Each subject curriculum and its associated teaching approaches needs to secure the highest possible quality of education for our pupils.
Four closely-related curricular attributes – scope, rigour, coherence and sequencing – define that quality. These four curricular attributes are the means and measure of strong curricula because they ensure that the subject properly reflects the academic practices, outside of school, to which the subject refers and they ensure that this is organised in the best way to allow pupils to make progress and to thrive in their study of each subject.
In all subjects pupils tackle two closely linked types of content, each dependent on the other. These types of content are known as substantive content and disciplinary content. Each plays a vital part in securing scope, coherence, rigour and sequencing.
1. Substantive Content
This is the substance that pupils learn in each subject – the building blocks of factual content expressed through accounts (stories, descriptions, representations, reports, statistics, source material, commentaries, explanations and analyses) and the vocabulary (concepts, terms and technical language) that enable pupils to move about within their own knowledge. Thus, pupils gain the internal reference points that allow them to recognise the patterns, notice the contrasts, ask the questions and discuss the options that the disciplinary content will demand.
The substantive content of each subject curriculum at West Malling is:
For the scope, coherence, rigour and sequencing to achieve its full benefit for pupils, the substantive content must be taught with ‘high-leverage’ activities, so that pupils think hard about the substance itself, so that they assimilate and retain material efficiently and so that they gain confidence from their fluency in foundational concepts, terms and reference points. In this way vocabulary will become extremely secure, with the range of vocabulary that pupils recognise growing all the time and creating resonance as pupils encounter it again and again, both consolidating that vocabulary and freeing up memory space for pupils to make sense of new material.
2. Disciplinary Content
This is all that pupils learn about how knowledge is constantly renewed in each subject’s ongoing development, outside of school, by its practitioners (historians, geographers, philosophers, theologians, artists). It teaches pupils that the sum of our knowledge is not fixed, that it is constantly being tested and renewed, that there are standards of truth for such renewal. This constant quest for better and better understanding of our world inspires both awe and humility in all of us.
Every time pupils are shown how scientists, geographers, archaeologists and artists have worked together to reach a particular finding, we are all inspired.
The disciplined pursuit of truth, in itself, is also all about values – it depends on them and it fosters them. Society must trust the products of scholarship and scholars must work collaboratively with mutual respect and confidence in shared values such as being honest in all claims, analysing data rigorously and avoiding all forms of exploitation in the pursuit of their goals.
The disciplinary aspect of each subject therefore directly fosters the critical and creative aspects of learning, and these are strengthened by the distinctive demands of the subject. In doing these things, pupils are being introduced to each subject as a long tradition of enquiry, argument and debate. They are being introduced to a disciplined and relentless quest for truth that forms an endless conversation between human beings over time. Armed with growing substantive knowledge and increasingly understanding each subject as a living, breathing, vibrant discipline, pupils are being taught how to take their future place in that ongoing conversation: joining in the arguments, pursuing the enquiries, respecting the efforts of others and judging the results.
How does the wider curriculum support literacy?
The combination of all subjects in the curriculum provides the powerful knowledge that, if thoroughly and securely taught, builds the wide and secure vocabulary acquisition that underpins literacy and all successful communication. We know that pupils only read with the speed necessary for fluency when they have adequate prototypes for abstract words and phrases, and when their densely structured schemata allow them to ‘chunk’ the incoming text for meaning. Vocabulary size is the outward sign of the inward acquisition of knowledge.
Moreover, the types of account that form each subject’s processes and products – its narratives, analyses, arguments – give pupils continuous, focussed practice in reading and writing, both fiction and non-fiction. Pupils’ reading and writing will always be richly grounded in stimulating content in which pupils will be increasingly secure, and always driven by a clear disciplinary purpose.
Every lesson is, therefore, a lesson playing a central part in improving reading, even when a text is not actually being read! The range of reading pupils do in these lessons will be extensive. Pupils’ extended speaking and writing is likewise transformed by the richly diverse vocabulary and the secure, fascinating stories that have underpinned that vocabulary acquisition.