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What is the curriculum?

“The curriculum is far more than lists of content, tables of teaching strategies and folders of schemes of work stored in ‘the cloud’ or on the school’s shared drive.”

Biddulph, 2017

Topics on this page:

The GA’s curriculum framework | Different curriculum approaches in schools | Investigate your school curriculum | Who decides the curriculum? | Interpreting the national framework for geography | Reading

Introduction

The curriculum is usually described as what is taught in school, but it is more than this. It includes all the experiences of a student in school, not only what is taught. 

You will hear teachers talk about the planned curriculum, which is what schools and departments plan for the students’ learning experiences. As well as the planned curriculum, teachers refer to:

  • The informal curriculum: i.e. the activities beyond the planned curriculum, such as school clubs and visits.
  • The received curriculum: i.e. what students actually learn. Students do not simply acquire knowledge because it is written in a curriculum document.
  • The hidden curriculum: i.e. learning that happens as a by-product of the planned curriculum. For example, students learn how to work in ‘teams’ on fieldwork projects.

All of these are different from the National Curriculum, which is the statutory curriculum set by government.

  • If you want to read further about ‘curriculum’ in general, see Kelly (2009).

Ofsted’s working definition of curriculum is that it is,

‘a framework for setting out the aims of a programme of education, including the knowledge and skills to be gained at each stage (intent); for translating that framework over time into a structure and narrative, within an institutional context (implementation); and for evaluating what knowledge and understanding students have gained against expectations (impact). The curriculum lies at the heart of education. It determines what learners will know and be able to go on to do by the time they have finished that stage of their education.’

School leaders are ultimately responsible for these things, but clearly enormous responsibility falls to those who in practice make the curriculum happen on a day-to-day basis – and this includes geography teachers.

Key reading

  • Biddulph, M. (2017) ’What do we mean by curriculum?’ in Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Association.

The GA’s Curriculum Framework

The GA has produced a framework (Rawling, 2022) for the school geography curriculum (A framework for the school geography curriculum) which sets out the nature of the school subject, its disciplinary foundations and the significant features of geography that should underlie any geography curriculum.
  • Look at this video about this curriculum framework.

Different curriculum approaches in schools

In schools, the taught curriculum generally reflects one of these models:

  • The cultural transmission model. This is a traditional approach (going back to Victorian times) that presents geography as factual knowledge for students to learn.
  • The objectives-led or product model. The learning is tightly prescribed (as objectives) with measurable outcomes. Teaching follows an input-process-output model.
  • The processpraxis models. Teachers and students are engaged with the curriculum content. The process model follows Bruner’s principles of teaching and learning and takes greater account of the students’ role. For example, a geographical enquiry is a process in which students critically examine and explore geographical questions, ideas and issues. The praxis model takes this further through critical engagement and critical pedagogy.
  • Read Biddulph et al (2021) p 34 and Biddulph (2017) pp 35-7 for further information.

In these texts you will have read about the several levels of curriculum planning. At national level, the government plans and revises the geography National Curriculum and requirements for examinations. 

At school level, decisions are made about the design and structure of the curriculum and the teaching time allocated to subjects. There are always intense pressures on the school curriculum – both from the number of subjects seeking their place and from those who would reduce the influence of subjects and focus on general skills.

Ofsted (2019) as a result of research into 23 good or outstanding schools, found

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to curriculum design in these schools. Schools use different approaches, which can be categorised into three main groups:

  • In knowledge-rich schools, the leaders see the curriculum as the mastery of a body of subject-specific knowledge defined by the school. Skills are generally considered to be an outcome of the curriculum, not its purpose. They emphasise big ideas and invaluable knowledge they want their pupils to acquire.
  • In knowledge-engaged schools, knowledge is seen as underpinning and enabling the application of skills, although the latter are often taught alongside knowledge, and school leaders express a desire for both to be developed. Leaders and teachers in these schools do not perceive a tension between knowledge and skills, and instead see them as intertwined.
  • Finally, we identified a small group of schools as having skills-led curriculums. In these schools, the curriculum is designed around skills, learning behaviours and ‘generic knowledge’. Leaders place an emphasis on developing the skills that pupils will need for future learning, often referring to resilience, a growth mind-set and perseverance. ‘

Skills-led approaches such as ‘learning to learn’ and ‘building learning power’ became popular in some schools in the first decade of this century; these were described a ‘twenty-first-century skills’ and ‘life skills’. For a while, these skills were emphasised more than subject knowledge and understanding.

The popular view at the time was that education should fulfil goals related to employability and economic growth; subjects were caricatured as traditional, old fashioned and out of date. 

As you can see from the Ofsted research above, that trend has reversed since the 2014 National Curriculum reaffirmed the role of school subjects and disciplinary knowledge. Today more schools emphasise the importance of knowledge in the school curriculum.

David Lambert (2011) believes that subjects are better thought of in education as:

Stimulating and useful resources which can be organised in such a way as to stir curiosity and motivate worthwhile learning. The learning is described and directed by carefully selected educational goals. The selection is based on what we think education is for, what kind of experiences and encounters pupils should have and where we think the subject resource can take us.

  • Read the paper by David Lambert on Why subjects really matter: A personal view. It was written in 2011 and clearly makes the case why subjects matter in the curriculum; as Lambert says, ‘Pupils cannot be taught simply to think. They have to have something to think about.’
Lambert also suggests that to decide what should be taught in a subject we should ask questions such as:
  • What concepts can be grown and developed within this subject?
  • What knowledge can be acquired and in what way is it known and is useful to know?
  • Which skills can be developed and refined with this subject?
  • How can the subject help us make sense of the world and engage with it more intelligently?
Roberts comments that she finds the debate between the importance of knowledge and concepts on the one hand versus skills and competencies on the other unhelpful. She points out that:

When students are actively involved in investigating geographical questions and issues they necessarily need to develop and use an increasing number of skills (Figure 2.2). Rata emphasised this in writing about procedural knowledge, in relation to a project to develop a “knowledge-rich” curriculum, “students do need these skills as much as they need concepts and content if they are to develop understanding” (2019, p 693).‘ Roberts 2023 p 22.

 Investigate your school curriculum

Study your school curriculum statement, aims and rationale. Discuss this with your mentor and other teachers in the school. Also discuss it with the senior staff in charge of the curriculum.

  • What do they think has influenced the school’s curriculum? What appears to be the dominant ideological tradition that lay behind it?
  • How were the aims developed? What do they mean? Do they influence teachers’ work? Would the teachers like the curriculum statement to be any different, and why?
  • How important are the informal curriculum and the hidden curriculum?
  • If the school is an academy or free school, is the National Curriculum followed -no, in part, yes? What led to this curriculum decision?

Who decides the curriculum?

School leaders have responsibility for overarching decisions about school curriculum structure and there is a wide range of different curricular frameworks within which geography teachers work. Some schools introduced a two-year curriculum at key stage 3, choosing to start GCSEs in year 9, which meant reduced teaching time for geography.

Others organise a topic-based curriculum, particularly for the lower years of key stage 3, with links across several subjects rather than a subject-based curriculum. This requires careful topic choice, if it is to allow each participating subject to select content that will develop its key concepts, approaches and skills.

Ofsted does not report positively on approaches that narrow curriculum experiences, such as two-year key stage 3, or limit the depth of teaching in individual subjects and schools are reconsidering such approaches.

Another important influence on the school curriculum is different ideological traditions.  These, and their impact on school geography, are outlined in Biddulph et al (2021) Figure 2.1 p29. You will also see from this the various influences to the way geography curricula have changed. Not the least of these is political influence, particularly since the National Curriculum was first introduced in 1991.

  • Read more about influences on curriculum in Biddulph et al (2021), Biddulph (2013) and Mitchel (2013).

In 2010 the government in England undertook a major curriculum review of the National Curriculum, GCSE and A levels that emphasised ‘subject knowledge’. They also introduced the English Baccalaureate (Ebacc) so geography (or history) is studied by all students at GCSE; this helped to secure the place of geography in the school curriculum.

The general aims of the National Curriculum state:

‘The National Curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the essential knowledge they need to be educated citizens. It introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said, and helps engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement The National Curriculum is just one element in the education of every child. There is time and space in the school day and in each week, term and year to range beyond the National Curriculum specifications. The National Curriculum provides an outline of core knowledge around which teachers can develop exciting and stimulating lessons to promote the development of pupils’ knowledge, understanding and skills as part of the wider school curriculum.’

This shows the emphasis on subject knowledge, although as Biddulph et al (2021) ask: who decides what is ‘essential’ and ‘best’? It also makes clear that the National Curriculum is not the whole curriculum and there is space for other things. 

However, the above statement does not apply to all schools because, at the same time, the government increased the number of academies and free schools that do not have to teach the National Curriculum.

Although, government clearly stated at the time of the introduction of the National Curriculum that it was not concerned with legislating how the curriculum was taught, subsequent policy has made their intentions clear. 

For example, the Ofsted inspection framework indicates that inspectors want to see that, ‘over a course of study, teaching is designed to help learners to remember in the long term the content they have been taught …’.

The core frameworks for ITT and ECTs also emphasise the importance of memory, students’ mastery of concepts, knowledge, skills and principles of the subject and the explicit teaching of knowledge and skills.

  • Read the thought provoking article by Counsell (2018) which implores us to ‘take curriculum seriously’. She points out that curriculum is all about power and explores carefully the curricular distinction between substantive and disciplinary knowledge.
  • Look at the presentation by Margaret Roberts at the 2024 Geographical Association Conference Geographical questions for all and from all? (Part 2)  that provides a helpful overview of influences on the geography curriculum in practice.

Key reading on the geography curriculum

  • Biddulph, M. (2017) ‘What do we mean by curriculum?’ in Jones, M. The Handbook of Secondary Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Association. Chapter 3.
  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021) Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 4th edition. London: Routledge pp 26-35.
  • Gardner, D. (2021) Planning your coherent 11–16 geography curriculum: a design toolkit. Geographical Association: Sheffield. Chapters 1 and 2.

Interpreting the national framework for geography

In England geography is a separate curriculum subject in education from 5 to 18.  Read Rawling (2020) and Hammond et al (2024) for information about the different curriculum approaches in Wales and Scotland.

The current national framework for geography in England consists of the National Curriculum plus the examination criteria at GCSE and A level. Together they provide better continuity in the content of school geography from 5 to 19 than there was previously.

What is the curriculum diagram

The 2014 National Curriculum in England has been designed as a curriculum of ‘essential core knowledge’ and schools and teachers are expected to take responsibility for curriculum design. 

John Hopkin in Geography (Summer 2013) notes that key stage 3 includes a ‘substantial breadth of content’ but ‘it leaves teachers to make decisions about whether they teach topics in outline or depth, thus creating space for innovation.’  He continues:

‘It is emphatically strong on knowledge and has restored a considerable emphasis on places and on locational and world knowledge … In many respects it is faithful to tradition; its selection of content would be largely familiar to those teaching the subject 50 years ago, with the exception of digital mapping/ geographical information systems. It may be that this gets to the heart of the discipline, but whether it is ‘essential knowledge’ is less clear.

  • Read Rawling, E. (2016) ‘The geography curriculum 5-19: What does it all mean?’, Teaching Geography,
  • Download the extra resources for this article and study these to see the progression in knowledge and understanding from 5-19.
  • Study Figure 3 in the article and read the description on pages 8-9; analyse carefully how subject content and the ‘big ideas’ in geography are sequenced from 5 to 19.

Read about interpreting the geography National Curriculum in:

Once you have read the interpretations of Kinder and Lambert, look again at the 2014 Geography National Curriculum. The knowledge content appears quite disconnected from the current interests of young people. Some of the world issues that could easily engage students, such as climate change, global consumerism, water security, refugees, are absent.

This knowledge-led national curriculum is a high-level framework – a core of essential knowledge – but it should not be the whole geography curriculum. Follow David Lambert’s invitation to interpret it with ‘enthusiasm and verve’ and embark on curriculum making for your school.

The same message of ‘interpreting’ applies to the examination specifications that make up the 14-19 phase of geography education, as Eleanor Rawling (2016) points out:

‘despite the high level of detail at every key stage these documents should be viewed as curriculum frameworks for further development’ …. ’the specific and detailed knowledge of locations, places, processes and environments, listed at all scales from local to global is not just ‘stuff’ to be learned: it is a basis for developing greater understanding of these big ideas of geography which students will build up throughout the key stages.’

Reading

  • Biddulph, M. (2013) Where is the curriculum created? In Lambert, D. and Jones, M. (eds.) Debates in Geography Education. Abingdon: Routledge.
  • Counsell, C. (2018) ‘Taking curriculum seriously’, Impact, Chartered College of Teaching, September.
  • Hammond, L., Quirke, W., Curley, A. and Milne, J. (2024) ‘Geography in the Broad General Education in Scotland: Tensions, opportunities and suggestions for the future, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Hesslewood, A. (2017) ‘Geography against learning?’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Kelly, A.V. (2009) The Curriculum: Theory and Practice. Sage: London.
  • Kinder, A. and Biddulph, M. (2017) The curriculum: a needle in a haystack?, GA Magazine, Summer.
  • Kinder, A. and Lapthorn, N. (2017) Ofsted’s new view of the curriculum, GA Magazine, Autumn.
  • Lambert, D. (2011) Why subjects really matter: A personal view, GA paper.
  • Mitchell, D. (2013) ‘What controls the ‘real’ curriculum?’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Ofsted (2019) Education inspection framework: overview of research (No. 180045) Ofsted.
  • Priestley, M. (2019) ‘Curriculum: Concepts and approaches’ Impact (Chartered College of Teaching) May.
  • Rata, M. (2019) ‘Knowledge-rich teaching: a model of curriculum design coherence’, British Educational Research Journal, 45, 2 pp. 681-97.
  • Rawling, E. (2020) ‘Geography in the Welsh curriculum; a good idea but …, Teaching Geography,Autumn.
  • Rawling, E. (2022) A framework for the school geography curriculum, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition, Sheffield: Geographical Association.