December 27, 2010

Spiral or Circular Curriculum?

During my INSET day at my PP1 school we watched a video presented by Dylan Wiliams who asked if schooling was spiral or circular. Are pupils presented with the same material each year, with more and more of them understanding a little bit more than last time, or does it spiral: the same theme but at a higher level? One teacher in the audience was horrified by the idea that teachers could end up circling.

I've just seen it again, in some reading for my current essay: "In each successive year of schooling, we go over the same material, with slightly more students picking it up each time - not so much a spiral curriculum as a circular one for many learners". This totally sums up what I've been struggling to describe for myself. During the observations at my PP1 and SAS school, I couldn't help but be amazed that a year 7 and year 11 lesson on fractions could contain basically the same material at basically the same level. In fact, a higher year 7 set would in all likelihood, progress further during that lesson that a lower set Year 11 and so next lesson with be ahead. There seem to be two problems - higher sets progress faster, or at least cover material faster, that lower sets. A couple of years in that system and you'll have an enormous range in what the pupils have been exposed to, let alone learn. But there should still be progress, in this system, lots for the top people and little for the bottom. But next year when the top lot jump forward several steps, the bottom ones should move at least a little. Instead they do the same stuff. Maybe with more skill, more confidence? Are we playing catch-up? Pupils need a little longer but we need to move on now, don't worry, you'll meet this again next year. Then next year, thanks to the lack of concrete learning and a year of confidence dampening, it takes almost as long to redo it leaving no time for new material. 

I've also found there is an assumption that a top set will know stuff it was taught in the previous years. Equally: with a bottom set you'd best start from scratch. I'm not sure how fair that is. Certainly during my SAS placement I irritated top and bottom level pupils alike by not obeying this. I patronised a Year 11 class with a "Who can remember SOHCAHTOA?" when everyone was way ahead having correctly identified which one we needed and applying it. I also panicked a Year 8 class with assumptions of some basic thing or other. I wonder if it's a confidence thing. My darling Year 7 lower-half-of-the-year-but-mixed-ability class were quite confident and optimistic. They loved easy repetitive activities involving simple sums but also didn't hold back telling me something was too easy! They still shied away from though provoking activities in favour of yet more sums but with harder numbers, but that's a separate issue. My Year 10 class were the opposite end of the spectrum. They coped nicely with some more thoughtful starters I did with they which mainly relied on basic number skills. I chose these because of their severe lack of confidence with maths of substance. I was warned that, especially for homework, I had to set them very simple activities which they would be successful at. Their lack of confidence, not ability, dictated the slow pace and low level of our lessons. 

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