10.2: Curriculum design around the big ideas

Time allocation

30 minutes


  • Read the information and look at the examples provided.
  • As you do this, make notes in response to the key questions below.
  • You will need to take the notes with you to your mentor session for discussion with your mentor.

In your notepad – key questions

  1. Why is it important to discuss curriculum design with colleagues and what are some of the ways in which teachers can support each other with curriculum design? 
  2. Why is it important for teachers to balance exposition, repetition and practice of critical skills and knowledge? 
  3. Why should the big ideas of a subject be revisited over time?
  4. What are some of the different ways in which teachers can make explicit links between new content and the core concepts and principles in a subject?

The intended outcomes of this activity are for you to:

Learn how to
Support pupils to build increasingly complex mental models, by:
3f. Discussing curriculum design with experienced colleagues and balancing exposition, repetition, practice of critical skills and knowledge. 
3g. Revisiting the big ideas of the subject over time and teaching key concepts through a range of examples. 
3h. Drawing explicit links between new content and the core concepts and principles in the subject.

Content recap from Year 1

When we think about subject and curriculum knowledge, it is crucial to take into account how pupils learn and develop knowledge. The following list summarises key content from your first year. Read through it carefully to remind yourself about these key aspects of how pupils learn. 

  • Information in our long-term memory is organised into schemata.
  • We can think of these schemata as ‘interconnected webs’ of information.
  • ‘Learning’ is about developing our schema: adding new information, forging new connections and strengthening the existing connections between ideas. 
  • The more complex and interconnected our schemata are, the easier it is to make sense of new, related information.

Building complex mental models

In Block 4, we looked at why subject knowledge is important and how it is constructed. You looked at how understanding builds on prior knowledge and the need to sequence pupils’ learning and address their misconceptions. Much of the focus was on how your knowledge of the subject(s) you teach would support pupils to develop their knowledge.

In this section, we are going to take things a step further, looking at how these basic principles can be used to support pupils to develop more complex mental models

What do we mean by this? 

In one sense, mental models are how we understand the world: they are a representation of how something works. Pupils will develop more complex mental models as they accumulate new knowledge. For example, in Early Years pupils will learn concepts of right and wrong and what rules are. As they gain new knowledge through experience and direct teaching of new ideas in KS2 and KS3, such as morals, rights and responsibilities and eventually citizenship and how the law works, they will develop a more complex mental model related to why we have rules and how and when rules should be applied. As pupils develop a more sophisticated mental model they may behave in different ways, for example understanding that their behaviour can hurt somebody else and so the rule or law needs to be followed.

We will look at how, as a teacher, you can help your pupils develop more and more sophisticated understandings of the main concepts in a subject, returning to them again and again. We will also look at how this process helps reinforce pupils’ understanding by strengthening their schemata. Now that you are becoming more settled and confident in your teaching, you will be able to think more about your longer-term planning, taking a bigger-picture view than you do with individual lessons. 

How do we do this?

You should revisit the big ideas of the subject over time and teach key concepts through a range of examples

It is important to identify the key ideas in a subject. They are the important concepts from which other subject concepts are linked or inferred (Ball et al., 2008), the ones that provide the foundation upon which everything else builds. We know that students learn new ideas by reference to ideas they already know (Deans for Impact, 2015). Mastering the big ideas of a subject will make other knowledge and skills accessible, helping pupils unpick new ideas and think deeply and critically about the subject you are teaching.



A planning meeting

Video type


Short description

Year 5 teaching team (2 teachers) are planning their next term topic on the Vikings.

What should you focus on in this video?

  • What are the key concepts or ideas that the teachers identify in their planning?
  • How do they plan to revisit the big ideas over time?
  • How do the teachers plan to reference what pupils already know?

Video transcript

Teacher 1: I really like the idea of us doing all the practical activities around Viking clothes, food and settlements but one thing I think we really need to emphasise is the theme of invasion. It’s a key concept in history not just with the Vikings and it sometimes gets side-lined with all of the other activities. Understanding the impact of an invasion is really important. 

Teacher 2: I agree. It links to their topic in year 3 on the Romans so maybe we could make a point of asking pupils to think about the Roman invasion and what impact that had on daily life – I’m thinking things like religion as well as clothes. Then we can set an overall objective for pupils to compare the impact of the Viking invasion this term with the impact of the Roman invasion. What do you think?

Teacher 1: Good idea. We will need to think about how to activate their prior knowledge – maybe we can take them to look at the display in the Hall from this year 3? 

Teacher 2: They did a lot of work on cause and effect last term in History so it will be really helpful to continue building on that using the same writing frames and sentence stems. Comparing impact is going to be hard for some of them so we will need to plan carefully around that…

As you established in Block 4, when supporting pupils in mastering these fundamental ideas or concepts it is necessary to be certain they are securely learned. Often this means revisiting these concepts again and again over time, coming at them from different directions. For example, in mathematics place value is a key idea which underpins many other linked topics, such as addition and subtraction. Therefore, place value, once identified as a key idea, would need to be explicitly taught and revisited many times to ensure pupils master this.

This broad and deep understanding of foundational concepts takes time and should be an important consideration in your planning. Look at the table below for ideas on how to do this in practice:

What to do

How to do it

Identify the big ideas of the subjects you teach (these are the key ideas, principles, concepts upon which everything else builds).

Look at resources and consult with more experienced colleagues to answer the following questions:

  • What are the things that will provide a foundation for learning in the subjects you teach and will ‘unlock’ other knowledge and skills? (For example, recognising sentence structures is key to being successful in English as pupils need this to analyse texts and to write effectively themselves.)
  • What is essential for pupils to know and do to be successful in the subjects you teach? (In History, pupils would need to know what ‘bias’ means before looking at sources.)
Make the big ideas the focus of your long-term planning. You want pupils to have a depth of knowledge around the big ideas so that they can access other parts of the subject:


  • Begin planning with the big ideas in mind.
  • Work out where they fit into your long-term plan before anything else.
  • When do the key concepts and principles need to come in the sequence to ensure that pupils are able to access other parts of the subject?
Revisit and repeat these big ideas over time in a meaningful way.

Coming back to these ideas repeatedly is key to making them ‘stick’ in pupils’ minds:

  • Plan when you will revisit the big ideas over time to ensure deep learning.
  • Think how you will assess progress towards real understanding of the big ideas.
  • Use subject-specific language repeatedly. At all phases, pupils can be introduced and inducted into these ways of being in and knowing the world from the subject’s point of view. It will help them to build schema (see Block 2 and 4).  This includes learning the specific, sometimes technical, language of the subject, and applying this language when talking about the subject and learning new, and more complex, things (EEF, 2018).
  • Reduce the cognitive load by scaffolding learning to support pupils in learning the big ideas.
Take a variety of approaches to address the big ideas.

Thinking of different ways of illustrating these big ideas, coming at them from different angles, will help reinforce the concepts:

  • Exemplify the concept in lots of different ways. (In Science you might use atoms to underpin and explain chemical reactions and then in another lesson use them to explain energy. In English you might teach rhythm in poetry through limericks at first and later on look at meter through iambic pentameter.)
  • Use the big ideas to activate prior knowledge. (For example, in History your pupils might already have covered the concept of democracy and you might have a short quiz to activate this prior knowledge before beginning a lesson on human rights.)
  • Create a variety of tasks that ask pupils to use the big ideas. (For example, in Biology you might ask pupils to complete a worksheet around evolution for homework and you might set a paired task to solve a key question around evolution.)

You should discuss curriculum design with experienced colleagues and balance exposition, repetition, practice of critical skills and knowledge

As you explored in Block 4, it is important that you carefully consider how you sequence learning. In this Block, you will be building on your knowledge of sequencing to consider how you balance exposition, repetition of key concepts and skills, and provide sufficient time for pupils to practise critical skills or knowledge. More experienced teachers consider these issues for sequences of lessons.

Read through the following teacher’s explanation of how they think about the key elements in their planning and answer the questions that follow:

Designing a long-term plan adopts many of the same principles as designing a shorter sequence of learning. I start by thinking carefully about what it is I need pupils to know by the end. This allows me to focus on what’s important. I think about how I will test that pupils have learned this information at the end through summative assessment but also how I will assess them throughout. We probably do some sort of rapid quiz most lessons – certainly once a week. This is good for me as I can see what each of them knows, but good for them too as it helps to reinforce the learning. Retrieving what they know helps strengthen their schemata.

I work backwards from the end point, thinking about how I will build pupils’ knowledge and skills to be able to fully understand the key concepts by the end. I consider what the foundational knowledge is that pupils need as the building blocks for learning and map these out, thinking about how I will explicitly teach these. 

I spend a lot of time thinking about the initial presentation of these ideas, and I often write out a version of what I want to say to make it as clear as possible. I always try to find clear graphical versions of what I’m saying to reinforce the message, such as using diagrams or images in order to make abstract ideas as concrete as possible. I also think hard about how to make sure each step of the exposition is clear before moving on to the next bit. If necessary, I will work through a model of the type of task I’m asking them to do, explaining my thinking at each stage.

I plan how I will repeat key ideas and concepts – I know that it is important that pupils have more than a surface-level understanding of these so I know I need to revisit and cover them in a number of different ways. I plan to space this out so concepts are addressed several times and I will assess pupils’ understanding at each point. When I first started, I was concerned that this would be boring for the pupils, but I actually like the challenge of coming at the core concepts in different ways now. I’ve explained to the pupils why we do this – how it helps them to learn.

I plan opportunities for independent practice, such as independent pupil writing. This will have been supported over the weeks of learning by explicit teaching of the concepts and high-quality modelling so that by the time I ask them to do something on their own, they have the tools to do it. When we’re first working with a new idea or skill, I provide really structured practice, making sure I give them lots of guidance and feedback until they have really understood it. For example, after I’ve been through and explained how I would approach a task, we might do two or three more examples with the class telling me how they’d do each step.

In your notepad

  1. How does the teacher ensure that the pupils learn ‘what is important’?
  2. Why does the teacher plan to repeat key concepts?
  3. The teacher describes two different types of practice – what are they?

While you will have built up good experience of planning over the last few months, teachers at every stage of their careers benefit from drawing on the expertise of their peers. In your mentor sessions in this Block, you will be working with an experienced colleague to discuss curriculum design.

You should draw explicit links between the new content and the core concepts and principles in the subject

When introducing a new concept to our pupils, there are five key strategies that we can use to support them in developing strong conceptual understanding:

The flowchart lists five stages in the effective introduction of a new concept:

1) Begin with what pupils already know

2) Provide a clear explanation

3) Use examples to support understanding

4) Take steps to address common misconceptions

5) Plan opportunities for retrieval and spacing.

The following table explains why each of these strategies supports pupils to develop strong conceptual understanding and explains how this could be done in practice.




Begin with what pupils already know (this could include revisiting the big ideas of a subject over time).

When we introduce a new concept, we can help pupils store it in their long-term memory by making explicit links to the big ideas that they are already familiar with. This also supports managing cognitive load (Sweller et al, 1998).

Very often these links will be between the new material and the big ideas of the subject.

  • Review prior learning – ask questions, recap or begin the lesson with an activity which makes pupils think about the related key concepts and ideas.
  • Ask questions explicitly about how the work links to the big ideas of the subject.
  • Preview material – tell pupils what they are going to learn and how it links to what they already know/the big ideas of the subject.
  • Use the curriculum to plan opportunities to revisit the ‘big ideas’ of the subject over time.
Provide a clear explanation.

Although it sounds obvious, it’s important that we consider how we explain a concept. It takes time to plan how to communicate new concepts in a clear, concise and unambiguous manner. Making concepts explicit through carefully paced explanation, modeling and examples can help ensure that students are not overwhelmed (Deans for Impact, 2015).

This will alleviate the potential for future misconceptions or confusion.

  • Provide a meaningful definition of the concept using vocabulary and complexity of language which your pupils understand.
  • Consider the specific qualities or characteristics of this concept that pupils need to be aware of.
  • Decide how you can best communicate these to your pupils, including the use of verbal explanations, concrete examples, demonstrations, models or resources.
  • Build on the explanations you have used in communicating the big ideas in the subjects you teach, e.g. returning to examples or ‘themes’ which you are all familiar with.
Use examples to support understanding.

The simplest way to identify the qualities of a concept is to begin with a concrete example because:

  • It is easier for us to understand concrete ideas than it is to understand abstract ideas.
  • If we illustrate an abstract concept with a concrete example, pupils are more likely to understand and remember it (e.g. ‘scarcity’ by showing how budget airline flights fill up closer to departure).

Most importantly, we should try to provide pupils with multiple examples or representations of an idea, as this will help them to gain a broader and deeper conceptual understanding.

We should also consider including non-examples alongside our examples – this helps pupils to understand the subtle nuances of what a concept is and also what it isn’t.

We can share examples in a range of formats. Our examples might be presented as part of our lesson content or we might provide experiences for our pupils.

Concrete examples:

  • Pictures and illustrations
  • Descriptions
  • Video/audio clips
  • Stories
  • Scenarios
  • Analogies and metaphors. We must remember that analogies are effective only if we elaborate on them, and direct student attention to the crucial similarities between existing knowledge and what is to be learned (Deans for Impact (2015).


  • Direct observation
  • Trip or visit
  • Role play
  • Virtual experience
  • Personal recollections
Take steps to address common misconceptions. When planning an explanation, we need to ensure we think about how we are going to address common misconceptions. Once misconceptions are embedded in the long-term memory, they can be difficult to undo. It is better to address them before or as soon after they occur as possible (Willingham, 2009).

Identify possible misconceptions:

Ask yourself: 

  • What misconceptions might pupils already hold? This could link to their understanding of the big ideas that link to this topic.
  • What do pupils typically misunderstand about this topic?

Ask your colleagues:

  • What common mistakes or errors do pupils make when applying this concept in practice?
  • Who else could I talk to in my team who might have experience of teaching this concept before?

Plan to prevent misconceptions forming:

  • Is there another way of communicating this concept that will reduce the likelihood of misconceptions taking hold?
Plan for opportunities for multiple exposure.

Pupils need to encounter complete sets of information several times in order to fully understand the concept.

The implication here is that we need to find ways to repeat and revisit our explanations throughout a lesson sequence for our teaching to be most effective. We should space practice over time, with content being reviewed across weeks or months, to help students remember that content over the long term (Deans for Impact, 2015).

  • Plan learning so that skills and knowledge are revisited multiple times over the course of a sequence of lessons.
  • Where appropriate to the age and stage of pupils, use a starter activity to expose pupils to content/skills they learned in the previous lesson.
  • Plan for opportunities for pupils to retrieve information. Making this low-stakes and formative will not only help you get a sense of where the class is in terms of their subject knowledge, it will also help pupils to create and be secure in their background knowledge (Bailin et al., 1999). Importantly, it can also support pupils to determine the level of their own subject knowledge, and any gaps. The activity will also serve to reinforce prior learning and provide a starting point for new learning (Coe et al., 2014).


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