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Podcast | Season 1 | Episode 8: Designing an Evidence-Based Approach to a Knowledge-rich Curriculum across a MAT

In this episode Mark Miller (Head of Bradford Research School at Dixons Academies) will cover:

  • How Dixons Academy Trust have built a culture of high autonomy with high alignment;
  • How to ensure that work on curriculum is informed by the best available evidence;
  • How to use evidence to develop curricula that privilege knowledge and implement approaches which promote more than just the retention of knowledge.

This session was recorded live on 14th November 2019, in the MAT Summit of the Schools & Academies Show at the NEC in Birmingham.

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Mark Miller

Hi I'm Mark Miller, I'm head of Bradford research school, and we sit within a Dixon's Multi Academy Trust. So in this presentation, it's quite a quite a long title, quite a wieldy title. And I want to break that down into three elements. So one is that evidence based parts so want to focus on why the evidence should lead us in curriculum design, why we kind of need to start from that first. And I want to look at that idea about the being across a MAT. How does that work? How does that change things? I think doing things in an individual school, the decisions that you make are actually superficially similar. But doing things at scale requires a lot of other choices. So I want to talk about that. And then I'll get to that idea about knowledge rich and some of the principles that will make for an effective knowledge rich curriculum. And so three kind of prongs of the of the talk here. And the first one is organisational culture. So I think a lot of schools want to go straight to, let's get the curriculum, let's get it done, because that's what everyone's talking about, that's what Ofsted are mentioning. And actually, if we want to get something done, right, whether it's curriculum, whatever it is, then we have to get the organisational culture right. So particularly here we're talking about across a MAT might be the same within an individual school. There's no point in trying to roll out something in a series of one off training sessions, a few policies written and that's it, and it won't, it won't take it won't last it won't be sustained.

Mark Miller

Second thing to talk about the evidence base. So what are the kind of key ideas to think about when implementing anything, but also when thinking about knowledge, and I'll talk about what we've looked at and focus that at Dixon's Academies. And then finally, I want to focus on a on a case study of implementation. So rather than dealing with every possible aspects of the curriculum, I want to focus on our implementation of the use of knowledge organisers across our schools and how we've gone about doing that. So, and I'm not sure if people are familiar with this particular image here. It's taken from the EES skills guide to implementation. So the skills guide to implementation is a guidance report from the EF and Education Endowment Foundation. They they part fund research skills such as such as ours, and they've done a lot of work around the evidence around how we bring change in an organisation. How do we launch initiatives? Why do things fail, and they looked at a lot of other organisations other than schools. But in particularly tried to translate it for schools, and what they talk about quite a lot of these, they have six recommendations, but they have this phase of explore and prepare, and then deliver and sustain. But the first phases, in fact, most of the project around implementation comes before you actually do something. So this is always the word of warning for me about things that are in vogue, or things that Ofsted talk about are things that people are suddenly demanding that if we don't have the first two parts, the preparation, the exploration, then anything that we launches is, is almost doomed to failure. Or if it is a success, it wouldn't necessarily be by design. So that's an aspect that underpins everything that we do as an individual school, and everything we want our teachers to do in their classroom, and not just teachers, but also as an organisation because implemented at scale across a Multi Academy Trust. Ours is, I would say on the medium end, and so about 15 schools, maybe a couple of ones that we'll have that we'll pick up soon. So it's a medium size organisation. Some are massive, some are two or three skills. But whatever you're looking at, this is a useful place to start.

Mark Miller

We also have these questions that we take one of the, one of our key skills, Dixon's Trinity Academy. Look, sparks is a principle there, always references this book, the advantage is a business book about business and talks about organisational health. What are some useful things that we can ask to make sure that we approach everything with integrity? And we think about how we go about things. So they ask, why do we exist? And for us, it's to tackle educational disadvantage in the north, how do we behave? That's the kind of things that we want to do. So we want to act with honesty, integrity, with hard work, etc. What we do is how we exemplify that in the things that we do, and that could be the knowledge base curriculum, whatever, and how will we succeed and that's all about the implementation. So when we're thinking about these, these academies, That we that we have. And one of the ways we try to approach implementation at scale is through something that we call aligned autonomy. It's a bit a bit buzzwordy, but it really sums up what we want to try and do. So there's two parts of that alignment meaning that if you come into one of our academies, you should be able to see the same kinds of things, and should feel that you're in a Dixons School. But by the same token, there should be autonomy, because too much of the kind of top down way of doing things will damage things. And I'm just talking briefly about what that means in general, but as a general principle about how we implement things at scale, we always have these things in mind, whatever we're talking about, so and aligns this idea about a trust working together. So we think about if you have this shared mission and values, those are constantly communicated, over communicated, everyone knows them. We have not every school has the exact same mission and values, but they all come under the same ideas. So we say hard work is one of our values. The name, it's called in different skills, how it's implemented is different. We have this idea of collective practice. So when we're implementing anything around this curriculum and curriculum design, we want to use the volume of people that we have the expertise that we have. We also want to build on the resources that we already have the brand, the reputation I use that positively may pick up new skills, etc. And we want to use teachers around different places. We want to centralise services, we want to grow as a trust. And if we're working together, we'll do that. And we want to make sure we've got leadership that can run skills. So all of that is why you might advocate this kind of top down approach, which will be useful for some things, and but actually, it's going to cause some other problems as well. And these are some of the reasons that we want autonomy as well. So on one hand, we want to say there's a certain way of doing things. There's benefits to that, but we want our skills to feel and to look different, and that's for millions of reasons. One is because every skill has to be different. Because they're based in different places, they have different cohorts. They have different staff, all sorts of things, different buildings. So we ask for autonomy because we want leaders to show ownership and self direction. So when it comes to this idea of of knowledge, if we're saying this is how everyone must do, it takes out that idea of autonomy and individual skills and individual classrooms. Like I say, it doesn't mean there's not principles, but it means we will never prescribe that every school must do things in this particular way. We want to learn from each other. If everyone's doing the same thing. We're not really going to learn from practicing different skills, because how can we because we're all doing the same thing.

Mark Miller

We want to keep innovating. We want to make sure that we have this idea where we don't just conform because it's what Dixon's do but we innovate whatever we can and then those things that people do, then become what we do. So we see that in Dixon's Trinity, for example, innovative school, free school, and we've sort of copied some of the things that my school Dixon's kings, and if we're standard, everything's the same. And again, it's a appointment is also curriculum, then all that's going to happen is when the new thing comes along. And we're saying no, these are what this is what Dixons does, nothing will change. Or what we'll do is we'll go, Oh, sorry, let's scrap everything that we've got. We've got the new standards now. All right. And that's why, again, when it comes back to this idea about curriculum, you know, we're not changing that because people are talking about it. No, we're not changing that because it's appeared in Ofsted reports, because if we end up doing that, then this happens. We have this standardised thing. We can't change.

Mark Miller

We don't want to micromanage people. I'm a classroom practitioner, I teach a lot. And I don't want to be micromanage this. So what I what we bring to it, we micromanage people, they will leave the the skills or maybe leave the profession as well. And, and we're proud of the autonomy that we've given people in our schools. So that's the kind of broad approach to even before we start talking about a curriculum, and that's one of the messages that I want to give about anything like this, and there's no point in coming up and buying a curriculum there's no point in doing the curriculum the school next door is doing, because it won't work. So you have to have that organisational culture to try and do things might not be the same as that. But that's one that we find effective. And I would also say one that we're constantly adapting and changing, because there are times when it doesn't quite work, there are times when it needs to change.

Mark Miller

So that's part one, this idea of an organisational culture. Part two is where the research school which I work for comes in, and how we make sure that what we're doing is informed by evidence. So it's really, really hard in education to make sure that every single thing we do is evidence based in a way that health, it's a bit easier because there's something that's quite easy to measure the effect of certain things within health, and it's harder in education, which is why we're research skills such as ours come in. So I'm not sure how familiar people are with research skills. They're not necessarily attached to MATs like ours. Some are standalone skills. Some of these are based in universities, and so we are part funded by the EEF. So the Education Endowment Foundation if you've seen the EEF toolkit, and they do a lot of work into a randomised control trials, they synthesise evidence to look at what works and and the funded. Initially there was about 20 odd research schools. And now we've grown to about 39. We're attached to the opportunity area. So that's in Bradford, there are 11 attached to those 12 opportunity areas, but 11 research skills and the AI they're part funded by the DfE. And so our job there is to work in the opportunity area. So whilst I work within Dixon's as a MAT, our other role is to work within the schools in our local area and beyond if they want to get involved and we have that job to get research evidence into classroom practice. Part of that is through sharing the work of the EEF part of that is through sharing guidance reports that they produce. Part of that is just tweeting out messages upon messages training etc. And wherever you're based, I'm not sure many people who based around Bradford here, but you will have a local research school and they offer all sorts of things, something's free worth getting in touch with them. So local one to this one, I think we've got a spider quite local to this one here, there's a number of ones here near here. So if you want to get in touch with them, they'll be happy to meet with you to discuss how they can support you. And but that's our job there. And what's quite good as having us in a MAT means that I can influence some of the decisions around what we actually do. So again, we come back to that diagram here saying, We've got the culture, which is maybe that bottom right? section, the prepare, we get the school culture, right, then we've got this fertile soil for bringing in new things. But we have to decide at that top right, what is the best thing to bring in? Because you can only choose so many things to do. It's very easy to say we'll do that. We'll do that. We'll do that. That's a problem. That's a problem. Let's throw things out. But it's that's what happens in schools and what's always happened in schools. And we find that you end up with a cycle of intervention initiative after after intervention.

Mark Miller

So with the curriculum, we want to make sure that we are sort of placing the best bets around what works, and the leadership of the exec board. This is a little simplified document and I've underlined things, I don't just want to flood you with loads and loads of text there. But yeah, and it's not really about reading that. But I want to draw attention to something. So the exec come up, we came up with a vision for the knowledge base curriculum, why we have knowledge, the kinds of thing that we want, it's always on a one page like most documents that we have, but it is does still deal in the abstract quite a lot. So if you look at the first one, we talked about powerful knowledge, well, that needs to be defined that needs to be discussed. We talk about things like curriculum, breath, cultural capital. Again, this is all about the vision, but enacting that vision becomes becomes harder. We've sort of privileged subjects specialism subject discipline, I think we should never forget that and we also wanted sequence knowledge, from my point of view in the research school, our job and this, you know, job of other school leaders is to say, right, we want that we want a curriculum which privileges those things. And we want them for the right reasons, not just because Ofsted, and etc, then we have to think well, what's the the ways that we do that? What are the things that we're going to do in our schools? And we bring in ideas around cognitive science and research. So some of the feedback from from us and the research school is to think about if we're going to do that, what are the best bets? What are the best things for us to do? And I always nag about implementation. First of all, I always say read that guide. First, make sure it sticks. But then we talk about broad principles, once again, not things that every school must do, but the broad principles we want people to look at. And that comes into aspects around the best available evidence on cognitive science. So we look at this idea of developing schema, kind of complex architecture of knowledge that we all have, you know, we've all go schema of various things. And if we're seeing this as the schema of the subject of history, we want to do what we can to, to build that. But that's hard. So we look at aspects such as reducing the demands on working memory, cognitive load theory. So what we're saying is, these are principles that we want to think about really complex there. So what does that look like in a lesson? What does that look like in a PowerPoint slide? What does it look like in an assembly? What does it look like in homework, etc, etc, etc.

Mark Miller

We also look at retrieval practice. So one of the most solid ideas of cognitive science is that if we retrieve memories, we retrieve information, then we're more likely to remember it. So we've built quite a lot around that I'll go into more of that later. This idea of spacing, which is simplest is leaving a gap. Once you've learned something before we study, much more complex than that, and we're sort of wrestling with that. And elaborative interrogation, which is asking questions of the material. What we don't want is our knowledge base curriculum to just be facts and information. I love facts and information. And we want to share facts and information. But if we can elaborate on it, so we can ask questions of the material, and we can organiee that material together. It's it's not as useful. It has no utility. So we want to interrogate that using a technique called elaborative interrogation. We do lots of work around metacognition, and modeling. And again, that's a three day course in itself on those things, but we, we try and make sure that all those things above such as reducing demands and working memory, those go into those things, underpinning all of that is effective implementation. So again, when we're thinking about the knowledge base curriculum, you know, whatever, whatever that means, and we have to think about it quite simply as remembering lots of things, and learning lots of things. And that learning is the idea of the change in long term memory. And those are our best bets about how we're going to go about to go about doing that. So then we get to, well how on earth do we go about doing that? And I think it's really important that we understand as an organisation. So they like to say Dixons, it's sort of medium sized thing. It is really, really hard to affect change, or that kind of skill. In fact, it's really hard to affect change in any kind, on any scale there. So what I want to just just go through here is how we've gone about implementing the use of knowledge organisers. So hopefully, many people have heard of them. I'll just, I'll just have a quick summary what a knowledge organizer is that's come from Joe Kirby at McHale School sets a important useful and powerful knowledge on a topic on a single page. So that's our definition of a knowledge organiser. And we get attached to your primary and secondary, usually one sort of sequence of lessons we'll have them you know, maybe we'll have one I'm an English teacher. So we have one for Animal Farm. And, and that's how we set it out there. Now loads and loads of schools see things like this, and they buy them, they distribute them and nothing really changes, nothing really works, you just got a thing. And you can say you've got them. So I would approach to that is to make sure that it will bring in these in why we do that? And how do we do that. And there's a massive piece of work before we ever get to a knowledge organiser been used in the classroom. And in fact, we made a few mistakes along the way. So there's may be a couple of things I'm not going to mention in this in this little plan. But this is the ideal really, when we get to it, that's a knowledge organiser, it will kind of look like that. It's not everything. It's not everything anyone will need to know. But it's a good way of collating the knowledge that you want to focus on.

Mark Miller

Again, we come to this idea of the implementation. So at this point, we've got the culture, the bottom right, we've got the knowledge, the kind of things we should go about doing. We've made a decision to implement knowledge organisers, or we call them 100% sheets, knowledge navigators as well. And so so we're at this point, and now we want to make sure that they take hold. So now we get to this part of delivering and sustaining and it's not a one off event. So it isn't just this, this is September's project. We'll have a day off timetable will do knowledge organisers. Because we do that we'll have knowledge organisers, but we won't know anything about their effectiveness. So this is kind of our, our way of going through that. And again, the message here is about knowledge organisers, but just about a sequence, really.

Mark Miller

So first of all, it's about making sure this is across a MAT talking about here, that the people who are in that those positions of leadership who are going to make the changes, they know what we're talking about. And for me, I've read all the research I've read, the papers are far more training on that. We've got to disseminate it in a way that's both simple because busy teachers are busy teachers, and complex enough that they don't just get the superficial aspect. So retrieval practice isn't just a quiz. It's much more complex than that they need to have that, but they don't need to read all the research there. So we set that out. And we also set a key set of expectations about knowledge organisers, we didn't say they must look like this. We didn't say everything single thing has to be like that. But we said it needs to follow those principles.

Mark Miller

Then once that's there we built in time. And this would be the same for anything that we're building in curriculum, anything, because it'll affect teachers. And one resource that teachers don't have is time. So you need to give teams or knowledge organize time to collaborate on the design, you need to make sure the training is built in. And that includes training at the front. And that includes training when things are launched. And that includes the training that you plan a year in when you try and adapt, and two years in and three years in training can just be a one off event for things like this. And it's really, really important that when you launch something you build in the trainer for next time.

Mark Miller

And then we also think about the implications for timetabling. So with knowledge organisers, some of the schools have what we call morning meeting, and it's when the teachers train our practice or get or get updates and things. All the pupils work on their knowledge organisers together collectively, some with teacher input at this front and some just by quizzing themselves. The knowledge organisers, but that takes a lot of work. It takes backfilling of, you know, positions, you need to look at the timetable and all these different things. And that's why you can't just decide to do it in September. And then at this point, we launched knowledge organisers, we bring them in, but then it doesn't finish. And we've got to be careful about that. So this, this idea of let's launch our curriculum, and then that's it. No. So we then have to audit there, we have to come back to it and evaluate it. Did it work? Is it working? And you've also got to know how will we know it works? You know, his exam results, you're measured? Is it use of them? You know, how will you know that actually, this thing that you've created is the best knowledge that you've you've put out there, it could actually be not that useful. So then you have to think about what we call intelligent adaptation. One thing is looking about whether you everything's been done with fidelity. So if you've said that this is how we want things to go, and each school, you're going to check if that's been done, that's one thing. But the second thing is, even if that's happened, it's been done as intended, is that the right thing and if it's not, we're going to make some changes some Sometimes that could be just a minute all. And I don't think we should be afraid of saying it didn't work, let's get rid, or sometimes it's more training, etc. Or sometimes it is this is working. Let's let's crack on with it.

Mark Miller

Just a couple of things there about specific so we happen to so I did a bit of work on knowledge organisers did some research, real journal article not so not saying everyone writes a journal article and things are going to bring in. But it was that helpful for me in training those to get that idea, then we came up these principles of design, forgive me, my voice starts going quicker on affect these things. And so we said they need to be simple and uncluttered. We're going to reduce those demands on cognitive load. We said they need to be clearly organised. So they need to be put together in a way that is simple to get yourself around. Otherwise, it's just stuck on a page. And it's not very useful tool. We asked the question about whether they should be consistent, and we decided that wasn't the right thing to do. Because each subjects got its own unique aspects. each phase has the same thing. Even across the same subject things are different. And then we looked at what should go on We did a bit of work around what we called powerful knowledge. And I think that is a is a really important debate to have, you know, what are we valuing the right knowledge? And I'm not sure we have all the answers to that. Because sometimes that that content can be defined by the curriculum. So we said, first of all, it needs to be visible, we need to be able to use retrieval practice, we need to be able to quiz we need to that helps us to build little tasks. It also helps us to monitor helps pupils, if they can quiz themselves, then we said it should be discussed and agreed the idea of what knowledge we have compromises two compromises. One is between the domain. So if you're learning about the Second World War, is everything about the Second World War, and then there's the exam. So do you just put on a knowledge organiser, the things from the exam that you'll need to know? Or do you actually say it's more worthwhile to know, a wider range in the domain, and I would tend to go for the latter, but the pragmatist me says that teachers might like go for the former, and then, sorry, and then you've got to say that the wrong order. Yeah. The other thing is about detail and clarity. So If you imagine a dictionary, it's trying to save space. So definitions in dictionary are not always the best ones on a knowledge organiser, I've got a definition of communism, there is definitely not the full definition of communism, but it has to fit on one on one little part there. Now, obviously, the knowledge organiser isn't the teaching. But these are the compromises that we make. So and, and maybe you address them in other places there. And then we think about the pedagogy and the training implications for that. So we said that we want regular retrieval practice, in lessons, generally at the start of lessons we've said, but also we want that built into the revision and study, we've said that we want elaboration elaborative interrogation. So people don't just know the bits of information, but they can connect that there. And we also said that we want them to organise that information around. So it isn't just lists. It is a relationships between things. If they're presented in a list. We want people to be able to put them into a chronology. We want people to be able to do things with them.

Mark Miller

That's a little audit. That guide as well, that we did just looking at whether things were working because what we did find at the start was people just Googled knowledge, knowledge, organiser, French, and that was brought in. And actually, it wasn't necessarily more effective. We did lots of works with pupils as well. And so as part of the training, we had training for pupils as well, and how they can use their knowledge organizers. So again, they had that kind of high utility. Alright, so just to summarize then, and as quick session, that first one, and this goes for this way, that idea about curriculum, get the organisational cultural, right, because otherwise you won't be able to launch lead, deliver anything, including curriculum, think about what works, get in touch with a local research school, if you can, or just engage with the research and evidence yourself. We can never say what definitely will work or we can have some best bets. And then when you come to implement it, think about treating implementation as a process. Those are some contact details just go through and that's me individually on Twitter. That's the research school for Bradford @RS_Network for your local research go and then Dixon's Academy's. If you want to get in touch with us.


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