Curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment, in that order

Curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment, in that order
Date21st Aug 2023AuthorProfessor Dylan WiliamCategoriesTeaching, Policy and News

This chapter first appeared in SFCA's collection of essays and case studies, Sixth Form Mattersand is re-posted here to reach an audience who may not have read the original book.

In this chapter, I argue that improving what happens in sixth forms requires first attending to what we want our students to learn (curriculum), then thinking about how we get our students to learn these things (pedagogy), and then, and only then, figuring out how we find out what our students have learned (assessment).


Students in the sixth form this year will, in all probability, still be working in the final quarter of the 21st century. The jobs they will be doing and the skills they will need to participate effectively in society, and to flourish as human beings, are impossible to predict. Fifty years ago, the idea that we would carry around with us, in the shape of our smartphones, a movie camera of unimaginable power and instantaneous access to all, or at least much, of the world’s knowledge, its music, and its films and TV shows, would have seemed absurd. And much of what was promised fifty years ago has not happened. As venture capitalist Peter Thiel famously said in 2011, ‘We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters’ (the limit for Tweets at the time).

Many have suggested, in an era when factual knowledge is irrelevant because ‘You can always Google it’, that we should instead be focusing on what are sometimes called ‘21st century skills’, such as collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving. These capabilities will undoubtedly be important in the 21st century (although they were pretty useful in the 15th century too), but the main problem with the idea of 21st century skills is that it assumes that a skill such as ‘critical thinking’ is a single skill that can be taught as such.

It is easy to see how someone might come to such a conclusion. If you ask a mathematician and a historian to describe what they mean by critical thinking, they will say very similar things, and so it is tempting to believe that they are describing the same capability; in fact, they are not. We know this because developing students’ ability to think critically in history has little or no impact on their ability to think critically in mathematics. The skill of “critical thinking” is not a single skill but a bundle of superficially similar skills that require completely different mental processes. “21st century skills” are useful not because they are transferable, because they really aren’t. They are useful as an audit tool for our curricula. When we look at our mathematics curriculum, we should check that it includes collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving, and we should apply the same checklist to our history curriculum.

Related to the idea of 21st century skills is the idea that we should be focusing on helping our students to work in inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary teams, not least because most of the challenges that can be solved from the perspective of a single discipline have been solved. But multi-disciplinary work requires that those collaborating bring strong disciplinary perspectives to the challenges being faced. Climate scientists can tell us about the ways in which our climate is changing, and the likely causes, but solutions will require contributions from psychologists, agricultural specialists, civil engineers, economists, social policy experts, and so on. It is the difference in perspectives that different disciplines bring to the challenge that makes progress possible.

Other commentators have suggested that rather than focus on general capabilities such as “21st century skills” we should instead have a future-oriented curriculum that includes things like coding and robotics. The problem with that is we already have computer programs that can write computer programs, and software engineers are now working on computer programs that can write computer programs that can write computer programs.

If we are picking topics, we might get lucky and choose things that will still be around in twenty years’ time, but we will be gambling with our students’ future, and, if the past is any guide, we are more likely to be wrong than right.

So, what should a curriculum for the rest of the century look like? First, we must recognise that our disciplines are not arbitrary ways of carving up the knowledge of the world. Statisticians know that measures of dispersion in data are as important as measures of central tendency – they know that someone with one foot in boiling water and one foot in freezing water is not, on average, comfortable. Geographers look at how human activity is shaped by, and in turn, shapes the physical environment, while sociologists look at the interplay between structure and agency. The important point here is that learning to think like a statistician, or a geographer, or a sociologist requires sustained, deep engagement in the discipline.

Second, we need to recognise that while specialisation is important, there is also value in what the 1944 Education Act described as a ‘balanced and broadly-based curriculum’. This has led some to argue that the inherent specialisation into three or four subjects at A Level is harmful. They point to systems such as the United States, where students follow a broad curriculum throughout high school, and even at university are discouraged from deciding their ‘major’ until they are halfway through their university studies.

How we decide between broad general curricula and early specialisation is as much a cultural matter as it is a matter of education or economics.

Broadening the range of subjects that students take in the sixth form will have positive benefits, but it will inevitably result in student achievement in some areas being lower than it might otherwise have been, and this would require universities to restructure their undergraduate courses, which I think is unlikely to happen quickly.

For the foreseeable future, therefore, I think early specialisation is likely to be the hallmark of upper secondary education in England. However, there is one thing that I think could be done to make students’ experiences more coherent, and that is to identify what we might call “pathways” in sixth-form study. For example, rather than having a single standard curriculum for mathematics, there could be different maths syllabuses that would be designed to support the other subjects a student had chosen. Students selecting mathematics, physics and chemistry at A-level would learn mathematics most relevant to the physical sciences, while those studying social sciences would have an equally demanding mathematics curriculum but focused more on statistics and discrete mathematics.

Once we have decided on what sixth-form students should be learning, we need to focus on how we should teach our students the things we want them to learn.


One of the most seductive ideas in education is that the best way to get good at something is to practise the thing you want to get good at. This can be true, but often is not. Learning to play a musical instrument involves learning to play scales, rather than just practising the pieces you want to play. Elite South American football players frequently attribute their success to playing a different game – futsal – that is played on a pitch the size of a handball or basketball court with a ball that is 20 percent smaller, 20 percent heavier, and only half as bouncy as a traditional football.

There is a place for providing students with ‘authentic’ experiences in which we ask them to take the roles of historians, scientists, and so on, but these are of limited value unless our students have the disciplinary knowledge to discharge these roles effectively. We don’t need to give our students practice in thinking so much as giving them more to think with. As psychologists such as John Sweller and Paul Kirschner have pointed out, what distinguishes experts from novices is knowledge, and good teaching consists of building up that knowledge in a systematic way. Some students will, no doubt, learn effectively by discovering things for themselves – what John Sweller calls the ‘randomness as genesis’ principle – but for most students this takes far too long. For them, the best way to learn is via the ‘borrowing and reorganizing’ principle, being systematically introduced to the ideas that others have already established as being useful and worthwhile.

There are two further principles that, in my view, must be incorporated into teaching at all educational stages, but particularly at sixth form level. The first relates to recent research about how our memories work. To simplify somewhat, the key insight is that our brains are not like hard disks. When something is read from a hard disk, the hard disk remains unaltered. In contrast, whenever we retrieve things from memory, the act of retrieval actually makes the memory stronger, so retrieving the same thing later becomes easier. Perhaps more surprisingly, the harder it is to retrieve things from memory, the greater the benefit of successful retrieval (and surprisingly, unsuccessful retrieval can also make learning ‘stickier’). One consequence of this, and one that has been demonstrated in a number of real-world experiments, is that studying things in a block is less efficient than practice that is distributed over weeks or even months. So rather than doing two weeks on a topic like trigonometric identities, it is likely to be more effective to do trigonometric identities on Monday, with other topics on the other days of the week. Because students have begun to forget what they did last Monday, requiring them to retrieve these ideas will be harder next Monday than it would have been last Tuesday, so that impact on long-term learning is increased. There will always be a role for covering some material in larger blocks, but using what is generally called “distributed practice” would appear to be an essential tool for the sixth-form teacher.

The second principle is obvious, but rarely implemented. As David Ausubel pointed out over 50 years ago, good teaching starts from  where our students are, rather than where we would like them to be (‘You should know this; you’re in Year 13!’). Because what our students learn from our teaching cannot be predicted with any certainty, we  need to find out what our students did learn before we move on, for example by using frequent ‘checks for understanding’. Teachers have always done this, but the way this is typically done generates rather weak evidence: the questions teachers ask can often be answered correctly by students with a poor or incomplete understanding of the material. In addition, teachers frequently  regard  a  correct  answer from a confident student as an indication of  the readiness of  the   whole class to move on. Effective pedagogy at any levelrequires asking questions that provide deep insights into students’ thinking, and also requires getting responses from all the students in the group rather   than just ‘the usual suspects’ – a pedagogy of engagement (so that the teacher is getting evidence from every member of the group) and a pedagogy of responsiveness (sothat the teacher is using that evidence to make better decisions about what to do next.) There are technological solutions here, such as electronic voting systems or ‘clickers’, but the fact that such systems record all responses permanently makes them rather intimidating – after all, if we want to create classrooms where students are not afraid of making mistakes, the last thing we should do  is record every single one of them. That is why I advocate much more ephemeral forms of evidence such as mini-whiteboards and ‘finger- voting’ (1 for A, 2 for B, 3 for C and so on). As one chemistry teacher in South East London puts it, ‘It’s all about making the students’ voices louder and making the teacher’s hearing better’.


A discussion of the inadequacies of the way we currently assess student achievement in the sixth form would be beyond the scope of this chapter, and probably even beyond the scope of the entire book. A-level is often described as the “gold standard”, but in truth its continued existence is due more to inertia than its intrinsic virtues—as a judge once said in a different context, “I will not countenance change. Things are bad enough as they are.”

A-level examinations do perform reasonably well in predicting how well students will do in, and preparing them for, our existing undergraduate degrees, but this seems to me to be the wrong focus. Instead, I think we should be asking, “Are we sure that A-levels are the only way of identifying the ability of students to benefit from, and succeed in higher education?” It seems to me that very few people would answer, “Yes” to this question. For anyone interested in alternatives, the Access to Medicine programme at King’s College London provides an interesting proof of concept. Students from socially disadvantaged areas were assessed for entry with tests of scientific reasoning that had been benchmarked on traditional medical students, and given extra support and time (three years to cover the first two years of the undergraduate medical curriculum). At the end of the fifth year, these students were indistinguishable from those following the traditional entry route.

A more radical approach to improving assessment in the sixth form would be to recognise that any assessment system involves a number of trade-offs, and these trade-offs can either be explicit, discussed, and argued about, or they can emerge as unintended consequences of decisions taken earlier in the development process. On the assumption that having these trade-offs made explicitly is better, I offer the following five features of a good assessment system.

Distributed: assessment evidence is collected throughout the course, rather than being undertaken entirely at the end. This of course raises many technical difficulties, for example in weighing work in Year 12 against that done in Year 13, but trying to measure the learning done over a two-year course in a small number of two- to three-hour written examinations at the end of that course guarantees that results depend to a great extent on chance factors, such as which particular questions happened to be included in the exam.

Synoptic: assessment requires students to accumulate knowledge and skills, rather than being allowed to learn the material they are taught, be assessed on it, get a grade, bank the grade, and then forget everything they needed to know to get the grade. For this reason, a good assessment system must require students to synthesise what they are learning, and show mastery of all the course content at the end. After all, juggling six balls at the same time is not the same as juggling one ball six times.

Extensive: assessment generates evidence about all aspects of the course, rather than just those that are easy to assess. Oral examinations should be a feature of modern language courses, but they would also seem to be useful in mathematics and science, for example by asking students to reason in novel situations—to ‘think on their feet’ (though probably while seated!). Critics would argue that suchassessment would be expensive, which it would. But by spending a little more on how we assess students in the sixth form, we might get better value from the funding we allocate to teaching them.

Manageable: assessment does not redirect too much time and resources that could be better spent on improving student learning. For example, “coursework” is often regarded as placing undue burdens on teachers, but that is generally because coursework involves a series of additional “set-piece” tasks, undertaken under controlled conditions rather than, as it is in many countries, simply the work of the course. Technology has a role to play here, but assessing students constantly—often without their knowledge, called “stealth assessment”—raises serious ethical issues that need to be addressed head on.

Trusted: assessment must command the confidence of key stakeholders such as universities, employers, parents, and students. In some countries, trust in teachers is so low that only timed written externally-set and externally-scored examinations are regarded as feasible. In others, trust in teachers is so high that not using some teacher judgement in the assessment process would be regarded as perverse—as one German commentator once remarked, “Why rely on an out-of-focus snapshot taken by a total stranger?”. The important point here is that there will never be a universal standard for what it means for an assessment system to be trustworthy, but by working to ensure that stakeholders have faith in the reported outcomes, we are more likely to get a stable system than persists over many years.

Effective pedagogy at any level requires asking questions that provide deep insights into students’ thinking, and also requires gettingresponses from all the students in the group rather than just ‘the usual suspects’— a pedagogy of engagement (so that the teacher is getting evidence from every member of the group) and a pedagogy of responsiveness (so that the teacher is using that evidence to make betterdecisions about what to do next.)

No assessment system – at A Level or elsewhere – would be able to do all these things. For example, there is a clear and obvious tension between distributed and synoptic assessment, and between manageability and extensiveness. But being clear about where – and why – we are making those trade-offs makes it more likely that our assessment systems will provide useful information for stakeholders, as well as being fair to students and teachers.

Closing thoughts

In this chapter, I have made a series of suggestions about how sixth form education might be improved, based on my views, my experiences, and my reading of the research evidence. Those with other views and experiences, and different readings of the research evidence will no doubt disagree with what I have said, or at least have different emphases. However, what I think is likely to be fairly widely agreed is that, to have productive debates about how to move forward, we need first to be clear about what we think our students should be learning in the sixth form, then think about how best to get our students to learn what we want them to learn, and finally how we find out what our students have learned. Curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment; in that order.

In a varied career, Dylan Wiliam has taught in inner-city schools, trained teachers, directed a large-scale testing programme, served a number of roles in university administration, and is now Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment at the UCL Institute of Education.


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