Our approach to curriculum
Head of Curriculum Design
In this long read our Head of Curriculum Design, Emma McCrea, introduces our approach to curriculum and the principles that will underpin the work we do with our partners, subject advisers and how we aim to help teachers and schools.
Before you dive in, take a look at our video where we explain how Oak is not a finished curriculum, nor set of resources, and why you'll have to add the vital extras.
Roberto Agodini suggests that the best curricula generate at least 25% more learning than the worst, irrespective of teacher quality (1).
Yet designing great curricula is complex. It requires a great deal of expertise and time - and time is a scarce commodity in schools. Teachers have told us they want help navigating this complexity. We asked 5,000 teachers what support they would like to develop their curricula; 59% said access to high-quality models (2).
This is where Oak can help - we can’t plan a curriculum that is contextualised for your school and pupils, and nor should we try. But we can share high-quality models representing great design from across the sector to inspire and inform your own thinking.
In the coming years we’ll be sharing brand new curricula models. They’ll cover key stages 1-4 across a wide range of subjects, starting initially with English, maths, science, geography, history and music. These models will draw on the incredible expertise and experience in the sector, via our curriculum partners selected through our recent open process.
They will be informed by the best available evidence of what works and be guided by our subject expert groups. These groups will include teachers, providing brilliant experience from their schools, as well as representatives from subject associations and other experts from a wide range of organisations, all bringing deep subject and phase expertise. To make sure there’s a diversity of voices, we’ve recently asked anyone with relevant experience and expertise to apply to join these groups.
Our models will reflect the various levels of curriculum planning. We’ll share models of high-level, long-term planning sequences of what is taught and when across subjects, and models of how this can be broken down into units. We’ll also share lesson planning and teaching resources, to help teachers with preparation and teaching in the classroom. Our research shows our current offer here has saved teachers significant time in their workload (3).
Guiding curriculum principles
To guide the work we do we’ve crafted guiding curriculum principles that summarise the important features of great curricula. These form two layers. Firstly, a set of overarching principles that describe features important to curriculum in all subjects. Secondly, each and every subject is different, so subject-specific guiding principles reflect the unique nature of subjects.
These will be revisited and iterated to ensure they reflect the nature of great curricula. In the coming weeks we’ll share more about our subject-specific principles, but we wanted to first give more details about our top-level principles and encourage feedback to help us keep improving.
Let’s take a closer look…
Knowledge and vocabulary rich
A laser focus on knowledge and vocabulary are powerful levers to help pupils achieve success. Knowledge plays a hugely important role in learning - we build and link new knowledge upon prior knowledge. It helps us make sense of and appreciate the world around us - whether that be how the world works, the stories of how it was formed, or the great pieces of music that inspire us.
This focus on knowledge also reflects the foundational role it plays in developing skills. For example, if we want pupils to think critically and creatively, they need something to think about. In the words of Professor Daniel Willingham, knowledge makes learning easier (4).
A spotlight is cast upon vocabulary, as a form of knowledge that carries great importance in learning. In 2021, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) reviewed the best available international research and consulted experts to arrive at key principles for effective literacy. The subsequent report recommends extending pupils’ vocabulary by explicitly teaching new words, providing repeated exposure to new words, and providing opportunities for pupils to use new words (5).
It’s been shown that children with a smaller vocabulary aged five will find it harder to learn new words as they get older, while those who have a broad and deep vocabulary pick new words up frequently and easily. This is an example of the Matthew Effect, whereby the word rich get word richer and the word poor get word poorer, exacerbating the disadvantage gap.
Sequenced and coherent
Careful, purposeful sequencing of curriculum content is vital to ensure pupils are building on and making links with existing knowledge. At its simplest, this means ensuring, for example: that pupils learn about the square and square root functions before meeting Pythagoras’ Theorem; that pupils explore rhythm patterns by clapping before being introduced to musical notation; that pupils might first learn about the Mughal Empire in India before being introduced to the growing influence of the East India Company in the subcontinent; or that pupils will learn about a living thing (organism) using common processes as criteria for life before being introduced to cells and cell structures. Curriculum sequencing ensures that, where necessary, new knowledge and skills are met in a logical or meaningful sequence.
There is also powerful sequencing through coherent threads within subjects. Examples might be the Gothic in English, monarchy in history or proportional reasoning in mathematics. Mary Myatt speaks of threads of a journey through the content to be taught, signposting the underlying structures and laden with meaning (6).
At the heart of an evidence-informed approach is the rigorous application of research outcomes, best practice and the science of learning. The importance of our profession being evidence-informed cannot be overstated. The reasons for this are best captured by Professor Daniel Muijs who suggests that we need to be evidence informed because it is our moral duty (because it exists), for social justice (to close the disadvantage gap) and for the credibility of our profession.
In this endeavour, we stand on the shoulders of giants. There is a wealth of evidence at our fingertips to ensure we offer pupils the most effective learning opportunities. We have national organisations who synthesise this evidence into practical reports like the EEF and further afield, we can learn from the US based Institute of Education Sciences (IES) and Benjamin Piper’s global projects for example. We have an active educational research community based in universities and research organisations.
As a community, we use this evidence to inform the professional judgements we make about our teaching that will provide the best outcomes for our context. The evidence we have may play out in different ways as those decisions are taken. Our aim is to illustrate how that evidence can be put into practice to support teachers, as they themselves consider how the evidence applies to their school and pupils.
Our models offer flexibility by design so that schools are able to use them in a way that fits their context and meets the varying needs of teachers and their pupils. Whilst each subject curriculum can be used in its entirety, teachers will need to adapt our curricula to fit the needs of their pupils.
For example, a secondary school in Yorkshire may want to adapt a coastal unit to include Holderness as a local case study or a primary school in Brighton may want to add their own bespoke history unit on George IV to reflect local history of the area. Indeed our research shows this is how most teachers use Oak now, either adapting our curricula or learning from it to make improvements to their own existing curricula (7).
We’ll explicitly map our curricula to the national curriculum to enable schools and teachers to more easily adapt our curricula as they see fit. We’ll also explicitly signpost our threads sequencing so schools and teachers can ensure the coherence of their curricula as they adapt it.
Our curricula models are just that - models. It is up to schools to decide how to, and indeed whether they choose to, use them. They are optional and will always remain so. School leaders and teachers know their pupils best.
We have a commitment to breadth and diversity in content, language, texts, media and our teachers. When we work with our partners to make difficult decisions about what to include in our curricula and what not to include we are sifting through the thoughts, songs, poems, paintings and actions from the whole of human civilization.
These decisions are hugely important - in selecting what knowledge to teach we provide access to society, represent what has influenced the world today, challenge common misconceptions, introduce diversity and help children find, and be proud of, who they are. We’ve said more about this previously.
In ensuring breadth and diversity in content, language, texts and media we attend to the importance of giving pupils a broad and rich understanding of the world, of different perspectives, and of thinking critically about sources of knowledge. We’ll do this whilst continuing to give pupils access to wonderful works and knowledge that has, and continues to, shape our society. Lastly, this consideration will extend to the teachers who create and deliver our teaching resources, ensuring they reflect the diversity of the communities we serve.
It is important that our curricula support all pupils to learn, especially those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). In January 2020 there were 1.37 million pupils with SEND in England’s schools, representing just under 1 in 6 pupils (8). The SEND Code of Practice highlights high-quality teaching as being the foundation of special educational provision (9).
Examples of the features of high-quality teaching include explicitly linking new content to previous content, chunking new content into appropriate sized blocks, giving concise verbal explanations with clear supporting visual models and illustrations, checking understanding regularly and responding accordingly and providing scaffolded practice. Our teaching resources will be designed with this in mind, so that teachers have a head start in their planning and support materials for their lessons. Specialists in SEND will be part of our expert groups to guide us in this work.
We believe it is important, where possible, for all pupils to study the same content. Differentiated activities or resources, for example providing three worksheets with different levels of difficulty, has generally not been shown to have much impact on pupils’ attainment (10) and can have the unintended outcome of pupils gaining different knowledge and worse, widening the disadvantage gap. That said, for some pupils, a more tailored and specialist approach to the curriculum is needed.
The models will follow accessibility guidelines and insights from the science of learning in terms of how we design and present our content, and we’ll keep offering captioning and signing for pupils with a hearing impairment.
As we develop our curricula models we’ll regularly revisit these principles with our partners, the subject expert groups and the sector to ensure they fulfil their role in guiding our work.
Oak is not a finished curriculum, nor complete set of resources
Whilst we’re going to share models of curricula sequences and teaching resources, we can never know or understand the needs of your pupils nor the local context of your school. It is only teachers who have this expertise. In this sense it is important to be clear that Oak is not a fully finished product.
It’s a bit like making your perfect cup of tea. We all enjoy our tea differently, even though we might start with the same base ingredient. Making it in a mug or a teapot. Adding milk, sugar. A biscuit on the side. You start with a tea bag, and add the vital extras that make it just right for you. Similarly, teachers may start with an Oak (other curricula are available!) curricula or lessons and tailor them for their schools and pupils.
If you haven't already, watch our video to learn more about our thinking on this.
What we offer is a head start on planning, a solid foundation on which teachers can build great curricula and lessons. This is important given that 46% of primary and 29% of secondary teachers say that what makes planning difficult for them is starting from scratch (11).
It is vital that teachers adapt the content for their pupils. At a lesson level, this might mean adapting the content to fit into the available learning time, adding further scaffolding to explanations and practise for a group with less prior knowledge or making the content relevant to their local context.
Oak will never know how best to motivate your pupils. Teachers use knowledge of their pupils to plan for participation to ensure that pupils are motivated to learn. This could mean using mini whiteboards during quizzes and checks for understanding, using a ‘think-pair-share’ or similar talk structure to promote oracy or a creative way to bring the content to life.
I vividly remember when training to be a teacher, observing my mentor teach enlargement using a torch, a large object and the whiteboard to illustrate what happens when you move the centre of enlargement. We will offer suggestions to help with this, but ultimately this must be for each teacher to use their professional skill and experience to decide. Two teachers might take Oak resources and teach them differently - that is to be welcomed and celebrated.
There are many different approaches to designing a curriculum and teaching resources. Those we develop with our partners will just be one. So as well as sharing the new models developed with our partners we’ll also share a range of other high-quality example curricula in each subject, giving even more inspiration to teachers.
Finally, it is the teacher, not the resource, that does the teaching. No slide deck nor sequence can replace the importance of a teacher’s relationship with a pupil, nor their craft in skillfully planning and delivering a lesson. Our aim is to provide entirely optional, high-quality curriculum models and adaptable resources. In doing so we hope to build a better understanding of curriculum design whilst also reducing workload.
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We're looking forward to sharing our curricula and teaching resources in the autumn.
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(3) Annual evaluation by ImpactEd, n=545 Oak users, May 2022
(4) Willingham, 2006
(6) Concepts, Mary Myatt
(7) Annual evaluation by ImpactEd, n=545 Oak users, May 2022
(8) Wespieser, 2021
(9) DfE, 2015
(10) Ofsted, 2019
(11) Teacher Tapp, 2022