Chemistry curriculum comparison

In my presentation at the ARK Summit on Monday I compared the English 2007 National Curriculum in Chemistry to grade 7 (that’s year 8) of E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Curriculum.
Chemistry content in KS4 Science National Curriculum (years 10 & 11)  (Link here, p. 224)

NC Chemistry 2007

Chemistry content in Grade 7 Core Knowledge Curriculum (year 8 equivalent) (Link here, p. 193-4)

CK Chemistry Grade 7

CK Chemistry Grade 7 part 2

A few people saw these slides on twitter and thought that the point I was making is that the Core Knowledge curriculum is harder than the NC07 because it has more detail. This is not the point I was making. The salient point here is not that the CK curriculum is easier or harder than the 07 National Curriculum. The salient point is that the 07 National Curriculum was much vaguer. In the specific case of chemistry, it would be hard to make a judgment on whether or not the 07 NC is easier or harder than anything, because, as Tim Oates has said, it consists of a handful of statements which essentially describe all of chemistry.

The 2007 revisions to the National Curriculum statutory content in Chemistry in the secondary phase state that pupils must understand ‘that there are patterns in the reactions between substances’. Seemingly innocuous due to its generic character, this is, in fact, highly problematic. This statement essentially describes all of chemistry. So what should teachers actually teach? What are the key concepts which children should know and apply?

Some people have criticised the CK curriculum for being too prescriptive and praised the 07 national curriculum for allowing teacher freedom. The 07 NC did not in fact allow nearly as much freedom as is sometimes assumed: far from being unprescriptive, it prescribed a reduction in knowledge. It prescribed vagueness. This was made clear in the guidance notes, which said that there was a deliberate reduction in subject content in order that teachers could focus on key concepts. This approach was also reinforced through the national curriculum levels which accompanied it. Taken together, they suggested that the kind of vague language they used was sufficient for individual lessons; that is, that if you somehow practised ‘understanding that there are patterns in the reactions between substances’ you would understand it. I’ll return to this point in a later blog. Also, it is worth pointing out that the 07 NC was statutory – all the teachers in England had to follow it. US schools – or indeed any schools – can choose if they want to follow the CK, and can choose which parts they want to teach and which parts they don’t. But essentially, the 07 NC and Hirsch are both prescriptive: it is just that one prescribes useful detail and one does not.


4 thoughts on “Chemistry curriculum comparison

  1. behrfacts

    Thanks for this. The issue with ‘prescribing useful detail’ is coming to an agreement on what this detail should be. This why the current revision of the English NC has been such a lengthy process and why we are only now seeing the content specified for GCSE exams, which some would argue are the main driver of what happens in most English 11-16 state schools nowadays, linked to the accountability system. There is also an ongoing debate about standardising types of pre-GCSE science assessment following the removal of NC tests and soon levels as well. A separate issue, which I’ve been looking at for chemistry in a current project on initial teacher training, is the level of knowledge of the curriculum beginning teachers require and how this relates to their ability to ensure students learn what is required of them, be it knowledge, understanding or practical skills.

  2. Pingback: What happens when you outsource the curriculum to the exam syllabus | The Wing to Heaven

  3. dodiscimus

    Now compare with the new KS3 NC; that’s a lot nearer to Hirsch (hardly a surprise given where it’s come from of course). However, it’s well worth going back another iteration of the NC for Science. The one before 2007 was much more like the new one – both containing a lot more prescribed knowledge than 2007. The biology and physics follow the same pattern.

    On a vaguely related note, as a scientist, I have failed to understand Gove’s assertion that the new NC has been slimmed down, particularly the suggestion that the new NC “will not absorb the overwhelming majority of teaching time”. The new NC for Science will pretty much take the whole of KS3 to cover. That is not necessarily a bad thing but it isn’t going to be possible for a science department to cover the new NC and have room for any curriculum innovation other than choosing the order in which to teach it.


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