Developing a Knowledge-Rich Science Curriculum

Heena Dave, Learning Design Manager for Ambition School Leadership and Institute for Teaching, has written this wonderful blog for us, following up from her talk on the topic at our Wonder Years conference. You can find supporting materials from that talk (and all other talks on the day) here, and you can find her on Twitter @HeenaDave12.

“Sometimes I think that we, as teachers, are so eager to get to the answers that we do not devote sufficient time to developing the question.”

Daniel T. Willingham

How do I develop a knowledge-rich curriculum for Science?

As teachers, we’re often in a rush to get to the answers.So we fast forward to crafting the most intricate lesson objectives, to deliver the best lesson, to make the most progress. Willingham makes us stop and think – what are the ingredients of an effective knowledge-rich curriculum in Science?Without considering who you’re designing your curriculum for, whether it’s balanced, rigorous, coherent, vertically integrated, appropriate, focused and relevant (Wiliam 2013), how can you really deliver that perfect lesson?

Planning your first move

I use the example of Alex Honnold, the first person to climb the 3000-ft El Capitan mountain in Yosemite National Park, USA without the aid of a safety rope, to demonstrate the importance of how your curriculum needs to reflect the context within your school.Honnold didn’t want to climb any mountain, he wanted to climb El Capitan – one of the highest, most difficult climbs in the world.He had clearly defined his goal and he designed his curriculum backwards to achieve it. When asked how he had prepared for his ascent, Honnold answered “I sat on a rope and actually figured out the best sequences for the crux [most difficult] moves, then I tried the same moves over and over.”

Honnold’s approach provides a powerful analogy for how curriculum design should be approached.Honnold, clearly an expert in his subject, took a rigorous approach to his ascent. His plan was coherent and became more complex over time.It was an appropriate plan because his focus was on asking the right question and solving specific problems, before taking the rope away.

If Honnold asked the difficult questions before his rope-free ascent, our challenge as experts in teaching Science is to ask the difficult questions before we start our own rope-free ascent within the classroom. How do we build science capital (Godec, King & Archer 2017)? How do we close the attainment gap? How do we equip the next generation of scientists with the core knowledge they will need to make scientific discoveries?

The Science of Learning

To address this, Willingham asks the most salient question: Why Don’t Pupils Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom (2010).A cognitive scientist, Willingham focuses his acclaimed research on the biological and cognitive basis of learning. His book helps teachers improve their practice by explaining how they and their pupils think and learn. The guiding principle for all teachers is that learning is defined as a persistent change in long-term memory.This change occurs through the acquisition of new knowledge (Mccrea, 2016).This new knowledge is organised in schema.In psychology and cognitive science, a schema describes a pattern of thought or behaviour that organises categories of information and the relationships among them.

The ultimate aim of a knowledge-rich curriculum for Science is to create a persistent change in long-term memory through the sequencing of clear chunks of knowledge, building new schema until pupils can articulate enzyme function or the development of atomic theory as a compelling narrative, signposting learning to the next level of complexity, whilst at the same time building science capital.

Understanding by Design

If we know our ultimate goal, how can we get there?The first step is to understand the context within which your curriculum is to be developed.Where are your pupils starting from? Do they already have a high level of science capital or do you need to build science capital? You may aspire for your pupils to understand and learn about quantum physics, but do they understand atomic theory or states of matter? This is the core knowledge that will scaffold their understanding.The curriculum you design will take your pupils on a journey from where they are – if you can’t diagnose the problems your pupils may have whilst they are on this journey, how can you chart a curriculum that will meet and fulfil your pupils’ knowledge needs wherever their starting point?

The knowledge-rich curriculum design for Science at Bedford Free School was underpinned by the theoretical framework of Understanding by Design (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).Wiggins and McTighe, demonstrate that curriculum development reflects a three-stage design process called “backward design”.This process purposefully delays the planning of classroom activities until goals have been clarified and assessments designed. This process helps to avoid the twin problems of “textbook coverage” and “activity-oriented” teaching, in which no clear priorities and purposes are apparent.

Using the “backward design” process meant that we intentionally sequenced the knowledge and subject specific skills we wanted our pupils to have learned by year 11 and planned backwards.Whilst our aspiration was to aim for depth, in the first year of developing our knowledge-rich curriculum, our priorities dictated that we focused our resources and efforts on key stage 4, as we knew that these pupils did not demonstrate high levels of science capital.In the first year, our knowledge-rich curriculum was balanced and coherent, but we still had work to do to make it rigorous, vertically integrated, appropriate, focused and relevant.

Identifying the Crux Move

In year four of our knowledge-rich curriculum, we focused on making our curriculum vertically integrated.In year 7 pupils learn about cells, the periodic table and what electrical current is, because we know that this is the core knowledge that will act as a springboard to deeper learning in KS4.In year 8 we tackle head-on the unwillingness of our pupils to think of Science as a subject that relies heavily on mathematical understanding.We designed our curriculum to focus on physics calculations and applications of these in the real world.We did not have that clear vision for our knowledge-rich curriculum in year one – our approach was too generic – our knowledge-rich curriculum evolved over time and developed gradually to be responsive to the needs of our pupils

Executing the Crux Move

Once we had developed this application of “backwards design” we articulated our curriculum intentions by designing a suite of artefacts.Our only focus was curriculum development.That’s where we had decided to place our bets.The evidence told us that combining what we knew about cognitive science and applying this to our curriculum was going to have the most impact on our pupils’ learning in closing the attainment gap and building science capital.Even on the days that we weren’t being quick enough, clear enough, stretching enough, knowledge focussed enough – we didn’t alter our priority, we refined our approach.Our one obsession was to collaboratively create the most impactful artefacts in support of our knowledge-rich curriculum for Science.

Through the development of a curriculum overview spreadsheet, we “backward designed” the knowledge and skills we wanted our pupils to learn starting from year 11 moving backwards to year 7.Every curriculum decision had a clear intention.Whilst year 10 and 11 were guided by the national curriculum, years 7, 8 and 9 focused on sequencing core knowledge that would be built upon on over time.We created a vertically integrated pathway from year 7 to 11 for each of the three sciences. To take one example, moving from a basic understanding of the elements, to trends in the periodic table, to atomic structure to electron configuration and ionic bonding and finally to ionic half-equations.

For each unit we mapped out the knowledge and subject specific skills to be learned.One of the greatest misconceptions that we had to overcome was the view that ‘in Science we start teaching GCSE at year 9’.In fact, our focus was based entirely on what core knowledge pupils would need to be able to access the curriculum in year 10 and 11.For pupils to learn about enzymes they must have a concrete understanding of cellular function, biological processes such as respiration and photosynthesis and kinetic theory (any subject specialist knows that all of these topics are included in the GCSE specification).If we want to teach enzyme function in year 9, then logic implies that these are the topics that need to be sequenced prior to this learning.The strength, simplicity and beauty of the “backwards design” model allows you to forensically and systematically diagnose the knowledge to be sequenced for each year and also allows you to make links between all three sciences.

Designing our Artefacts

Once we developed a clear understanding of the skills and knowledge pupils would need to learn in each year, we considered how knowledge was presented and shaped into digestible chunks, with one guiding principle in mind – we always moved from simple to complex.I know that many don’t believe that knowledge maps are the foundation of a knowledge-rich curriculum. I would argue that it is the first and most important artefact for the teaching of Science.To use another climbing analogy, having a knowledge map is the equivalent of ‘planning your route’.Before scaling any rock face, Honnold identified potential holds, visualised moving from one hold to the next, trying various paths in his mind until he had methodically planned his route all the way to the top before he had even made his first move.Likewise, I wanted my pupils to have a very clear map of their learning for that unit, with all the knowledge, skills, calculations, definitions and high-quality diagrams they would need for successful learning.

We designed our knowledge maps using ‘backwards design’, articulating where we wanted pupils to get to by the end of a unit and then meticulously planned their journey moving from a simple to complex knowledge base.Our knowledge maps were consciously designed to have a high level of fidelity with the knowledge in the texts books that pupils used regularly in lesson.We wanted our pupils to experience a consistent language and presentation of knowledge from knowledge map to textbook to unit booklets to low-stakes knowledge tests.In closing the attainment gap, we needed to remind ourselves that scientific discourse often seemed like a foreign language to many pupils and so we were explicitly consistent with our presentation of scientific concepts across all our learning artefacts.As a department, we allocated the most amount of time to discussing and refining our knowledge maps, even putting in place a quality assurance process to sign them off.We had learned from experience if our knowledge maps weren’t detailed and concrete enough, then it meant that as a team we hadn’t deconstructed the knowledge effectively enough and hadn’t thought hard enough about how we were going to teach those more challenging units, such as forces or electrolytic processes or evolution.

To support learning in lesson we created low stakes knowledge quizzes, which heavily referenced the knowledge in our knowledge maps.Pupils took each quiz twice, the quizzes were spaced out and gave our pupils the opportunity to retrieve knowledge, to strengthen their schemas and therefore change long-term memories.To support teachers in lesson, we planned collaboratively and developed unit booklets.Each lesson, we took pupils on a journey to mastery, moving from low challenge questions to increasingly more complex questions, which enabled pupils to extend, connect and elaborate.

To reinforce these habits and to help pupils build long-term memories every science lesson at Bedford Free School has the same structure.Pupils have a clear routine every day for every lesson for every year from year 7 to year 11.Routine is key here, because we know that deliberate practice, a form of practice that is extremely targeted and focused on something that pupils are almost able to do but not just yet (Ericsson, 1993) builds powerful habits and shapes the road to mastery.

Choosing a New Wall to Climb

At Bedford Free School we’re now in year 4 of implementing our knowledge-rich curriculum and every year we reflect and evaluate whether our curriculum is balanced, rigorous, coherent, vertically integrated, appropriate, focused and relevant (Wiliam 2013).Every year we have undertaken major developments to our knowledge-rich curriculum and this year will be no different as we ask whether our year 8 curriculum is effective enough in creating a clear relationship between Maths and Science, how we schedule and manage retrieval practice between years and whether the curriculum itself is a journey towards mastery.Our ultimate aspiration is that all our pupils are able to climb their rock face without a rope, through the acquisition of knowledge towards a greater level of complexity and science capital.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of PTE or its employees.