5: Curriculum and subject knowledge

Session Elements

  • reflection
  • independent planning

Learning Intentions for this session

You will learn that:
3.1 A school’s curriculum enables it to set out its vision for the knowledge, skills and values that its pupils will learn, encompassing the national curriculum within a coherent, wider vision for successful learning.
3.6 In order for pupils to think critically, they must have a secure understanding of knowledge within the subject area they are being asked to think critically about.
3.7 In all subject areas, pupils learn new ideas by linking those ideas to existing knowledge, organising this knowledge into increasingly complex mental models (or “schemata”); carefully sequencing teaching to facilitate this process is important.
3.2 Secure subject knowledge helps teachers to motivate pupils and teach effectively.
3.8 Pupils are likely to struggle to transfer what has been learnt in one discipline to a new or unfamiliar context.


Over the last four weeks, you have been considering how pupils learn through building on their prior knowledge and the roles of working memory, long-term memory (2.5) and consolidation (2.7) within this. You have also looked at how retrieval and spacing practice (2.8) allow the mastering of foundational concepts (3.3) and the potential of worked examples (2.9) in developing this.

In this self-study session, you will begin to apply your understanding of how we learn and move on to considering what pupils learn and why.

Research and Practice Summary

This reading will help you understand some of the theory behind this week’s topic. We will start by introducing some of the key concepts (these are in bold). You will also see some suggestions of how to put these concepts into practice. When using these concepts in your own practice you will need to take account of your pupils’ characteristics, the context of your classroom and the nature of the material that you are teaching.

Critical thinking, transfer and schemata in a values-led Year 6 PE lesson

Rachel passionately believes that PE is a great way to inculcate important life-skills and values in her pupils. She must also keep to the National Curriculum.

As you read this summary, think about how Rachel can use an invasion game lesson to teach her pupils important values that they can think critically about and apply elsewhere.

A school’s curriculum sets out its vision for the knowledge, values and skills that it wishes its pupils to learn. Since the 1988 Education Reform Act, there has been a National Curriculum in England and Wales which specifies the core of what should be covered within the state education sector. At GCSE and A level, the National Curriculum also forms the basis for the specifications written by examination boards. Contemporary curriculum guidance makes clear that schools are expected to go beyond the core curriculum. In particular, schools have a responsibility to identify the specific knowledge, skills and values that will benefit their pupils. At all stages of education, therefore, teachers and school leaders determine the details of what is taught and how this content is sequenced. In order to teach a carefully sequenced and coherent curriculum, teachers need a sound knowledge of the essential concepts, skills and principles of the subject. It is therefore essential that teachers develop and maintain a high level of subject knowledge through initial and continuing professional development.

Subject knowledge encompasses what a teacher knows about the nature of a subject, the appropriate pedagogies to teach that subject and an expert awareness of how that subject appears in the curriculum (i.e. what needs to be taught). A teacher will continue therefore to expand their subject knowledge throughout their career. It is essential to effective teaching, for motivating and inspiring pupils, and for helping them to succeed academically.

You should aim to improve your subject knowledge by:

  • engaging in high-quality, subject-specific professional development (e.g. by doing development work, such as planning and moderation with colleagues in school and in wider networks)
  • participating in wider networks of fellow professionals, such as the Chartered College of Teaching
  • building a repertoire of resources, illustrations and explanations by working with experienced colleagues – these colleagues may be in your school or members of networks (including online networks) which generate, share and critique such resources

One of the most important aspects of teaching is the ability to establish an accurate understanding of the pupils’ prior knowledge within a given subject or domain. In this way, the teacher can start with where their pupils are and help them from there rather than working backwards from a long-term learning goal. It is also understood that increased prior knowledge reduces working memory load.

To help you address the prior knowledge needs of your pupils, you should:

  • take account of it when planning how much new information to introduce (e.g. by conducting quick tests that give you instant feedback)
  • identify likely misconceptions and plan to prevent them from occurring (e.g. by pre-teaching concepts or by using classroom display to reinforce foundational ideas that are prone to misconception)
  • give them regular purposeful practice (by setting aside time in each lesson) so they can consolidate learning in their long-term memory

How should Rachel take account of her pupils’ prior knowledge?

A mental model or schema (plural schemata) is a pattern or network of thoughts, beliefs, knowledge and understanding that organise categories of information and the relationships between them. Schema can be simple (e.g. cars are a kind of vehicle) or complex (e.g. to drive a car, you need to start the ignition, apply the clutch, put it in gear, check the mirrors, and so on).

By encouraging pupils to think about how concepts relate to one another, teachers can help them build increasingly complex and robust schemata. Metaphorically, schemata can be thought of as systems of hooks or shelves onto which pupils can hang, place or incorporate new knowledge, skills, and beliefs.

To help your pupils develop their schemata and build increasingly complex mental models, you can:

  • revisit the big ideas of the subject over time and teach key concepts through a range of examples
  • draw explicit links between new content and the core concepts and principles in the subject (e.g. by asking pupils to arrange ideas into categories – ‘Put together all the words that are about weather’, ‘Arrange the images by the places you would expect to find them’)
  • carefully sequence teaching to facilitate the process of organising knowledge into increasingly complex mental models (e.g. in primary maths, you might organise a sequence of lessons where you introduce progressively less familiar quadrilaterals, always pointing out their common features)
  • when you want to get your pupils to think about how they learn (metacognition), adopt a simple approach and repeat it often (e.g. use an acronym to help your pupils recall the steps)

Critical thinking describes the ability to obtain and analyse information about a given topic in an organised and rational manner in order to understand the connections between concepts, facts and ideas and to arrive at judgments or conclusions.

In order for critical thinking to take place, pupils must first have a secure knowledge of the concepts they are being asked to think about. It is difficult to think critically about a topic you know little about. However, there are also general aspects to critical thinking – aspects that are highly transferable across subjects. These include constructing and deconstructing arguments, questioning, applying logic and reasoning, identifying and recognising logical fallacies, analysis, interpretation, inference, explanation, self-regulation, open-mindedness and problem-solving.

To help your pupils think critically, you should:

  • ensure they have a secure understanding of the subject area knowledge you want them to think critically about
  • invite them to think critically by sharing their reasoning and challenging the reasoning of others (e.g. by asking ‘What is your main reason for agreeing with Bilal?’, ‘Why might Leon have arrived at a different judgement?’)

Why might Rachel want her pupils to do some critical thinking in her lesson?

The question of transfer is also an important one in education: to what extent are knowledge and skills transferable from one subject to another? To what extent can pupils transfer their learning in one context (e.g. drawing graphs in maths) to another (e.g. drawing graphs in science)? To what extent are pupils able to apply the knowledge and skills they learn in school to their lives beyond the school gates? Research suggests that to a significant degree, knowledge and skills are context-dependent, that is, they tend to remain rooted in the contexts in which they were learned. This does not mean that transfer is not possible, but it does not tend to occur automatically, or naturally. It is therefore important that teachers support pupils in transferring knowledge and skills from one domain to another and provide them with opportunities to practise transfer themselves.

To help you to support pupils to transfer their knowledge, you should:

  • frequently ask the question ‘Where else do you use these ideas?’ (e.g. while teaching graphs in maths, you might ask them how they would apply the same knowledge to geography or science)
  • model the connections yourself (e.g. by saying how you use the knowledge or ideas in your own life)
  • draw comparisons between the subjects your pupils learn, whether you teach them across subjects or the teaching is shared by colleagues (e.g. a history teacher could refer to the war poetry their class had studied in English)

Transfer: Helen, a teacher in a Pupil Referral Unit, explains her thinking

“Many of the PRU pupils initially struggle to see the point in learning.  In order to get them to see their PRU experience as a whole, we look for cross-curricular links, and I aim to include transferrable skills where possible in my lessons. So, when I am teaching about climates, I will get pupils to draw climate graphs. Before doing this, we will look at different types of graphs, and I will ask pupils what they are and how they could be used. I will also ask them when they last drew one in order to get them to see that they are transferring skills from other subjects and that skills learned in lessons should not be seen as stand-alone. I know this works when pupils moan that they have already done this in maths or science or they complete the graph element independently with little help.”

How might this apply equally to Rachel?

What did Rachel do?

Here is a recreation of Rachel’s lesson plan, with a commentary about why it worked well.

Aim: To teach the 3Cs (co-operation, communication, collaboration) through an uneven-sided invasion game.

Initial instruction: ‘Cooperation, communication and collaboration are really important in life and in sport. Working in a team, make a plan to help you achieve success in a game of ‘Pass/Head/Kick’. In your team, discuss and make a list of what helps you to achieve success in a team game.’

Explanation of rules: Teams are 4 attackers ‘v’ 2 defenders. Attack: Teams of 4 have to move the ball from one end of the court to the other. They can either throw, head or kick the ball in any combination, but they must throw, kick and head at least once before scoring. They cannot use two of the same technique one after the other. Defence: Teams of 2 have to try to intercept the ball to prevent the attackers from getting the ball to the opposite end of the court.

Warm-up: Practise throwing, catching and heading the ball between pairs.

Play the game: Rachel monitors the play and keeps a record of how her pupils show the 3Cs.

Plenary: Rachel stops the lesson for the ‘EAR’ part of the lesson. Rachel often uses EAR so the pupils have a framework for their thinking.

EVALUATE: How successful has your strategy been?
What could you change to improve your chances of success?
ACT: Now, go back to the games to try out your new approach/strategy.
REFLECT: Thinking about how effectively you worked as a team:
What did your team do to achieve success?
How well did you practise the 3Cs?
What could your team have done better?
What do you think are the important ingredients to making a team a success?
What have you learned about the 3Cs that would help you be more successful in other lessons or situations?

This lesson is consistent with core knowledge requirements of the National Curriculum, where pupils are required to communicate, collaborate and compete with each other and evaluate and recognise their own success. They develop physical competence in throwing, catching, kicking, controlling and heading the ball. Rachel believes in the 3Cs’ attribute and in the values of fairness and respect, which are built into team games like this. The warm-up enabled Rachel to check the prior learning of her pupils in these physical skills. She could give feedback on their 3Cs as she monitored them at play. This lesson enabled pupils to develop a range of core knowledge and skills relating to their physical, cognitive, social and affective development. These are all skills that are important and have application across the wider curriculum and life beyond school. Her questioning in EAR drew attention to that transfer. As the EAR phase unfolded, it also allowed the pupils to think critically about successful team strategies. By using EAR, Rachel helps her pupils to develop increasingly complex schemata for adding new ideas to existing knowledge.

Self-Study Activities

Review: 10 mins

Read the Research and Practice Summary on this week’s topic, including the examples from Helen and Rachel. As you read, reflect on:

  1. the practices that you are already doing well
  2. the practices you are doing some of the time but could do more of/more consistently
  3. the practices you don’t use in your teaching yet

Plan: 10 mins


Think about your own values: Why did you want to be a teacher? What difference to society are you hoping to make by being a teacher? Now think how these values might influence the way you transform the national and school curricula in your classroom. Remember how Rachel taught the 3Cs values in her PE lesson.

  • write one sentence outlining your values for education: what is education for?
  • add below your sentence 3 examples of how you enact your values in your classroom
  • below that add 3 more examples of wider activities in your school which you would say are consistent with your own values

Theory to Practice: 20 mins

As mentioned in the Early Career Framework, secure subject knowledge helps teachers to motivate pupils and teach effectively (3.2). There is therefore a need for teachers to maintain and extend their subject and curriculum knowledge throughout their careers. Over this week and next, we suggest practical activities which aim at framing this knowledge and relating it to what you have already seen around misconceptions and progression.

1. Independent planning

Now, bring together your appreciation of the values inherent in education with the way that you might organize learning. Do this through planning your approach to a topic that you will be teaching soon, ideally a topic that you are less comfortable with, so that you can develop your own understanding further. You can focus on a sequence of lessons, an individual lesson or even one part of a lesson, as best suits your context. Consider the following questions as you do so:

  1. what core knowledge and skills should be conveyed within this topic?
  2. what opportunities are there to support your educational values in this topic?
  3. draw on your understanding of your pupils’ prior knowledge to sequence the content within the lesson(s) (and any home learning)
  4. you do not need to go as far as developing your planning in detail, but at this point, you may have ideas for engaging activities which will support pupil learning, so jot these down

2. Independent planning

With this outline of a teaching sequence in place, now add to your sequence at least one opportunity for pupils to use their learning to think critically. This could be a discussion about a real-world problem, in which they outline their reasoning, or it could be a creative process involving their knowledge. As an extension activity for your pupils, you could ask them to identify how that might apply – transfer – their learning from this to other contexts.

To support your planning, Rachel’s lesson plan might give you a model to follow.

Next Steps: 5 mins

Be ready to share your planning notes and your other learning from this session with your mentor in your next meeting with them. You may find it helpful to make a few notes on your planning explaining why you have included particular aspects and the reasoning behind how they are sequenced.

In activity 1(c), you may have identified some subject content that you are not yet fully confident in teaching. Make a note of the topics you identified and set yourself a target date by which you will complete some further study in relation to these topics.