September will see the first teaching of the new National Curriculum for Geography. The first National Curriculum was established in 1988, and this will be the 5th revision of the original document – I have been in the job long enough to see them all.
When the first outline of the new curriculum appeared in print, many of my colleagues greeted it with disapproval, and in some cases sheer horror. However, as much of the dust gradually settled, it became apparent that this latest revision actually offers a liberating opportunity for innovation and change.
When the 2008 revision came to life, I was heavily involved with the GA, offering advice at regional meetings or in individual schools on curriculum planning. Some funding was available, and it provided me with an opportunity to travel to many schools in the South west region and forge new contacts.
My own offering then was based on a ‘curriculum wheel’ covering all years in key stage three, and divided into six separate sections to correspond to the six school half terms in a year.
I considered modifying this simple structure to accommodate the change in content of the new document, but decided it had become a little too rigid and prescriptive in recent years. Staff in my department felt tied to the inflexible time allocations, and were often frustrated by having to bring some work to a halt just as it was beginning to bear fruit. Something different was required.
The new programme of study states that geographical education should “inspire in pupils a curiosity and fascination about the world and it’s people that will remain with them for the rest of their lives” – therefore, it will be necessary to plan well beyond the content of the document itself, and not just use it as a checklist of places, topics and skills. The new document is just a framework that sets the ‘big picture’, behind which the micro scale work can be prepared. Creative teaching will be more important than the ‘what’. I decided to allow my planning to be guided by the principle of ‘doing less but doing it better’, and adopted a new angle of approach, using a series of lead enquiry-style questions to reflect geography that is current, fresh and relevant to my students.
“Make the learning relevant, exciting, memorable and high quality” (David Lambert)
“It’s not the answer that enlightens, but the questions” (Eugene Ionescu)
The lead question will become the learning objective for each lesson – avoiding deeply prescriptive objectives for individual lessons that can often restrict students’ learning paths.
After an introduction of ‘traditional’ lessons to cover some of the key knowledge, concepts and skills, the lead question would then encourage open-ended investigations that fits comfortably with new structures I have been introducing using tablet technology (see September 2013, January and February 2014 entries on this blog for examples of I Pad investigations).
By drawing from a bank of enquiry-style questions, teachers have the opportunity to be rather more flexible and make choices of their own, determined by their own interests and those of the students in their teaching groups. They would also be free from strictures of time, and could continue to ‘drill deeper’ into topics that had generated particular interest. It’s important to note that an enquiry approach does not necessarily mean 0% teacher work and 100% student work! It is more about raising curiosity and a desire to learn and then getting them to think deeply about a particular subject theme.
Incorporated into the stock of possible study questions is a ‘joker’ card of ‘flexible topicality’ that can respond immediately to current events of interest – a volcano erupting, an emerging issue of political interest, or a particularly thought-provoking news headline. For example, a recent tornado event in the USA led me suspend current lesson themes and craft the question: “How did twins cause devastation in the USA?” to briefly study this unusual topic.
Within this structure, it is also possible to give students the freedom to form their own enquiry questions. There is an element of risk here as the teacher has to give over a degree of control, but I have enjoyed many successful lessons that have followed an unpredictable direction using a ‘philosophy for children’ approach. An example of this is described in detail in the blog of February 2013 on this site.
I did preserve the original curriculum wheel idea to a point, and classified my topic questions into 4 broad areas in order to guarantee a balanced coverage of subject content for each year group. This also made it easier to plan for progression between different year groups.
New Curriculum Wheel 2014
Examples of enquiry questions to fund these sections include:
“How can a spit in the river affect so many people?” (Reference to Dawlish Warren spit in the Exe estuary)
“Does aid for Africa really work?”
“Who would win a fight between a cold desert and a hot desert?”
“Why did Tilly Smith listening in her geography lessons help to save lives?” (Warning of a tsunami given by an 11 year old girl)
“Will my Grandchildren ever get to see a glacier?”
“In the age of sat nav – do we still need maps?”
“Should London be made a national park?”
“Should we fear Iceland’s volcanoes?”
“The MINTS are coming! Who are the MINTS?”
“Why does palm oil threaten the home of Fernando?”
“When is doing nothing doing something?” (Coastal management at Brownsea Island)
“Will there be water wars in the Middle East?”
A full list of enquiry questions to be used for the new key stage three schemes of work can be downloaded here:
KS3 Enquiry Questions
What big questions for the rest of this century have I missed? Can you add some edgy questions I can add to my bank?
There were a number of other factors that were given consideration when the curriculum content was being set out. I wanted the new key stage three to fit into a broader context of a spiral curriculum that progresses coverage from key stage one right through to key stage four and five. Consideration was given to the geography experienced by students in key stages one and two before they arrived at my school, as well as how the new planned curriculum could help prepare students for work covered in our chosen examination syllabus (OCR ‘B’) at key stage four. Indeed, the latter part of year nine teaching is to be specifically crafted as ‘GCSE Lite’ to support this. This spiral structure allows revisiting places and topics to build a depth of knowledge and understanding.
Underpinning the plans for the new curriculum was a constant reference to concepts, skills & subject knowledge – the ‘Golden Threads’ of curriculum planning.
I was pleased to see that fieldwork has been made explicit in the new curriculum, and I hope to include at least one enquiry question that will be answered through fieldwork in each year group. I hope to commit to more than just ‘doorstep fieldwork’ and have already booked a day on Exmoor for year seven students. I also intend to take year eight students to the Exe estuary, and year nine students to the city of Exeter.
Changes in the key stage three curriculum also provided an opportunity to look again at our homework provision. In the old curriculum wheel, an extended homework task was set in each of the six sections – providing a wide range of choice of tasks for students to consider. A detailed article on our extended homework can be found in October and November 2013 blogs on this site. We have enjoyed considerable success with this structure – in terms of developing independent study skills, research skills and time management. We have also been impressed by some tremendous work outputs, so did not want to abandon this method of working completely. We have a bank of extended homework tasks we can continue to choose from at appropriate times, but in order to cater for shorter sections of work, we will now explore the idea of takeaway homework sheets that has become popular in the twitter-sphere recently. More of this in a later blog.
As part of the planning for the new curriculum, assessment remains a central issue. This has recently become something of a prickly area following the government’s move to withdraw a structure of levels and not replace it with an alternative. The old levels are no longer directly relevant to the new curriculum content, and therefore no longer fit for purpose. It is likely that a number of different local systems more relevant to individual schools and their students will evolve to fill the void left by the old levels, but whatever new system of assessment we decide upon, there should be more room to refocus on student learning, and I believe a leading priority should be to improve formative assessment and feedback. The whole issue about assessment and monitoring progress should be viewed as another opportunity for change and improvement, and this topic deserves a blog of its own, soI hope to return to it in the near future.
Little seems to have been shared to date about the new curriculum changes in geography, but I am convinced there is a real need for us to work together as curriculum makers to provide the best deal possible for our students. I would be grateful if you could direct me to any blogs that tackle this topic, and I encourage your responses to this article. I have nothing yet firmly in place for September, and am prepared for some constructive criticism before I fully commit. Tear these ideas apart if you think I am completely off track and let’s share some fresh ideas in these exciting times.