The Curriculum for Wales

Paul Tyack

Paul Tyack explains the implications of the impending changes to the Curriculum for Wales.

What are the Key Changes to the New Curriculum for Wales?

The Curriculum for Wales was recently published in draft format. For those accustomed to the notion of curriculum as ‘the content I need to cover’, these must be confusing times.

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. They challenge schools and teachers to create holistic, coherent learning journeys for learners to embark upon. The emphasis will be not only on subject knowledge, but how knowledge isconnected, organised and contextualised. Teachers will need to ensure that the learning is engaging, relevant, challenging and significant.

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 that can be present. 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 understanding of significant ideas has often been sacrificed for the memorization of information and the mastery of skills out of context. Over the years, the expansion of the curriculum and the pressure to cover the syllabus have 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?

In order to understand the importance of these key conceptual understandings outlined in the ‘What Matters’ statements, we need to unpack the structure of knowledge and consider how we can use this structure to focus teaching and learning, develop the intellect, and improve the academic performance of all students.

According to Lynne Erickson, Traditional Curriculum is topic based, arithmetic and focused on coverage of content. ‘How can we cover what’s on the curriculum?’  This is where the knowledge v skills false dichotomy come from.

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.

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.

The '3D' Curriculum for Wales

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.

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 develop 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.

The Structure of Knowledge

Summary

· The ‘What Matters’ statements focus on the development of conceptual understanding, which adds a significant third dimension (depth) to 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 a 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

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