Curriculum sequencing in action
Madeleine Court shares her experience of re-sequencing the curriculum to enhance learning.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2021 Journal of the Economics, Business and Enterprise Association (the EBEA).
In the Autumn 2020 edition of Teaching Business and Economics, Kathy Cameron and Samuel Stones wrote about the importance of sequencing in the curriculum, particularly given the 2019 changes in the Ofsted inspection framework. HMCI Amanda Spielman said that “schools need to have a strong relationship with knowledge, particularly around what they want their pupils to know and know how to do. ... This does not mean that the curriculum should be formed from isolated chunks of knowledge, identified as necessary for passing a test. A rich web of knowledge is what provides the capacity for pupils to learn even more and develop their understanding.”1
As economics and business teachers, we predominantly deal with public exam classes and it is very easy to take the exam specifications as gospel when it comes to determining what topics we teach, and to what depth – those isolated chunks of knowledge. However, as Cameron and Stones pointed out, “the specification is a crucial document in providing a definitive list of minimum knowledge expectations ... However, it makes no attempt to sequence as it does not stipulate how or when these should be developed.” I will share my experiences of sequencing the curriculum, in the hope that it may be useful, particularly for those who are undertaking a curriculum review or preparing for Ofsted.
I became Head of Department in 2015, right at the point where A-level specifications changed from modular to linear. The issue of curriculum sequencing was not widely discussed at the time but, as I began to plan the new A-level course, it struck me that beginning with the first topic on the spec and working forwards may be easy – not least because the textbooks are often written in this order – but did not make logical sense. We know from cognitive psychology that long-term memory operates by building schema2, and that new knowledge will join onto existing knowledge much like snow adding to a rolling snowball. The threshold concepts referred to by Cameron and Stones in their article are “akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something”3, which will change students’ schema so that they have “a transformed internal view of subject matter, subject landscape or even world view”4
As I planned my new A-level course, I thought carefully about these threshold concepts, and – although not mentioned by Cameron and Stones in the last edition of TBE – top of my ‘threshold’ list was the difference between revenue, costs and profits. In previous iterations of our curriculum, we had left the Finance topic until quite late in the course, mostly because of where the topic fell in the specification. This left pupils trying to develop their understanding of concepts such as capacity utilisation and productivity without any solid understanding of costs or profit. Unsurprisingly, they were frustrated that they couldn’t connect these ideas securely to existing schema, and we were frustrated that they just didn’t “get it”.
Armed with this list of threshold concepts, I took the new A-level spec to pieces, making sure that the first topic with one of the two teachers was a basic introduction to revenue, costs and profit, but then segueing straight into types of profit and profitability. These topics are pages apart in the exam specification, but it made logical sense to teach them at the same time. The improved quality of pupils’ knowledge and answers suggested that the tweaked sequence of topics made a real difference.
Two years later, with the GCSE reforms, we opted to switch exam boards to Edexcel. However, the order of the exam specification made no sense whatsoever in terms of schema-building and threshold concepts, and I was forced to be radical when planning of the KS4 curriculum. I printed the entire specification, then cut it up into individual small topics. I organised those strips of paper into a logical order, spread out across six desks in my classroom, hoping fervently that there wouldn’t be a draught! Each topic was rated based on what prior knowledge the pupils would need to know, and I worked backwards to get to the most significant starting points.
Now, within the first two weeks of the course, our GCSE students are exposed to what I believe are the fundamental concepts: business objectives; customer needs; revenue, costs and profit; cashflow; competition. Everything flows from these ideas, and it turns out that our curriculum is sequenced in a very different way from any of the textbooks or other published schemes of work. Whilst this has made life slightly more difficult for us as teachers in terms of accessing resources, it has allowed us to structure our pupils’ learning in such a way that they can build knowledge securely. After all, what is the point in learning about private limited companies for Theme 1 in Year 10, and then covering public limited companies separately for Theme 2 in Year 11? Sequencing according to schema and threshold concepts has simplified the learning process. Ironically, it turns out that my new curriculum sequence is actually very similar to our old GCSE teaching sequence, being taught in functional areas rather than by exam specification Theme.
For those who may find it interesting, our route through the specification goes:
- Introductory concepts – what is a business, customer needs, objectives, profit, cashflow, competition
- Enterprise, location and business planning
- Growth and changing objectives
- External environment
Although we are unable to use a published textbook in lessons, we have built a bank of resources that follow “our” route through the specification, and the department is better for it. Attacking an existing curriculum sequence can be very daunting, particularly for new Heads of Department, and it is no quick task. However, with nothing more than a pair of scissors and a willingness to think about threshold concepts and schema building, it can transform your pupils’ learning, not to mention giving excellent fodder for the Ofsted deep dive.
Madeleine Court is Head of Business at Repton School
The Secondary Curriculum Leader’s Handbook, Ed: Roy Blatchford (John Catt, 2019)
What if everything you knew about education was wrong? David Didau (Crown House, 2015)
Teaching Walkthrus, Tom Sherrington and Oliver Caviglioli (John Catt, 2020) – especially pp 50-55
The Learning Rainforest, Tom Sherrington (John Catt, 2017) – especially pp 173-175
1. Quoted in Blatchford, p.16
2. Tom Sherrington talks about memory and schema here: https://teacherhead.com/2020/03/10/a-model-for-the-learning-process-and-why-it-helps-to-have-one/
4. Meyer and Land, quoted in Didau, p.161