Lessons from Secondary Curriculum and Assessment Design

Over the Easter weekend of 2018, I’ve been re-reading Summer Turner’s book on Secondary Curriculum and Assessment Design. The book is a great primer on these two weighty aspects of school development and points the reader in the direction of plenty of further reading. Turner makes her own position on curriculum and assessment design very clear whilst also providing some balance by suggesting sources of information relating to other schools of thought.

Following a self-assessment tool, which is designed to unpick what the reader knows about these two core educational concepts already, Turner begins with the premise that expertise, in terms of curriculum design in schools, has been in decline over the last three decades. She suggests this has been caused by:

  • The centralisation of curriculum design due to the introduction of the National Curriculum and the implementation of the National Strategies.
  • The centralisation of assessment and subsequent narrowing of the curriculum due to SATS, levels and APP.
  • Further narrowing of the curriculum due to accountability measures in the form of league tables, floor standards and OFSTED.

Turner highlights an opportunity, resulting from the end of national curriculum levels and academy freedoms, to redevelop the curriculum but this requires a rejuvenation in curriculum expertise at whole school and subject level.

Lesson 1: Answer these fundamental questions

Turner suggests using, as a starting point, Ralph Turner’s questions (Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction):

  1. What educational purposes should a school seek to attain?
  2. What learning experiences can you select to achieve these purposes?
  3. How can you effectively organise these experiences to best achieve your purposes?
  4. How can you evaluate the effectiveness of these experiences?

Much of the rest of the book explores Turner’s reading, thinking and actions in response to these questions.

Lesson 2: Read the experts’ views

Turner provides some brief summaries of the work of the following thinkers on curriculum and assessment (other schools of thought are available):

  • E.D Hirsch
  • Michael Young
  • Paulo Freire
  • Daniel Willingham
  • Dylan Wiliam
  • Daisy Christodoulou
  • Tim Oates
  • Ron Berger
  • Carol Dweck

Turner points out that there is a vast body of work by academics and education experts on both curriculum and assessment. Much of it is conflicting. The trick, whilst not closing your eyes and ears to views different to your own. is to prioritise the theory and research which ties most clearly to your purpose and values. This way, you end up with something coherent whilst also remaining open to challenges to your thinking.

Lesson 3: Carefully consider each of these factors in designing your curriculum

  • Determine the purpose of your curriculum
  • Decide your key principles and values
  • Set your expectations
  • Determine the big ideas
  • Define the content
  • Establish the sequence
  • Plan how and when you will review

Lesson 4: Carefully consider each of these factors in designing your model of assessment(s)

  • Determine the purpose of your assessment(s), ensuring it links to the purpose of your curriculum
  • Establish your assessment principles
  • Set your assessment expectations
  • Define your big assessment ideas
  • Check your assessment content covers a sample of your curriculum
  • Ensure your assessment sequence is clear across a term, a year and a Key Stage
  • Plan how you will review and refine your assessments

Lesson 5: Make it happen

Much of the above is about whole school thinking and establishing fertile soil in which faculties or departments can work to set out and deliver their own curriculum plans as well as assess their impact. Turner makes the following suggestions to make this process effective in practice:

  1. Communicate your vision, values and expectations clearly in a manner that teachers will buy into.
  2. Use examples, from within your own school where possible, which align with what you expect.
  3. Ensure curriculum areas are able to provide an outline of their curriculum. Turner believes this should include a philosophy/purpose behind the subject; definition of the big ideas; the key areas of factual or procedural knowledge which make up the subject. She argues that this should be mapped back from the next stage in the students’ education and that aspects of sequencing and interleaving should be carefully considered.
  4. Expect faculties to produce an assessment map which defines the forms of assessment to be used and how these tie to the curriculum, what can be inferred from each assessment type, when each assessment type will be used and how feedback will be provided.
  5. Build a bank, over time, of high quality models and ensure teachers have the subject expertise to model for students and select models of work during lessons.
  6. Provide training to key staff in the designing and reviewing of the curriculum and its associated assessments. Turner finishes the book off with some suggestions as to how you might go about doing this.

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