Why we should approach curriculum as a narrative
“Talk the language of narrative; let curriculum do its work across time.”
What’s the best place to start when designing a school curriculum? How should we structure lesson content? Is there a way that we can interweave the knowledge, skills and dispositions that we want our pupils to learn in a memorable way?
I think there is.
It begins with seeing the curriculum as a narrative. This post attempts to explain how I’ve come to this conclusion. But first, a Latin lesson.
Currere: stories about journeys
The word curriculum is derived from the verb ‘currere’ in Latin. Its meaning is embedded in words involving movement and journeys: to run, trot, gallop or flow.
Counsell notes three ways this etymological root can aid our understanding of approaches to the curriculum. This provides a springboard for understanding what this approach might look like.
First, the movement and journey of a curriculum is important. It is not a short sprint or choppy set of interval runs. It is not a carousel of stations over time or a whistle-stop tour. Curriculum is a journey, good and proper, that might meander to places we might not think are obviously important to our pupils’ later lives or for anything other than them being interesting. Yet it is important to go to these places, since doing so aids deeper understanding later down the line that crosses disciplinary divides. “The specified ground must be conquered or the race can be neither run nor won.”
Next, a curriculum exists in time and space and this must be appreciated and understood by those who design it. The spatiotemporal nature of the curriculum is really important. Like I discussed recently, to begin with aims and objectives that exist outside of space and time and extraneous from the subjects themselves, diminishes the heart of what curriculum is really about. Just planning objectives and delivering content in sequence will not aid memory or help pupils make links between units of work, ongoing themes or subject-specific skills. For meaningful memories, the path of learning must go beyond checkpoints or tick boxes.
Furthermore, curriculum is not a product we deliver or syllabus we should cover. The knowledge content of a curriculum should not be reduced to something that ought to be memorised with no purpose; the factual knowledge of a curriculum should be seen as key places to stop along a journey. The next stop on the path they are taking will mean more to our pupils in light of what they have already learned.
Third, it is not merely a journey, existing in time and space, it is the story of that journey. It is the narrative of the places that we took our pupils, how we took them there and what they ought to remember about the places they stopped to admire. This might be embodied in a teacher outlining what will be studied, the knowledge that will be learned, the words they will add to their vocabulary and the place they would like to end up at the of the unit.
So, the word ‘currere’ provides insights into an understanding of curriculum as narrative by revealing its journeying nature, its spatiotemporal constraints that ought to be acknowledged and the fact that the curriculum is not only the journey but the story of that journey understood as a whole. Understanding and developing curriculum like this is rich and meaningful for our learners.
This brief etymological explanation of the Latin derivative of curriculum doesn’t really go very far in arguing for approaching it has a narrative. However, what it does do is draw out a way of understanding the term that sheds further light on the reasons why this might be a starting place for our efforts. The great thing about this approach is that I think it best fits some of the cognitive science research about learning that is out there at the moment.
Why approaching ‘curriculum as a narrative’ is more meaningful for our pupils
To be clear what I mean by ‘narrative’, I mean the sort of thing you find in a novel, film, song, drama. It is the spoken, written or taught account of connected events; a story. Because knowledge exists within space and time, teaching with this in mind is important. More than this, it aids our pupils’ memories of what we are teaching them. The age-old problem of forgetting is not done away with completely. However, it is diminished significantly when we structure what we teach within a curriculum considerate of a narrative structure. Why do I think approaching curriculum as narrative is important? Here’s three reasons why.
- Every bit of knowledge is important
When we structure the information we wish to present under a broader narrative structure, each piece of knowledge becomes important. Without each bit, the story won’t make sense. Okay, some bits might not be needed and there might even be a ‘skeleton’ amount of information that can be learned which will still be useful to students. However, without learning every bit of knowledge in a meaningful way, the richness of the subject being studied won’t be appreciated as fully. Like a novel, it is possibly to read it quickly to get the gist of the story but the deeper themes, conventions and nuances won’t be appreciated. The novel must be read again. It must be studied. Certain chapters might take longer to mull over while other chapters might not be touched again for a long time.
Curriculum as narrative is just like this: each piece of knowledge builds on the next and takes on deeper meanings and understandings as time goes by and the story is more fully understood. It might be worth stopping every so often and lingering more thoughtfully in some places rather than in others. Either way, each bit of knowledge needs to be understood in relation to the others – I wrote about this recently. Each bit is important.
- Every bit of knowledge is seen in relationship
Each bit of knowledge is connected to another, or at least it ought to be. This is tricky to achieve in a curriculum as product or curriculum as syllabus approach. Both these approaches emphasise coverage, objectives and memorising key information. A curriculum as narrative approach does all of this and more. It covers, meets objectives and memorises more fully than either of these approaches ever could. It sees every bit of knowledge that is covered as connected to another bit. Eventually, all of these bits of knowledge connect up to form a cohesive, interconnected web of information ready for recall. I talked about this in more detail in my post about teaching using a knowledge organiser which you can find here.
I’m not the first to claim that curriculum must have a narrative structure for it to have any impact on learning. Bunsen Blue writes about the Science curriculum:
“A curriculum is not just a series of stand-alone lessons. Nor is a curriculum a series of stand-alone units. A well thought-out curriculum is a narrative that breaks down a discipline into its constituent parts, sequences them with the learner in mind, and weaves in explanations, feedback and ample opportunity for pupils to practice to mastery.”
To briefly summarise what I say in that post and what David Didau eloquently describes, when teachers attempt to explicitly help their pupils make links between the information they learn, they help them build a detailed, easily recalled web of knowledge from long term memory. By helping pupils to build up strong connections between what is known as schemas, teachers can deep the learning that takes place in the classroom.
- Shimamura and MARGE
Arthur Shimamura in his book ‘MARGE: A whole brain learning approach for Students and Teachers’ outlines five effective principles for learning (if you’ve not read it, find it free here). All are applicable to curriculum development however for our purposes we will focus only on one. The ‘R’ in this acronym stands for ‘Relate’. In brief, what Shimamura outlines in his book is that if we want our students to remember the information that they learn, they need to be able to connect it to other information in an interconnected network. In other words, student learning needs to be connected to learning they have done previously. They must be able to relate new information to old information, otherwise, it will very quickly disappear from memory.
What does this mean for the curriculum developer in school? Does this support the ‘narrative’ approach I am arguing for here? I think it does; however, it will probably look different in different subjects.
Curriculum as narrative in Maths
For example, in Maths, it is essential that place value learning comes before learning how to complete calculations including the four operations. Knowledge of multiplication tables, factors and multiples must come before anything to do with fractions. In this sense, the ‘narrative’ structure for Maths feels somewhat like a consistent, steady climb up a reasonably well establish and systematic ladder. At any point, pupils who climb steps too quickly can go back and work things out…taking two steps forward and one step back. The narrative of a Maths curriculum must be this way: we can’t expect our pupils to jump ten steps at a time – their maths learning will never have any depth.
Curriculum as narrative in English
English might be different. Pie Corbett and his Talk for Writing approach embodies curriculum as narrative expertly. It begins with model stories, gets pupils to internalise them and imitate their structure. Pupils link the stories they learn in the T4W approach with previous stories, understanding the differences and similarities between them. After they understand this ‘big picture’, they then unpick the grammatical features of the story and understand their effect in detail. Once they’ve internalised and imitated the ‘story’, they then innovate, making their own. It is important to note that this is not entirely unique and plucked from the imagination; it is instead couched in the big picture narrative and features of the writing they have learned. Words, phrases and ideas from previous stories will still remain in their own creations.
Curriculum as narrative in the Humanities
What about other subjects? My own leadership responsibilities lead me to consider this question carefully. Let’s consider History. After discussions with colleagues, reading and consideration of the National Curriculum (PNC) content I have come to pretty firm conclusions: if we do not tell our Primary aged children a comprehensive, well-sequenced ‘story of our nation’ in our history curriculums, then they are not giving them a History education at all. At the very heart of History learning in the Primary school is its narrative structure. As the PNC states:
“A high-quality history education will help pupils gain a coherent knowledge and understanding of Britain’s past and that of the wider world. It should inspire pupils’ curiosity to know more about the past.”
If our primary pupils don’t understand the progression of development in engineering during the Stone Age and how this impacted the Bronze and Iron Age, they will always just think Stone Aged people lived in caves and were stupid. If our pupils don’t appreciate how Ancient Greek ideas and culture influenced the Romans, they might never appreciate how both of these periods of time have had a tremendous impact on British history. Furthermore, they might never understand the resistance from British people at the time and why this was the case. By teaching these subjects out of chronological order, the narrative of history is lost and the story we are trying to communicate to our pupils will not be remembered. Teaching history with no coherence, or worse, within ‘topic’ lessons that try to amalgamate a range of subjects, ruins history learning, wasting the opportunity our pupils have to understand their past intimately.
I have much more to say on this….but this is a start.
What do you think?
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