2020 Spring Term 2


  • Rebel with a cause
    Lemn Sissay left behind a troubled childhood to find success as a poet, writer and broadcaster with work highlighting, in particular, the plight of children in care and inequality. He talks to Julie Nightingale. More
  • Trees of diversity
    Making school and college leadership more diverse will ensure our decision-making is better informed and more effective, says ASCL President Rachael Warwick. Here she highlights how ASCL is shining a light on diversity. More
  • Teacher autonomy
    What role does teacher autonomy play in keeping teachers motivated and in the profession? Jack Worth from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) investigates. More
  • Cyber secure?
    Cyber security expert Claire Ashton says protecting your school or college from a cyber attack is vital in order to avoid serious consequences. Here, she shares top tips on how you can protect yourself. More
  • Curriculum, Pedagogy, Assessment
    Professor Dylan Wiliam says school and college leaders need to make explicit trade-offs to improve learning in classrooms. More
  • Blueprint for a fairer education system
    ASCL General Secretary Geoff Barton says while many old habits are hard to break, together we can create new and better ones. Here, he highlights ASCL's work on a new blueprint for education. More
Bookmark and Share

Professor Dylan Wiliam says school and college leaders need to make explicit trade-offs to improve learning in classrooms.

Curriculum, Pedagogy, Assessment

While different authors define the terms ‘curriculum’ and ‘pedagogy’ in different ways, there can be little doubt that we should decide what our students need to learn before deciding how they should be taught and assessed.

For any school or college leader, making these decisions involves trade-offs – there is no perfect curriculum, no perfect pedagogy and no perfect assessment system. The best we can do, therefore, is to make these trade-offs explicit and planned, rather than consequences of other decisions. In this article, I outline some of the trade-offs that schools and colleges must make, and how such trade-offs can be made in a principled, rather than ad-hoc, way.

While the term ‘assessment’ has a widely accepted meaning, there is little consensus about the meanings of the terms ‘curriculum’ and ‘pedagogy’. The word ‘curriculum’ can mean what the government says students should be learning – as in ‘the National Curriculum’ – but also how these intentions get translated into teaching materials – textbooks, worksheets and so on, or even the daily classroom experiences of students; in which case pedagogy is part of curriculum.

Similarly, pedagogy can be used just to describe the craft of teaching, or much more broadly, to encompass everything teachers need to know in order to teach, in which case curriculum is part of pedagogy.

The crucial issue and question for leaders, however, is how can curriculum and pedagogy be framed to produce more effective action in classrooms?


The starting point is that schools and colleges need to be clear about what their students need to learn. In recent years, many have argued that because we all have information at our fingertips (e.g. ‘You can always Google it’) then we need more emphasis on skills, in particular the so-called ‘21st-century skills’ of collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving. These are important, but there are two dangers with calling them skills.

The first is that when something like ‘critical thinking’ is described as a skill, there is an implication that it is one skill, which is understandable, because when we ask historians and mathematicians to describe critical thinking, they say similar things. However, critical thinking cannot be a single skill because no amount of training students to think critically in history lessons has any impact on their ability to think critically in mathematics. Critical thinking is, in fact, a set of superficially similar but distinct skills that need to be developed in specific disciplines.

For this reason, these ‘skills’ are best thought of as a set of ‘audit tools’ to evaluate the breadth of each subject curriculum: does the mathematics curriculum require students to collaborate, communicate, be creative, think critically and solve problems? And do the curricula for health education, RE, PE, music and so on also develop these capabilities? 

The second – related – problem is that what separates experts from novices is generally not that experts are more ‘skillful’ but rather that they are more knowledgeable. As John Sweller points out, novices have to use thinking skills while experts use knowledge. If we focus on skills, we tend to think that one topic is as good as another, whereas the particular content is crucial. Most students don’t need more thinking skills; they need more to think with.

In designing the curriculum, it is also necessary to resolve the tension between the best sequences of progression within each subject and the coherence of students’ overall experiences; science teachers often want students to be able to change the subject of the formula before the mathematics teachers have taught it. A ‘whole-school’ approach to curriculum is needed. 

However, perhaps the thorniest issue in curriculum design is the fact that some students learn faster than others. Most national curricula deal with this by ensuring there is enough material for the fastest learning students, so, for most students, there is far too much to cover. One response is to teach material at a rate that ensures all material is covered, thus leaving most students behind. Another is to cover topics superficially, resulting in a curriculum that is, in William Schmidt’s memorable phrase, “a mile wide and an inch deep”. An alternative, and for me preferable, approach is to place greater emphasis on some aspects of the curriculum than others, by focusing more attention on aspects that:

  • are essential for progress in the discipline (in science, for example, the particulate nature of matter rather than phases of the moon)
  • support progression in other subjects (such as interpreting graphs) 
  • are of lasting value into adulthood (e.g. playing a musical instrument)

Pedagogy Lee Shulman suggests that in many professions, the standard ways of bringing on new professionals use teaching approaches that are not perfect but are ‘good enough’, so energy can be spent on the learning itself (see https://tinyurl.com/vxnlsdq). He suggests that these ‘signature pedagogies’ have three characteristics:

  1. Pedagogies of engagement: students are engaged and expected to contribute to learning activities, that is, by being asked for a comment whether they have raised a hand or not. 
  2. Pedagogies of contingency: the teacher constantly seeks to establish what is happening in students’ heads during a lesson by getting evidence from the whole group, rather than just ‘the usual suspects’. 
  3. Pedagogies of formation: the teacher helps students form the habits of mind that are essential to the discipline by asking questions that are central to the subject matter at hand, but also by developing communities of learners through the establishment of cultural norms about what kind of place a school or college should be.


As noted above, students do not always learn what they are taught, so any well-functioning educational institution needs to generate and analyse evidence about whether students are actually learning what they should. Teachers therefore need to use a range of techniques for assessing student understanding minute-by-minute and day-by-day, but this alone is not enough. If students can do something at the end of today’s lesson but have forgotten it all in two weeks’ time, then they have learned very little, if anything. Learning is a long-term change in capability, so as well as ‘in-the-moment’ assessment to help teachers make better decisions in the classroom, schools also need to monitor cumulative growth in student achievement. There are many ways to do this, but one concrete strategy is for end-of-unit tests to include material from previous units, and even previous terms. Students may regard this as unfair, but as soon as students understand that practice testing is one of the most effective ways to increase learning, they are likely to see such tests as opportunities to consolidate their learning rather than as threats to self-image.


Over 70 years ago, Ralph Tyler (1949) suggested in his book, Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction, four questions that should be at the heart of any educational enterprise:

  1. “What educational purposes should the school seek to attain? 
  2. What educational experiences can be provided that are likely to attain these purposes? 
  3. How can these educational experiences be effectively organised? 
  4. How can we determine whether these purposes are being attained?”

While the mapping of these terms onto the labels ‘curriculum’, ‘pedagogy’ and ‘assessment’ depends on how we define these terms, any school or college that regularly focuses its attention on these four questions, in the order specified, will be well on the way to creating an outstanding learning environment for all its students.

ASCL Annual Conference

Dylan Wiliam was a keynote speaker at the ASCL Annual Conference in March 2020 – look out for images, speeches and videos at www.ascl.org.uk/annualconference

Dylan Wiliam
Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment at the UCL Institute of Education