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Curriculum Links Part 1: Underlying Principles

In this blog, we look over some useful reading to consider when planning out your curriculum – what are some of the underlying principles upon which we should start to build. This is partly inspired by Matthew Benyohai’s blog where he discusses disconnect we sometimes see between principles and practices. This list is by no means exhaustive, and we’d love to hear any more of your suggestions. 

In Part 2 (coming in two weeks), we’ll look at some examples of science curriculum planning and how some of the ideas from this blog have been implemented.

Introduction to curriculum thinking 

CogSciSci have previously looked at the science curriculum in the ‘Curriculum In Science Symposium’ in a series of blog posts.

Amongst these great posts, Ruth Ashbee nicely summaries some of the key terminology surrounding curriculum

Ruth also has a blog that summarises why cognitive science should play a role in the way we think about curriculum.

To think about: the specification is not the curriculum, so what should our curriculum be? 

What principles might we base a curriculum upon? 

Some (or all) of these ideas could be considered the foundations upon which to build a curriculum and for each, we’ll present a few excellent blogs to elaborate. 

  • A knowledge rich curriculum 
  • The teaching being driven by the content 
  • Forgetting is a natural part of the learning process 
  • Our working memory has limits 
  • Practice makes permanent 

Knowledge rich curriculum 

The blog posts below discuss the ideas of what constitutes a ‘knowledge rich curriculum’ and why knowledge should be the cornerstone on which to build a robust and challenging curriculum.  

Clare Sealy’s post outlines the different ‘types’ of knowledge and discusses the issue of ‘skills’.

Daniel Willingham discusses how knowledge brings about more knowledge and improves your thinking

Jon Hutchinson examines some of the arguments against a knowledge rich curriculum and argues why they’re wrong

Pritesh Raichura looks at what knowledge should go into a science curriculum as part of the previous CogSciSci Curriculum Symposium

To think about: what content should we include (or not include) in our curriculum? What approach do we take to ‘skills’ and the need for knowledge to be able to perform skills? 

Quality Teaching, First 

With knowledge as our cornerstone, it’s worth thinking from the very beginning about the intersection between the curriculum and the teaching that will take place. These essays by Adam Boxer and Ruth Ashbee are worth having in mind, as they look at putting the subject at the heart of the teaching that will take place, and ensuring that this teaching is of the highest quality.

To think about: how can we present scientific content to students to allow them to see and enjoy it for what it is? How can we ensure that all students are engaged in thinking about the subject and not elements that are not strictly educational? 


How will your curriculum take into account the fact that students will naturally forget material over time? This finding from cognitive science – Ebinghaus’s forgetting curve – needs to be considered carefully and battled consistently.  

Niki Kaiser discusses what makes a memorable curriculum

Adam Robbins explains how Daniel Willingham’s famous ‘memory is the residue of thought’ quote has been implemented in their teaching and learning. Whilst the entirety of this blog isn’t focussed on curriculum, there are some vital points to consider.

To think about: How will your curriculum take this into account? How will you ensure that students don’t encounter material only once? 

Working memory and reducing support over time 

Focussing in towards individual lessons, how is your curriculum going to ease the cognitive burden of the more demanding parts of your subject?  

Adam Boxer’s blog explains his simplified version of cognitive load theory

Greg Ashman looks at the how we can boost student motivation by reducing the cognitive load

Bob Pritchard explains how the whole idea of learning fitting into lesson-sized chunks isn’t the best way to look at things. A curriculum isn’t simply a lesson map. Here Bob shows how that affects his lesson planning

To think about: how will you apportion time across the curriculum to certain topics/units to allow them to be broken down? What aspects of your subject are so fundamental that they need to be thoroughly encoded in long term memory as soon as possible? 

Practice (and performance) 

There are different viewpoints on the important of practice to learning. Important concepts here are that ‘practice makes permanent’ – students are going to remember what they repeat, so we need to sure that they’re practicing getting things right (this is one of the main ideas behind Shed Loads Of Practice – SLOP). 

The learning scientists give a great digest of some of the important findings surrounding practice.

Nick Soderstrom investigates the difference between learning and performance. This is of vital importance to understand. Just because students are getting it right, it doesn’t mean they’ve learnt it.

Adam Boxer talks about the advantages of using booklets, how student practice is incorporated and how guidance is faded over time.

To think about: how can we ensure students are practising the right things? What can we do to make sure students are truly learning and not just performing on the day?  


Curriculum Broader Themes: Embedding Equations Into The Curriculum

Adam Boxer goes into real depth about a way in which to embed equations and formulae into the curriculum to make them more manageable for students and to allow you to carefully build up their abilities.

  • 00:00:00 Welcome and introduction
  • 00:02:00 Outline
  • 00:03:40 What contributes to the challenge of an equation question?
  • 00:08:10 What is the current approach in a lot of schools? And why is it troublesome? What does cognitive science say we should do instead?
  • 00:19:56 How can we embed equations into the curriculum feasibly?
  • 00:22:30 Recall of equations
  • 00:25:45 Understanding what the equation means. Can you understand an equation before seeing the equation written down?
  • 00:26:40 Example of magnification
  • 00:31:45 Example of power
  • 00:42:35 Example of pressure
  • 00:50:00 Example of specific heat capacity
  • 01:02:22 Unit conversions – a long term approach
  • 01:04:38 Calculation systems
  • 01:08:50 Structuring question sets
  • 01:35:05 Summary

Adam mentions the go-bag if you are new to the application of cognitive science to the classroom.

Adam obviously loves his visualiser – this excellent twitter thread gives some of other the benefits of using one. If you would like to see more examples of Adam’s hands under the visualiser, his YouTube channel, Boxer’s shorts, has lots of examples of how he teaches certain topics.

This is the blog post containing the different calculation acronyms and Matt’s blog about the approach of rearranging first.

The CogSciSci module on how to write SLOP is a useful addition to what Adam talks about in the later part of the talk.

Curriculum Chats: Electricity

Previously, we asked on the twitter page which topics in each of the sciences you thought required the most thought in the curriculum. For physics, you (perhaps unsurprisingly) chose the topic of electricity and in the video below, Bill Wilkinson, Ruth Ashbee, Gethyn Jones, and Tom Millichamp get together to discuss just that. Please let us know on the twitter page what your thoughts are: do you agree/disagree with any of the approaches? Has it made you think differently about electricity? Do you have an alternate approach?

You can use the chapters embedded in the video to find any of the specific questions that we discuss (you might need to be on YouTube to actually see them):

  • 00:00 Welcome and introductions
  • 01:08 Why do students find electricity hard and why do teachers find it hard to teach?
  • 05:50 Electricity in the KS2 curriculum
  • 07:30 How do you structure the teaching of electricity in KS3 and KS4?
  • 14:00 The role of the practical in electricity. Do we owe students the chance to experience electricity practicals as a form of cultural capital?
  • 26:10 Series vs parallel circuits
  • 27:00 Static electricity as a starting point?
  • 29:35 Models in the teaching of electric circuits
  • 36:35 The dangers of demos and practicals in electricity
  • 37:31 When do certain models not work?
  • 39:10 The end of models… and getting students to evaluate models
  • 45:10 Building consistency in the teaching of electricity across a department

Below are some links to some of the blogs and articles that we touched upon:

Tom Norris has an excellent blog on the rope model. Gethyn discussed using the rope model in KS3 before progressing to the Coulomb train model in KS4.

Gethyn discussed Engelmann’s ideas of continuous conversion which Tom didn’t even know he was doing when he discussed his approach to making it clear that each loop of a ‘parallel circuit’ draws its own current.

Ben Rogers has a wonderful post on using bar models in the teaching of electricity.

It’s always worth refreshing on the difference between Ohm’s law and V=IR as explained by Science By Degrees.

How do you ensure that teaching in your subject enables pupils to know and remember more?

Ryan Badham (@mr_badham) is a second in charge of Science and an Associate Vice Principal at The Holmesdale School.

How do you ensure that teaching in your subject enables pupils to know and remember more? This question was posed to me by a member of my school’s leadership team and the following blog is my thoughts and opinion on this question.  The below are based on my (hopefully) correct interpretation of the research and from conversations and reading of the excellent work that others have done and any mistakes are my own and not theirs.

I have written the blog in four potentially arbitrary sections as they all overlap. A lot of the information below will be known to most but I thought I’d share it on the off chance it helps even a few people. There is also a link to my KS3 Google Drive that contains the resources discussed below. If I have misinterpreted anything or made any mistakes please get in touch, always willing to learn more.

The 4 sections are:

  • Retrieval practice in lessons – Do Nows, selection of questions in the do now and spaced learning
  • Curriculum design – 5 year curriculum plan, interweaving and cross curricular links
  • Questioning
  • Assessment and assessment design

Section 1: Retrieval practice

Retrieval practice is everywhere in education at the moment and is a commonly discussed technique and it is also one of great importance in ensuring students know and remember more.  Retrieval practice involves recalling something you have learned in the past and bringing it back to mind; it is far more effective than more frequently used strategies such as re-reading. Retrieval practice strengthens memory and makes it easier to retrieve the information later (Barenberg Roeder & Dutke, 2018; Roediger & Karpicke, 2006). Retrieval practice needs to occur a reasonable time after the topic has been initially taught and needs ideally to take the form of testing knowledge, either by the teacher (for example questioning, a test or getting pupils to write a mind map) or through pupil self-testing.

The most common form of retrieval practice consistently applied across my school is the use of low-stakes quizzes in the form of a Do Now. This is a technique from Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion and involves several low-stakes (NO GRADING!) questions at the start of the lesson. This can be based on what students have learnt in the previous lesson  or more usefully in a ‘last lesson, last week, last term’ format.  Knowledge begets knowledge begets knowledge. The Do Now is not simply a technique to settle a class (the original reason it was brought in at my school) or even to ensure that students remember more from previous lessons but can ensure students learn more in a given lesson in my opinion. Another lens through which I have started to view this is ‘The Matthew Effect’ aptly summarised as ‘the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer’. Normally used in discussions over reading, I think it is equally apt in terms of knowledge acquisition and retention. The more a student already knows, the more they can go on to know.

Making new knowledge stick with the velcro of prior knowledge

When teaching or preparing lessons I keep a simplification of this idea in my mind and imagine the knowledge that students should of learnt in the past as Velcro sticky pads and the learning for today’s lesson as a picture frame/poster. Therefore, the more areas of pre-requisite knowledge I can activate during the lesson, the more likely the poster is to stick.

An example of this in practice is shown below.

An example “Do Now”

If retrieval practice is one side of the Do Now coin then the other must be spaced or distributed practice. Studies have shown that students who engage in spaced practice learn the concepts better and also show enhanced understanding—not just memorisation—of how the concepts apply to new situations. Being able to apply knowledge to a new situation is known as transfer of learning and is an important goal of education (Agarwal et Carpenter, 2020). This spaced practice can be enforced through the use of ‘last lesson, last week, last term’ Do Now formats or through the use of retrieval roulettes (Boxer). Spaced practice naturally feels hard for students and can add in a layer of challenge or create a desirable difficulty. Because spacing is hard, it is more effective. Shown below is an example of a year 7 science retrieval roulette. Whilst I love a retrieval roulette, I think they should be used alongside teacher input and the careful selection of questions to activate salient prior knowledge as discussed in the previous section.

Our KS3 retrieval roulette

We have started to implement ‘spaced retrieval’ lessons at KS3. These spaced retrieval lessons take different formats throughout the year and also act as a mechanism of teaching students revision skills. Varied types of retrieval practice have been shown to better allow students to transfer learning from one situation and apply it successfully in another. The next step for me in science would be to ensure that retrieval practice is systematically mapped at KS3. This will allow teachers to know what content their students should be retrieving each spaced retrieval session. The figure below shows the beginning of that thinking. Similar to with the Do Now retrieval practice, I have selected topics that form gateways into forthcoming topics. Damien Benney (  has written a fantastic blog looking at spacing intervals and is well worth several reads.

An example of our year 7 long term plan where we have begun looking at mapping out our retrieval practice.
A year 8 spaced retrieval lesson where students brain dump all the infomation they know.

At the end of our KS3 lessons in science, we have trialled having a mind map (image below) that students incrementally add to and complete as they progress throughout a topic in order to encourage students to start making links between topics. This link making is important at both a teacher level and a student level. Students have still struggled with making those links and still seem to treat lessons as individual units so more work is required here.

Section 2- Assessment

The test-potentiated learning, was first identified by Izawa (1966), who suggested that more retrieval attempts lead to greater potentiation. This study and others like this brought into the light the idea that testing itself is a learning activity. With this in mind, the design of our assessments becomes increasingly important as they are not just a feedback tool for teachers but also produce learning. Assessments are cumulative and therefore hark back to knowledge and skills gained throughout the year, additionally causing students to retrieve this information again. In science, the cold tasks (mid-term assessments) are purely knowledge-based and contain questions direct from a retrieval roulette. Deep Ghataura ( understands far more about this than myself and has written several blogs on the topic and several researched talks.

Section 3- Questioning

Effective questioning is a low effort, high impact technique. The implementation of techniques from Teach Like a Champion have been crucial in raising the standard of questioning in my department. Techniques such as cold call and no opt out ensure that the participation ratio in lessons is high. This ensures that students cannot ‘switch off’ and must remain ready to be asked a question at any time, resulting in as many students thinking about the question as possible and as Dylan Willingham so succinctly put, ‘memory is the residue of thought’. As well as increasing the ‘participation ratio’ in lessons, of equal importance is increasing the ‘thinking ratio’ and can be done using techniques such as stretch it, where the reward for a correct answer is a harder question. For more information on this please see this fantastic blog by Adam Boxer

Another technique that I use is ‘flip the question’. This involves starting with a central piece of knowledge, for example: the chloroplast is the site of photosynthesis. When learning this it is important to elevate it from the base level of rote memorisation and instead ensure this nugget of knowledge has plasticity. Students can regurgitate what they have memorised based on cues but this will not help them transfer that knowledge to unknown situations in an exam. Shown below are the sequence of questions that I use with photosynthesis but this same technique is applicable to far more than just this example.

The chloroplast is the site of photosynthesis
Where in a plant cell does photosynthesis occur?
What is the function of the chloroplast?
What affect would removing the chloroplast have on a plant cell?
Why do chloroplasts contain chlorophyll?
Suggest why sea slugs steal chloroplasts from algae
The Calvin cycle is an important part of the light-independent stage of photosynthesis. Suggest where in a plant cell the Calvin cycle occurs

I think this approach naturally lends itself well to subjects with larger amounts of declarative (factual) knowledge. Being a biology specialist, I find such a technique more useful in biology than physics or chemistry but that could also be due to my greater knowledge within that subject.

Section 4 – Curriculum

In my opinion the sequencing of a curriculum is one of the most important ways that curriculum choices can affect how much students know and remember. In terms of the curriculum, I think two of the most important questions are the what and the when. If you are looking to ensure that teaching enables students to know more and remember more then it becomes increasingly important to know what you want them to know more and remember because, unless that knowledge is explicit, you leave it to the individual teacher’s interpretation which will inevitably lead to inconsistency. We have used Adam Boxer’s idea of core questions to support with this (

Interleaving is an often-misunderstood concept and I know that I am not exempt from that (and have misunderstood it in the past and still might now). Previously, I think I misunderstood it and looked at it on a wider curriculum level where you would teach Topic A, Topic B, Topic A, Topic B which I know think is a misunderstanding of it and instead I think of it now more at a lesson level. For example, when introducing energy at KS3 we look at kinetic energy first. Students will practise calculating kinetic energy, we then move onto gravitational potential energy and now ensure that within our questions we interleave between the two equations to stop students from shallowly knowing what equation to use. This is the purpose of interleaving as it creates desirable difficulties (Bjork & Bjork, 2011) which aids longer term retention and also transfer to novel situations.  

Interleaved calculations

A number of researchers have stated that knowing things makes it easier to learn new things. In designing our new curriculum, we built upon work that had been done previously in the department and ensured the order of units made sense. We aimed to logistically place units in an order that built upon the previous units’ information that would therefore increase the likelihood of students knowing more and remembering more.

Link to KS3 google drive:


Barenberg, J., Roeder, U.-R., & Dutke, S. (2018). Students’ Temporal Distributing of Learning Activities in Psychology Courses: Factors of Influence and Effects on the Metacognitive Learning Outcome. Psychology Learning & Teaching, 17(3), 257–271.

Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). Test-Enhanced Learning: Taking Memory Tests Improves Long-Term Retention. Psychological Science, 17(3), 249–255. (pdf here)

Rawson, Katherine & Kintsch, Walter. (2005). Rereading Effects Depend on Time of Test.. Journal of Educational Psychology. 97. 70-80. 10.1037/0022-0663.97.1.70.

Agarwal, P. K., Nunes, L. D., & Blunt, J. R. (2020). Retrieval practice consistently benefits student learning: A systematic review of applied research in schools and classrooms Manuscript under review.

How can I use spacing in my A-Level class?

We know that by spacing practice over time we can help our students’ retention of core knowledge. What’s not so easy is a) convincing students that this is a good idea and b) actually implementing it in the day to day hustle and bustle of school life. In this blog, Rob King takes us through a fascinating paper on how spacing and massing practice were used to teach learners how to drive, along with the worrying ramifications for road safety. Applying this to the more pedestrian context of the classroom, Rob walks us through a couple of sensible approaches to embedding spacing in the curriculum.

How does cognitive load theory affect teachers?

We talk a lot about the cognitive load that we impose on students and how to get the most out of them without overloading. In this blog, Matt examines how he felt overloaded himself as he worked his way through a difficult explanation – it’s so important that we take this into account so that we can have as much free headspace as possible to be able to adequately and efficiently respond to our students’ performance.

At cogscisci, we love publicising blogs and using them to spark debate. If you have your own blog or have read a blog that you would like us to publicise, please email it to us at We try to frame these blogs as questions, so if you are on social media, please join the conversation with us here by simply giving what you think is a good answer to the question.

How can I use explicit instruction to teach declarative knowledge?

Much of the teaching we do is of declarative knowledge: facts and ideas like what a giant ionic lattice is, or the parts of the EM spectrum or reflex arcs. Matt Perks has made many valuable contributions to CogSciSci and last year wrote a couple of really good blogs about common pitfalls teachers make when teaching material like this, as well as a really nicely modelled sequence of how to teach reflex arcs. Though he doesn’t use the phrase, Matt’s sequence is a great example of Explicit Instruction: the teacher-led process of gradually building complexity to help students grasp challenging and abstract content.

At cogscisci, we love publicising blogs and using them to spark debate. If you have your own blog or have read a blog that you would like us to publicise, please email it to us at We try to frame these blogs as questions, so if you are on social media, please join the conversation with us here by simply giving what you think is a good answer to the question.

How does a good night’s sleep affect student retention?

We are all probably worried that our students don’t get enough sleep. We are also probably worried that our students don’t remember as much stuff as we would like them to. In this blog, Andrew Watson looks at a simple experiment which tested the relationship between spaced practice and getting enough sleep. Definitely one to send to the year 11 head of year!

At cogscisci, we love publicising blogs and using them to spark debate. If you have your own blog or have read a blog that you would like us to publicise, please email it to us at We try to frame these blogs as questions, so if you are on social media, please join the conversation with us here by simply giving what you think is a good answer to the question.

Why do my students find it so hard to apply their knowledge?

Application of knowledge to another context is one of the holy grails of teaching – it means that your students can take what they have learnt in your classroom beyond the confines of those walls. In cognitive science literature, this is referred to as transfer, and is by now a well-researched concept. In this blog, Rob McEntarffer examins a fascinating paper by cogsci gurus Kirschner, De Bruyckere and Hulshoff on the topic.

At CogSciSci, we love publicising blogs and using them to spark debate. If you have your own blog or have read a blog that you would like us to publicise, please email it to us at We try to frame these blogs as questions, so if you are on social media, please join the conversation with us here by simply giving what you think is a good answer to the question.