“The curriculum garden…

… In which I was inspired by Ruth Lingard’s post to take Michael Riley’s analogy way too far!”

As someone with responsibility for the History curriculum at my school, I often worry about the quality of what we do. This is no false modesty, there are aspects of our curriculum that really aren’t that good. Michael Riley’s conceptualisation of curriculum as a garden continues to resonate with me nearly 20 years after it was written and in my current curricular garden (and literal garden, for that matter) there are weeds, dead wood and even what can only be characterised as patches of pretty bare earth. I am embarrassed by these areas. I know they aren’t great and I certainly don’t want visitors to see them. I’m hoping nobody tries to deep dive into the paddling pool. This embarrassment usually bubbles up because I have seen someone else do these things ‘better’ on Twitter, read something exciting or talked to a colleague from another school whose curriculum I become immediately jealous of.

Thing is, all too often teacher Twitter resembles the Chelsea Flower Show. In many ways it should, as it’s important to share the best ideas, resources and book recommendations with each other. However it does make me ever-more dissatisfied with my own back yard. The thing to remember here is that real gardens aren’t like Chelsea show gardens. Real gardens have this kind of thing in them…

One day, I saw some of Jerry Brotton’s documentary Maps: Power, Plunder and Possession. It was excellent and I love old maps. So I decided on what I thought was an appealing question: “Did the world get bigger or smaller in the 1600s and 1700s?” The idea was to contrast the discovery of new areas (and thus the world seeming ‘bigger’ to Europeans) with the advancement of communications and transport which in effect made the world ‘smaller.’ Needless to say, it didn’t work, but here is the overview plan, in the interests of getting the whole messy truth out there:


Here was my slide discussing this unit from a KS3 curriculum meeting:


It was a good idea, and could have grown into a decent enough shrub, but in all honesty it died when I tried to take it from the Greenhouse of Nice Ideas and plant it out properly. It didn’t work on its own terms and it didn’t sit well amongst the other more solid shrubs of the Year 8 herbaceous border. It needed replacing. Eventually we had one lesson on explorers in an enquiry about how the British Empire amassed power and wealth. Jerry Brotton didn’t make it. His BBC4 documentary sailed around the world and over their heads. I still love it though.

This problem isn’t isolated to a single scheme of work however. There are others that are in need of pruning, weeding or even uprooting and lobbing on the bonfire. Indeed, some topics in our overall curriculum plan get skipped past each year because we haven’t actually developed any teaching resources yet. The Greenhouse is full of Nice-Idea-from-Twitter seedlings, and one day we might grow some on. That said, I’m not expecting it to be Chelsea, indeed I don’t want it to be. Taken as a full set, all the flower show gardens would have very little coherence. There are bits and bobs in the Greenhouse of Nice Ideas that may never get planted out. I want a garden that is consistently interesting to explore and will bear up to a bit of scrutiny from the neighbours.


Image from page 260 of “The American florist : a weekly journal for the trade” (1885)

So, as Head Gardener, what do I need to do to get things into better shape? If I look at Twitter, I am sometimes left with the impression I should tear it all up, read a dozen history books, then half a dozen edu-books, before crafting the most glorious Eden in the mases of time I don’t know what to do with. Isn’t this what we’re all meant to be doing?

In a word: ‘No!’ Tearing up the whole garden will probably leave me with a muddy wasteland. Instead, I have the services of six superb history teachers to re-plant and maintain what we have. This is what I plan to do:

  1. Double check my long-term dream. What’s the overall plan? What do I eventually want the whole garden to look like? We have come a long way but it is not there yet, despite the brilliant efforts of my colleagues, but I have an end goal in mind.
  2. Ruthlessly prioritise. Our curriculum will never be complete, there will always be areas that flourish and areas that struggle more. However I do want it to gently evolve and mature over time, boosted by the annual early-summer ‘growing season’ of Gained Time. It’s crucial to use this time well, and there won’t be time to dig the whole thing up and grow it all back in one season. What needs doing first? What can be pruned or weeded and made respectable for another year? I will decide on a very limited area to improve, perhaps one 4-6 lesson ‘flowerbed’ per colleague.
  3. Plant my seeds early. If I want colleagues to have the option to read a bit before they plan, they need to start thinking about it now, especially if the lessons are to be ready by September. If they choose to, they may want to read one academic history text, or may read more. Sometime before March we will work out who’s doing what planning in their summer gained time, whether as a pair or individual. The seeds need to be planted before March.
  4. Scrape together all the time I can. Both literal and metaphorical gardens take time. I will find time in department meetings, gained time, any training day time, disaggregated sessions, whatever you have at your disposal. Give as much as you can to your team of planners, especially if this provides an opportunity for collaboration. This is helped by notifying people early; olleagues then have the chance to chip away at it as and when they can.
  5. Keep the conversations going as the plans take shape. We talk to each other as time goes on. Collaborative talk helps identify the compost from the manure. It helps select which bits of the Twitter Chelsea Flower Show you want to take back, and helps you remember that trying to combine all the show gardens together would be a terrible mess.
  6. Let everyone keep on top of the weeding. We share ALL our resources in well-organised electronic and physical folders. This saves time for all, reduces workload and fosters the marginal gains as people tweak lessons over time. It helps keep things well pruned.

Above all, I have to keep reminding myself to make improvements gradually. Good gardening – curricular and literal – requires patience. Sure, lean on your rake now and again to take it all in and dream of what it might be, but keep targeting the bits that need the urgent work and build it one ‘growing season’ at a time.

Finally, remember that everyone’s garden is pretty much the same size, but some Head Gardeners have a bigger team of under gardeners than others. If it’s just you, cut yourself some slack. Some things won’t get sorted in time for this summer, but you can always get the gloves on next year. The old, slowly-grown gardens are the best.

With thanks to Hugh Richards, Head of History at Huntington School in York for running amok with Michael Riley’s metaphor of a history garden! Please do share your efforts at weeding, planting, pruning and watering! @histassoc #OBHD



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