Climbing The Hill

Intelligent Curriculum Design:  What You Need to Know
Categories: Leadership Learning, Curriculum Design

Intelligent Curriculum Design: What You Need to Know

Christine Counsell makes a distinction between substantive knowledge (factual content) and disciplinary knowledge (the broader, contextual manifestation of knowledge, including relational bodies of learning).  This is helpful when considering the concept of intelligent curriculum design, underlining the need to view subject knowledge as both singular and inter-connected.  The relationship between knowledge substance and the associated concepts is important for developing both subject proficiency and deeper learning associations within a wider schema of learning.


Complex systems, including schools, are …. complex. They are composed of elements which act, learn and adapt based on the interaction with other people and the context with which we find ourselves in.  This makes the reduction of curriculum design as a choice between knowledge or skills very misleading.  We need to consider both.  As Sir Michael Barber argued in 2011, knowledge acquisition (K) in itself can be rendered meaningless without thinking skills (T), leadership (L) and, crucially, an ethical framework which underpins the fabric of community (E).  The accumulation of specified bodies of knowledge located within subject domains is critical for coherent curriculum design but will never be enough in isolation.   


Take the theme of fair trade:  without critical thinking, lessons that focus on its merits may lead pupils to the conclusion that buying fair trade goods is the right thing to do.  With critical thinking woven through the substantive knowledge, pupils can examine each concept on merit, considering different opinions and perspectives.  Pupils might go further, comparing how evidence is presented by proponents of fair trade and free trade, considering who benefits most from fair trade, evaluating the ethical issues involved in decision making.  The model below provides a useful planning reference:Slide7

Deep learning is intrinsically linked to the application of thought and making sense of the world around us.  As quoted from Barack Obama, “You'll need the insights and critical-thinking skills you gain in history and social studies to fight poverty and homelessness, crime and discrimination, and make our nation more fair and more free.”  It becomes impossible to separate curriculum knowledge without considering our human desire to reason and construct meaning.  This is the basis of language construction, developed from our innate desire to communicate. Knowledge building is not an end in itself but as much connected to our desire to express thoughts, reason and form attachments with learning.  Infants learn sentences, not because of a conscious, deliberate interpretation of the rules of grammar, but to communicate through collaborative discourse in which the roles played between adult and child are reciprocal.  The relationship between knowledge and application is dynamic. 

When combined, we broaden possibilities for students to deepen learning by the making choices, identifying patterns of emphasis, following enquiry and also challenging perceptions.  Intelligent curriculum design is world centred as well as knowledge rich which places empahsis on schools to teach across substantive and disciplinary knowledge.  This includes:

  1. Responding to a range of questions and developing a balanced argument
  2. Explaining and reasoning, thinking about evidence and making judgements or decisions, e.g. in a role-play or decision-making exercises
  3. Assessing and evaluating information, e.g. distinguishing fact and opinion
  4. Making links between topics, supporting learners to think systematically
  5. Expressing viewpoints, understanding that people have different opinions and engaging with these challenges
  6. Considering different voices and opinions about global themes, e.g. different perspectives on the causes of geo-political uncertainty and the actions people can take to overcome challenges
  7. Being able to change one’s stance about information, e.g. about who will benefit from a development.

The relationship between knowledge substance and the associated concepts can help students connect learning ‘stuff’ with agency. This is what I refer to as ‘affective domain’ - see below.  Slide4

In itself, this ensures learners can interpret knowledge, think more critically about the roots of knowledge but also find patterns and rules, liberating working memory.  This resonates with the work of Gordon Stobbart (author of Expert Learners). He argues deep seeking learners continuously relate ideas to knowledge and experience.  They think critically about evidence to form conclusions and actively form deep associations with learning concepts.  Gert Biesta describes this process as ‘interruption’. See examples:



But it would be wrong to think that both substantive and disciplinary knowledge sit solely within the realm of cognitive domain.  In order to grasp the challenges of intelligent curriculum design, one has conceptualise the separation between curriculum content and pedagogy.  The roots of curriculum construction are found in the epistemology of learning disciplines, rather than pedagogical approaches.  However, one affects the other and influences how we teach curriculum material.  I have tried to articulate this relationship in the table below:Substantive and disciplinary knowledge

So what are the important messages for schools wishing to engage in the concept of intelligent curriculum design?  How should school leaders respond to the opportunities which a new inspection framework provides?  Shared below are some key points for schools to consider.  

  1. Defining curriculum

The definition of curriculum is both broad and complex.  It encapsulates the total structure of organised learning to meet the needs of learners and to achieve the desired aims. This includes:

  • The structure of curriculum framework
  • How curriculum provision is organised, including timetabling
  • How curriculum assessment is used to evaluate learning and plan for new learning
  1. The relationship between curriculum and pedagogy is both distinct and related

The schema of knowledge held within curriculum subjects will undoubtedly influence how it is taught (the pedagogy) and how learning is measured.  However, curriculum design is fundamentally concerned with the domain specific schemata within a subject.  This is characterised as the total body of knowledge.

  1. Substantive and disciplinary knowledge

Intelligent curriculum design means planning for both substantive and the connecting disciplinary knowledge.  The former provides the taught knowledge within an academic framework.  The latter ensures learners forge deep associations between knowledge and its application - in other words the processes which lead to deep internalisation of knowledge.

  1. Curriculum leadership

The leadership of curriculum (as distinct from the leadership of pedagogy) necessitates a shift in thinking at school and system level.  Curriculum leadership includes:

  • How teachers are trained to become curriculum makers
  • How we build curriculum communities deeply invested in both subject and interdisciplinary content in schools and between schools
  • How senior leadership values the process of ‘inputs’ of curriculum design (curriculum making) as highly as the outputs.   
  1. Curriculum communities

Partnerships of schools who take curriculum design most seriously will have a significant advantage in becoming intelligent curriculum makers if they harness their capacity to:

  • Mobilise curriculum knowledge
  • Create networks of subject learning communities
  • Invest in senior leadership curriculum thinking
  • Maximise the potential of school based resources to support learning.

Useful references:

Professor Mark Priestly

Christine Counsell

Gert Biesta

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