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.
Primary curriculum event
We’re excited to announce that Jonathan will be the keynote speaker at our eight free coastal curriculum events in 2020. Book your place.
Caroline Pudner: Hello, Jonathan, welcome to the podcast.
Jonathan Lear: Hello. Thanks very much. Nice to be here.
CP: Well, I’m very excited to have you here, because I’ve been itching to interview you after seeing your talk at the Hallam EdFest 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. And again, we’ll talk about that in a bit. But first, let’s just dive in. So 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?
JL: 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 being kind 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 then various versions of curriculum since then. And really, I suppose I started, like, ignoring stuff and focusing on what I believed to be important. And the idea of being a bit militant to begin with – it was just me in the classroom, I suppose. But then I realised that you could be militant as a whole school, and really all of our work on curriculum has developed from that; that was deciding what’s right for our children then doing it really in spite of what we’re told.
CP: And could you tell us about the work you currently do now? What are you working on at the moment?
JL: I’m having a fantastic time, to be honest. I’m Deputy Head at St. Catherine’s, so I’m completely involved in leading the 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. You know, it’s taken the powers that be too long to recognise it’s important. But now that they have, it’s exciting.
CP: It is, yes. I mean, we’re really excited about it here. And it is the essence of education – how you develop your curriculum at school. Now you’ve developed your own curriculum at St. 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?
JL: I think, when we started, we went back to a broad understanding of the purpose of education and the aims of education, really. There was a book that we’d come across by Gert Biesta called ‘The Beautiful Risk of Education’ and it had this burning idea in it, this idea of the purpose of education being to do with human flourishing. And so I suppose, you know, really going back to thinking about what we wanted for our children. And when we started those conversations, we realised that the things we were talking about were to do with those young people being knowledgeable, resilient, empathetic, creative, independent people. And some of those things I’ve just mentioned, they’re a bit frowned on in the current climate. You know, there might be clusters, generic learning and thinking skills. But for us, none of that stuff represents the content of the curriculum. It’s about byproducts. You know, 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, 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 around these aims, for me, that’s not education, that’s just production.
CP: I think that will resonate with a lot of people listening. So, it was back in 2014 that you started working on your curriculum?
JL: That’s right. When that draft curriculum first came out, first arrived in schools.
JL: Yeah, that was the start of the work. And to be honest, the initial work, the stuff I’ve spoken about so far – the purpose of education, the aims – you know, it’s really, really important, that stuff. 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 sequencing and the progression of knowledge, making sure that you balance propositional knowledge, procedural knowledge, that stuff. It took a long time. And 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.
CP: Yeah. And, I mean, how long roughly did it take you? I’m interested in who did it at your school. So you’re obviously a big part of it. But how many members of staff did you have working on curriculum development?
JL: I think, to begin with, it was that we all worked together. We worked as a staff. So rather than, kind of, going down the route of working with our work in our subject leaders or in kind of subject silos, a lot of the development we did together. But then that means investing in a lot of staff time a lot of staff meetings, subject development time, a lot of INSET twilight time to kind of get in those progressions. Right. But the benefits of doing that, I suppose, is that, like I say, you’re all in it together. You all understand the process.
CP: Yeah, 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 suppose people had to write the content. And how long did that process take?
JL: I mean. we recognise individuals, subject disciplines, you know. We use a thematic approach, we use projects, enquiry-based learning, but essentially, you know, each of those subjects, the different disciplines are dealing differently in terms of the progression and sequencing of knowledge. And so, yeah, 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 the Solo Taxonomy model to develop a mastery approach across the curriculum. You know, we were really interested in getting to the point where we could have conversations around what depth looks like in art and music and history and geography, as opposed to just in English and maths. And again, that took a lot of work. And then that work was, in some cases, it was given to staff. So they had that kind of concrete foundation for curriculum and there were aspects of it were then tweaked and kind of developed as we went along.
CP: Yeah. Did it take you a year or more to, then, finally get to a curriculum you’re all happy with?
JL: So this is, yeah, 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. And 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, you know, 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 when we have ‘developed curriculum’. It’s still ongoing. We’re still continuing to develop and look at it. But I suppose 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.
CP: Yeah. 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.
JL: Absolutely. And you know, when we first started talking about, again, those broad aims of curriculum, when we when we spoke about things like creative thinkers, you know, really, we knew it was desirable. We knew we wanted it, but we didn’t have to do it. You know, 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. You know, that’s all about our creativity. And 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, you know, 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.
JL: And then like I say, we can get to the kind of conditions we create in which we deliver the curriculum.
CP: I know, and I’ve talked to before about the analogy of a building. You know, 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. And 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 they use a curriculum like Cornerstones or as Jonathan has done, his own. You still make it your own and you shape it to support your school. 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 wonder, Jonathan, what you feel about curriculum principles and what principles were behind your own curriculum at St Catherine’s?
JL: 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 the purpose of education – one of the things we go back to is trying to identify what those core things are, I suppose, in terms of what it is we want for young people. And 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. It’s got these five symbols on. And we use a 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 kind of put on a signpost first by anyone 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. And so, 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 curriculum or 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. You know, we’re in a very particular situation, our school, I suppose. You know, we’re in Sheffield, 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. You know, it’s a really interesting and challenging place to work. Whatever curriculum we set about designing had to be the curriculum for our children, for our families. You know, we wanted a model that created aspirational opportunities for our children and 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. You know, 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 4s worked with the Sheffield Wildlife Trust to create a pond in the school grounds. And, really, 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.
CP: Yeah. So you’ve really tailored it, haven’t you? You’ve really thought about St Catherine’s and the community and also using Sheffield and the resources. I remember hearing you talk about the Crucible. I’m from Sheffield as well, so I just thought that was a 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 – and grow their aspirations, was it, as well?
JL: Yeah, I think sometimes you don’t know until you see it – you know, until you experience it. And 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, you know, within school, outside of school, then yeah, maybe it does just kind of open eyes. That’s the hope. And again, I’ve a bit of a thing about kind of careers education in this country, and 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 North East, again, the kind of career pathways that were offered to me – it was limited. I think I sat in front of a computer and completed some careers questions – it’s just ridiculous. At the end of it, I must have been there 20 minutes and it just 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. I know, it’s just utterly bizarre. And I don’t know whether an awful lot’s changed. I don’t think it’s it’s alright to have a careers day or our careers week or to roll some professionals into school once in a while. I think that may work for some kids in some places. But again, if you’re working in an area of high deprivation or you’re from a working-class community, it’s not good enough. And again, I think what we’re interested in is that drip-feeding of aspiration.
JL: I mean, let’s get them in early, and from the moment they are in school, let’s have them working alongside these people, these professionals who do things in the real world and like I say, let’s show them what’s out there.
CP: Yeah, absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. And just moving on now, because we’re obviously working together on where 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. And 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?
JL: What I like about Maestro is that it is different. You know, 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 curricula 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. You know, it was clear they weren’t just delivering a product. They’d 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 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.
CP: 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 EdFest about, Jonathan, is pedagogy. And obviously, if you know Cornerstones and you’re listening, you know that our curriculum’s 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 any school context?
JL: I think really it’s the bit we need to get to because it’s the bit that makes or breaks the curriculum. You know, it’s all very well having your curriculum intent and all of your sequence and 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, 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 almost the interesting bit in terms of getting into it. So, you know, 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 can not create the conditions. And that boils down to, like I say, 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. You know, the teachers are absolutely key.
CP: Yeah. And I’ve read recently – actually, it was in the Ofsted framework – about subject leads. I mean, 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 on the radar nationally. And I’ve been in schools where they’ve had specific training for teachers on pedagogy. So, yeah, 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. And 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?
JL: I think sometimes they just get left out. You know, you get big conferences and CPD focused on big cities and places like that. And, you know, 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 you know, there are challenges in places like that. But they also tend to get a bit of a negative press. You know, it’ll be good to go and find out about the great stuff that happened in places like that and support it.
CP: Exactly. And we know so many schools around coastal areas around Goole and around the Grimsby area are doing such fantastic work. And it is, 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, actually, 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. Right. So we’ve come to the end of the podcast, Jonathan, and 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 to talk to me on the podcast.
JL: Brilliant, thanks for having me.
CP: 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.