A couple of months ago, I got lucky. Very lucky. Probably what can only be described as winning the educational lottery. I beat Clare Sealy to the punch with the idea of a science curriculum should be like a box set. Here’s what I wrote in Ramble #6:
’I like to think of curriculum as a well written tv series. There needs to be the main plot for the whole season, but each episode itself has a plot which can act as a sub-plot that is solved within the episode and gives some hint at resolving the main plot of the season. Once the main plot is resolved, the last two minutes normally provide a cliff hanger to make sure you come back to season 2. The higher up the school you teach, the more important it is to have seen the previous series. So when it comes to writing yours, you can bring previous ideas, that may have seemed irrelevant at the time, back to the forefront. The lower down the school, the more you need to be aware of where the final episode of the whole series is heading so you can weave all those little things into your series. This is what a sequence of lesson across an educational phase should look like. Right now though, science is The Simpsons – just one individual episode and when it is over is never referred to again, it needs to be a Game of Thrones. There is a clear plot that covers each series and indeed across all series combined, each episode stands on its own with a sub-plot and information that will help resolve the main plot of the series and in turn the plot of the show is slowly drip fed. And you can bet there is a hook at the end of the series to keep us waiting. This is what a coherent curriculum should achieve.’
Of course you could and should replace ‘science curriculum’ with just ‘curriculum’. Since then, Clare has ‘borrowed’ the idea (and apparently called me a name at a recent ResearchED event – in an endearing way.) kindly referenced the idea back and has no doubt taken the analogy for beyond what I presented. I am still yet to hear Clare’s talk, though I hope to soon. Any cross over from this that has appeared in Clare’s talk it by pure accident and I will of course give credit to her for any similarities if someone points them out. This blog will really focus as to why I believe the analogy is an incredibly powerful one.
The box set analogy sits well with what Willingham tells us about how stories. ‘The human mind seems exquisitely tuned to understand and remember stories—so much so that psychologists sometimes refer to stories as ‘psychologically privileged.’
This makes sense in the context that before we could read and write the only way knowledge was passed down would have been through oral story telling. Our brains have developed this privilege over hundreds and thousands of years of evolution as learning would have been heavily oracy based through traditional tales and stories. So if we want to design and create curriculum that students will remember, then it’s important that narrative is weaved through it. This is where good box set comes into its own.
Game of Thrones, while not the only example of this, offers a fascinating insight into what a curriculum could be like. What is wonderful about such series is that there is one main narrative plot across the whole series (the learning from Reception through to Year 6), The series is cut into season (let’s go deeper and think of a season as an academic year) that will hopefully be solved. Within the season are the episodes (the lessons) that hold their own sub-plot but can often lead to resolving the main plot of the series which in turn lead to a resolution of the series. In GoT, the very first scene in season 1, episode 1 White Walkers are chasing down some members of the Night’s Watch. Sowing the seeds of what is to be one of the main narrative points of the whole series – the living vs the dead. What transpires for the rest of the series, has little to do with that story arc, it sets the scene for the Starks Vs the Lannisters – but that idea has been engraved into our minds. No matter what the narrative between the rival families, something else is afoot.
So what can we learn from this?
The main plots across the series can be seen as the individual subjects, often the relevance and links between them is murky on us to begin with, but by the end all can become clear how certain events become linked together. This is the objective by the end of students education by the time they leave Year 6.
Individual series become the academic year groups. They set the scene with the core knowledge and understanding needed to access the subsequent series. Each tells its own individual story that is worthy in its own right but leaves us wanting more. This is the curriculum as a progression model. To understand series 2 you need to know about series 1 others wise you get lost and have no idea what’s happening.
The individual episodes of the seasons our the lessons, which do not need to be kept to an hour. They have their own mini-plot that helps resolve the plot of the seasons which in-turn helps us understand the next season or help us to understand the plot of the series as a whole. The learning episode gives us some new knowledge about how something. We may not see the bigger picture yet, but everything is there for a reason. Consider the dagger that Arya used to kill the Night King: Teased to us again in series one as the dagger that was used to try and kill Bran; turned out to be Little Fingers; returned to Bran why gave it to Arya. These little details are often missed by the learner, but a teacher needs to know what has come before so they can build up on it and return to it that way
The power of a cliff hanger: A technique used by most TV box sets, and one that teachers should use more often in the classroom. Without the cliff hangers and our desire to know what happens next, would we return to it? As mentioned before, our brains love stories, we have an innate desire for a story to conclude. Perhaps if we saw a lesson as part of something bigger and don’t resolve our lessons; instead tease something exciting that will come later, we can get students engagement without resorting to gimmicks or videos…
Principles of Instruction
The box set analogy slides in perfectly with Rosenshine’s principle of instruction. Let’s take daily, weekly and monthly review. It’s no coincidence that the first two minutes of Game of Thrones is dedicated to a ‘what’s happened previously’ segment. This can cover content from within and outside the season that the director feels is necessary for the viewer to remember. It sparks of our schema so we can remember key information that will help us to understand what is going to happen going forward.
It’s no coistidnce that much dialogue in GoT revolves around the asking of questions. While this serves to move the plot forward it is also a useful tool that screenwriters use to make sure that the audience is understanding some of the more complex narratives. In our teaching we need to make sure we ask these questions to make sure our students our understanding our content. Moreover, narrative plots within episodes makes us ask questions to further our understanding of the series. We then read wider on the subject to answer these questions that we may have. What do they White Walkers want? Why is the Night King so intent on destroying the living?
Sequencing and Modelling:
By working backwards, and knowing the end of the plot, a writer can carefully structure the series and episodes within the series to resolve the plot. It is highly unlikely that the writers write an individual episode and hope that it fits in with what will come next. By its episodic nature, all the required understanding to know the full narrative arc is introduced in small steps.
Stages of Practice:
Through the above, the writers ensure that the viewers have a high-success rate in understanding what is happening throughout the series. If the success rate was low, people would be turned off and not return to watch it. By making an episode absolutely gripping and making people want to talk about it right after it has finished, we practice synthesising the information from the episode, we often discuss it with a friend who may be more knowledgeable and remember more of the smaller details. These conversations guide us to developing a better understanding of what has happened.
Want we can learn from this?
We should review content of the curriculum consistently.
We should be asking questions of the students to check for understanding and promote students asking us questions to deeper their understanding.
Know where the curriculum is heading and understand that each lesson, while it may not connect to the wider narrative initially, it serves its purpose in grander scheme.
Each lesson should be small stepping stone in understanding the knowing the overall narrative, while it should also be able to stand in its own.
By ensuring the above in i place we achieve a high success rate in a s students understanding. They progress through the curriculum successfully.
We inspire them to discuss their learning and work hard to improve their own understanding until they master the content.
When we think of a box set as the result of its parts and how it has come to be, there is a group of people behind it that make it happen. The director provides the strategic direction, the actors bring the story to life within the vision of the director and there is a whole team of people behind the scenes that make this possible.
What do we learn from this?
The director is the headteacher who sets the vision for what their curriculum should be. The teachers are the actors, who to certain extent have to stick to the script. While there is some room for improvisation, that is confined by knowing what has to happen next for the story to work. And most importantly, the rest of the team at schools who dutifully fulfil their roles (and often go above and beyond) to ensure that everything runs smoothly so the director can work with the actors to produce a masterpiece. Without them, nothing would get done.