Sam Stones and Kathy Cameron continue the EBEA’s analysis of what the new Ofsted inspection framework means for our subject areas by considering the role of careful sequencing in effective curriculum design.

In September 2019, the Common Inspection Framework (CIF) was replaced by the Education Inspection Framework (EIF). This changed the way Ofsted inspects schools, colleges, further education institutions and early years settings. The new inspection framework represents a significant shift in focus and places increased emphasis on the importance of the curriculum. The EIF redresses the balance between curriculum (what is taught) and teaching (how the curriculum content is taught) and was necessary as evidence suggests that the focus on substance and knowledge is often lost (Ofsted, 2019). As a consequence, students acquired a series of facts rather than developing and retaining a body of knowledge and deeper understanding.

To promote knowledge retention and depth of understanding, it is helpful to consider Sweller’s (1998) cognitive load theory, advocated in a Tweet by Dylan Wiliam (2017), as ‘the single most important thing for teachers to know’. If students are to retain knowledge, it must be moved from working memory to long-term memory. In turn, this ‘frees up’ working memory which although limited in capacity is where new knowledge is processed. For maximum effect, we need to reduce cognitive load, of which there are three forms:

  1. Intrinsic cognitive load (determined by the difficulty or complexity of a new task or concept and can be simplified by drawing upon relevant and secure prior knowledge)
  2. Extraneous cognitive load (determined by the way in which materials are presented; using instructional design to reduce distractions and so cognitive load)
  3. Germane cognitive load (maximising opportunities for students to process new information and develop existing schema)

Cognitive load theory argues that students will find it difficult to complete a task or activity when their cognitive load exceeds their processing capacity. Therefore, the teacher’s role is to sequence learning to minimise the intrinsic load by scaffolding new knowledge in the context of what is already known. Likewise, teachers must also ensure that the presentation of tasks and activities decreases opportunities for unnecessary distraction or confusion. Together, this simplification and reduction of intrinsic and extraneous load increases the availability of students’ working memory to process new knowledge.

If our aim is to provide students with deep knowledge, securely embedded in their long-term memory and which will support them going forward, it is crucial to consider some key aspects of teaching and learning when we consider sequencing. Firstly, it is essential that we acknowledge that effective learning only takes place when students are able to relate new concepts and ideas to their existing understanding. To do so, teachers must be aware of and understand what students already know in relation to a specific concept, topic or subject. This can enable students to draw links between what is already known and what is being currently taught. Equally, teachers must also identify the threshold knowledge and skills that students must learn and understand before they can be exposed to and access further learning within the subject area. These ‘big-ideas’ enable knowledge and skill development as students become business-informed thinkers.

These threshold concepts or big-ideas include:

  • the purpose of business (including business sectors, objectives and the role of markets);
  • types of private and public sector business ownership;
  • risk, reward and uncertainty;
  • effective communication;
  • stakeholders;
  • scarcity and choice;
  • hierarchical structures.

Furthermore, for students to access the required knowledge and understanding to maximum effect, teachers must have the requisite knowledge and understanding of their own subject and its cross-curricular links by engaging with inter-departmental and cross curricular dialogue, so allowing learning opportunities to be interwoven. This dialogue should be used to identify opportunities for students to acknowledge the connections between subject areas – including English and Maths – from which other subject teachers can scaffold their teaching and learning. An example of this has been previously explored in New GCSE Business: Cracking the Quantitative Skills (Teaching Business & Economics, Autumn 2017). Only careful curriculum planning can lead to an effective sequence.

The table below offers some insight into sequencing strategies to facilitate this.

Strategy Exemplification Rationale Example
Real-life Exposing students to a current problem or scenario before considering its theoretical basis Use to contextualise real-life events and build on students’ familiarity Exploring the impact of a current recession before considering taxation and interest rates
Timeline Theoretical developments to reflect changing needs over time Use to demonstrate the progressive nature of the subject and its topics Exploring how our understanding of human behaviour has influenced motivational theory
Breaking down Presenting students with a bigger picture and then exploring its individual components Support students to understand how the whole is the sum of its parts Taking the income statement and then completing individual profitability calculations
Building up Presenting students with individual components and then exploring how they fit together Support students to understand how individual parts interact to make a whole Study individual and total inflows and outflows and how these then interact to affect bank balances and liquidity needs
Secure to insecure Guide students into unknown areas scaffolded on existing knowledge and understanding Learners can make sense of new knowledge through building on that already known Drawing on maths knowledge of probability to explore critical path analysis and decision-making
Insecure to secure Exposing students to concepts to deliberately disorientate them To identify and address misconceptions and encourage debate Demonstrating to students that profitable businesses may not always survive
Incremental steps Completing a task by modelling its incremental steps Use to apply knowledge to processes and procedures When teaching students about recruitment and selection processes
Connect Provide a basic introduction to one topic, and then move on to another topic (of similar difficulty) and then on to a third topic, before revisiting the first To gain an understanding of the inter-related nature and inter-connectedness of business topics Students can learn about the objectives of each business function and then return to each function in further depth

That said, we recognise that curriculum planning is not simplistic or straight-forward. Specifically, when we think about curriculum planning in the context of business education, there are a number of difficulties and challenges to consider and address. These include:

  • Some students have not studied the subject theoretically prior to Key Stage 5 whilst others have
  • Students’ exposure to subject-specific theory is likely to be limited prior to Key Stage 4
  • Students’ social contexts and cultural capital may vary significantly, thus impacting upon prior knowledge of programmes and topics as well as misconceptions
  • The degree to which students can draw on knowledge and skills from other disciplines, including those they are currently studying
  • Whether the subject is delivered by subject non-specialists and the degree to which these staff can access subject-specific professional development
  • Access to subject-specific research informed practice remains limited in comparison to other subjects and disciplines

In assessed programmes, we must be careful to ensure that the specification content does not become the curriculum. Deepening knowledge and understanding goes beyond the specification itself, and the following approaches to sequencing may be useful to consider when integrating the specification into the wider subject and whole-school curriculum. In this way, the specification acts as a ‘floor’ rather than a ‘ceiling’ and for sequencing provides us with a start rather than an end point. For example, a specification may not require you to teach the primary, secondary and tertiary sector, but to do so would provide a gateway through which students are able to access subsequent knowledge within the specification.  Similarly, subject teaching can support the curriculum to develop students’ cultural capital by promoting an awareness of life beyond the academic, technical and vocational. We can do this through seeking opportunities to include and integrate:

  • financial literacy skills;
  • key enterprise skills;
  • employability skills;
  • an understanding of other key organisations (including CBI and trade unions);
  • skills of debate, negotiation and compromise;
  • understanding of opportunities for further study through different institutions;
  • the importance of enterprise to the economy;
  • engagement with the wider community.

Despite this guidance, it is not for us to provide specific examples of how these must be addressed within your setting. We acknowledge that each context faces its own opportunities and challenges and therefore it becomes vital that this determines the intent of each setting’s wider curriculum.

Finally, we turn our attention to the extent to which specifications are truly fit for purpose for sequencing. Here, we provide two illustrations relating to the topic area of objectives to demonstrate why a specification may not be helpful.

  1. Where the specification itself is not structured coherently to support knowledge and understanding. For example, in one A Level specification, strictly following the ordering of the required content would result in students being taught about the various business objectives prior to learning about the different types of business. This would provide students with knowledge of business objectives whilst lacking the ability to apply this to different types of businesses, so limiting their depth of understanding and retention. In this instance, reversing the sequence order would provide students with a developed schema to which they could then apply their knowledge of objectives.
  2. Where the specification itself does not stipulate all necessary knowledge. For example, a specification requires students to state a range of common business objectives but does not require them to move beyond this. Therefore, the necessity for objectives to be SMART is ignored. When this additional content is included in the sequence, students will be able to draw a deeper understanding of objectives, thus supporting retention and long-term memory transfer.

These examples illustrate how the specification is a crucial document in providing a definitive list of minimum knowledge expectations, grouped into themes and topic areas. However, it makes no attempt to sequence as it does not stipulate how or when these should be developed. It is the teacher’s role to sequence and deliver this knowledge coherently to meet students’ needs and in doing so support long-term retention. When it comes to curriculum ambition, the specification provides a starting point for curriculum planning; it does not provide a sequenced curriculum blueprint.

Ofsted (2019), School inspection update, Manchester: Ofsted.

Sweller, J. (1998), ‘Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning’, Cognitive Science, (12), 257-285.

Kathy Cameron Senior Lecturer, PGCE Business, Leeds Trinity University

Samuel Stones National Subject Leader (Business), Ormiston Academies Trust