How can curiosity, pupil choice and independent thinking be developed as part of a knowledge-rich curriculum?

A criticism of schools choosing to teach a knowledge-rich curriculum is that they are treating children like robots, who they bombard with dry facts, rather than developing children’s curiosity. It is often assumed that in these schools, children will have no say in what they are learning and will lack independence of thought, as teachers are simply filling their heads with information which they must learn by heart and parrot back. But as a teacher in such a school, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

I’m going to outline some of the ways in which I develop children’s curiosity and allow them to have input into what they are learning, as I feel that these strategies play an important part in keeping children engaged with their learning. I expect that you will already be familiar with these ideas – the purpose of this blog is to explain how they can be used while still having a focus on teaching knowledge and ensuring children remember what they have been taught. These are my personal strategies and I’m not claiming to represent all knowledge-rich classrooms, just to provide a case study of how they might look in practice.

One of the most important things I do from the very beginning of each school year is encourage my class to ask lots of questions. I regularly talk to the children about why it’s so important to ask questions, and praise children for doing so. One of the things that struck me when I started teaching in a knowledge-rich school was how much higher the quality of the children’s questions was when it was based on a solid background of knowledge. Their use of full sentences, key vocabulary and learning from previous years when constructing questions really impressed (and continues to impress) me – and this is no criticism of my previous school, as we had done a lot of work on the curriculum, encouraging children to ask questions and be independent learners. It was just even stronger than what I had been used to.

At the end of a unit, my class will be excited about what we are going to learn next. When they find out what the new unit is going to be, they will ask questions about the specific content straightaway. One of the ways I help children to feel as if they have some control over what they are learning is that if they ask a question I know I’m going to answer later in the unit, I tell them that we will be learning that later, and then refer back to them by name at the point where the answer arises. Eg. Mary, you asked why Roman roads needed to be straight, and now we’re going to find out the answer to that.

When I’m introducing the new unit, and fielding lots of excited questions, I explain why it’s interesting, how it links to prior learning, why it’s useful, and what I particularly enjoy about it. Knowledge is fascinating, and the teacher being passionate about the learning transfers that passion to the children. Children are excited to learn what happens next even if they haven’t chosen the topic themselves. If equipment is to be used, I will allow them some time to explore and have fun with it before starting – it’s a good assessment tool at the start of the unit and gives an opportunity for me to discuss children’s prior learning with them individually, as well as developing their curiosity about what the equipment is used for.

If children ask particularly good questions, or express interest in a particular aspect of the topic, I adjust planning to include these if it’s possible without distracting from the core content of the unit. Again, I make a mental note of which children were interested in these areas and refer to them by name, or mention that lots of children showed interest in the area we are going to learn about next. eg. I know you were all really interested in Mary Anning on Horrible Histories – today we’re going to learn more about her. This is a really simple way of harnessing children’s natural enthusiasm – I’m sure it’s commonly used in most classrooms and it’s possible to continue to do so, whilst the teacher retains an overview of the knowledge they need to teach during the unit, how long that will take, and how much time there is to add extra details or spend slightly longer on an area of particular interest.

As well as asking questions, I encourage my class to make observations and point out links with prior learning or other areas of the curriculum. This helps them to apply what they have learnt in different contexts, as well as being a good strategy for retrieval practice. They are usually delighted with themselves that they’ve spotted a link which generates excitement and curiosity in the rest of the class who want to see if they can find one too. I use the following displays to make links explicit:

  • A book links display (idea borrowed from Sophie Bartlett @_MissieBee)
  • A curriculum concepts display

The ideas on the curriculum concepts display are all generated by the children – they discuss what each word means to them and any examples they can think of in pairs, then I scribe their suggestions onto the board. If I mention a concept that links to one on the board during a lesson, I will point it out and add the example. If I mention a word that’s on the board, the children’s heads will all snap in that direction and when they’re writing they try to include any vocabulary that’s relevant to the topic. I think they have a connection to the board because it uses their own examples and definitions so it connects the knew knowledge with where they currently are. Sometimes I ask about a word and find that no one really has a clear idea what it means, so I can adapt my planning to include more input on that as a result – it’s a good method of formative assessment as well.

During the unit, if children ask questions that I don’t have time to address in depth, I will praise the question and encourage them to read and find out more about that topic in their own time. I might make suggestions for additional reading – for example, we often read selected pages from a book on www.getepic.com during a lesson, and I encourage the children to read the rest of the book. I have regular non-fiction reading sessions, where the children are allowed to choose from a selection of books I specify. This might be free choice from all the non-fiction books in the classroom and library, or just those on a particular topic linked to what we have been learning. For example, when we learnt about rocks and soils, we had a session where every children chose a book about rocks, had some reading time, shared the most interesting thing they had found out, then swapped books. This is a great way of allowing them freedom to follow their interests at the same time as promoting reading non-fiction for pleasure.

When we write non-fiction, I often allow the children a choice of what to write about within certain guidelines. This might include doing some guided research so that they can find out more detail about an area in which they are particularly interested (eg. writing a non-chronological report about a planet of their choice). Or I may give them the option of using content from a particular lesson, or doing extra research at home if they want to write about a different topic. Again, I’m sure this is something that happens in most classrooms, but it’s worth pointing out that explicit teaching of certain grammatical content and punctuation doesn’t preclude children from choosing the content of the writing in which they apply what they have learnt.

At various points throughout the term, I ask the children what they have found interesting, which lessons they enjoyed and why, and what they would still like to learn. Sometimes this is by sharing with the whole class, and sometimes I ask them to answer in writing. They know I will use this information to plan what we learn next and make sure I’m doing the best I can to help them learn. Although the core content of the lessons may have already been decided, this doesn’t mean that I don’t adapt my teaching based on feedback from the children (in fact I am constantly doing so), and doesn’t mean that there isn’t room to add content in based on children’s requests. They may have already asked these questions, but sometimes giving a more formal opportunity for them to give their feedback raises points I haven’t thought of before. The children know that I value their ideas and will act on them where possible, so they are able to have input into their learning while I, as the teacher, remain the expert who has an overview of the big picture of each subject and the whole academic year.

At the end of a unit, I include a trip or visitor wherever possible. Knowing that this is coming gives rise to lots more questions, and the children are motivated to learn as much as they can in the preceding lessons so that they are prepared to answer questions. They love applying their knowledge in a new context (a topic I wrote about here Curriculum decisions – Using knowledge to create moments of joy – MrsSTeaches on Curriculum (school.blog)).

I aim to create a classroom where there is a buzz around learning, the children are active participants, there are opportunities to question, observe and make connections, and they have freedom to follow their interests. I also strongly believe that a curriculum that is explicit about the knowledge children will be taught, and teaching that includes strategies to ensure children remember this knowledge, are vitally important due to the evidence that shows how knowledge helps children from all backgrounds make good progress (for example, the evidence about how background knowledge affects reading comprehension*). I hope that with this blog, I’ve shown that the two are not mutually exclusive.

*Such as that in Chapter 2 of Willingham’s ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’

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