Engaging with documentation through design

A new academic year has come around, and with it a new set of PGCE students beginning their studies to become teachers. With so much to cover in a 1 year PGCE, where to start is a big question. I teach geography to our primary students, and the module begins with a look at the subject as a whole, the EYFS and the National Curriculum. In some ways this is a logical place to start, but for students with limited experience of teaching, there is a danger that discussing the curriculum is very abstract.

I remember myself how disconnected I felt from the curriculum when in their shoes, and this year I aimed to give them some hooks to engaging with it, whilst exploring curriculum design in the process.

Last year I began with by looking at the curriculum itself, this year I decided to start with ideas from the students. I think it can be dangerous to base sessions to much on students’ experience of their own schooling (as I blogged here), so I began by asking them to brainstorm on post its all of the different elements of geography they had encountered recently. We then added to this brainstorm any other elements that children might encounter, or that they thought were important.

Having completed this individually they then came together in groups, and attempted to sort the ideas into groups that were similar, before trying to name and categorise these groups. By this point they had a rough map of a possible curriculum for geography, and I was going to leave it there, but a few other ideas sprung to me over the four times I ran this session.

In a simplified version of the NUF test I asked them to quickly rate all of the ideas in terms of their usefulness, and then examine whether some of the categories in their curricula emerged as more important than others. This produced some interesting discussion points, so I then asked them to note on each element whether it constituted knowledge or a skill. Having done that they had a skeleton of a curriculum rated by importance and defined in terms of knowledge and skills… each group presented their curriculum and the floodgates of debate opened.

We covered the knowledge vs skills debate, with most groups concluding it was much more complex than that, the relative importance of different elements of geography, and how one might organised and conceptualise a curriculum, as well as defining the key elements of learning they thought should happen in the subject.

When it came time to bring in the EYFS and the National Curriculum they were able to use comparisons with their models to deeply engage with the document. It was hugely interesting to discuss the similarities and differences, although I was keen to point out that it really wasn’t the case of looking to the government documentation as being ‘the right answer’. One group in particular had a fascinating discussion about whether the actual lessons and the day to day experiences of learners in class would actually be significantly affected by the model of curriculum being used.

With increasing numbers of academies and free schools not required to follow the National Curriculum, I think it is really important for teachers to explore and question how these documents have been put together, what their strengths are, and how they might be adapted or re-concieved. This process provided some valuable engagement with what can often be a very abstract document for trainee teachers, and seemed to provide them with a wide variety of challenges and discussion points around how a curriculum might be designed. My instant evaluations (more on that soon) came out high, so this approach of engaging with documentation through design is something I will continue to use and develop.

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