06th February 2023
A well-sequenced curriculum is one of the top priorities for primary schools in England and central to Ofsted’s quality of education judgement. Cognitive science tells us that your children can know and do more when your curriculum is well-sequenced, and this is now influencing how learning is planned and assessed.
Sequencing your curriculum is a complex process, and you’ll need to make seismic decisions about what to teach, when and why. This blog answers some critical questions about curriculum sequencing and provides practical tips for getting started.
Curriculum sequencing is the process of mapping out curriculum information so that children can build their understanding of larger concepts over time; new learning builds on prior knowledge as they progress towards the endpoint of your curriculum. In other words, children need to know A before they can understand B. When children know A and B, they can progress to C.
Curriculum sequencing is a 3-dimensional activity; information should be sequenced vertically within year groups, horizontally across key stages and diagonally between subjects. Curriculum leaders should make these 3-dimensional links across subjects whenever possible, for example, when a child needs to know A in geography to better understand B in science.
The process is much more than ordering its granular parts; it is about their relationship and connection. At Cornerstones, we refer to the process of sequencing as developing a narrative; the stories we can tell about a concept or aspect of the curriculum as it progresses to its endpoint.
For the inspectorate, sequencing is a big deal. This becomes even more obvious when reading their claim that ‘There are serious consequences for pupils when a curriculum is not sequenced or designed effectively.’ (School inspection update, January 2019 | Special edition).
In this updated report, the inspectorate points out that a lack of sequencing is a significant factor in creating gaps in children’s learning. Over time, they note that these gaps accumulate and prevent children from gaining the complex skills that depend upon that learning.
In our conversations with schools inspected under the current framework, many report that curriculum sequencing is a crucial line of enquiry for inspectors. This is particularly pertinent for questioning subject leaders during deep dives.
Read more: What to expect from your Ofsted deep dive
Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) suggests that the working memory can hold only a small amount of information at any point in time (Sweller, 1988). This is important to keep in mind when writing your school’s curriculum. It should be sequenced logically to reduce cognitive load, enabling children to accumulate information in manageable chunks so they understand one idea before moving on to the next.
For example, a teacher introducing the concept of the ‘United Kingdom’ will require the children to understand the concept of a ‘country’ beforehand. The teacher can then explain how the four countries of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland united to form the United Kingdom. By sequencing learning where A supports B, B supports C, and so on, we are reducing cognitive load and helping children to learn more effectively.
The benefits of curriculum sequencing have been widely researched, but there is little to explain how it can be done. For a complicated process, this is unsurprising. Here are five practical tasks to help you sequence your curriculum.
Before you can sequence your curriculum, you will need to identify the disciplinary concepts of each subject. In history, you might decide upon the concepts suggested by the Historical Association: cause and consequence, change and continuity, similarity and difference, significance, evidence and interpretation. Establishing the disciplinary concepts for each subject provides the means for selecting and organising your curriculum’s knowledge, skills and content.
Determining skills, knowledge and content will help children to understand each subject’s disciplinary concepts. It is helpful to discuss this with subject leaders and colleagues to brainstorm ideas. It is worth noting that maths, English and science are already sequenced to a certain degree because they are organised in the national curriculum by year group. Subjects like music, art, PE and the humanities are less explicitly sequenced and require more thinking on what concepts are taught and when.
Once you have brainstormed your ideas, you need to turn them into a narrative. This means putting the skills, knowledge and content into a sensible order so that they build incrementally over time to help children develop their understanding. Write your narratives down and ‘read’ them horizontally from A to Z. Ask questions such as, ‘Do they make sense in that order? Does anything need changing? Is this knowledge in the right order? Does this sequence enable children to build on prior learning?’
Figure 1 provides an example of how the concept of climate is sequenced across the Cornerstones Curriculum.
When you have sequenced each strand of every subject horizontally, you will need to consider your vertical sequencing. How many times will children encounter each skill, knowledge or piece of content in any particular year group? Getting the balance right here is crucial. You should not make the curriculum repetitive, but you will need to ensure that there are opportunities for children to revisit learning for retrieval purposes.
Diagonal sequencing between subjects is the most challenging aspect of curriculum sequencing. However, this is a crucial part of the process to ensure that learning makes sense across subjects. To achieve this, you will need subject leaders and teachers to work together to follow the routes of a concept across multiple subjects. First, highlight any multi-disciplinary concepts you have in your curriculum, such as change, significance or evidence, then follow these concepts through each subject and ensure they are well-sequenced across them. For example, take the idea of climate; aspects of this concept can be taught through both science and geography. In that case, you will need to check that the skills, knowledge and content you have chosen are logically sequenced, considering both subjects. Work to adapt your original sequence to ensure this is the case.
Sequencing is essential for an effective, ambitious and knowledge-rich curriculum. It is also a key part of the inspection process. Getting your sequencing right is a challenge that requires a lot of subject knowledge, but you can achieve it with careful thought and a fair amount of trial and error.
If you’re looking for a fully sequenced curriculum that you can personalise to meet the needs of your school, look no further. Here at Cornerstones, we’ve got a fully sequenced primary curriculum supported by thousands of beautifully crafted lesson plans and resources designed by our team of expert curriculum advisers, writers and designers.
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