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education

Using ‘spacing’ to redesign our geography curriculum

With the introduction of the new OFSTED inspection framework in Sept 2019, my school quickly realised we were not up-to-scratch with certain subjects in our curriculum. When the new curriculum was introduced in 2014, we should have been changing and redesigning our curriculum then, but for whatever reason, we didn’t.

I was tasked with examining the current state of our geography curriculum and asked to try and improve it. It’s probably worth mentioning here that I am no geography expert and that I’m not even a geography subject lead (our actual lead is part-time so I was drafted in to help). I spent an entire day out of class to think about our three Is (intent, implementation and impact) as laid out in the OFSTED framework and how to redesign our curriculum to suit what we wanted.

Our old geography curriculum looked like this:

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We deemed it to be insufficient. There had been no careful thought or planning into it other than to make sure there was haphazard and sporadic curriculum coverage. Our enacted curriculum (the one we were teaching) matched the formal curriculum (the one the government made) rather poorly and only in a rather reductionist and functionalist way. We hadn’t considered that the formal curriculum did not dictate when to teach, how much to teach or even which year group to teach each topic in. Therefore, instead of looking at rainforests in-depth and frequently, they were taught for just the length of a single half-term in just one year group (as seen above). There was no opportunity to draw upon that knowledge later on in their geography learning. This was true for many topics that deserved better, more regular coverage and this was the driving force behind redesigning our curriculum for the better.

Intent – What did we want children to learn and how would we make it rich, in-depth and meaningful? How would our curriculum demonstrate this richness and depth? We concurred that our intent should be that we want the children to understand the world in its vast variety of contexts (rich and poor, hot and cold, northern and southern etc). Our school context is a poor one, in which the vast majority of children do not receive much ‘life experience’. We therefore wanted a curriculum that could provide a wealth of cultural capital, by looking at as much of the world as possible. For example, in meeting the curriculum objective about understanding geographical similarities and differences of a small area of the United Kingdom, and of a small area in a contrasting non-European country, we decided to use Edinburgh as our focus from the UK, rather than London, as our children live there and are already familiar with it. We also wanted children to remember more and would place a greater focus on long-term learning than before. Our previous complacency of using a ready-made scheme had prevented this. We simply assumed that there was great coverage of the curriculum, a lot of drawing on prior knowledge and revisiting of content, when simply, there wasn’t. It was up to us to make sure this was planned out effectively.

Implementation – How were we going to ensure this long-term learning and variety of contexts was covered? The answer to that question was utilising the concept of ‘spacing’ in our curriculum design. For those unfamiliar with this term, ‘spacing’ entails teaching content in depth and then revisiting it at multiple points. Normally, teachers will do this across the teaching of a single unit. At the start of each lesson, they may use a low-stake, retrieval-based quiz that asks children about learning from previous lessons on the same topic. While this is effective, we wanted to negate the previous problem of only teaching something like rainforests for just one term, in just one year group. We therefore applied the concept of spacing to our entire curriculum.

In the younger years, children would start to create their schema of knowledge by looking at things that were familiar to them from the curriculum – e.g. where they are from, where they live and local habitats. We would then revisit these throughout the rest of their time at our school. In reception, children would start to look at the things mentioned above. This would then be consolidated in years 1 and 2, when it was revisited alongside the teaching of seasons, countries and continents and weather patterns.

Coupled with the idea of using spacing, our curriculum also operated on a ‘zooming-out’ model. Children would start by learning about where they live. Children would ‘zoom-out’ to learn about the local area, then another region in the UK, then the UK as a whole, then northern Europe, then North America and so on. The idea behind this was that each new topic provided children with a chance to draw on previously learnt knowledge. When looking at a region of the UK and the UK as a whole, how did they compare? When looking at Northern Europe and North America, were they similar by both being in the northern hemisphere? What was different about them? The other reason for doing this was that it allowed more scope for curriculum coverage. Instead of just learning about rainforests for one topic, children could look at them in every unit. Are there any rainforests in northern Europe? Why not? Is it because northern Europe does not fall on the equator? OK then, what must the climate be like in northern Europe then as it must differ to that of a rainforest?

I also found it useful to look at individual topics and lay out how each one could meet the different curriculum strands, but also to write the rationale behind teaching it in that specific year group at that specific time. This helped to make the spacing effect more readily apparent and maintained that each topic built on the already existing schema of knowledge the children have.

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Our new, working progress curriculum therefore ended up looking a bit more like this:

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Impact – It is still a working progress, but it is far better than what we were previously working from. It is too soon to witness any real impact as of yet, but presumably our children will leave with a much more rich, in-depth understanding of the world than they would have done in the past few years. We left it late and were slow to react, but it’s nice to know we are heading in the right direction.