Curriculum principles, purpose and pedagogy – with Jonathan Lear



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Caroline talks with Jonathan Lear, award-winning Deputy Headteacher, curriculum adviser and author. They discuss Jonathan’s curriculum development work, his thinking on pedagogy, curriculum principles and purpose. How important is school context? How do you build curriculum foundations? Is there a correct sequence for curriculum design? This podcast delves into some of the essential curriculum questions.

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.

Hi everyone. In today’s podcast, I’ll be talking to Jonathan Lear, who is a well-known author, educational consultant, deputy head teacher, and award winning teacher at an inner city primary school in Sheffield. Many of you will know Jonathan through his Twitter handle @GuerrillaEd Jonathan and I will be discussing his journey through curriculum design, the importance of curriculum principles and the role of pedagogy.

Hello, Jonathan. Welcome to the podcast.

Jonathan: Hello. Thanks very much. Nice to be here.

Caroline: Well, I’m very excited to have you here because I’ve been itching to interview after seeing your talk at the Hallam Ed Fest earlier this year in June. And also I’ve read your book, The Monkey Proof Box, which we can talk about later. So I’m so excited to be working with you now on our curriculum event tour. And again, we’ll talk about that in a bit. But first, let’s just dive in there and say many listeners and your followers on social media may know you as Guerrilla Ed. So I think first, could you just explain what that stands for and what the meaning is behind it?

Jonathan: Yeah, definitely. The title of my first book was Guerrilla Teaching, and really that came from as a young teacher, just really getting sick of doing as I was told I suppose. I’ve been teaching now for over 20 years, and I first started teaching with the National Strategies and various versions of curriculum since then. And really, I suppose I started ignoring stuff and focusing on what I believe to be important. That idea of being a bit militant to begin with, It was just me in my classroom, I suppose. But then I realised that you could be militant as a whole school and all of our work on curriculum is developed from that. So, I was deciding what’s right for our children and then doing it really in spite of what we’re told.

Caroline: And could you tell us about the work you currently do now? What are you working on.

Jonathan: At the moment, I’m having a fantastic time, to be honest. I’m a deputy head at Saint Catherine’s, so I’m completely involved with learning, curriculum. But I also work with a company called Independent Thinking and thanks to them, I get to travel around the country and speak and work with different schools and teachers. I’ve written books. You mentioned the Monkey Proof box. That’s my latest one. And really, I’m loving the new emphasis on a broad curriculum. It’s taken the powers maybe too long to recognise it’s important. But now that they have, it’s exciting.

Caroline: It is, we’re really excited about it here. And it is the essence of education, isn’t it? It’s how you develop your curriculum at school. Now. You’ve developed your own curriculum at Saint Catherine’s School in Sheffield, back when the new national curriculum was brought out. What did you decide would be the purpose of your curriculum there?

Jonathan: I think when we started, we went back to a broad understanding of the purpose of education and the aims of education. There was a book that we’d come across by Gert Biesta called The Beautiful Risk of Education, and it had this brilliant idea in it, this idea of the purpose of education being to do with human flourishing. So, really going back to thinking about what we wanted for our children and when we started those conversations, we realized that the things we were talking about were to do with those young people being knowledgeable, resilient, empathetic, creative, independent people. Some of those things I’ve just mentioned, they they’re a bit frowned on in the current climate. They might be classed as generic learning and thinking skills, but for us, none of that stuff represents the content of the curriculum. It’s about byproducts. I don’t believe you can teach explicitly resilience or creative thinking or empathy, but you can create the conditions for these things to develop. And that’s the risk bit because you can’t measure those things. So, there’s always a temptation just to concentrate on the stuff that you can quantify. But to build a curriculum without these aims for me that’s not education, that’s just production.

Caroline: I think that’ll resonate with a lot of people listening. So, was that back in 2014 that you started working on your career?

Jonathan: Yeah, that’s right. When that draft curriculum first came out, first arrived in schools, that was the start of the work. To be honest, the initial work, the stuff I’ve spoken about so far, the purpose of education, the aims, it’s really important, that stuff, but it didn’t actually take that long. The stuff that took a while is how we then dealt with the content of the curriculum. And that’s when you get into all of the kind of the sequencing and the progression of knowledge, making sure that you’re balancing propositional knowledge, procedural knowledge, that’s the stuff that took a long time. It’s completely essential because that’s the stuff that underpins everything we do, and it’s got to be done rigorously. But it’s a big job.

Caroline: Yeah. And how long roughly did it take you and also I’m interested in who did it at your school because you’re obviously a big part of it. But how many members of staff did you have working on curriculum development?

Jonathan: I think to begin with it was we all worked together, we worked as a staff. So rather than kind of going down the route of working as subject leaders or in subject silos, a lot of the development work we did together. But then that means investing a lot of staff time, a lot of staff meeting time, a lot of development time, a lot of inset, twilight time to kind of get those progressions right. But the benefits of doing that, I suppose, is that you’re all in it together, you all understand the process.

Caroline: Right from the very beginning, those core questions and discussions that you had and then you said you didn’t use subject silos or subject leadership at that stage, but then I assume people had to write the contents. How long did that process take?

Jonathan: Yeah, definitely. We recognize individual subject disciplines. We use a thematic approach, we use projects, inquiry-based learning. But essentially, each of those subjects, they’re different disciplines and they need dealing with differently in terms of the progression and sequencing of knowledge. So, from those beginnings, in terms of understanding the principle of curriculum design, which was done as a staff, then again, there was individual work done. I did an awful lot of work using a solo taxonomy model to develop a mastery approach across the curriculum. We were really interested in getting to the point where we could have conversations around what depth looked like in art and music and history and geography, as opposed to just in English and maths. Again, that took a lot of work and then that work in some cases was given to staff. So, they had that kind of concrete foundation for curriculum and there were aspects of it we then tweaked and kind of developed as we went along.

Caroline: Did it take you a year or more to then finally get to a curriculum that you’re all happy with, or was it less than that.

Jonathan: We’re talking about a number of years here from that starting point. Like I say, that draft curriculum arriving, that was the real beginning of our work on curriculum. Then like I say, it happened over years and we didn’t try to do too much in one go. I think that’s been one of the strengths of the curriculum that we’ve developed. We’ve made sure that we’ve embedded those early principles, we embedded the progressions and things. But again, it takes time, that stuff, I would never say we’re at a point where we have developed a curriculum. It’s still ongoing. We’re still continuing to develop it and look at it. But at this point, we’ve now got to some of the more interesting bits, the bits around pedagogy, the bits around learning, the kind of the enactment of that curriculum, if you like.

Caroline: And it’s getting the content and doing all that groundwork has helped you get to that stage. It’s freeing you up to refine and think about your approach to teaching. Is that right?

Jonathan: Yeah, absolutely. When we first started talking about those broad aims of curriculum, when we spoke about things like creative thinkers, we knew it was desirable. We knew we wanted it, but we didn’t know how to do it. It’s easy to be a creative teacher. It’s easy to have a creative curriculum. But neither of those things necessarily lead to children who can think or work creatively. That’s all about our creativity, so we were interested in exploring that shift. But until we had the foundations of the curriculum in place, you can’t get to that stuff, and you shouldn’t get to that stuff. I think there is a right sequence in terms of curriculum design, and we’ve got to get the foundation sorted first. And then, like I say, we can get to the kind of conditions we create in which we deliver the curriculum.

Caroline: I know, and I’ve talked to you before about that analogy of a building. It’s if you imagine the foundations in place and then you’re adding the refinements to that later, aren’t you? Like you say, it’s a sequence for development of a curriculum. So, Jonathan, you spoke earlier about the purpose behind your curriculum and here at Cornerstones, we’ve spoken and written a lot about having a clear purpose and curriculum principles. I thought just to clarify what we mean by curriculum principles. These are values that a school believes will give children the best chance of succeeding, and what you as a school know to be right given your context. This stage is crucial as it helps a school define and develop their curriculum intent. Each school designs their curriculum differently and has their own curriculum principles. Whether or not you use a curriculum like Cornerstones or as Jonathan has done, his own, you still make it your own. An example of a curriculum principle might be we want our children to experience the challenge and enjoyment of learning, and there are more curriculum principle examples on our website. I wondered, Jonathan, what you feel about curriculum principles and what principles were behind your own curriculum at Saint Catherine’s?

Jonathan: I think it’s interesting because there are some things that actually are just shared amongst all schools up and down the country. And interestingly, one of the things that if I’m speaking to groups and we’re talking about purpose of education, one of the things we go back to is trying to identify what those core things are in terms of what it is we want for young people. One of the ways in which we do that is there’s an image of a signpost that is in my first book, Guerrilla Teaching, and it’s just a signpost on a roundabout near Lake Windermere in the Lake District. But it’s got these five symbols on, and we use the signpost to kind of think about the five symbols that would represent what we want for our young people and frequently with groups of teachers, leaders, TAs up and down the country, whether they’re working in early years in primary, even through to secondary, there tends to be one symbol that gets put on a signpost first by anyone in actively involved in working with young people. And it’s a smiley face. It’s the idea that we want our kids to be happy. Like I say, there is just some universal stuff. But then beyond that, you can get some variation, which is interesting because that’s when the purpose of curriculum starts to be rooted in context, in the context of your particular community, the kids that you’re serving. And again, for us, in terms of context, that was massively important to us when we started thinking about curriculum design.

We’re in a very particular situation, our school, we’re in inner city Sheffield, Pitsmoor, Burngreave area. We’re an incredibly diverse school. We’ve got about 43 different languages spoken across school. We’re in an area of high deprivation. It’s a really interesting and challenging place to work. And whatever curriculum we set about designing had to be the curriculum for our children, for our families. We wanted a model that created aspirational opportunities for our children. We wanted them to have the chance to work on authentic projects, to work alongside experts and professionals, to be able to exhibit their work publicly. We wanted really high standards for those children, and we’ve had projects where they’ve done it. They’ve worked alongside costume designers from the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield to design their own costumes. We’ve had classes who’ve worked with engineers from Rolls-Royce in Derby to create professional blueprints. Some of our year fours worked with the Sheffield Wildlife Trust to create a pond in the school grounds, and we want our children to have as many experiences as possible as they move through school, really, just so they get a sense of what’s out there, of what’s possible.

Caroline: So you’ve really tailored it, haven’t you? You’ve really thought about Saint Catherine’s and the community and also using Sheffield and the resources available. I remember hearing you talk about The Crucible. I’m from Sheffield as well, so I just thought that was fantastic use of a local resource and expertise, but rooted in that principle that you had that aim for the children to experience these things and to grow their aspirations as well?

Jonathan: Yeah. I think sometimes you don’t know until you see it or you don’t know until you experience it. If we can have children who by the age of eight have published a book or have worked alongside a range of different experts and professionals, have curated exhibitions, within school or outside of school, then yeah, maybe it does just open eyes. That’s the hope. And again, I have a bit of a thing about careers education in this country. I think it’s a bit rubbish if I’m honest. If I think about my experiences as a young lad growing up in the northeast the career pathways that were offered to me were limited. I think I sat in front of a computer and completed some careers questionnaire. it’s just ridiculous. At the end of it, I must have been there 20 minutes, it just it popped out one career at the end, it wasn’t even a range of careers and it told me I should be a French polisher. It’s phenomenal, it’s just utterly bizarre and I don’t I don’t know whether an awful lot’s changed. I don’t think it’s all right to have a careers day or a careers week or to role some professionals into school once in a while. I think that might work for some kids in some places. But if again, if you’re working in an area of high deprivation or you’re from a working-class community, it’s not good enough. I think what we’re interested in is that drip feeding of aspiration. Let’s get them in early and from the moment they’re in school, let’s have them working alongside these professionals who do things in the real world. And like I say, let’s show them what’s out there.

Caroline: Yeah, absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. And, just moving on now because we’re obviously working together and we’re going to put on these events in coastal locations. And we’ll talk a little bit about that in a minute. But as part of the work that you’re doing with us, you’ve had a look at the tool that we’ve developed, curriculum Maestro. I know you’ve got some thoughts because obviously you don’t use Cornerstones in your school. You’ve developed your own. What do you think of what curriculum Maestro will be able to provide for schools who are maybe at the early stage, like you were thinking about their curriculum principles? What’s your first thoughts having looked at it with Simon?

Jonathan: What I like about Maestro is that it is different. There’s flexibility there and you can make it your own. And if it’s used in the right way, it encourages exactly the kind of conversations that we should be having around curriculum in our schools. It’s funny, actually, because I was in a school earlier this week who were using Maestro, and I was impressed with how they talked about curriculum. It was clear they weren’t just delivering a product. They thought really hard about it and about how to make it work for their particular school, their particular context. The other thing that had helped them was the sequencing and mapping of their curriculum. And whether you do this for yourself, like we’ve done or you use something like Maestro, it’s got to be done. And sometimes having it done for you means you can fast forward to the good bits, the pedagogy.

Caroline: Yeah, I’m really glad to hear that, because that’s the aim of it really is that you can see that sequencing, and it is hard to sometimes identify how aspects develop over time or knowledge and skills. So, it’s really good to hear you’ve seen that. So something I know you’ve written about a lot and I heard you speak at the Hallam Ed Fest about Jonathan, is pedagogy. And obviously if you know Cornerstones, you listening. You know that our curriculum is based on a four-stage pedagogy, and we believe it’s so important to have that. In a wider sense, what is the role of pedagogy, in your opinion, Jonathan, with curriculum delivery or even just in a school? In any school context.

Jonathan: I think really, it’s the bit we need to get to, because it’s the bit that makes or breaks the curriculum. It’s all very well having your curriculum intent and all of your sequencing and your mapping done. But ultimately it boils down to what’s going on in those classrooms and we can’t lose sight of that. So, on the tour, what I’ll be talking about will be pedagogy, it will be about the kind of conditions that we can create for children when we’ve got the structure of curriculum right. Because for me, like I say, that’s the interesting bit in terms of getting into it. So, if we’re talking about things like empathy, things like creative thinking, again, you can’t explicitly teach that stuff, but you can create the conditions or equally, you cannot create the conditions. And that boils down to what goes on in classrooms and what goes on with teachers and I suppose the success or effectiveness of any curriculum is totally dependent on that. The teachers are absolutely key.

Caroline: I’ve read recently actually it was in the Ofsted framework about subject leads; I assume that’s any teacher really in a primary now having a good pedagogical knowledge of subjects, how they’re taught. So, it is something it’s on the radar nationally and I’ve been in schools where they’ve had specific training for teachers on pedagogy. So, I think it’s going to be talked about more and more. Looking at the events now, Jonathan, we’ve got the first one in Grimsby on the 23rd of January and we’ve got seven others and we’ve chosen to do them around the coast of England. I know you were born in Middlesbrough and grew up on the coast. Why do you think the coastal areas are important places to go to and to talk about education?

Jonathan: I think sometimes they’re just left out. You get the big conferences and CPD focused on the big cities and places like that. It’s good to get out and about and try and make sure that everyone’s included. Like you say, I grew up in Middlesbrough in the North East, and there’s challenges in places like that, but they also tend to get a bit of a negative press. It’ll be good to go and find out about the great stuff that’s happening in places like that and support it.

Caroline: Exactly. I know so many schools around coastal areas around Goole and around the Grimsby area that are doing such fantastic work. And it’s about celebrating as well as just going there because sometimes it’s transport, sometimes it’s teacher recruitment. There are issues that these schools face, but when people get together and talk together, talk to other schools and network, great things can happen and are happening. So also, as well as yourself, Jonathan, we’ve also got Simon Hickton, who’s our founder and managing director here at Cornerstones, and he’ll be talking everyone through the six essential steps of designing a successful curriculum. And the other good thing about these regional events is that we’ve invited a school from the area, to come and talk about their own curriculum design journey and the impact it’s having. So, it really is a great free opportunity to find out how to develop and really refine your curriculum in a way that is right for your school while meeting, of course, the Ofsted requirements.

So, we’ve come to the end of the podcast. Jonathan, it’s been really fascinating talking to you. I know you’ve got a lot more to say, and you’re writing an article for our magazine, which is really exciting. Thank you so much for coming in today.

Jonathan: Thanks for having me. It’s been brilliant.

Caroline: So, all the details are on the website. If you’d like to come and listen to Jonathan speak and to find out more about curriculum development, then we really look forward to seeing you there. And thank you ever so much for listening. Goodbye for now.

Here is a list of links to some of the things we reference on the show: