Designing a Science Curriculum: my #rEDRugby talk

On Saturday 9th June, I was lucky enough to attend and speak at my first reserachED in Rugby, hosted at the stunning Rugby School, by the marvellous Jude Hunton. Here, I share my talk with some additional thoughts I didn’t have time to explain. This talk represents my vision for a curriculum.


I find it incredibly exciting thinking and talking about curriculum design! Why? The curriculum is the medium through which we expose our pupils to the incredible narrative of our subject; we take them on a journey where we stop and point to all that is worthy to admire. What’s more, is we can constantly look back and see how everything is connected, how everything joins together in a beautiful wholeness – the appreciation of which only grows stronger as the journey continues. And in this success, achieved through a well-designed curriculum, our pupils fall in love with our subject. We know we have achieved this when our pupils observe the natural phenomena surrounding them, and rather than being satisfied with seeing them as ‘magical’, believe that understanding their underlying science only serves to enhance their beauty.

Teachers have the power to achieve this with their lessons and their curriculum. As the Spiderman saying goes, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ So, today I want to talk about the principles that we can use to harness this responsibility and get the curriculum right.


In thinking about which principles and values should guide our thinking about effective curriculum design, I will make four assumptions.

1) Knowledge is not homogenous in its nature, just as teaching is not a homogenous action.

In other words, just as we should be having subject-specific discussions about the pedagogy of teaching science, our planning should be guided by the nature of the knowledge that a topic consists of.

2) Choose content, then let content determine pedagogy.

Our lesson should not be planned around the activities we want to try. Rather, our lessons should be planned around the content. The adage ‘simplest is best’ is useful here: a simple practice activity will usually help a pupil grasp a new idea better than a whizz-bang one.

3) Methods vary in their efficacy.

It needs to be accepted that some methods of teaching are better – more effective – than others. However, this statement requires that the word ‘effective’ be defined…

4) Effective = helps pupils encode concepts efficiently and durably.

If I can choose a method of teaching that will help pupils understand something more quickly, and will help that knowledge endure in their minds for longer, then I will choose this over another method. This means I favour direct instruction over inquiry learning, for example. It is efficient and makes learning durable.

Barriers to an Excellent Curriculum

1) Time

Teacher juggle several roles, which can mean curriculum design is placed low on the priority list. Setting curriculum as a priority depends on where you as a department are: the largest gains are to be made with strong within-lesson teaching, and strong behaviour systems. A curriculum focus can have the next biggest gains, I think. Why? Because curriculum has high leverage: it has the potential to transform pupils understanding and experience of science. But it requires lots of thinking and time – and time is the first big barrier to an excellent curriculum. The way forward is to cut the hornets (high effort, low impact tasks). The most obvious to me are: centralising detentions, even if within-faculty; having a centralised curriculum; and using whole-class feedback systems, rather than writing individual comments in every book.

Work on your resources as a team, constantly having conversations to refine, re-think and edit your curriculum.

2) Knowledge

How much training do we have in designing a curriculum? How much exposure have we had to a range of curricula? What criteria constitutes an excellent curriculum? The more I read about cognitive science, about psychology, about motivation and about the philosophy of education – the more my ideas about curriculum evolve. My talk today is a culmination of my understanding from all of my reading and discussion about curriculum. I am sure this will develop as I read more. Twitter is also a great source of ideas.

3) It’s hard.

It’s easy to get stuck. But trial and error, critical reflection and lots of within-department discussion is key and can make it easier.  You have to work as a team to improve the curriculum and draw on every teacher’s ideas and experience.

9 Steps/Principles for Building an Excellent Curriculum

STEP 1 – Set Curriculum Aims & Values

Your values colour your curriculum choices. Your opinions and the importance you assign to different parts of your curriculum are personal decisions, influenced by your political views, your experiences, subject expertise and preferences.

The first thing you must decide is what the aims of your curriculum are. These will guide your decision-making. For me, the aims of an excellent science curriculum are…

For my pupils to:

  1. have a strong knowledge and understanding of scientific phenomena;
  2. be able to apply their knowledge to a range of scenarios;
  3. be able to communicate their understanding of science effectively;
  4. become strong readers in science, so they can access texts outside of the curriculum;
  5. Have the choice of studying science beyond GCSE.

An example of these aims guiding decision-making would be point number three resulting in the decision to include lots of explicit writing opportunities to develop fluency in writing scientific explanations.

I leave out nebulous aims such as ‘foster curiosity’ because curiosity is a consequence of having knowledge. I know that if my curriculum results in durable learning, then success, motivation, curiosity and enjoyment will inexorably follow.

STEP 2 – Content selection

Decisions need to be made about which content to include and exclude from the limited time pupils have to study science. It’s important to recognise that time is a limited resource – it forces you to consider opportunity costs and to give priority to high leverage ideas. Content selection is guided by several concepts, including:

a. Substantive vs disciplinary knowledge

The history community has the most developed thinking on this as far as I know – and we have a lot to learn from them.

Substantive: what are the key facts, concepts, phenomena etc that we want our pupils to master?

Disciplinary: what do want pupils to know about how scientists work and how real science knowledge is created, verified and tested? This is usually the ‘Working Scientifically’ part of GCSE specifications.

I’d like to suggest that the disciplinary knowledge in science goes beyond understanding how new scientific knowledge is created; that it also includes understanding how science knowledge can be organised. The organisation of scientific knowledge is fundamental to understanding it better. For example, we can think of Biology at the biochemical level;  the cellular level; at the physioclogical level; at the whole-organism-level and the ecological level. This is analogous to Johnstone’s triangle in Chemistry, allowing pupils to appreciate the level of magnification at which they are thinking about particular facts at a given time (see below). But we can also think about Biology as being orgnaised by its constituent disciplines: genetics; bioenergetics; evolutionary biology – the big ideas! My thinking is, that if we teach Biology explicitly within these frameworks, then we can help pupils to organise the ideas better in their minds. And fundamentally, this organisation is not generic – it is specific to the nature of the biological knowledge being taught.

b. Core vs hinterland

The magnificent blog posts by Christine Counsell on curriculum as a narrative, and the indirect manifestations of knowledge have had a significant impact on my thinking.

Some content is core – fundamental to helping pupils grasp the key content that you want them to learn. But other knowledge – hinterland – are ideas and facts that support the understanding of the core. This knowledge may not appear on the tightly condensed summaries of your curriculum, but knowing the ‘hinterland’ brings the ‘core’ to life – it contextualises it. It might exist as multiple non-canonical examples/manifestations of a principle. Or it might exist as some of the organisational disciplinary knowledge I referred to earlier. When choosing content to include/exclude from your curriculum, think of it like this: are you telling a story, a narrative? Or just a summary of the narrative? Just like a story includes lots of details and sub-plots that add to the experience of the main plot, so should your curriculum include lots of ideas that support the story of science beyond the core knowledge.

I’d love to read examples of competition from Darwin’s Origin of Species with pupils to not only see examples of this concept, but also to expose them to the important scientists that have advanced the field. I’d like to teach examples of adaptation beyond polar bears in the Arctic and camels in deserts – because, well – there comes a greater tacit appreciation of the concept when you go beyond a few canonical examples.

c. Cultural capital

Understanding scientific ideas, knowing about the contributions of scientists upon whose shoulders we stand, and being scientifically literate are essential for fully participating in society. The media is full of scientific (and pseudo-scientific) headlines; science policy debates are common, and articles are littered with references to assumed-scientific knowledge. It thus becomes our duty to give our pupils the knowledge to access and the ability to participate – from a position of knowledge – in these aspects of our society.

d. GCSE specifications

It would be foolish to deny that a key aim of our curriculum is for our pupils to get the highest possible grades. So it’s obvious that the curriculum must cover all of the specification content. However, it is important to remember, in reference to the above points, that doing well in the exams is not just about knowing what is on the specification, but truly having deep understanding of the content contained in the specification. Some knowledge that isn’t explicitly on the specification can be useful for pupils to know. Think hinterland.

STEP 3 – Big Picture Sequencing

Once content has been selected, sequencing is vital! This is your chance to lay out the narrative of science; to make all of the beautiful underlying principles thread together and be explained through a carefully thought out sequence of manifestations.

This begs the question: what are the underlying themes and ideas that thread the scientific disciplines?

I like to begin with plotting the big topics on a page and linking them together with arrows. At the moment, those arrows all mean different things. I’m working on adding words to label the arrows. Some of Biology looks like this:


How some of the big Biology topics link together.

A major theme underlying Biology is the structure-function relationship. Every structural feature helps serve a particular function. This relationship exists at the molecular-, cellular-, tissue-, organ- and organ system-levels. Furthermore, the relationship can be extended to structure-function-adaptation. This is the idea that makes Biology so tantalisingly beautiful: the structure-function relationship persists because it is adaptive – and indeed it exists because it has evolved to be this way, selected precisely because a structure serves a particular function.

By laying out topics like in the diagram above, we can begin to plan how we will make the links explicit within a topic. The beauty of science is seeing how everything links together, so it is important that we as subject experts make these links explicit to our pupils! And that can only happen if we plan to tell this story in our curriculum.

STEP 4 – Identify the Nature of Knowledge & STEP 5 – Fine Level Sequencing

Break down the big ideas into the finest, most constituent parts. What is the nature of this knowledge that you see before you?

Is the knowledge procedural or declarative?
This will lend itself to different methods of instruction and practice. Rosalind Walker has written a masterpiece of a blog on planning different kinds of practice for these different categories of knowledge here. And I give a specific account of this categorisation here.

Is the knowledge you have broken down in front of you a threshold concept?
In other words – a big idea that permanently transforms the way you view other concepts? Niki Kaiser has written some fascinating pieces about what these are and how she teaches them.

Is the idea a general idea or a specific manifestation of a concept?
Recently, I planned a unit on Chemical Changes (reactivity, redox and reactions of metals), and as I was carefully setting out all of the content, I realised that the unit centred around one big principle (electron configuration determines stability), which manifested itself through several examples (various reactions of metals; reactivity series; displacement). I then noticed that other lessons in the unit were simply practice of procedural knowledge used to symbolically describe these reactions (the language of redox, of word, chemical and ionic equations). Johnstone’s triangle – the idea that chemistry can be viewed at the observational, molecular and symbolic levels – was helpful for me to map this out.

Johnstone's triangle

Johnstone’s triangle

So I wrote a map that explained how all of the separate lessons would fit and flow together for this topic:

Chemical Changes Map

At the top: all the prior knowledge required to grasp the new topic. Centre: the main principle underlying all of the lessons. Left: the declarative knowledge that are the manifestations of the central principle. Right: the procedural knowledge that pupils need to master to fluency in order to refer to the ideas on the left scientifically.

Seeing the series of lesson in this way allowed me to thread the principle of ‘stability’ throughout all of the manifestations of that principle in this unit.

Cumulative vs Hierarchical

Some knowledge must be mastered before new knowledge makes any sense. This is hierarchical knowledge. Such knowledge requires layering up – its is imperative that each idea is mastered before moving onto the next.

Some knowledge is cumulative; we can think of it as sitting adjacent to other knowledge. Understanding it does not require mastery of other ideas, and other ideas do not depend on this knowledge.

This distinction is vital for fine-level sequencing: hierarchical knowledge should be taught in a specific order, determined by the content. Which knowledge is essential? Teach that first. Break it down and break it down some more.

Concept map respiratory system

Finer sequencing for a lesson on the respiratory system which links together how the functions of the circulatory system, digestive system and respiratory system converge.

STEP 6: Direct Instruction

As tantalising as the argument, ‘The next generation of scientists will develop only if we let them think like scientists‘ is, we have to accept that our pupils are novices. Inquiry-based learning is not as effective as direct instruction, as Paul Kirschner and colleagues have summarised here.

The highest leverage aspects of direct instruction, or explicit teaching, are:

  1. Clear written explanations (we use self-written textbooks in our lessons)
  2. Dual-coding under the visualiser
  3. Concrete examples and non-examples
  4. Lots of questioning
  5. Modelling and worked examples

If your lessons include lots of these during the instruction phase, your pupils will master the knowledge efficiently.

STEP 7: Deliberate Practice

After instruction, pupils needs practice. And lots of it. The most important factor in deciding the type of practice pupils need to do is the nature of the knowledge. The most common types of practice I use in my lessons are:

  1. Knowledge drills
  2. Comprehension questions
  3. Sequencing facts to generate explanation
  4. Writing practice
  5. Converting between knowledge and diagram
  6. Mind maps

Stripping away the ‘activities’ involving reams of sugar paper, posters on walls and the ‘market-place’ has been revolutionary for my teaching practice. Instead of thinking about complex instructions, pupils only think about science in my lessons. And since ‘memory is the residue of thought’, my pupils remember the science better than ever.

STEP 8: Feedback

Answers = feedback for a lot of science teaching. You don’t need a WWW and EBI in science. Simplicity is key. In lessons asks lots and lots of questions and expect 100% participation.

To check for understanding of more conceptual understanding, MCQs, giving whole class feedback on written explanations, diagnostic quizzes and exam questions are sufficient to allow responsive teaching.

STEP 9: Building Long-Term Memory

It’s all very well having a wonderfully sequenced curriculum, but if pupils forget, we fail in our aims. To help pupils remember durably, we use lots of interleaving – both in terms of referring to prior knowledge in lessons, and doing lots of knowledge drills of old content. This is where making links becomes really powerful: the more links pupils have the more ways they have of accessing the knowledge. So in having a well-sequenced curriculum, we can create a powerful tool for memory: we can help pupils build schema; build a narrative.

And in building a beautiful, large, connected and durable schema, it can be said that our pupils have true mastery of Science.

PDF of my slides: Designing a Science Curriculum

9 thoughts on “Designing a Science Curriculum: my #rEDRugby talk

  1. Pingback: #rEDRugby 1/2 – Teaching Science

  2. I have been working on the idea of finding the narrative line in a math process for a while, but have not yet seen anything like the way you map that out visually. What pass for ‘big ideas’ in math tend to be concept summaries written by and for people who already have a sophistcated understanding of the subject <> rather than as a way to convey nuggets of meaning around which students can organize their learning. Mapping a unit or an entire curriculum as you have here gives the non-specialist a way to make sense of how the parts connect to each other and at the same time fit together into a big picture. Thanks for this.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. An absolutely brilliant blog post. Loving your diagrams and the idea of approaching lesson planning in this very measured way. I shall be re-reading this over the holidays as I think about the new Physics spec I’m writing and KS3 lessons. Many thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: #CogSciSci – an introduction – A Chemical Orthodoxy

  5. Pingback: A model for sequencing in Biology – A Common Biologist

  6. Pingback: Curriculum Links Part 2: Planning A Science Curriculum – CogSciSci

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