How can we give students the tools that they will need to tackle problems that we don’t even know about yet? At Dulwich Puxi, our curriculum is evolving through dedicated professional learning with world-leading experts.
The Need for Change
I graduated from Durham University in 2004. During my time there, I worked with some great lecturers, who constantly demonstrated aspects of the primary curriculum in action. They started with what children needed to understand, and shared lovely examples of recurring misconceptions – years of documentation of children’s learning, from pictures and diagrams to summaries and statements. When ice melts, it doesn’t disappear – it’s part of a process; not all big things are heavy, and not all small things are light – mass and density; the sun really IS bigger than earth – it looks like that because it’s……far away! When we qualified as young teachers, this was our practice. We looked forward to the misconceptions, and planned to steer children towards, and then away from them. We shared similar documented examples between ourselves (usually of very funny things that children said or recorded), and this was part of the joy of teaching primary aged children – the discovery.
Now, I visit a lot of classrooms to dig into the learning that is taking place. It’s a privilege and a new joy to observe and talk about learning, and to walk alongside teachers as they shape their practice. Over time, there has been a noticeable shift away from understanding, towards ‘knowledge’. Schools have become busier and busier, and the stakes have become even greater – league tables, performance data, inspection frameworks – and this has impacted on classroom practice. Time and time again, I see teachers jumping into the ‘doing’, and I look at planning that starts at the point of applying, and then moving on quickly to apply again the next day. I speak with children who know how to multiply, but they don’t understand commutative properties (“multiply means make numbers bigger”). I once visited a classroom where children could use protractors perfectly, but couldn’t tell me what an angle is (“it’s the pointy bit on a triangle?”). These are beautiful, perfect, embraceable misconceptions, lost in an ever-rolling curriculum. Mark Church (Making Thinking Visible, 2011) refers to this as ‘hands on, though not necessarily minds-on activities.’
We made a decision to review our curriculum to underpin what was already there with conceptual understanding in order to deepen our children’s learning experience. We wanted a curriculum that, as an outcome, afforded children knowledge, skills and conceptual understanding. My feeling was that making small changes to what we were already doing could have a massive impact on teaching and learning. So far, I have been right, and……. very wrong! Though we may have made small changes, it has taken around 2 years of preparation to get to this point. And the impact has been so much greater than I could have imagined.
The Change Process and Engaging Expertise
We met Julie Stern at the FOBISIA Heads’ conference in November 2019. She introduced the work that she was doing with schools, not to start again with introducing a new curriculum, but how to identify key concepts that were already there, and plan with them to shape learning. She also promised us that this pathway would result in education to save the world.
We crafted the programme to take place over the period of a year, working with every teacher in the primary and secondary phases of the school. We have ‘Julie injections’ – a small series of 2 – 3 virtual twilight sessions at different points of the year where Julie introduces the theory, supported with authentic examples of students work and the work of other schools who are also on this journey. The sessions are interspersed with professional reading, and the more we read, the more we realise that this small change needs big wheels. We have begun to change the way we plan in order to make learning more effective, but this also requires a huge shift in culture. In her book ‘Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding – Designing Lessons and Assessments for Deep Learning ‘ (2017) Julie recommends beginning with the following foundational principles of conceptual learning and instruction:
1. Conceptual learning happens best in a student centered, thinking centered classroom
2. Students need to be taught how to learn conceptually
3. Conceptual learning is iterative; students need chances to refine and increase the sophistication of their thinking
We have much work to do on creating ‘thinking centered’ classrooms, and unravelling some of our approaches to assessment and feedback.
In addition to live, virtual sessions with Julie, we have ongoing support with planning, and receive feedback on documentation. School leaders have also accessed training sessions on leading the change through her course ‘Leading Learning that Transfers’. This was an invaluable opportunity to connect with other educational leaders around the world who are not only looking to improve learning outcomes for the students, but are also drawn to the opportunity to rethink educational practice for the moral purpose of truly shaping the future.
Small Changes, Big Impact
Our Y6 teacher is excellent. She talks about children as learners, and is tuned into their needs. When she plans, this is evident. When I visit her classroom, I watch her moving subtly, sifting through responses and adapting her next move – the children in her care learn extremely well. I popped into her classroom in January to see the old ‘tried and tested’ Y6 literacy unit on classic literature, where they were studying Shakespeare’s Macbeth as an example.
Typically, Y6 children would experience this by learning about William Shakespeare as a significant literary figure (facts and dates) and maybe write a biography. They would probably create a Shakespearean dictionary, translating ‘ye olde English’ into modern equivalents. To finish the unit, they might re-write a scene from another point of view, or maybe turn the playscript into a narrative. By the end of the unit, children would know that English ‘is really old, and really old English nowadays is difficult to understand’. They could tell you when and where Shakespeare was born, and how many plays he wrote. The sceptic in me usually wonders if they will remember this by the time they have reached Y7. They might have experienced some challenge with audience and purpose by re-writing some of the text. They might be totally put off Shakespeare for life.
This is not what I encountered. Instead, I listened to a group of 10- and 11-year-olds discuss the relationship between power and influence. Could you have power, but not be influential? If you have influence, does that make you powerful? Can you think of some examples of this? How about some non-examples? A few days later, they transferred this thinking and understanding to a new context, when they compared Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, and the storming of Capitol Hill, and the lack of adherence to social distancing in the UK. Power and influence.
The beauty of this example is not just the curriculum exposure, but the chipping away at a new culture of thinking. By transferring these concepts back into real life, real time examples, our children were making sense of the world that they are part of, and thinking critically about the behaviour of leaders. This goes beyond what Julie calls ‘binary learning – either I know something, or I don’t’, and leaves them open to uncertainty and being able to change their minds. To agreeably disagree. The more practice they get with this type of thinking and resolution, the more comfortable they become with expressing their thoughts and beliefs, and receiving and assimilating the thoughts and beliefs of others.
The Need for Even Greater Change
I recently read an article in The Guardian entitled ‘Dear America: writers, thinkers and activists on how to build a better country’. Here, Rebecca Solnit expressed her point of view on how to fix America’s misinformation crisis by teaching children critical thinking.
‘If it were up to me, we’d throw out a lot of the existing curriculum and start over. The conspiracy theories and delusions across the political spectrum – from anti-vaxxers to QAnon devotees to climate deniers to Confederacy cosplayers – prove that we desperately need a citizenship equipped with critical thinking skills.’
This isn’t just an American problem, and it certainly isn’t new. I think about my own educational experience growing up, and how a different approach might have changed an inherited legacy for so many people. I grew up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, during the height of the troubles in the 80’s and 90’s. I wasn’t taught in school to think about the conflict, and so my single, one sided narrative on the existence of soldiers in Belfast came from other children in the community, and was full of misinformation, and I accepted it.
I studied politics at A-Level, and I had an excellent teacher. We asked him why we were not studying the unit on the Northern Ireland conflict as part of our course. “Ach, girls”, he said. “Sure we would never get anything done.”. Ritchhard, Church and Morris (2011) state that ‘If students haven’t been actively engaged in building explanations, reasoning with evidence, making connections, or having the opportunity to look at things from more than one perspective, then there would likely be gaps in their developing understanding’. We were not given the opportunity, nor trusted, to move beyond our single narrative of the Northern Ireland conflict to develop our understanding. What if, instead, our excellent teacher had posed the following question – what is the relationship between peace and reconciliation? What if we had transferred those concepts to look at the impact of peacemakers such as Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King and to analyse peace processes in other countries? What if every student in Northern Ireland was taught, as part of their education, to think critically about their history, their leaders, and their communities? What if every student in the world was? Maybe Jackie Weaver would have had a better day at the office. Maybe Justin would never have needed to apologise to Janet and Britney. Would there be more Greta Thunbergs out there?
Education to Save the World
Our school values are Aim High; Work Hard; Be Kind and Respectful; Make a Difference. The Dulwich organisation has a commitment to sustainable practice through a series of pledges. The foremost reason that we decided to work with Julie was the absolute value alignment with her own organisation Education to Save the World. Julie talks about the biggest question facing educators today – ‘How do we prepare young people to tackle problems we currently don’t know how to solve’? and makes reference to the facts from The Necessary Revolution (Senge 2010), and Creating Innovators (Wagner, 2021). She urges us to ‘imagine what schools could be’. Schools could and should be places where the education provided gives children the tools to save the world, because they are really going to need them. To say that we are saving the world is not a bold statement or boastful hyperbole. It’s an urgency. Every educator should be part of this discussion that needs to be happening in schools now.
In the opening paragraphs, I referred to the busy nature of schools, and some would say it’s easy for me to urge change. I work in an international school, so I don’t serve the same agendas in terms of inspections, statutory national curriculum, and league tables. Politicians don’t affect change in my school on a whim. I have huge privilege in my decision making, and the sky is clear blue in terms of possibility. But I still say that this change is possible in most schools. We are still an English National Curriculum school, and we have worked with the curriculum we have. We are still accountable to our stakeholders for our children’s learning results. These are not the things that will create education to save the world – teachers, working with ethically driven leaders, who have well-chosen professional learning, will make all the difference. Small changes with big impact.
The Next Steps for Dulwich Puxi
We are still very much in trial mode with our conceptually driven curriculum, and far away from formally mapping it. I expect that this will begin next year. I am excited about the emerging possibility of re-writing our maths curriculum to be conceptually organised, which will also most likely begin next academic year. I mentioned earlier that we will interrogate our assessment practices again, and in the next few weeks we will be working with Julie on assessment of conceptual understanding, particularly with regards to their levels of understanding at the beginning of a new unit of learning, and how this will inform responsive teaching. We will be developing our professional toolkit of strategies to allow us to ‘look in’ on students thinking by harnessing a range of routines to become familiar with. Hopefully we have already begun to save the world. I am looking forward to visiting classrooms where children will be grappling with great conceptual questions:
· What is the relationship between morals, supply and demand on land use?
· How can we utilise natural forces to enhance innovation and benefit our modern and mechanical world?
· What is the relationship between vibration and sound?
We will also be continuing with our relationship with Julie, and are looking forward to her new book launch Learning That Transfers, Designing Curriculum for a Changing World.
If you would like to get in touch about our journey, please do. We are passionate about the learning that is taking place, and we are looking forward to the misconceptions, and planning to steer children towards, and then away from them. We can’t wait to share documented examples (hopefully of very funny things that children said or recorded), to be in the joy of teaching primary aged children, and the discovery.
We are more than happy to share our joy.
Ritchhart, R., Church, M., & Morrison, K. (2011). Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding and Independence for All Learners. Jossey-Bass.
Stern, J., Ferraro, F., Duncan, K., & Aleo, T. (2021). Learning That Transfers: Deisgning Currriculum for a Changing World. Corwin.
Stern, J., Ferraro, F., & Mohnkern, J. (2017). Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding – Designing Lessons and Assessments for Deep Learning. Corwin.