreover, if this sequence is replicated at a state-wide level then students who move schools won’t risk studying the Romans three times while never encountering Mesoamerica.

2. Teachers probably make incorrect predictions about what students can cope with

A deep problem with the idea of varying the curriculum to meet individual students’ needs is that someone has to make a decision about what that should look like. If a particular student is struggling with a particular concept then how do we extrapolate from that in order to figure out what other concepts we should and shouldn’t expose her to.

As a teacher, I am not confident in my ability to do this because, every day, students surprise me with what they can and cannot do. Given that we also know that teachers are all too prone to cognitive biases, we run the real risk of underestimating students and giving them an impoverished curriculum. Perhaps this is an issue of equity?

I often feel that I am at my best when I am teaching an examined course, a concept is on the syllabus and I have to try to find a way of getting a student to understand it, whether I personally think they are ready for it or not.

Instead of saying, “Don’t bother teaching these kids about quadratic functions,” perhaps we should say, “Figure out a way of teaching these kids about quadratic functions.”

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16 Comments on “Marching kids through an aged-based curriculum ”

  1. teachwell says:

    I would take some issue with:

    “understanding of the Middle Ages is somehow dependent upon understanding of Ancient China in the way that, say, understanding of multiplication and division depends on addition and subtraction.”

    Maybe not in that particular case but in others I would say there is a dependence between understanding exploration and colonialism say. Other times it may be that the dependence comes from knowing about other subject areas – e.g. without an understanding of Christianity, understanding the significance of Henry VIII isn’t possible. Hence the vacuous history units which simply harp on about his six wives.

    While I agree it is not dependent as the mathematical operations you outline, I don’t think they can be as standalone as you think. The particular dependence on either other aspects of history or the wider curriculum should also guide us as to when some of the units should be taught.

    • Michael Pye says:

      Just wiped a whole post replying to you Teachwell when I realised I had not bothered to read Greg’s article correctly. You took his quote out of context, he was talking about there being hierarchical knowledge in the following sense. Solid addition helps prepare you for multiplication. Division links to fractions which link to percentages.

      In history any context can be used to develop a students ability to research, analysis and critique (Greg’s cognitive demands). All that matters is that the topic is made relevant (to other topics-not to popular culture) and is studied in sufficient detail that students become knowledgeable enough to have something to draw accurate conclusions from.

      I agree that fundamentally maths and History do both link together internally but that this is much more clearly defined and specific in maths then in History were there are far more options.

      I am not a history teacher so apologies in advance if I have radically misjudged the extent to which knowledge in history is linear rather then being diffused and interconnected.

      (I am aware of the chronological approach to history teaching, but to my understanding this should be done over repeated short cycle’s rather then a whole school career to prevent the 6 year old understanding of Greece and a 16 year old understanding of the cold war critique)

      • teachwell says:

        We will have to agree to disagree on taking the quote out of context – it is a comment attached to his blog after all and I did say that out of everything that was the part that I didn’t agree with.

        I agree with the idea of chronology repeated over short cycles but I think you are underestimating the prior and wider knowledge required to be able to study a history unit.

        I refer back to studying Henry VIII – without the understanding of religion – it becomes nothing more than – he had six wives and he killed some of them. It’s just a parody of history.

        Equally, some historical units do require a greater understanding of the periods prior to it. Taking Henry VIII again – it’s not possible to grasp why he wanted a male heir as much as he did without a basic understanding of the War of the Roses and the way that it paved the way for competing claims to be made for the throne by dint of lineage. Henry VIII desire for a male heir was not for the same reasons as earlier Kings as a result of this. Which again helps explain why he acted the way he did.

        A Year 1 child is not going to grasp the above as well as Year 7 or 8 child.

        The Great Fire of London on the other hand can be taught in less or more depth without needing as much prior knowledge of other historical units.

    • Greg Ashman says:

      History is certainly all connected and I accept that there is a logic in teaching it chronologically. However, I don’t think it’s plausible to suggest that, to the extent to which a primary school child will understand the Middle Ages, their level of understanding will be affected by whether they have previously learnt about Ancient China. You don’t actually seem to disagree with me on this but cite other examples. Fair enough but I also think that sometimes a rather trivial narrative introduction to a topic such as Henry VIII may not fulfil all the objectives of history teachers but will certainly bring about enough familiarity that the child will understand references to it in later reading. This is Hirsch’s point about requiring wide but not necessarily deep knowledge to be a good reader. We could let the best be the enemy of the good here. I would favour a fairly wide, fact collecting, narrative version of history early in school because kids actually enjoy that and then leave more complex questions of causation to later study.

      • teachwell says:

        I agree with you on the topic you have mentioned. I completely disagree about Henry VII!! What I would ask is why bother with a trivial narrative at all rather than an age appropriate one?

        I’ve given the example of the Great Fire of London elsewhere.

        I wouldn’t want best to be the enemy of good but equally I think it would be foolish of me not to use my knowledge of history to pick units that are pitched to the age group, building on children’s existing foundations of knowledge and understanding.

        I did just that in my last school. The only thing I would do differently is I wouldn’t bother with personal history as an introduction. The feedback was that it didn’t work and we would have been better off teaching historical figures and events.

        Does it all need to be strictly chronological all the way through? No but I think the curriculum needs to be internally consistent as well as linked to the children’s growing understanding in other subjects.

        Causation can most certainly be taught to children in KS1 – we do it all the time with stories in literacy!

      • Greg Ashman says:

        I am not arguing against it being age appropriate. My point is that we don’t have to wait until students have a sophisticated understanding of Christianity, the reformation and the Wars of the Roses before we can teach a version of the story of Henry VII

      • teachwell says:

        What version would you teach though Greg? He had six wives? It’s vacuous. There are plenty of other Kings and Queens who can be taught instead.

      • Greg Ashman says:

        It may be vacuous but it is something that most educated people know. But no, I wouldn’t just teach that. And, throughout, I have acknowledged that there is a good argument for teaching chronologically.

  2. Michael Pye says:

    Teachwell I don’t think we need to agree to disagree. I believe this resolvable with a quick discussion,

    Lets try this: A year 1 child is not going to grasp any topic (from the multitude on offer) as well as a 7 or 8 year old. This first period will likely be a parody of understanding. (Though as long as its done horrible histories style I could make room for it).

    HINGE: If there is a topic that should be introduced first in history over others then it is evidence of linearity and evidence I am wrong.

    Next do some units really require more knowledge of other periods/ideas COMPARED TO OTHER UNITS.

    HINGE:If my knowledge of the Mongol invasions would be equally enhanced by a understanding of Chinese civilization then this field likely responds equally well to prior knowledge as the Tutor period. Feel free to substitute other examples. I hypothesis that you will be able to recognise clear beneficial links to other topics.

    Watch out for overvaluing periods which you have mastered when comparing them to other periods that you have not. (I can extrapolate that my knowledge of Alexander the Greats conquests would be enhanced by an understanding of the Persian and Egyptian empires he conquered even if my understanding of those period is poor)

    If the starting point of studying history is flexible and If I can plan a multitude of journeys through it depending on my cultural preferences then it is not linear and hierarchical in the sense that Greg said.

    I worry that you have taken the idea that History is not hierarchical as some kind of slur but in this context it has a really specific meaning. Very likely there are more technical terms out there that we do not know that would suit this discussion better.

    Note: I could be convinced that history is hierarchical, as I am sure Greg would be as well. Just lay the structure out. (You could argue for example that because we need to complete a specific syllabus in the UK that the number of permutations is greatly reduced and that an optimal approach is both possible and ideally already used).

    Please consider carefully.

  3. Michael Pye says:

    Year 7 or 8. And Tudor not Tutor. Spelling shame!

  4. Michael Pye says:

    By the way a quick bit of research on the Fire of London shows that it can be understood in a more detailed way then a year one child would likely comprehend.

  5. Chester Draws says:

    Under this approach, every student is expected to make excellent progress every year towards the achievement of high standards – regardless of their current levels of attainment.

    So every child will be above average?

    The slower kids fall behind because they are some combination of less able, less hard working, have less good teaching or have outside influences impeding them. These factors are not changed by the proposed new approach.

    You can’t wish away this to somehow get a system where less able kids make as much progress each year as more able. If you could do that we wouldn’t have the problem in the first place. Any assessment system based on yearly progress is going to have the slower kids at the back, precisely because they learn more slowly.

    The less able need to be taught to their level, so they can make as much progress as possible. We need to work on how to do that better. But expecting them to somehow be able to make rapid progress by changing the assessment scheme is magical thinking.

    • Michael pye says:

      Chester I am confused what you are replying to.

      • Chester Draws says:

        I am responding to the original article in The Conversation Michael.

        The writer of the article appears to be confused about the difference between learning and assessing that learning. We don’t improve performance by changing assessment, we improve performance by better teaching and more committed learning.

        Teachers already know how much their students are learning. I don’t think that the students who start the year with a D and end with a D have learned nothing, because if they learned nothing they would end with an E. Nor do I have only one assessment at the end of the year, so even if the school as a whole is judged on that basis, my personal teaching is not.

        All a radical overhaul of the assessment system, as proposed, would achieve would be to slow teachers down as they had to learn yet a new system. One that doesn’t have any bearing on actual teaching, so is largely pointless.

        And, as my wife says, there are obvious ways to game any “improvement” system of learning. Starting with, most obviously, making sure they do really badly at the start of the year.

        And sucks to you if the teacher the year before lied about how well they did in the final assessment, so that if you are honest and don’t game the system you look bad. That’s another very real reason why assessment should be against a standard, not a personal, scale.

  6. Michael Pye says:

    That helped a lot. I went back and read the article, it is really poor and I understand your reply now.

    It is a classic piece of sloppy reasoning/and or poor writing. Start by describing flaws in the current system (legit) then offer platitudes as a solution. The author may have a clear idea of an alternative approach but it is not expressed here. He just tries to straw-man the current situation and offers monitoring as a solution. Surely current practices fall under that category, I need specifics on what is going to be different. The only hint is “providing every learner with well-targeted, personalised stretch challenges” like thats new. No discussion on how to deal with the logistical issues moving in that direction will cause.

    I note the author is advertising his book. As anyone read it and does it provide the detail lacking here?


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