Leading Change as a Subject Leader: Improving curriculum for enduringly great teaching

When I first started out on my journey as a humanities subject leader, I reflected on where I should start. I was (and still am) privileged enough to work in a school with some highly experienced teachers. Two issues, though, were immediately apparent to me in my new role.

First, despite the great teaching going on in our school, the humanities curriculum wasn’t ‘joined up’. It didn’t ‘flow’ from year to year and help pupils see the overarching narrative of geography or history (I write about this here). This was not because of the teachers but because no one who had my role previous to me had sat down and thought about how our pupils could have more than great teaching year on year…they could actually have a great curriculum too. To achieve this though, there had to be careful thought and planning because naturally the latter precedes the former.

Second, I noticed that, in the natural ebb and flow of school life, teachers go to different places, move year groups or change careers completely. Like the previous issue, there is nothing wrong with this in the slightest but it does have an impact on pupils in the way that the curriculum is taught. (New teachers come who ‘weren’t at the training’ or ‘have never taught it like this’ etc…If a teacher moves from Year 6 to Year 1, they may not know the key stage one curriculum as well as what should be taught in upper key stage two.)

Neither of these issues are deeply problematic but they are disruptive to the curriculum offer within any subject. Pupils need the consistency of quality first teaching and curriculum learning. Because of this, the question I was left with as a subject leader was:

How do I ensure that there is enduringly great teaching and consistency in the subjects that I lead, regardless of the experience, styles or preferences of the staff that teach it?

That’s the focus of this first post.

Great curriculum for enduringly great teaching

Despite starting this journey a year ago, I recently read Tom Sherrington’s Rosenshine’s Principles in Action (his explanation of them is here and the link to the book is here)that crystallised my thinking. As a slight caveat, what I loved about these ‘principles’ is that they were just the beginning of great teaching: teachers can be themselves and still do all the things that Rosenshine lays out. Teachers can be silly and make jokes throughout the school day but still do ‘daily review’; teachers can still talk about their cats with their pupils but provide models to scaffold learning…and so on.

However, reading the book as a subject leader helped me realise that there are clear principles for effective instruction that appear time and time again in the research on teaching that consistently assume that the curriculum is well set up, sequenced and organised. Because of this, the conclusion I arrived at was that enduringly great teaching assumes a great curriculum. If this was the case, then in my subject leadership, I had to start with ensuring that our humanities curriculum was excellent.

With the claims of great teaching assuming great curriculum in mind, the first task I had to do was convince staff that the curriculum needed changing and that it was worth spending our precious time developing. (I’d read ‘Our Iceberg is Melting’ and ‘Who Moved My Cheese?’ by this time and realised that it might be worthwhile ‘creating urgency’ for change.) One key way I did this was to show that in order to ensure that our teaching was having the greatest impact it could be, we needed to invest our time in planning the following year’s curriculum. I discussed this grid with them, showing how for each principle of effective instruction, there were curriculum implications.

Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction
Curriculum Thought and Planning? Curriculum Activities/Resources to be developed?
1.     Daily Review Each lesson needs to start in a way that will help pupils retrieve what they learned previously. Curriculum planning might need to include misconceptions that pupils have. Quizzes and Retrieval practice activities
2.     New material in small steps After the overall objectives for a unit are put together, it is important that lessons in the curriculum are sequenced in a way that breaks the knowledge and skills down into small bits. In addition to this, planning might also need to allow for some learners moving more slowly than others. This is important to consider carefully as curriculum is ultimately constrained by time within a term and school year. Carefully put together curriculum with a clear rationale for progression – this aspect of Rosenshine’s principles can’t be achieved without a well though through curriculum.
3.     Ask questions Key questions are probably worth writing down in a plan. It might even be that lessons begin with an enquiry question that will frame the knowledge that needs to be learned in the lesson. Hinge Questions or Enquiry Questions to start lessons should be pre-planned
4.     Provide models High quality models need to be curated and preserved by teachers. These might be kept safely somewhere or stored electronically. All curriculum planning should enable pupils to achieve something that is similar to the model or even better than it. Thoughts and reflections on key aspects of modelling might also be included in a curriculum planning. Either written by the teacher or collected together by teachers from previous pupil work.
5.     Guide student practice Curriculum planning ought to include the key tasks that will be guided but in addition what will the expected standard is before a pupil can confidently move on to independent practice. This is helpful for those who are not familiar with the year group and might need guidance on the expected standard for that year group.
6.     Check student understanding An essential part of curriculum planning is the variety of ways that teachers will gather data on pupil learning, either through in lesson assessments or end of unit assessments. Also what is key here is what will be done if the right answers are not given or a pupil is not showing progress and what might be done about this to ensure progress. Hinge Questions
7.     Obtain high success rate


Pitching the learning right in a progressive manner is absolutely essential. This links back to the small steps of principle 2.
8.     Scaffold for difficult tasks Linked to the models and guided practice principles, it is important that curriculum planning includes how learning will be scaffolded. This is probably quite a resource intensive aspect of curriculum planning but once they are made they can be used time and again with tweaking here and there. Pre-prepared scaffolding resources (sentence stems, planning frames, concrete resources)
9.     Independent Practice What pupils will be thinking and the key aspects of the practice will have to be thought through before teaching. Key checkpoints of what constitutes success in that lesson might also be useful to consider before the lesson. Questions must be written beforehand, sequenced in small steps.
10.  Weekly and Monthly review If curriculum is not carefully outlined and the knowledge, skills and understanding of each unit is not clearly articulated, then it is impossible to do a methodical review of what is being learned. Great curriculum enables reviews to be effective. When curriculum is laid out clearly, preparing for a weekly and monthly review is easy. Just take pre-prepared quizzes and add to them depending on pupil misconceptions and problems throughout the unit.

I then explained that to me, this showed that:

  • The curriculum we were about to plan would hopefully map out the misconceptions that pupils might have and the problems that might occur that don’t have to wait until an end of unit assessment to address;
  • The curriculum will have planned out, for example, the assumption that pupils might struggle with the idea of chronology and periods of time and therefore more time needs to be spent on this;
  • The curriculum will have planned out, for example, excellent questions in geography in order to draw out deeper knowledge and understanding from pupils about places and spaces, which will of course impact the amount that is learned;
  • The curriculum will outline in detail the knowledge needed to be learned in history and the concepts that the unit will be developing, which will make it easier for the teacher to know when they ask questions about key knowledge.

From a leadership perspective, I noticed that helping others see the significance of spending time developing curriculum was essential. The fact that it was for the following year allowed the pressure to be off ‘getting it done really quickly’ and I ensured that my colleagues had plenty of time to develop their planning.

The first session was the heart of ‘finding the why’ of the development process and forming the vision for the coming years. I didn’t want my colleagues to change their geography and history planning because I told them to; I wanted them to think deeply about what they were teaching their pupils and how it was going to be done in a way that would impact their future practice, hopefully leading them to see that curriculum really mattered in the classroom.

So, this first step of leading curriculum change actually began with understanding what effective instruction entailed and working backwards from it. Once I’d communicated that in order for our teaching to be enduringly great we needed to spend time thinking about the knowledge that needed to be learned and the sequence it needed to be learned in, I sensed we were all set for the year ahead.

Other posts about curriculum:

Curriculum as Narrative

Problematic Approaches to School Curriculum Part 1

Problematic Approaches to School Curriculum Part 2

Knowledge Organisers Part 1

Knowledge Organisers Part 2





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