Ten takeaways from ‘Symbiosis’ by Kat Howard and Claire Hill

On my original blog, my focus was 10 teaching strategies around certain topics. What I then started doing was sharing ten things I had gained from Edubooks I’ve read. I found these a useful way to record my thoughts from the books I read, and initiate discussions with others who had read the books. Pre-CAG/TAG madness, in Easter, I read this excellent book – more, devoured this excellent book – over a couple of days. I took a lot from it – new thoughts, developed thinking, and, thankfully, some affirmation of some of the decisions I have made around the curriculum we deliver. Here are some of my main takeaways

1: Connecting the curriculum with the classroom

I think the main overarching message of the book, despite all its practical and strategic suggestions, is a campaign for curriculum to be ‘inextricably linked’ to the teachers who deliver it. Howard and Hill argue a pretty strong case for ensuring that teachers can take ownership over their curriculum, for their continuing professional development, as well as to ensure they have a thorough understanding of not only what they deliver, but how and why they deliver it. It’s got me asking some seriously long-term questions of myself. I’m not sure there is a silver bullet with this – we need to re-frame how we think about the curriculum.

2: Whole school leadership

I am not a senior leader, but I read the section on whole school development of curriculum. There is one fundamental idea that I cannot argue with, and that is that senior leaders should focus on development of teacher knowledge. I cannot stress enough how much this has been at the centre of my thoughts over the past year or so, beginning with me buying an English CPD library last year and giving books for teachers to read then share, subscribing to Massolit for the department and then asking teachers to watch videos before meetings, and being seriously aware of my own subject knowledge gaps. I worry that in an effort to improve curriculum, we spend more time on mapping and sequencing and justifying and reviewing (all important, no doubt) – but a curriculum is only as good as the knowledge of the teachers who deliver it.

3: Skills and Knowledge

Nothing frustrates me more than English being defined as a predominantly skills-based subject, or, despite the fact I don’t teach it, other subjects like science being defined as knowledge-based subjects. What’s knowledge without the skills to apply it? But what are skills without the knowledge needed to be a master of those skills? Symbiosis makes this same argument, with the heading ‘There is no dichotomy’ used to explain this. I think it’s a worthwhile excerpt for many teachers to consider: ‘Our curriculum therefore needs to acknowledge the relationship between skills and knowledge’. I also feel we need to deeply consider how we sequence both knowledge and skills – Ofsted’s focus, I have read recently on Twitter, is in knowledge sequencing – but my thoughts now move to skills sequencing, and how this can be done carefully in an English curriculum. It is something I am looking at to begin next year.

4: Types of knowledge

I read a lot of edubooks, but I am yet to see as concise and clear description of all the key types of knowledge as is written in Symbiosis. In 13 pages the following types of knowledge are explained, with examples across a range of subjects. I found this a useful summary, and if you are interested in how different types of knowledge can be planned for in a curriculum, look to this book! Types of knowledge discussed:

  • Core knowledge
  • Hinterland knowledge
  • Substantive knowledge
  • Disciplinary knowledge (including sequencing and recontextualisation)
  • Declarative knowledge
  • Procedural knowledge

5: Knowledge structures

I really enjoyed the discussion of knowledge structures being fundamental to how a curriculum is sequenced. In particular, the discussion over hierarchical structures. When originally sequencing my KS3 curriculum 4 years ago now, and adding in core knowledge, I attempted to sequence the knowledge in the most logical way that made sense for me. This section of the book offered me clarity and enabled me to look back at those decisions, and consider if anything needs re-arranging. It discusses how understanding of prior knowledge is necessary for later learning in certain subjects, and that raises the question, why move on if the knowledge is not learnt? What do we do when students haven’t gained the core knowledge?

6: Threshold concepts

I had heard the term threshold concepts thrown around and discussed, but I’m not sure I ever truly understood them until I read this book. The explanation of threshold concepts, as ‘a gateway to more knowledge and understanding’ and the concrete examples offered has really helped. The explanation of threshold concepts as transformative, irreversible, integrative and bounded further solidified my grasp. I feel like I’ve had a threshold concept moment about threshold concepts. Curriculum inception?

7: Granular Assessments

Over the past two years, with KS4 students, I have started doing ‘Specific Skills Assessments’ – I’ll add some on the resources pages, to explain what I mean. Essentially here my thinking goes back to Daisy Christoloudou’s assertion that learning is like a marathon. I want to assess skills like planning, or just writing a point, and assess all the nuances of those stages of essays, rather than doing the essay and hoping the end product will allow me to know that students can do a range of complex skills. Howard and Hill explain this as granular assessments, as when we assess everything, it is ‘more difficult to home in on the precise areas that need to be reviewed, retaught, and deliberately practised’. When a student misses the point in even a small formative assessment of one paragraph, how can we figure out where they went wrong? If we just assessed evidence selection, we might find out that they still misunderstand how to best select flexible quotations from a text. Head to the resources page to see an example.

8: An argument for workbooks

I introduced workbooks in KS3 4 years ago following an excellent talk from Jo Facer at a ResearchEd in Swindon maybe 5/6 years ago. These have been adapted every year, and have become almost like a text book for each term of work. We currently do not have these in place at KS4, but, the more I consider it, the more I feel it would be ideal. As I read through the benefits of a workbook in Symbiosis, I kept considering this decision. Howard and Hill devote a whole chapter to the power of workbooks, and despite being a massive fan for their use at KS3, we haven’t yet made the plunge for KS4/5. I edge closer now as I re-read my notes from this chapter!

9: Discussions over modelling

A key part of my department’s delivery is modelling. It is something we have worked on for some time, and we have paid careful attention in particular to the processes of live modelling, and how students engage in live modelling. The discussions in this book regarding live modelling, prepared modelling and faded modelling and each of their benefits and constraints, is extremely useful. I think modelling of any kind is far more nuanced and tricky than people realise. I remember as a trainee teacher being petrified when the class teacher suggested I should live model. I am relatively new to faded modelling, but I particularly enjoyed the discussion over this type of modelling and various ways to apply it, and it is something I plan to use more in the future.

10: No endpoint

Finally, the point made that curriculum is never finished is crucial. For a good year or so, minus a few tweaks to resources, I felt my KS3 curriculum was finished – how wrong I was. I have now ensured that I regularly consider the changes needed to curriculum mapping, resourcing, and delivery – sometimes mid-year – as much as possible. What’s more, is that I ensure that the platform is provided for others to offer their recommendations and suggestions, and know that they are ‘custodians of the curriculum’, as is suggested by Howard and Hill.

A reason I loved this book is that I felt that it was far more than just a discussion of curriculum, because, in reality, curriculum cannot see as a separate entity from pedagogy, or leadership, or behaviour. I think it covers so much in such a concise manner that it is a fab book that I would recommend to anyone. Follow Kat Howard and Claire Hill on Twitter, or buy your copy of Symbiosis here.

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