Academic Curriculum

Ark Acton Curriculum statement

At Ark Acton Academy we place the curriculum at the heart of school life. It drives all other decisions that we make and is the best means we have of demonstrating as a school what we believe in and what we stand for. In essence our curriculum is designed to ensure that all pupils at Acton acquire knowledge that they cannot learn at home and that the specified curriculum knowledge is based on the most coherent and tested ways of conceptualising the world that we have. We know that learning can best be defined as a change in one's long-term memory and that the best way of testing the efficacy of a curriculum and its enactment by teachers is to evaluate how much of that taught curriculum a student can use at a given point in the future.

This is why at Ark Acton we have an assessment model that is intertwined within our curriculum – they are inextricable and one and the same thing because the curriculum provides the framework from which students are assessed – not an exam specification 5 years in the future. This is why we believe work scrutinies and lesson observations are at best poor proxies for student learning – material written in a book is not evidence of a change in one's long-term memory. We instead use work scrutiny to evaluate the scholarly atmosphere and pride of our students.

So at Acton we explicitly teach a rich foundation of subject-specific and broader cultural knowledge that enables us to ensure our students can participate in and shape the national discourse; learning to think in more powerful ways through subject-specific teaching and exposure to enriching experiences that take them beyond their everyday models.

This belief in the centrality of the curriculum to the school experience shapes everything we do at Acton and the words of Michael Young perhaps best outline why we believe in the importance of a disciplinary curriculum at Ark Acton Academy.

“I want to make an argument for a view of school leadership and a new way of thinking about leadership. It places the curriculum – the principles on which we decide what a school should teach ‐ as shaping all the other responsibilities that face a Head teacher....It is a school’s curriculum priorities that convey to staff and students and to parents, (and ultimately, government) what a school’s purposes are ‐ what it can (and cannot) do. Schools are not social work agencies nor can they solve the problems of youth unemployment. So what can schools do that no other institutions in our society can do?”

Schools can teach, and develop understanding, of academic subjects to as wide a group as possible. This is the democratic promise of state education. Therefore at Acton we believe that all learners should encounter and wrestle with ways of constructing knowledge and ways of thinking that are above their everyday experiences, and see that academic concepts are different from everyday concepts and ways of explaining the world.

Why do we privilege knowledge?

Many poor readers can sound out words from print, so in that sense, they can read. Yet they are functionally illiterate — they comprehend very little of what they can sound out.[1] This is in part due to their lack of vocabulary and also due to them having been deprived of the cultural knowledge that literate adults take for granted. As Willingham points out, our broad background knowledge not only allows the reader to comprehend the sentences, it also has a powerful effect as you continue to read because it narrows the interpretations of new text that you will entertain. The cognitive system gambles that incoming information will be related to what you’ve just been thinking about. Thus, it significantly narrows the scope of possible interpretations of words, sentences, and ideas.[2]

Put another way, all prose has factual gaps that must be filled by the reader. Consider “I promised not to play with it, but Mom still wouldn’t let me bring my Rubik’s Cube to the library.” The author has omitted three facts vital to comprehension: you must be quiet in a library; Rubik’s Cubes make noise; kids don’t resist tempting toys very well. If you don’t know these facts, you might understand the literal meaning of the sentence, but you’ll miss why Mom forbade the toy in the library. These examples help us understand why readers might decode well but score poorly on a test; they lack the knowledge the writer assumed in the audience. But if a text concerned a familiar topic, habitually poor readers ought to read like good readers. In one experiment, third graders — some identified by a reading test as good readers, some as poor — were asked to read a passage about soccer. The poor readers who knew a lot about soccer were three times as likely to make accurate inferences about the passage as the good readers who didn’t know much about the game.[3]

What design principles shape our curriculum? At Ark Acton we…

Focus on the core underlying disciplinary or threshold concepts within each subject that give structure and meaning to the domain-specific knowledge.

Acknowledge that critical thinking is not a set of skills and strategies that can be directly taught, practiced and applied to any topic.

Acknowledge that students need deep knowledge of a subject in order to think creatively or critically about it.

Acknowledge that to “think like a scientist,” a student must know the facts, concepts and procedures that a scientist knows and must see the teacher as more knowledgeable expert.

Prove that almost all students should be able to learn almost all material in a standard school curriculum.

Acknowledge that if students have not learned material early in a curriculum, they will have more difficulty with material later in the curriculum.

Ensure that that the core concepts of a subject discipline that organise the knowledge of experts also organises teaching.

Embed a high degree of challenge from Day 1. We accept that students arriving at the school in Year 7 have a capacity to work with complex ideas and we ensure that the curriculum treats students as intelligent.

The curriculum is designed such that pupils leave Ark Acton:

Culturally literate and able to contextualise events and experiences and act accordingly.

With a broad domain-specific knowledge base that allows them to conceptualise the world in more scientific ways

Able to participate in the national discourse

Committed to doing the best they can

Skilled enough to make a valuable contribution to society and the economy

Able to take ownership of their future

Aware of their community and willing to play a constructive role in it.

[1] Willingham, D. (2017) ‘How to Get Your Mind to Read.’ New York Times.

[2] Willingham, D. (2016) ‘Knowledge and Practice: The Real Keys to Critical Thinking.’ Knowledge matters.

[3] Willingham, D. (2017) ‘How to Get Your Mind to Read.’ New York Times.

ACT Curriculum Maps Final.pdf