What I Learnt at the Wonder Years Conference

Spencer Harris, Head of History and Politics at a school in Leicestershire, recently attended our Wonder Years conference, and has written this great blog about what he got out of the day. He originally posted it on his blog, and has kindly allowed us to reproduce it on our website. You can find the original blog, and all of Spencer’s other blogs, here; you can also find him on Twitter @MrHarrisVIII.

Last weekend I attended the PTE’s #WonderYears conference (click there for the Powerpoints shared at the event and it was hosted by Pimlico Academy, which is an impressive structure to say the least) and it reaffirmed my belief in the current buzz around the knowledge rich curriculum. It is worth noting this is review and reiteration of others work on this topic including Tom Sherrington, Clive Wright, Ben Newmark, Matt Burnage, Robert Peal and many others that blogged about the idea of a knowledge rich curriculum or presented at the #WonderYears conference. Links to blogs about a knowledge rich curriculum you will find on Tom Sherrington’s blog (including his own) by clicking HERE.

Rather than rehashing what those far more capable and far experienced than myself have written, I wanted to share some of the key ideas I took away from the #WonderYears conference.

Ofsted and the key ideas behind the new framework

I was fortunate enough to listen to Amanda Spielman speak about the new frame framework and she was unequivocal in her argument that it is matter of social justice that all students are taught a knowledge rich curriculum. John Blake went some way to explaining this in more detail by arguing that skills based curriculums, i.e. teaching to the mark scheme, disadvantages students, especially those who are working class and/or PP, most. The advantage of private schools isn’t just the contacts they have but also in their curriculum which is knowledge rich which in turn precipitates common cultural knowledge and values which in turn creates a barrier for state school students. Therefore, social justice ‘requires access to valued cultural knowledge’ via a knowledge rich curriculum, and we must bridge that gap in the classroom. According to Spielman, this is especially true for our disaffected students (often our working class students) and our most vulnerable (SEND) students. She went further to argue that whilst it may take these students longer to acquire knowledge, it does not make it less important and we should not compromise on that ideal. Blake summed this up by arguing “knowledge is not an imposition, it is an emancipation!”

Outcomes still matter… Results are still important, however they will be focused on less during inspections. Spielman argues that key question is “are qualifications achieved in a way that set students up to be citizens and life-long learners rather than just a grade on a piece of paper?” The idea of cultural capital is important here and empowering our students with knowledge is vital. Clare Sealy later went onto to argue that secondary education has for too long been ‘mark-scheme rich’ and we must deliver a broader education. She argued if results are hit, that is less important, what matter is students ultimately know more. Whilst I dispute the former in regards to the importance of examination performance, I do think the combination of good results AND knowing more is:

A. Important for unlocking doors for students who usually wouldn’t catch a glimpse of a world filled with the educated and cultural elites but moreover…

B. it is achievable to ensure students know more and achieve good results. I believe this ties in with the dying trend of the three-year GCSE which I would argue has been detrimental to the acquisition of new knowledge for students and has forced teachers into teaching to mark schemes and thus, schools becoming exam factories.

Quality of the curriculum and practice are most important – Spielman argues that there is no uniform answer or language to this. If it works in your school, it works. The new Ofsted framework is not a straight jacket. You can design your curriculum freely and constantly hone your practice.

Consultancy is unnecessary and a waste of money – I know during my short time in teaching I have seen consultants used – or arguably misused – as a sort of comfort blanket to tell us what we are doing right and what we are not. Often the outcomes of these reports are quite generic. The key thing is your senior and middle leadership should be able to critically evaluate what good practice looks like and how to improve that. As Sean Harford has argued we should be thinking about the curriculum carefully for ourselves.

The Curriculum itself – This was recently discussed at my school: it is a framework for setting out the aims of a programme of education, including knowledge and understanding to be gained at each stage (INTENT), for translating that framework over time into a structure and narrative, within an institutional context (IMPLEMENTATION) and for evaluating what knowledge and understanding pupils have gained against expectations (IMPACT).

Key Ingredients to a knowledge rich curriculum

To start here, Robert Peal and Matt Burnage (with some thoughts from Clive Wright weaved in) really dovetailed quite nicely on how to construct a knowledge rich curriculum and what a knowledge rich curriculum is and the common pitfalls people make along the journey towards a knowledge rich curriculum…

What it is…

  • Breadth not depth and clearly sequenced – we only get a limited amount of time to really embed knowledge, use it wisely! Make sure the topics your teach have purpose, link to big questions and link to disciplinary knowledge. Make sure you curriculum builds on prior knowledge with accurate sequencing of knowledge and lessons. To borrow from Tom Sherrington, ‘[the] curriculum is not simply a set of encounters from which children form ad hoc memories; it is designed to be remembered in detail; to be stored in our students’ long-term memories so that they can later build on it forming ever wider and deeper schema. This requires approaches to curriculum planning and delivery that build in spaced retrieval practice, formative low-stakes testing and plenty of repeated practice for automaticity and fluency.’
  • Assessment is purposeful – Embed low stakes knowledge retrieval quizzes into your assessment timetable. These can be used for homework and settlers/do now starters. Spaced retrieval, as mentioned, is key. Do not let what you taught last term go forgotten. Provide students with opportunities to retrieve and apply that knowledge. However, this isn’t say disciplinary knowledge is not important. We must weave in those key skills/exam skills into our assessment but they must be performance based on what is known!
  • Central resource – Whether it is a textbook, a booklet or online resource, knowledge needs to be centralised. This is why I will be talking about the power of booklets later in this blog and why I intend to design a curriculum this way moving forward.
  • Academia and CPD – Teachers are the experts. Value subject expertise and encourage teachers as much as possible teachers to engage with the movements within academia within their subject area. It is worth noting here teachers need time to do this and that it should be embedded within the directed time. Teachers often just do not have the time to read!


  • It must not be confused with learning a list of facts – it is about imparting the powerful knowledge that is sequenced in a logical order and making sure it is comprehended.
  • Difficulty is not the answer – everything we do is age appropriate but does challenge students to know more.
  • Still use skills based (disciplinary) assessments – this is imperative. We still need to teach the skills but after the knowledge has been consumed and understood and regularly rehearsed and retrieve by students.
  • Consider what you really want pupils remember – where are the key bits? Focus the majority of your time on that powerful knowledge.
  • Every one teaches different and we account for that by allowing teachers to adapt lessons whilst keeping knowledge at the heart of all lessons.
  • Resources must be easy to pick up and shared – Without this the knowledge rich curriculum can fall apart.

Top tips to achieve this… (a lot of this I have lifted from Stuart Lockwho I admire greatly!)

Behaviour must be dealt with by leaders – In my school, it is often the middle leaders like myself that deal with the majority of behaviour due to the sheer size of my institution. However, as Stuart Lock and various others have argued, teachers should be allowed to teach. SLT need to be visible, need to be dropping into lessons to check on behaviour and need to be accountable for dealing with this. 100% compliance is key here; as soon as someone does not comply they are falling below the necessary standards. Whilst strategies like silent corridors at the Bedford Free School will not work for everyone, find what does work in your school. In short, behaviour must be at the front of management’s mind and without the right conditions, a knowledge rich approach will struggle to blossom.

Good line management – This applies from SLT to Middle Leaders and Middle Leaders to teachers. Firstly, comparing departments is not always helpful. For example, in a school where there is a wonderful maths department, stacked with able teachers, brilliant leadership and a knowledge rich approach and good results, then comparing that to a RE department – equally filled with very able teachers but arguably a far less steadier ship due to several, deep-seated issues such as staffing retention let’s say – is not helpful. The conditions do not match and whilst some practice shared will help, ultimately size, stability and difference in curriculum (with maths being hierarchical largely and history cumulative) will not translate across.

Data – an overemphasis on data and key stage 4/5 is unnecessary. Rather than conducting these data knowledge trawls, observe teaching, do book/folder ‘scrutinies’ with general feedback to ensure it is not construed negatively. To quote Lock, ‘if every conversation about data was about the curriculum, the data would probably be better.’ Focus on what matters, especially in light of the new framework, where Ofsted will not require to see any in house data snapshots.

Steal other peoples’ ideas – Matt Burnage at the Bedford Free School recently shared a series of booklets designed for their knowledge rich history curriculum with me and will do the same for you if you ask. Twitter has numerous people always sharing ideas, a few of which I stole today which you can see HERE. Facebook has numerous groups, I am a member of three different groups one for KS3 History, one for GCSE AQA History and one for Politics teachers all having well over a thousand members to share ideas, peer mark and share resources. Do not reinvent the wheel.

Challenge everything – as Clive Wright neatly argues do not take things at face value! Even the idea of a knowledge rich curriculum… Find what works and what you agree with/works for you. Be adaptable, it is key as not every setting is the same but it does not mean we shouldn’t be offering our students the best possible deal in terms of the curriculum and empowering students long term.

5/7 year curriculum plan – Middle leaders should take ownership of their subject and lay out what is learnt, how/why it is learnt and what impact that should have. This should be available in a handy document which shows clear curriculum links and a clear sequence. You can find my version of this HERE.

Genericism – To paraphrase Lock further, generic approaches across subjects butcher subject specialism. If you work in a school which does this, break the policy rather than butcher the actual teaching and learning that goes on in your department. Michael Fordham’s blog excellently sums up which genericism has to be made extinct HERE.

Knowledge Organisers – They are an inadequate proxy for a knowledge rich curriculum. They are not necessary, however, if you are using them make them valuable. Both Robert Peal of the West London Free School and Matt Burnage of the Bedford Free School argued at the #WonderYears Conference that knowledge organisers must have a purpose. I am guilty, as I am sure others are, of making knowledge organisers which are essentially a list of chronological facts and key figures/stats/events. From now on, knowledge organisers I make will focus on knowledge retrieval of the key knowledge students need to retain.

Booklets – This was something I had not really thought about until this conference. I have always dismissed booklets as lazy teaching and not really given them any consideration as my teaching has always been guided by the desire to make a PowerPoint. However, as Ben Newmarkargues HERE schemes of work often become ‘hotchpotch of directionless standalone lessons.’ However, there are many benefits including the idea that everything is in one place, a focus on comprehension questions accompanying the knowledge, assessments can be kept separately in a folder behind the booklet (which is what my school currently does) and ultimately it makes planning easier as it stops the plethora of printing that is required and makes the transition between different tasks easier.

I like to think I am constantly reflecting and trying to improve my knowledge and my curriculums.I have written this blog to share what I have learnt and to help rehearse before a forthcoming three day Ofsted pilot inspection at my school. I hope this blog helps you along your journey! Comment is free…

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