Our curriculum design is based on evidence from cognitive science; three main principles underpin it:
- Learning is most effective with spaced repetition.
- Interleaving helps pupils to discriminate between topics and aids long-term retention.
- Retrieval of previously learned content is frequent and regular, which increases both storage and retrieval strength.
In addition to the three principles we also understand that learning is invisible in the short-term and that sustained mastery takes time. Some of our content is subject specific, whilst other content is combined in a cross-curricular approach. Continuous provision, in the form of daily routines, replaces the teaching of some aspects of the curriculum and, in other cases, provides retrieval practise for previously learned content.
The Essentials Curriculum
Three core elements that make up the Essentials Curriculum:
Threshold concepts are the ‘big ideas’ that shape students’ thinking within each subject. The same threshold concepts will be explored in every year group and students will gradually increase their understanding of them. Previous editions of this curriculum referred to the Threshold Concepts as ‘objectives’. We have stopped using this terminology because it implies that there is a target to be met. Instead of meeting objectives we now advocate exploring concepts. An important principle, therefore, is that exploring concepts will never be complete; students will continue to explore them for as long as they continue to study the subject. Each subject begins with an overview of the essential characteristics students should develop and these form the basis for the threshold concepts.
An example of one of the threshold concepts in history is “evidence tells us about the past”. This, of course, cannot be taught in isolation: it would be abstract and meaningless to students. The concept must be explored within a breadth of different contexts so that it has tangibility and meaning.
Breadth of contexts
Breadth provides the contexts for exploring the threshold concepts. It has two roles:
1) Knowledge*. Concepts need knowledge to make sense. Contexts give students subject specific knowledge with which to think about the concepts. For example, students will use the context of the Great Fire of London to explore the concept ‘evidence tells us about the past’. They will be shown extracts of Samuel Pepys diary and will explore how an historical account gives us the knowledge of the cause and spread of the fire. The more knowledge students have, the better their understanding of the concepts becomes. Another benefit of knowledge is that it helps pupils reading comprehension. A student with a greater knowledge of the world will infer more from a text than one with little knowledge, no matter how good his or her decoding skills may be.
2) Transference. Whilst it is only possible to explore a concept within a context, this also causes a problem for students: their understanding is context bound. They find it very difficult to transfer the concept to another situation. By providing a breadth of contexts, students begin to transfer the concepts. They do this by comparing the new context knowledge to previously learned knowledge, the bridge being the concept. For example, if students explore the concept ‘evidence tells us about the past’ through the context of The Great Fire of London they learn that a vital piece of evidence is that Samuel Pepys kept a diary. They then later explore the same concept in the context of The Ancient Egyptians, in which they learn that the Rosetta Stone gives us evidence of the meaning of hieroglyphics.
Each subject has a suggested breadth of study which exceeds the requirements of the English National Curriculum.
Milestones for progress
Because the threshold concepts are repeated in each year group it is important that students progress in their understanding of them. The Essentials Curriculum sets out this progression in the form of three ‘Milestones’. Each Milestone contains a range of descriptors which give more detail to be discovered within the concept. Over a two year period students will become more and more familiar with these details by exploring them in a breadth of contexts.