🕸️ The Spider Web and Box Set Curriculum

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Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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What can teachers learn from television box sets and spider webs?

The phrase ‘knowledge rich’ first emerged almost a decade ago and has really resonated with educators across England in the last three or four years…

Over the last couple of years, I have been using the analogy of a spider web when discussing knowledge acquisition. This is in regards to study skills, working memory and curriculum design. 

A carefully, thought-out structure…

Every stage of the spiderweb is carefully planned, connecting each component to the other, linking to form the overall structure. If there is one chink in the web, it weakens the overall framework.

From a curriculum perspective, which part of the spiderweb is constructed first if we use the web analogy?  In some respects, when we develop our curriculum intentions, this is very much the core knowledge that we need to put in place to develop the foundations on which schema can be further developed…

Although these analogies can become something of fixation, and potentially misleading, they are also a great starting point for each of us to ‘chunk’ complex ideas into manageable categories – very much how we store and retrieve information.

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I visited a primary school in Coventry yesterday. It was my third visit and with staff, we worked together on feedback and curriculum planning. During our training event, I discovered another fabulous analogy that is also worth sharing.

What box set are you watching?

What series are you currently watching on Netflix? What is the latest box set that you have got through on television? Have you ever started a program having missed the first season? What happens if you miss one episode? For any older teachers reading this (like me), what happened when you watched a series of programmes before television provides us with the ability to record?

There are thousands of television programmes that we can all binge-watch.

Squid Game, Orange is the New Black,  Line of Duty, Bridgerton, The Crown, The Queen’s Gambit, I May Destroy You, and many others! If I just talk about The Queen’s Gambit – something I watched last year – I’d like you to use this ‘box set analogy’ when thinking about the curriculum you are providing your pupils in your school from day one to the date they leave your organisation…

Although there is only one season of The Queen’s Gambit at the time of writing, there are currently 7 episodes available. In episode one, the main character (Beth) is sent to an orphanage at aged 9. She develops an incredible talent for chess and dependence on taking tranquilisers. Whilst I could spend the rest of this blog post going through each episode, I want to switch to pedagogy to outline what happens in this media context.

Making connections between television programmes and the classroom…

At the start of every following episode, there is a retrieval moment at the start of each new show. This is very much what teachers must do in the classroom to help students retrieve information.

As the episode moves on, new information is presented, ideally in small chunks to help the viewer understand what is happening. This is no different to the classroom…

As the plot unfolds, there are ‘mini retrieval moments’ used throughout each episode. As you are immersed in the television series, when a teacher become ‘conscious’ of what is happening, one can start to see teacher-pedagogy everywhere!

As students develop knowledge acquisition in the classroom, teachers use cognitive apprenticeship to help students move from novice to expert. Small prompts and fading signals as pupils develop their ‘Aha! moments.

Having taught A-level media studies at some point in my career, again I could go into all the details of what ‘technically’ happens in particular television programmes, but I hope that just expressing the spiderweb and the box set analogy, you can start to see how curriculum intentions must be mapped out as a conscientious decision (at a classroom, year group and whole-school level)…

Schematic thinking templates…

Almost 10 years ago, I published the 5-Minute Lesson Plan – download over 2 million times on this site – and from that moment, it has developed into 40 other schematic templates for teachers to help make aspects of their working lives a little easier. These are very much curriculum-thinking frameworks to help teachers reduce workload…

I often return to the yellow Post-it note in the top right-hand corner of the original 5-Minute Lesson Plan. First coined ‘Stickability‘, before I became immersed in cognitive science, this was the phrase used to help teachers consider ‘what knowledge sticks?’

I now know that cognitive scientists better express this as retrieval, spaced and interleaving practice.

Understanding much more about these processes, from a curriculum perspective, when teachers have a secure understanding of what knowledge must stick, they can start to map out curriculum intentions. As ever, keeping in mind the busy working lives of teachers, I’ve developed this 5-minute conversation framework to help identify how retention is accumulated over time.

This simple map (below) provides a starting point.

The 5-Minute Curriculum Conversation

How to use the resource?

  1. Alongside a written scheme of work, use the 5-minute lesson plan (stickability box) to identify retrieval and stickability opportunities.
  2. Working a little harder, identify the core knowledge that is to be taught in each lesson and write it down in this area. These should just be two or three-word key terms…
  3. Now, switch to the 5-minute Post-it note document (above) and identify critical knowledge acquisition from your established scheme of work.
  4. Once this is done, identify at what point retrieval moments will be identified from the lesson gone before… (indicate this by drawing each ‘retrieval point’ with an arrow. For example, from lesson 11 back to lesson 4.)
  5. Finally, identify what interleaving practice would take place alongside the subject matter. Draw with an arrow from one point in time to an endpoint. Remember, interleaving is best described as a ‘fruit salad’. Similar categories of ‘fruit’ to be taught, not mixed with ‘Baked beans’ or another category/subject matter.

Taking curriculum thinking one step further?

As my brain continues to buzz with lots of analogies from cognitive science, I’ve been thinking very deeply about curriculum design for classroom teachers. Earlier this month I published what I think might be, the perfect scheme of work – you can find some samples templates below from a stack of 50 slides…

Curriculum design starts from the very first episode of the box set or the first strand from the Spider’s spinneret on their abdomen. Each section is carefully mapped out, connecting one part to the other to form the overall picture. Without one episode or strand, the connections are broken…


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