Delivering a knowledge-rich curriculum to a “bottom set” year 9

Jo Black is Lead Practitioner for Teaching and Learning and Head of Biology at JCoSS in North London. Below describes how she encountered the challenge of delivering a knowledge-rich curriculum to an academically poorly performing class.

The Challenges to Face

At the beginning of last year, I started teaching our year 9 bottom set. As with many other classes in a similar context, they came with their issues; both attitudinal and academic. This group as a whole needed more support than most of my other classes. Each student needed a different type of support and so, like with any teacher, I had to learn them quickly. As a class the lack of motivation, both to education generally and Science specifically, learned helplessness, feelings of inadequacy and reputation for poor behaviour across the school all needed to be overcome in order for these students to even start engaging with the curriculum.

The reality for the future in Science for these students is that most of them will have to sit GCSE exams in Science. The Science GCSEs are hugely knowledge rich and there is no real way of getting around this. We also wanted to change their opinion of learning and of Science: I wanted them to have a positive experience learning Science in school and to come away feeling like they had accomplished something. There was an undeniable need for change in order for these students to achieve.

The KS3 Curriculum

Part of our long-term strategic response to these issues was to build a new KS3 Curriculum that would be knowledge-rich, knowledge-focused and geared towards learning over the long-term. Our faculty have worked incredibly hard on it, and have had to change our teaching methods considerably. We started deliberating more carefully about the material to be taught and thought deeply about why we teach things or introduce concepts in different orders and in different ways. We moved away from thinking about learning in a lesson-by-lesson sense, and started thinking about how it could be structured over time and over many lessons: regardless of when the bell happened to ring. The structure of the course was paramount and we mirrored that overall structure with strong routines and structures within lessons. I believe it was these routines and strong overarching structure that led to turning things around for my students.

  • The Mini Quiz

We started using the Retrieval Roulette as the opening to every lesson. The mini quizzes meant that students knew what to expect. With any routine, it became habitual and so the start of my lessons became much smoother and more consistent.

We provided students with a list of the Core Questions on a pink sheet of paper at the start of every topic and students had this to engage with at home. We spoke about the importance of these questions and drew upon them a lot in lessons and I would often tell students to find the answer to a verbal question on the pink sheet in lessons. As well as having the hard copies, students had the roulette sent home as well as a handy ‘how to’ video. They were also given separate pink exercise books in which they could practise doing mini quizzes in at home. I would set these as homework and check that they had completed a certain number of quizzes and made their corrections. These core questions and regular retrieval were a large part of their learning journey.

Unlike with other classes, I couldn’t risk overwhelming these students with huge amounts of content. At the beginning of the year I would tell students at the start of each lesson which questions I was going to test them on, for example saying ‘I will be asking you 5 random questions from question 1 to question 24’. This served to soothe their anxiety in terms of the amount of material they would need to know, but they also had a few minutes during the register and as they were coming in to look at those questions and prime their memories. Students knew to focus on these and they could manage that small chunk. Slowly but surely, they started to get the answers right. They knew I had high expectations of them and they started to believe that they could reach them. For students who were unused to achieving much by way of academic success, the feeling of competence led them to push themselves even further, resulting in a reinforcing cycle of improvement. Over time, the aim of course is for students to be prepared to answer any question taken from any point in the course, but for students like this a structured scaffold to build them to that point was necessary.

  • The Hinge Questions

These questions came roughly in the middle of most units of work. The question was a way of assessing how the students had grasped the unit so far.

Example from the ventilation and circulation unit:

A) List the 4 main structures of the lungs. B) What is gas exchange? C) Describe and explain how the structure of the alveoli makes them good for gas exchange.

The answers to these questions were deep marked in students’ books and feedback was instant and individualised. Students were given a ‘T1’ or T2’ etc. depending on their feedback task. These would include for example:

T1: address all comments on your work.

T2: you have not written all of the correct structures of the lungs. Look at your pink sheet and correct this.

T3: you have not made clear what gas exchange is. Use the pink sheet to help you.

T4: you have not made clear how the structure of the alveoli makes it good for gas exchange. Use the pink sheet to help you.

T5: explain why efficient gas exchange is so important.

Marking was quick and feedback was thoughtful. The ‘T’s were displayed on the board in the following lesson and because of this follow-up tasks were individualised (or at least balanced “individualisation” with marking burden) and easy to employ. Students knew exactly what they meant and got to know exactly where they were in their learning.

  • Small Group Tutorials and General Feelings

With this class being a smaller group, I was able to teach ‘around the table’ for a number of lessons or parts of lessons. I would take a few tables and push them together, and students would all work together, and with me, on the resulting bigger table. I think students felt cared for in this way; they felt part of a Science team and each of them played a role in that. They had a place in learning Science in the school and I really believe it fostered this sense of team spirit amongst the group. This is of course not to argue that this would work with all classes all the time, but with this group it did.

I know that students can say a lot of things that we should often take with a pinch of salt but to hear a student who at the start of the year said to me ‘I don’t know, I can’t do Science’ when asked a question, say to me at the end of the year ‘Science if my favourite subject. Miss, I said a prayer that you would teach me next year!’ certainly points to a change of attitude.

Yes, a lot of it is always down to the individual teacher and the efforts and atmosphere that they create but I certainly feel that the style and structure of the Curriculum allowed me to do this with ease and with support. It is up to the individual teacher to ensure they are talking about the importance of the core questions regularly and to draw upon these in lessons regularly. It is up to the teacher to ensure that students know that the existence of core questions does not mean that there can’t be deep and meaningful discussion on this content in lessons. It does not mean there can’t be extended questioning or elaboration on this in lessons. The core questions represent clean, fluent language which we expect them to know by the end of the course, but they do not represent the sum total of what we are teaching.

Furthermore, as a teacher, the use of Core Questions has actually liberated my classroom practice to focus on deep subject knowledge. Cutting out a lot of ‘discovery based learning’ and other unhelpful activities and replacing it with a knowledge based pedagogy has given me even more time to spend on learning content well and a much greater feeling of success.

The curriculum worked for this class but it needed its adaptations, in the same way it would do with a top set class. It has the scope to stretch higher ability students as well but it needs teacher buy in and the core questions will only have the impact they have the potential to have if teachers are engaging with it by example. There are challenges to overcome with this aspect of the course but I strongly believe in the power of this curriculum and am certainly very satisfied with the outcomes for my class.

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