Why schools do best when curriculum plans, ‘flow’ and the science of learning coincide.

I wrote some time back about the importance of Curriculum design, bringing to the fore the example of Singapore who had chosen via 2 steps to ensure that their students made better progress at school. Back in 2014, in a blog entitled The ever-shifting foundations of Good Curriculum design and practice – using PISA/OECD data! I was keen to emphasise as best I could that many advocates were there to highlight that the DfE could learn from such advice, including this report entitled Making Education work – news link here https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-25881774

My staff are currently attending to a substantial curriculum review at secondary level, in part brought on through the experiences gained in the classroom and through remote learning caused by the covid-19 pandemic and in part brought about by the competing demands for more effective inclusion, relationship, sex and health education in the light of current societal and governmental demands. It’s a heck of a challenge I have given departments, but such reviews are part of our familiar practice, and we have some great ‘steers’ from those in education that point the way both now and in the past1.

Curriculum plans need to cover the piece required, so over the period of secondary education for ages 11 to 16, we have a first section of subject skill, style and content confirmation (the stuff that separates subjects) coupled with a common approach the ways of working required (habits & responsibilities, both real and virtual). It’s pretty obvious that subject specialism at secondary level is both a real requirement to ensure deep learning happens, though what’s not so obvious is the way learning happens varies hugely between subjects. Every child enters secondary school with the expectation they can read, write and do sums, but many may never have come across a modern foreign language or explicit teaching in practical arts and sciences. Each subject leader has a specialist understanding of the ‘work’ their department needs to have in place prior to the start of a GCSE course of study for years 10 and 11, the last 2 years of compulsory education. In England, the government specifies both the content that needs to be covered and the mechanisms used for assessment at the close, to ensure the students’ success is measured, though it remains the school’s choice still to determine the curriculum methodology and wider ‘cultural’ expectations on their school community. The key area secondary schools need help with is the age range 11 to 14, where breadth of subject and activities is an absolute requirement, but the stitching together of diverse subjects does not necessarily join these together. I’ll return to these specific subject demands as well as to the wider importance of school culture once I have introduced the two other elements in the heading, of Flow and Learning Science.

‘Flow states’ were named as such by the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, though I suspect we all have experienced in our own learning those times of complete absorption when ‘stuff happens and gets done’. I guess over many years of lesson observations I have seen countless times when the class of learners have been completely absorbed in the activities of the moment, lessons I would have marked as successful, and honestly seen quite a few when it was quite clear there was no ‘flow’ evident. Whilst on occasion it was fair to blame the teacher directly (talking too much and wasting children’s time on admonitions etc.), more frequently the cause was the inappropriate choice of task for the lesson content chosen. For ease of writing, I’ve cribbed wholesale from Wikipedia the principles of ‘flow’:


Jeanne Nakamura and Csíkszentmihályi identify the following six factors as encompassing an experience of flow:

Those aspects can appear independently of each other, but only in combination do they constitute a so-called flow experience. Additionally, psychology writer Kendra Cherry has mentioned three other components that Csíkszentmihályi lists as being a part of the flow experience:

  • Immediate feedback
  • Feeling the potential to succeed
  • Feeling so engrossed in the experience, that other needs become negligible

Just as with the conditions listed above, these conditions can be independent of one another.

Just reading through those components of ‘Flow’, it becomes pretty obvious why the teacher present in the room can make a huge difference to ensuring that learners become engaged in their studies. A child’s trust in their teacher is paramount, knowing they can ask for help and not be criticised. Getting immediate feedback that they are on track requires the teacher to be vigilant, that broader classroom ‘feel’ of calm and that the activity has a personal ‘value’. Trouble is, we can’t enter Flow states that readily, particularly in new unfamiliar areas – there is the pain of new learning to endure before we have sufficient knowledge, skill and understanding to enter Dan Pink’s confidence of ‘autonomy, mastery and purpose’. If you’ve tried to learn to ride a bike, skate or ski, you’ll immediately re-feel the bruises of those early attempts!

Learning – now hear’s the thing, until recently, entering teaching as a profession did not give a great deal of focus on the underlying principles of how learning happens. Moreover, it’s a pretty obvious statement that at secondary level, most subject specialists were pretty successful when studying their chosen subject at degree level and beyond, which does not make them necessarily effective teachers for those children who have no natural aptitude for their discipline. All secondary teachers understand the importance of starting afresh with their subject, though that does not mean they’ll ignore the ‘work’ previously covered. In England, children are expected to have studied the following National Curriculum elements of history at primary school, to include a range of monarchs up to Queen Victoria, early British History, Romans, Vikings and Saxons any time soon, plus contrasting civilisations of those periods, ancient Egypt, China, Greece, Maya, Benin and/or Baghdad. Those ‘stories from the past’ help inform children’s more general cultural understanding of the value of different peoples’ contribution to the World as we now see it.

The biology of learning that takes place in the human brain commences with new experiences being directed to the Hippocampus, part of the limbic system a group of brain structures in the cerebral cortex responsible for behavioural and emotional responses. We’ve 2 situated in our cortex, just above the ear line, and they managed all the data coming in so we make sense of it, sort it and either cause an immediate reaction to it (movement etc.) or lay down the longer term memory of same into events and spatial recogntion or into learning and memorizing facts and concepts. Bit by bit, these laying down of memories permit higher order skills to be established; experienced car drivers and musicians do not need to worry about how all the moving parts required for their ‘virtuosity’ are connected, such procedural activities seemingly appearing in the subconscious. These ‘constructs’ and ‘schemata’ are built from birth, permit babies to make sense of the world, and over the years we lay down loads of different memories that link ‘Car schema’ in strange ways, not just how to drive one but travels to and from places and in different vehicles. Understanding Schema theory2 is essential in making learning stick, because if a previously constructed ‘schema’ can be accessed, such as ‘Love’, it makes understanding the behaviour of Romeo & Juliet more readily accessible in Shakespeare’s eponymous play.

As a school, we adopted the work of the Learning Scientists for our school culture back in October 2017, in order to pull together all the many strands on theory and practice into one ‘handbook of Six learning strategies’. We’ve also tried as hard as possible to stop using the word ‘revision’, because there is so much more to learning to be done before re-learning can happen, and because work needs to be visited a number of times in a number of ways to truly ensure the concepts have been grasped. We’ve also had to take much more notice of forgetting curves, which highlight just how easy it is to forget new matters within hours of having studied it!

Understanding why curricular design needs a spiral approach is pretty obvious, as that plays into both developing robust schemata that make new learning easier and revisits learning making sure that when exam answers are needed, they are available for immediate use. Providing opportunities for ‘Flow’, having lessons long enough and uninterrupted in which more complex skills can be embedded through learning activities will mean field trips for physical geography or ecological sampling will be the best so flow is established. Indeed visiting a superb drama production can make such a difference to the study of a play; whilst it might not make a difference to an exam answer, it might actually inspire a reluctant learner to dance, act, perform or work backstage, re-motivating them in the process. Establishing the right learning experiences to create the more sophisticated moral and cultural codes we need for individual and societal benefit now present educators with our biggest challenge. It is no longer enough to use examples from US history to establish the presence of race in our curriculum, nor to represent humanity by ignoring the contribution made by females, nor to ignore the appalling effect adolescent access to the internet brings to their understanding of sex and consensual behaviour. Given the fragmentation of the lower secondary curriculum I have referred to earlier, I see my job as curriculum leader/designer to pull together this area into a really coherent whole, to ensure for example the Maths department play their part in social instruction (Turing/Lovelace/Williams) whilst ensuring in a school that manages its boys and girls education on separate sites that ‘nil detriment’ arises through such separation (DfE paper 2021).

I’ll close by making reference to some pretty modern understandings now arising about the growing epidemic of attention deficit, anxiety and mental health in children, now at levels 100 times greater than existed when I first entered the profession. Many of the unintended consequences of moving to a digital world included the swapping by children of external play for screen based games. 20 years ago and more, the damaging loss of play areas in communities began to be redressed by the Children’s Play Council and its successor, Play England, where thanks are due to their ‘sustained, effective lobbying by the Children’s Play Council/Play England (amongst others) that such significant sums of public and lottery funding were committed to play’3. The Play England report in the same year caused a media storm with headlines such as “Go OUT and play! One in three children has never climbed a tree and half have never made a daisy chain” in the Daily Mail at the time. Austerity measures of course overtook the generosity of the government of the day, and we see now even more clearly through the #lockdowns of 2020/2021 how damaging to children’s physical and mental health development is the loss of independent play and its associated risk taking/independent learning/schema development.

If you have not listened to Jose Long’s impassioned broadcast for the retention of Adventure playgrounds on Radio 4, do listen here…https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000zcf5

Anecdotal experience as well as scientific enquiry has confirmed that learning cannot take place when people are stressed and anxious’. It’s worth noting that flight and fight caused by physical stressors stimulate the body’s production of Adrenaline (hormone producing short term -15 minutes- response) , diverting blood to respiration, sense perception and muscle readiness system so the body can act immediately to make reaction. If the stressors remain, then the adrenal gland also produces Cortisol, which shuts down other systems too, such as reproductive, digestive and immune systems. Whilst you can runaway from a physical threat, the invisible threat caused by stress is not removed by either of these hormonal releases. Under such stresses, short or long term, human IQ crashes, and ceases to be able to reason or problem solve4.

All the above means that a school day must take into account all the physical and mental needs of its community, both adults and children. Many current school schedules do not begin to take these into account, putting a huge premium on academic achievement in English and Maths from an early age in the Junior school setting, reducing at the expense now of many of the other requirements for a healthy education. At secondary level, there has been a dramatic reduction in break-time length, meaning many timetables simply do not permit sufficient down time between lessons for the natural effect of rest to lower stress levels to take place. Moreover, DfE and Education leaders have increasingly advocated silence in corridor requirements, further reducing opportunities for play and conversation. With days at school becoming shorter in length, and parents unwilling or unable to permit children to play unsupervised outside, the ‘caged’ nature of childhood is becoming more obvious, and children themselves unable to manage the social interactions between themselves that they would previously have learned at unsupervised play. I don’t have an answer for other schools in this area, but am keen to highlight that for my school we aim to offer a working day covering 8.30 to 4pm with after school hour long activities in which fun and choice have a chance to ‘flow’. Routine is visible everywhere, where visibly ‘kind’ behaviour is noticed and praised, where tech is universally available for each child and can go home too, but in a safer ‘school cocoon of provided services’. Where possible, this means that our boys and girls can come and go to school, learn safely and enjoy their childhood and as an added bonus, do very well academically indeed.

1. Rosenshine’s 17 Principles of Effective Instruction – Unesco paper 2010 – http://www.ibe.unesco.org/fileadmin/user_upload/Publications/Educational_Practices/EdPractices_21.pdf

2. Evidence for Educators website – https://overpractised.wordpress.com/2022/01/02/catalyse-learning-using-schemas/

3. Urban playground website report 2011 – https://rethinkingchildhood.com/2011/09/28/play-england/

4. Manchester Anxiety Help website explanation – https://manchesteranxietyhelp.co.uk/adrenalin-and-cortisol-in-anxiety-disorders/

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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