The Curriculum for Wales

Paul Tyack

A teacher's guide to the Curriculum for Wales: What's the big idea and how do you embrace the theory in your classroom?

What is the Curriculum for Wales?

When the Curriculum for Wales was announced by the education minister, for those accustomed to the notion of curriculum as ‘the content we need to cover', it must have been an anxious time. In this article, we explore how this new education policy can be adopted and used to enhance the learning journey of our pupils. For the education workforce, the move towards a 'deep education' might have come across as quite daunting. We will argue that this ambitious education policy can bring life to your classrooms. There will need to be changes in the current assessment arrangements and we will need to rethink are we deliver the core learning experiences. However, we should welcome a move towards authentic learning experiences and with the curriculum design process, education for children in Wales can remain 'ahead of the curve'.

This blog post will provide you with some practical ideas for those making decisions in education authorities and classroom teachers alike. We will focus on the pedagogical side of this new 'Connected learning' and look at what this ambitious vision might look like in practice. As well as breaking some of the boundaries between subjects down, the advice for education systems throughout Wales is to focus on 'depth of learning'. The curriculum guidance doesn't always translate this into how practical classroom tasks. We will breakdown some of the underlying themes and how they can be used to build a purpose-led curriculum. One of the universal criticisms of many other education policy makers is the continued delivery of a narrow curriculum. This curriculum philosophy is vastly different to anything we have seen before and like the international baccalaureate, it should be welcomed with open arms. In another article, we will go into more detail about the alignment of assessment criteria. This post outlines some of the global changes and how teaching theories should be adapted.

What are the key changes to the Curriculum for Wales?

The 6 Areas of Learning and Experience (AoLEs) do not appear as separate, siloed compartments and appear interconnected by design to work together, infusing and enhancing one another. The national mission for schools and teachers is to create a balanced curriculum with coherent learning journeys for learners to embark upon. The emphasis will be not only on subject knowledge but how knowledge is connected, organised and contextualised. Teachers will need to ensure that the learning is engaging, relevant, challenging and significant. In this blog post, we look at what this means for the school curriculum, professional learning and assessment arrangements. We will also try and unpick the guidance for schools and discuss what this might mean for curriculum policy design.

Several key things, which may at first appear obvious, come to the surface. First, schools need to provide learning environments where coherent, authentic teaching and learning takes place, as opposed to the compartmentalized, disconnected teaching and learning experience associated with the current national curriculum. Ultimately, this will mean a more balanced education. Secondly, teachers need to consider and ensure transparent connections are made across the teaching and learning so that learners are aware of the relevance of the learning to their world and are inspired to respond with a high level of engagement. Third, the What Matters statements allow flexibility in that learners can and will revisit key concepts several times in different settings, developing increasingly in-depth understandings.

It could be argued that education with a focus on developing an understanding of significant ideas has often been sacrificed for the memorization of information and the mastery of skills out of context. This opens up questions about the nature of education systems and the very purposes of education. Over the years, the expansion of the curriculum and the pressure to cover the syllabus has resulted in many students leaving school with superficial levels of understanding. Yet by starting with learners' prior knowledge, and by confronting and developing their earlier conceptions, misconceptions and constructs, teachers can begin to promote real understanding. The exploration and re-exploration of concepts through the ‘What Matters' statements will lead us towards an appreciation of ideas that transcend subject boundaries, as well as towards a sense of the essence of each subject area. If this is done well, learners will gradually work towards a deepening of their conceptual understanding as they approach those ideas from a range of perspectives, or view them through different lenses.

How will the curriculum for Wales deepen conceptual understanding?

Primary schools and secondary schools are already thinking about learner progression and how the curriculum requirements will change. In order to understand the importance of the shared vision outlined in the ‘What Matters' guidance document, we need to first consider the experience for students. Regardless of key stage, a balanced curriculum in pursuit of lifelong learning would be seen as a positive change for any education system. But first we need to unpack the very structure of knowledge and consider how we can use this structure to focus teaching and learning, develop the intellect, and improve the learner experiences.

According to Lynne Erickson, Traditional Curriculum is topic-based, arithmetic and focused on the coverage of content. ‘How can we cover what's on the curriculum?' This is where the knowledge v skills false dichotomy come from. The Universal Thinking Framework addresses this dichotomy by giving teachers and students the tools they need to build knowledge.

Two-dimensional curriculum model
2D Model of Learning

Nearly sixty years ago, Bruner explained that it is hard for learners to transfer what has learned to situations to be encountered later. Knowledge Acquired without sufficient structure to tie it together is more likely to be forgotten. In other words, when we plan and teach in this way, we are forgetting that active meaning-making required by the learner. How many times do we think, “If I cover it clearly, they will ‘get it’ and be able to call upon it in the future. So the more I cover, the more they will learn.”? Then we tear our hair out the following week when they can’t remember….

The importance of conceptual understanding is framed by the ‘WhatMatters’ statements in each of the 6 Areas of Learning and Experience. This Means that in Wales, we are beginning to take the first steps away from this traditional two dimensional model of curriculum. A vital, third dimension has been added; understanding of key concepts or principles. At Structural Learning with our partners in South Wales, we have been using the Writer's Block tool to help children grasp new concepts. As pupils piece all of the parts together they begin to see the big picture. This playful pedagogy also promotes classroom discussion that leads to deeper conceptual understanding.

Three-dimensional conceptual understanding
Three dimensional Learning

A 21st Century Curriculum for Wales

Classroom teachers are always under pressure to 'get through' curriculum content. The new curriculum places an emphasis on the depth of understanding, this shift changes the way we think about learning objectives. If classroom teachers are well supported in developing new assessment frameworks that go beyond simply recall, then our pupils will begin to value this change. The Universal Thinking Framework equips educators with knowledge frameworks and competency checklists. These can be used for planning, delivering and assessing curriculum objectives.

Criticisms of the traditional '2D curriculum':

Coverage-centred – ‘Inch deep, mile wide’

Intellectually shallow – Lacks a conceptual focus to create a  factual / conceptual synergy.

Transfer is unlikely – knowledge is often locked in time, place  and situation.

Fails to meet the intellectual demands of the 21st Century curriculum.

A 3D curriculum helps learners to construct meaning through improved critical thinking and the transfer of knowledge. A focus on developing conceptual understanding will increase coherence across the curriculum as it is at the conceptual level where these interdisciplinary connections are often made. Therefore we are moving our focus up the structure of knowledge to the conceptual level with the dual purposes of developing the intellect whilst also increasing motivation for learning. To meet these aims, teachers and schools will need support to develop curriculum and pedagogy which creates a “synergy” between the lower (factual) and higher (conceptual) levels of thinking.

Rationale for a '3D curriculum'

Idea-centred – knowledge provides a foundation to understand conceptual, transferable ideas.

Intellectual depth – a conceptual lens or focus requires processing at the factual and conceptual levels, producing intellectual depth in thinking and understanding.

Concepts and generalisations transfer – allows the brain to make connections and see patterns more easily.

Develops the intellect to handle a world of increasing complexity and accelerating change.

Rich units of inquiry with traditional subject areas interwoven within them and where concepts are used to support and structure the learning provide a context for learners to understand and acquire essential knowledge, skills and dispositions.

Structure of knowledge
How do we structure knowledge?

Summary of the Curriculum for Wales

The ‘What Matters' statements focus on the development of conceptual understanding, which adds a significant third dimension (depth) to the traditional curriculum consisting of knowledge and skills.

A concept is a “big idea” a principle or notion that is enduring and is not constrained by a particular origin, subject matter or place in time (Erickson 2008). Concepts represent ideas that are broad, abstract, timeless and universal.

Thinking at a conceptual level helps to explore the essence of a subject whilst adding coherence to the curriculum. A 3D curriculum will not only deepen disciplinary understanding but also build learners' capacity to engage with complex ideas. By building understandings across, between and beyond subjects, we can integrate and transfer learning to new contexts more proficiently.

Teachers and schools are likely to need support and guidance in curriculum development and ensuring synergy between factual and conceptual thinking.

A focus on developing conceptual understanding demands that we reduce the amount of content we attempt to cover, focusing on depth.

Education stakeholders will need to think about how the implementation curriculum policy will effect school education.

Learner progression will need to be addressed through different assessment activities.

Education systems around the United Kingdom will be looking at the curriculum development and seeing how school leadership responds.