The Overview Effect
By Lekha Sharma @teacherfeature2 | Seneca Virtual Conference | Curriculum: The Big Picture | 23 Oct 2021
On the 23rd of October 2021, Seneca hosted a free virtual conference about the Curriculum, featuring four incredible speakers and 800 signed-up attendees!
You can watch the recording on our YouTube channel here and access the slides here.
Below, it’s the article written by Lekha Sharma, one of the speakers, as a summary of her talk.
The Overview Effect is a fascinating phenomenon experienced by astronauts who travel into space and experience the Earth as a whole. Staring down at our beautiful planet Earth in all its glory, they can truly appreciate the ‘collective shared room’ that we seem to inhabit and true perspective is gained. Astronauts comment on how all national boundaries disappear and that they begin to question the ‘very nature of conflict on Earth’
Having read about this phenomenon I got to thinking about curriculum development and one of the reasons why it’s such a complex business. Curriculum leaders must have the ability to consider the granular detail of their subject, right down to the resources or vocabulary used in lessons but must also be able to step back and see how their subject fits and contributes to a much bigger picture…simultaneously! This feels particularly pertinent when it comes to primary curriculum, where these considerations can be the difference between a coherent and well-connected curriculum and a curriculum where its effectiveness is diminished by the ‘chains’ of ‘making links’. It’s a fragile system and without a sufficiently accurate picture of individual cogs and the larger machine, it becomes very difficult for the curriculum to have the intended impact, no matter how well-defined or clear this is from the outset.
(You can watch Lekha’s talk above)
Herein lies the challenge and so I decided to consider the highest levers for getting the ‘machine to work’ within our schools. By work, I mean have a tangible impact on pupils and satisfy an individual school’s purpose and aims for their pupils. This is unique and bespoke to each setting but by and large is about improving outcomes and life chances for pupils in some way. So, what can we do to ensure that the macro and micro considerations of curriculum work beautifully in sync and translate to what happens in classrooms? Here are three questions to consider:
How clearly understood is WHAT the pupils are learning?
It’s one thing having a beautifully crafted and mapped out curriculum where knowledge grows cumulatively over time and subjects content links seamlessly. (This is a mammoth job in itself!) But it’s another thing to turn this into a shared body of knowledge that all teachers and staff have a good understanding of. A common and persistent challenge in schools is the provision gap that is created when the sands shift too consistently. Whether that’s variability in the quality of teaching, drastic shifts in curriculum content, or even shifts in behaviour policy (which then have a knock-on effect on learning). What we’re aiming for is consistency and the typicality of academic and non-academic provision. If teachers in Year 1 are unsure of where the learning is going next, it becomes remarkably difficult to address the spectrum of understanding within their class in the sense they may struggle to challenge their higher attainers. Similarly, if a teacher in Year 6 has a poor understanding of synthetic phonics, they are unable to craft provisions for a pupil for whom decoding is a barrier to their learning. Having a shared understanding of the curriculum map from EYFS to Year 6 immediately strengthens teachers’ ability to provide quality first teaching and enables a rich dialogue to be had around curriculum, assessment, and pedagogy.
How much do curriculum and pedagogy speak to one another?
We know it’s not just the WHAT of the curriculum that matters but also the HOW we deliver the curriculum. How often are those top-level curriculum design considerations speaking to the ‘on the ground’ day-to-day delivery considerations? I like to imagine this as a conversation between two friends. ‘What can I do to help and support you on the ground?’ being one of the questions asked in that chat. One without the other simply does not work and if something isn’t quite working on the ground, ‘this isn’t really working out so well, do you think perhaps…’ might well be the response back…By developing curriculum and pedagogy in isolation, we do an absolute disservice to each of these entities, immediately diminishing the quality of what pupils receive in their classrooms.
How often do we step back to evaluate our curriculum and then zoom back in to refine and strengthen it?
It’s not just about curriculum and pedagogy speaking to each other but also about how this is captured and actioned. We need to maintain the integrity of our curriculum to not further exasperate provision gaps which are sometimes unavoidable e.g., staff turnover but at the same time, we need to be continually tweaking and refining our curriculum based on the stream of information we get from delivering the curriculum. Everyone needs to be involved in that conversation and the more it’s had the more collective ownership of the curriculum is established within the school. It becomes less of a ring-fenced, 007 mission confined only to subject and senior leaders and becomes everyone’s responsibility. The idea of curriculum kaizen focuses on small, incremental changes in our curriculum and subsequent classroom practice to ensure we’re learning about what works best in our individual contexts and settings and so we don’t become stagnant in our approaches and thinking as time goes on, in service of providing our pupils with the best possible educational experience.
Lekha is an Expert Advisor at the Teacher Development Trust and a former Vice Principal and experienced Senior Leader. She is the author of ‘Curriculum to Classroom’, an Evidence Lead in Education with the Greenshaw Research School and a Postgraduate Student studying ‘Learning and Teaching’ at the University of Oxford. Follow her on Twitter @teacherfeature2