Curriculum intent: big ideas and larger concepts

Melanie Moore

Melanie Moore

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Caroline talks to Mel Moore, Curriculum Director, about how to successfully thread big ideas or, as Ofsted call them, ‘larger concepts’ through a primary curriculum. We explore the role they play in the curriculum intent stage of planning, and Mel describes the 10 big ideas at the heart of the Cornerstones Curriculum. She also shares her tips for ensuring coherence and connectivity throughout curriculum planning.

Caroline: Welcome to the curriculum, a podcast by Cornerstones Education. Here we discuss all things curriculum plus leadership issues, teaching tips, and much, much more. Hello everyone. Welcome to the podcast. I’m your host, Caroline Pudner. And today I’m joined in the studio by Mel Moore, who’s the Cornerstones author and curriculum director. Today, we’re talking about the importance of big ideas running throughout your curriculum. And here at Cornerstones. I know you’ve been busy in your team identifying ten big ideas that are fundamental to our curriculum. And we’re going to talk a little bit about that today. So firstly, Mel, let’s dive in there and ask what are these ten big ideas?

Melanie: Okay. So, before we get to the what are they, in their grandest sense the big ideas are larger global concepts that we want children to begin to understand and to begin to grow knowledge and experience of by the time they reach the end of their primary education. In terms of how we’ve come to those big ideas, that was quite a big piece of work, a long exercise which we’ve thought very hard and very deeply about. And the place that we started was to look at all of the subjects in the national curriculum, and to begin to seek sort of common, larger concepts that were common to all subjects. And that’s not an easy task because the content of each of the subjects quite clearly has been written by different silos of subject experts. I wonder sometimes how much conversation there was between those different groups because, as you know, some have got a lot of content and some have got very little content. But when you dig more deeply into the programmes of study and into the aims as well, because I think we tend to forget about the aims of the programmes of study, some common themes and larger concepts do start to emerge. The process was about looking at those subjects more deeply and starting to pull out the common, larger concepts and ideas within them. And that’s the process that we went through to begin our journey and identifying those sort of key big ideas.

Caroline: And like you say, that was a hard task, wasn’t it? Because some are more obvious I can imagine than others. You almost have to really step back and look at a subject, say you’ve got humanity as a big idea, I know you’re going to talk a bit more about them but it’s looking for those in all the subjects. They are there, like you say.

Melanie: they are, and some of them are there and some that we found we didn’t go for because we felt others were more important. And we don’t want to have 20 big ideas, we want to have a reasonable number, we want to be able to choose the ones that are most appropriate. And some, like you say, are very obvious. So, significance was one that kind of leaps out off the page in many subjects, and you’ll be familiar with it in terms of historical significance. So significant people, significant events. But also, if you look at art and design and design technology, the programmes of studies for children to study, significant artists, significant movements, significant designers. So, some things like that leap off the page at you, and you have to dig a little bit more deeply in other subjects to find that, but it is there. So, for example, if you say, where is significance in the geography program of study? You have to think, the significance is significance of different places around the world or significant geographical events around the world. So, it’s about maybe looking at things with that lens to find and identify what’s the big idea and how it manifests in each of the different subjects. Some of them are less obvious and less concrete. So, for example, creativity is sort of a lesser concrete concept to identify because it’s not a thing, but it is implicit in lots of different subjects. So, in history, it might say create historical stories or narratives around historical events. In art and design, it might be more obvious because children are creating and making, but even in science, you know, it might not use the word creativity, but then you have to think more laterally about problem solving, investigation, making connections. All of those are skills common to creative practice. So that’s how we identify creativity in science, for example.

Caroline: And if you’re interested in that and you’re listening, you may have heard of the big C little C creativity. So there that little C creativity that creative thinking. And like Mel said, thinking about problems and solving problems is a form of creativity and one that needs to be fostered. So, Mel, where does the concept of big ideas actually fit into good practice on curriculum design?

Melanie: That’s a good question. I suppose the answer is they fit all the way through curriculum design. As I said at the beginning, we’ve set them out in curriculum intent. That’s because they are the larger concepts that we want children to begin to understand. And it’s the ambition of our curriculum, and we want to share that with schools using cornerstones. These are the big ambitions. These are the big concepts that we want children to be able to begin to understand. So, we set them out at the beginning, and we make them very explicit in the intent stage because it gives our curriculum purpose. But also, you would see those running through into the implementation of the curriculum. It refers to that in the new inspection framework. And it does talk about larger concepts being part of the school’s intent, but it also makes reference to them being apparent in curriculum delivery. So, if they are part of the intent of your curriculum, then you need to be able to articulate them and you also need to be able to see evidence of that in the work that the children are doing and the children’s understanding. And then it follows that you would also see them in terms of impact. So, what do children actually understand about significance as a larger concept across multiple subjects? What do children actually understand about the different processes in different subjects. So right throughout I think is the answer to the question.

Caroline: Yeah. And as you say, it has to be throughout because that’s what a successful curriculum is all about, isn’t it? And that’s what Ofsted in their framework have said. If children are developing these concepts, they need to see them happening and for that understanding to build over time. I know you’re going to talk in a minute about how they thread through the entire curriculum. So, Mel, now I’ve wondered if we could actually look at a big idea I noticed on the table in front of you, you’ve got a map of one of the big ideas, humankind. And it shows really clearly how it links and threads throughout all the subjects. I wonder if you wouldn’t mind talking us through that.

Melanie: So, if we just start by thinking of the larger concept of humankind, why that is one of the big ideas and what that actually is. And I should say that each of our big ideas or larger concepts, each has its own quite detailed definition. And our schools can find that on the new platform. So, there’s a very detailed definition. And there’s a much shorter definition which schools can share with children as well. So, I think that’s important because it’s all right just having the word, but it’s important to explain and to give a definition to what we intend that concept to cover. So, humankind I suppose in a nutshell is about human behaviour, the impact, the effect and the cause of human behaviour, but it also covers things like human belief, human relationships, safety, the body. It’s quite broad, as you would expect, what does it mean to be human? And the experiences and notion of being human, and what does it mean? So, what we did from that definition is we then looked at the subjects where that was very relevant. And I would say that the big ideas, we haven’t shoehorned those into subjects where they don’t appear at all.

But what’s quite interesting, and this will come up in this example, is quite often it doesn’t matter, because you look at humankind through so many different subject lenses that actually there are no gaps in the learning or understanding. So, one example I’ll go through in humankind, first, I should ask you, would you expect to see some aspect of humanity, the human body, human behaviour, cause and effect in a subject such as PE?

Caroline: Well, yeah. you would.

Melanie: Yeah. But actually, it’s not there in the programmes of study, which seems like quite an omission. But then actually when we’ve broken it down the human body, the impact, the healthy lifestyle, health and fitness is taught through the science curriculum, and it’s also taught through the PSHE curriculum. So actually, it’s not a gap. It doesn’t become a gap in children’s understanding because they study it and they experience it, and they grow their knowledge and skills through those other two subjects. So, you don’t have to shoehorn it into a subject when it isn’t there. If you can understand what I mean by saying that.

Caroline: I can, andI also think that if you’re a child and you’re doing PE and learning about PE, you’re understanding of humankind through those other subjects in PE, you’re applying your knowledge and your understanding in PE, even if it’s not necessarily stipulated in a lesson or an activity.

Melanie: Does it need to be that? Because when you’ve learnt about, heart rate and taking your pulse and that exercise is good for you and keeping fit is good for you. Then you can apply that, and you can make those links and connections into what you’re learning in PE and why it’s important. Likewise, if you’re learning about healthy lifestyle and healthy diet in PSHE, then again, you’re making another connection and now you’re making a connection across three subjects PE, PSHE and science. So, then children start building these multidimensional webs in which they can build on existing knowledge without having to do pointless activities just because you think it’s a gap. It actually isn’t a gap.

Caroline: No, it develops over time. It’s a schemata. I can see that.

Melanie: So as I say, let’s go back to the map I’ve got in front of me. And yes, people can download this if they want to, I think you’ll put a link to that. So, I’m going to ask you, I’m going to put you on the spot in terms of art and design, what sort of things would you expect to see in in terms of humankind?

Caroline: Maybe the human emotions, brought out through artworks and how they convey. So, something like that.

Melanie: Yeah. And we’ve got that, we’ve got expression. But also looking at the human form, portraiture. So, looking at face, looking at expression, like you say, feeling and mood. So, having feelings and emotions, figure drawing but also in terms of cultural art. So yeah, the great societies, great cultures looking at Greek art or Roman art or Inuit art, which we’ve just been doing some work on. But then, if you take an aspect such as human form. So, we might look at human form in art and design, but we’d also look at that in terms of science, the biology of the body and the senses, feelings, the body hormones. And in geography, we might look at the impact of man on the natural environment, or we might look at human features and how people use human features within a landscape, and how human behaviour affects the landscape. So, all of that big idea breaks down into subjects, into smaller aspects, but the aspects also have commonality across the different subjects as well. So, all the time you’re building this interconnected, multi-dimensional, almost four-dimensional curriculum that continues to reinforce and revisit these larger concepts.

Caroline: I see, and I think I’ve heard you say, it’s like the big ideas are seen through different subject lenses, which is a nice way of putting it, I think, because meanwhile you are developing the disciplines of those individual subjects, which is what you mean by multi-dimensional. You still making progress within, say, art and design, but that big idea of humanity is within that.

Melanie: It’s not airy fairy, it’s grounded in substance. So, the other piece of work that we’ve done is we’ve then matched the big ideas, the subject aspects, or the specific aspects of the subjects to the programmes of study, and we’ve matched them to skills and we’ve matched them to knowledge. So, the big ideas sit almost at the head of the table. But then around that table you’ve also got all the really key knowledge and the skills and the aspects and the programmes of study. So, everything is intricately interconnected and what’s really helped us to do that and to manage that and to check that is the use of technology. So, what we’ve been able to do with our new curriculum platform is build it so that if, for example, you’re a teacher in year three and you want to see how humankind is taught through each subject, which programmes of study it covers, what key knowledge you need to know, you are able to now do that at the click of a button. And that’s something that even two years ago, we weren’t able to do with the curriculum. But technology and functionality is now helping us to help teachers and schools have that better strategic overview of how everything is interconnected.

Caroline: That’s wonderful because yeah, you can literally see humankind being taught. Where is it being taught?

Melanie: Why is it being taught? What’s it helping children to do? So that would be the skills and the knowledge.

Caroline: Rather than collecting in tons of folders looking online, it’s making it much, much quicker. And what about children’s learning. Because there’s obviously a lot about this at the moment about children retaining knowledge over time. The fact that learning is retaining in the long-term knowledge and the ability to transfer it to new contexts. So this feeds in very well into the big ideas. So what are the benefits there?

Melanie: Well, pretty much exactly what you just said, very articulately!

Caroline: Okay, well, we’ll leave that point there then!

Melanie: Just to reinforce it again, it is about that interconnected web where children can revisit larger concepts and aspects of subjects over time in a very well sequenced way. And as we mentioned, being able to see things through different subject lenses to gain a broader and wider and deeper understanding of whichever big idea it is.

Caroline: I think as well, they get progressively deeper over time. So, for example, you’re introducing these big ideas and early conceptual knowledge. But over time, if you can develop a child’s schemata of, say, humanity, then they can see it in different contexts. Then their web of knowledge grows, their understanding grows. And then I think children are more likely to be able to encounter from a teacher a new piece of knowledge that will stretch them, but they can link it in some way.

Melanie: They can ground it in something that’s gone before. And it’s interesting because you’re saying that and thinking about humankind. It just occurred to me there as we were talking, I’m thinking about the notion of power which comes within the human behaviour aspect of humankind. And here is a thread, for example, in year one in our curriculum, children are introduced to the concept of power by looking at the royal family, sovereignty, what it means to be royal, royal duty, royal responsibility. And then throughout, let’s say in year three, they might begin to look at power through tribal in a tribal sense when they’re studying Iron Age, Bronze Age and looking at the rulers and leaders. And then I know in year six we’re just developing a new project which is about conflict and power. So, it’s what you were saying about going to those very deep concepts and understanding of human behaviour and power and how it affects people. But that’s started in a very simple way and progresses throughout the curriculum until, years five and six, you’re looking at those concepts in, in a much more deep manner. But they’ve always got something to build that upon. If that makes sense.

Caroline: It does. And I spoke to Matthew Purvis from Ofsted yesterday and he spoke about how inspectors will want to talk to children. So, they may well get children from year one, year three, year six in and talk about something like what they’ve learned in terms of an aspect, not just frosted. It’s for you for your for your curriculum and your children’s understanding of concepts growing.

Melanie: Yeah. also remember when we looked at tribal rule and how that caused war between different tribes and, and what happened there on a smaller scale. And then, looking at it through World war and conflict. So, it’s also about scale as well as depth of understanding.

Caroline: Yeah. It gets wider. And I know because I’ve got a child at secondary and I know that she and history is talking about why people are doing it and the power struggles. So, if you’ve already got that built in, during primary, then children can encounter all sorts of periods of time. And of course, what’s going on in Britain and Europe now is relevant. And they’ve got more understanding of those concepts.

Melanie: And I should say, I mean, I’ve given you three examples there, but what we’ve tried to do is we’ve tried to put it into every aspect, into every year group. So even I’ve given you three examples of looking at hierarchy in power, they would also come throughout other year groups as well.

Caroline: Yeah. Okay. So yeah I’m thinking there are pitfalls aren’t there. I’ve talked to lots of people about trying to connect curriculum. And in the past people have tried to connect lots of different things and it can become a minefield if you’re trying to connect your curriculum in this way. What are the things to remember?

Melanie: Well, I think the important thing for us was, although we believe in our big ideas and actually, we’ve got something that we really believe in and we really believe is relevant. The place that we started was the national curriculum, and we looked at the subjects very carefully. And like I said, right at the beginning, we unpicked the subjects very carefully and we said, what is being taught? What do children need to know? What do they need to understand? And they helped us build our big ideas. And then we went back and linked all the programmes of study and all the aspects. So that gives it gravitas, that makes sure that the big ideas are there, but they are a vehicle to make meaningful connections across the curriculum.

Caroline: and progression.

Melanie: Yes. It’s really rooted in substance. So, it is about making sure that you are very carefully making sure that you are teaching what is meaningful, what is relevant. And that you’re not just making connections for connections sake. It actually has a purpose. It has intent.

Caroline: Yes. And as we said earlier, that’s the way children learn best anyways. Not through disconnected sets of facts. We’re not talking about children just retaining bags of facts. We’re talking about them adding knowledge to an existing understanding, conceptual understanding. And this is it is very deep work. But if you’ve done it like you’ve done it already with the Cornerstones curriculum, and you’ve got that at your heart of your curriculum, then you can be confident when you’re teaching.

Melanie: And believe me, it’s no easy task. And I’m talking about two, three years worth of work to get to this point. And as you know, we’re just in the process of creating a new capsule curriculum for 2020. And within that, these connections, these concepts are even more tightly knit together. It’s much more streamlined. Um, but believe me, it takes a lot of work. You know, you cannot underestimate how much time and effort it takes.

Caroline: It’s like a tapestry, isn’t it?

Melanie: It is a tapestry. And more than that, it has to be right and you have to make sure, like you said, that you are allowing children to build on knowledge and progress throughout the subjects of the curriculum in a really meaningful, cohesive manner. And yes, it is a very satisfying, but a very big task for schools.

Caroline: Within the big ideas, you can still be very personal to your school, can’t you? Even though they’re rooted in the curriculum.

Melanie: We can. And in our beta testing group at the moment, we’ve got some, for example, church schools who want to have faith as one of their big ideas. Well, we would say that sits within humankind because it’s about human behaviour, human belief. But like I said, the functionality and the technology that we have will enable you to pull that out of your curriculum and make that even more relevant for your school. So, it’s a really good mix of there’s content there. There’s really, really good strong content there if you want it, if you want to adapt it, you can. If you want to make it more bespoke, you can. You know, if, for example, you’re a school that does a lot of eco work, a lot of forest school work, you might really want to focus on the big idea of nature

and maximize that or really, really pull that out of the curriculum. But as I say, the technology now is enabling schools to be able to do that so much more easily than before we had that kind of technology and functionality to use. So that’s fantastic. It is completely adaptable, flexible and very easily made bespoke to any school.

Caroline: Which is what we always want from the curriculum, don’t we? We want schools using cornerstones to know that it can be adopted by them and tweaked and brought to life in so many wonderful ways, which we see already, but with the technology of the online curriculum now. Yeah. So listeners, we’ve come to the end of the podcast now, where can listeners find out more about the big ideas and also about the online platform?

Melanie: There are videos and blogs also on the new platform if people want to read more about it. Schools who don’t use cornerstones who want to find out more, we can do a 15-minute online demonstration of the big ideas and all of the technology and functionality around curriculum design, and obviously that’s completely free of charge, and it will take 15 minutes.

Caroline: And that’s talking directly.

Melanie: Talking directly with one of our teachers. And they’ll be able to go through all of that with you and give you some ideas and show you the tools and the functionality that we’ve got to build that into your own curriculum.

Caroline: That’s good because some heads might want to say, well, we’re going to focus on this. How can it help us do that? So, it’s a two way thing. Okay. Well thanks ever so much Mel. And thank you again, the listener for joining us. We’re absolutely humbled by the growth in the audience for this podcast, which is incredible. So, thank you so much for subscribing. And do spread the word amongst colleagues. It’s always available on our website, and we’re aiming to get out a lot more podcasts each month, bringing you news, tips and other themes in the education world. So, thank you again, the listeners, and we’ll see you next time. Bye for now.