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September 22, 2017

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Turning a philosophy into reality: how can cognitive science inform a knowledge-rich curriculum design?

December 7, 2018

We’ve all heard the old adage ‘knowledge is power’ and I don’t think there are many of us who would disagree with this.  How, though, in the face of pressures of changes to linear examinations, do we turn this philosophy into a reality that best serves our students and gives them the ‘power’ that they need to succeed?


Recently, I’ve had the privilege of engaging in Evidence-Based Education’s ‘Assessment Lead Programme’. Not only has this transformed my thinking about assessment, but, alongside other work we’ve been doing as a Research School, has challenged my thinking around curriculum design. What particularly resonated with me was that true ‘learning’ should have two core outcomes: the long-term retention of valuable knowledge, skills and understanding (beyond examinations, for example) and the ability to apply that knowledge into different contexts or situation. Not because I’d never appreciated knowledge as the platform on which all successive learning rests, but because it inadvertently led me to think deeply about how we design a curriculum that adheres to these core principles faithfully.


Designing a knowledge-rich curriculum is no easy task, yet cognitive science, combined with principles of effective instruction, offers us an entry route into it. The work of Bjork, Karpicke, Roediger, Willingham and Sweller has been particularly influential in this field but how can we translate this into a progressive, knowledge-rich curriculum in schools that is grounded in a strong rationale? It’s too big a question to answer in a mere 500 words of this blog but a strong logic of knowledge sequencing, supported by systematic interleaving and retrieving could be a good place to start.


Before we go any further, sequencing knowledge within the curriculum is of pivotal importance, requiring us to consider very deeply exactly which knowledge and skills are required for achieving excellence in our individual subject domains.  Then, in order to teach the whole effectively, the task becomes how we take each individual complete skill and break it down into its individual parts, staging and sequencing them progressively so they ‘unlock’ deeper understanding by developing extensive and detailed schemas. In a nutshell, schemas are the cognitive framework that assists us in organising and interpreting information by process of assimilation (where new experiences are incorporated in an existing schema) or accommodation (the schema is changed /reorganised to fit the new experience). In order to determine what Sherrington refers to as ‘the optimum knowledge sequence’, we may consider:

  • What knowledge and skills are precursors to subsequent, successive knowledge/skills?

  • Where do these individual milestones feature along a student’s learning continuum?

  • How might the students progress from one milestone to another?

  • How can I ensure that they’ve understood and remembered these things?

With the English departments I’m involved with, we’ve been looking at how descriptive writing is a natural precursor to narrative writing. Effective writers need a repertoire of core component knowledge in order to write: grammar (both word types and syntax); punctuation; an understanding of what constitutes a sentence and vocabulary. Without these building blocks of core knowledge, the act of writing for a specific purpose, employing language techniques, sentence variation or the ability to sustain a mood becomes meaningless.

Though these questions are not exhaustive, they provide a framework for how we might begin to consider how we stage these individual knowledge skills over a number of years to encourage detailed and robust schemas. However, that’s only half the battle: how we design our curriculum so it cultivates automaticity – so students can fluently recall the valuable knowledge/and or skills without placing a strain on the working memory – presents the next conundrum. This, colleagues, will provide the focus of next month’s blog …


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