Research Findings: Executive Summary 2

Findings from our second round of data collection and analysis are now available. In this round, we continued classroom observations and engaged teachers in focus groups to discuss the Knowledge Rich Curriculum (KRC).

The focus groups were set around findings from Executive Summary 1, and included questions relating to:

  • Role of English and Maths in the KRC,
  • Type of professional development needed to sustain the implementation of KRC,
  • Role of high quality text in the KRC,
  • Ways to support TAs in the implementation of the KRC.

Executive Summary 2 offers findings related to these questions and potential next steps for the school to take in implementing the KRC.

Research Findings: Executive Summary 1

In an earlier post, we shared our research plan for the Powerful Knowledge, Powerful Pedagogy project. Following each round of data collection and analysis, the Senior Leadership Team receives an Executive Summary of the findings.

The Executive Summary includes a description of the research process, themes from the observations and interviews, strengths of the implementation, and recommendations for making further progress.

We invite you to read the full Executive Summary and consider our findings in your own work of implementing a primary knowledge-rich curriculum. If you are interested in speaking with us about these findings, or how we reached this point in our work, please email us (

In future blog posts, we will share how we are using the recommendations to make changes in our implementation.

Should we be ‘children’s entertainers’ while following a knowledge-rich curriculum?

Laura Sterne.jpg

Guest Blogger, Laura Sterne, joins us to discuss whether teachers should be children’s entertainers. Ms. Sterne is the Teaching and Learning Champion at Cottenham Primary School and a Year 6 Teacher. She serves on the school’s Senior Leadership Team.

What is entertainment? Entertainment can be defined as, ‘something affording pleasure, diversion or amusement’. As teachers, do we have the responsibility to ensure children are entertained in our lessons? Opinions of teachers and school staff in relation to this question appear to be split. However, in Why don’t children like school?, Willingham (2009) highlights findings from research and makes suggestions as to how we can interlink the ideas of eliciting pleasure, or entertaining children, while at the same time ensuring we are sharing essential knowledge and enabling children to remember this knowledge.

Some teachers think that if children are not ‘entertained’ in a lesson then they may not be engaged and therefore might ‘switch off’. This may well be true, but the key here is how we entertain the children. If we, as teachers, spend a great deal of time focussing on how we can ensure our lesson engages children with exciting ‘hooks’ and experiences, we face the danger of children remembering the lesson rather than the knowledge we hoped the children would gain. In other words, we activate episodic memory (memory of autobiographical events) rather than sematic memory (memory of facts, ideas, meaning and concepts) (see this blog for more information).

Over the last 10 years, research has pointed to the idea that learning is linked to pleasure. Neuroscientists believe that when we learn something new, or solve a problem, the brain may reward itself with the chemical, dopamine, which is known to be associated with the reward area in the brain (Schultz, 2007). Therefore, we can come to the conclusion that if problem solving elicits this response, they are being entertained. Willingham consequently highlights that children need to solve problems in order to keep engaged and motivated in lessons.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that as long as children are solving problems, that they are being entertained and therefore are engaged and motivated to continue learning. It is important to ensure the problem hits the ‘sweet spot of difficulty’, meaning children cannot find the problem too hard (leading to cognitive overload) or too easy (which would not result in the desired response). Furthermore, it is important to consider when to introduce the problem.

Willingham (2009) suggests that the ultimate aim of problem solving is to make children (or adults!) curious. Is it more beneficial to elicit curiosity before or after the basic concepts have been learnt? For example, science experiments frequently have the ‘wow’ factor (for example putting a burning piece of paper in a bottle and then putting a boiled egg over the opening of the bottle. When the paper has burnt, the egg is sucked into the bottle). Some teachers may opt to use these ‘wow moments’ at the start of the lesson in order to ‘hook’ the children and therefore keep them engaged in the lesson. However, Willingham offers that it might be more beneficial to display these experiments once the children have the key knowledge they need to be able to explain the principles behind experiments (with the egg experiment, this would be after they have the knowledge that warm air expands and cooling air contracts, possibly creating a vacuum). This would then potentially puzzle the students momentarily but would ultimately lead to the added benefit of the pleasure of problem solving.

After reading Willingham’s book, it has become clear that it is possible to follow the principles behind a knowledge-rich curriculum and be ‘entertaining’ and therefore engaging students at the same time. Entertainment elicits pleasure. There are many ways to elicit a pleasurable response and, conducting and following a knowledge-rich curriculum, alongside reasoning and problem solving, is one way to ensure children experience pleasure, are engaged, motivated and consequently on the road to becoming well-rounded effective learners.

Amusement. (n.d.). In Retrieved from

Schultz, W. (2007) Behavioural dopamine signals: A review of the role of dopamine, a neurochemical, in learning, problem solving, and reward. Trends in Neurosciences, 30, 203-210.

Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why don’t students like school? A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


What does literacy teaching look like in a knowledge-rich curriculum?

In what will likely be a series of posts on the connections between powerful knowledge and literacy, we begin by asking the question, “What does literacy teaching look like in a knowledge-rich curriculum?”

One of the positions taken by proponents of knowledge-rich curricula is the focus on building children’s understanding of the “word and the world” (Hirsch, 2003), rather than teaching them the skills to ascertain knowledge on their own. With a heavy focus on the teaching of skills and strategies, the English Language Arts (ELA) is often devoid of content. Rather, ELA is typically seen as the opportunity to teach children the skills needed to access and negotiate text.

As Hirsch (2003) points out, this view of literacy teaching leaves many children without the necessary knowledge to comprehend text. While they may be able to decode words on a page, many children lack deep vocabulary knowledge, making it difficult to understand non-fiction text in particular.

Hirsch (2003) implores teachers to move away from a heavy focus on teaching reading comprehension skills and instead provide children with a heavy dose of vocabulary related to the specific domains taught in school, which scaffolds background knowledge, an element essential to reading comprehension.

Similar to Hirsch (2003), Nell Duke (2000) reports on the scarcity of informational text in primary grades. In fact, Duke’s study demonstrated that on average children spent only 3.6 minutes per day engaged with non-fiction text. Given the amount of knowledge children must have in order to understand the domains of science, history, geography, etc., these findings are staggering.

It is not enough to expose children to vocabulary of the domain being studied, however. They must also have access to text that includes the domain vocabulary, as well as opportunities to read text throughout the school day. Significant consideration must be given to the type(s) and quality of text children are reading at school.

As a final note, while children’s access to non-fiction text should be considered by schools, this is not as a replacement for fiction text. Children require a healthy diet of both fiction and non-fiction text in order to understand both the world and the word.

Other questions in this series include:

What is the role of guided reading in a knowledge-rich curriculum?

Does whole class teaching of reading support a knowledge-rich curriculum?


Duke, N.K. (2000). 3.6 minutes per day: The scarcity of informational texts in first grade. Reading Research Quarterly, 35, 202-224.

Hirsch, Jr., E.D. (2003). Reading Comprehension Requires Knowledge—of Words and the World: Scientific Insights into the Fourth-Grade Slump and the Nation’s Stagnant Comprehension Scores. American Educator, 27(1).

Developing a research partnership

One of the reasons we are attempting to make the Powerful Knowledge, Powerful Pedagogy project transparent is to highlight the importance of the research partnership in developing and maintaining a school-wide initiative. Cottenham Primary School (CPS) has been working towards implementation of a knowledge-rich curriculum for over a year. Because this is a relatively new goal for primary schools in the UK, classroom resources and professional development are sparse. We feel it is important to document what the school learns as they evolve, and to take a systematic approach to studying their evolution so we can make sense of it and revise along the way.

Formally, we have an Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between CPS and the University of South Florida. This MOU establishes:

Additionally, there are several factors that are essential for this partnership to thrive. In this post, we discuss Leadership, Trust, and Time.


It is no secret that strong leadership is essential for any initiative to thrive, and a research partnership is no different. CPS leadership is open to and supportive of the research and for the transparent approach we are taking to make it public. USF leadership is supportive of a faculty member serving as Scholar-in-Residence at CPS. USF faculty and CPS staff work together to implement the curriculum and the research, and we do so by acknowledging the strengths we each bring to the table and moving forward with our associated roles. Teachers are leading the implementation and will be the most powerful contributors to us understanding how to successfully implement the knowledge-rich curriculum. As such, they are taking on additional responsibilities by agreeing to participate in the research.


Because of strong leadership, we developed a relationship built on trust. Teachers are agreeing to participate in the research because they trust that time will only be asked of them in order to strengthen the good teaching they already do. Leadership at the school are willing to make the work public because they trust it will support other schools embarking on a similar path. And the faculty member trusts that consideration will be given and new ideas implemented based on the executive summaries provided to the school after each iteration of data collection.


This research partnership did not happen overnight. The trust and leadership noted were developed over an extended period of time and across two continents. CPS and USF have a longstanding relationship through the USF Cambridge Schools Experience program. Trainee teachers from USF become part of the school community for four weeks every summer. The consistency of this program, and of the program staff, connects the two organizations annually. Further, the school opened their doors to me during my research sabbatical in Spring 2016, and we continued to work together to establish a mutually beneficial partnership through the 2016-2017 school year.





Informed consent for research

Today we launched the Powerful Knowledge, Powerful Pedagogy research at the primary school. In doing so, we introduced the purpose of the study and the elements required of teachers and members of the senior leadership team (SLT) should they decide to participate. Although we hope all members of staff will participate in the research, it is essential for us to make it clear that participation is voluntary, and even if they do choose to participate they can always elect not to at a later date.

Because I am based in the U.S., we arranged a time for me to Zoom in to their inset to describe the research and answer any questions the staff had.

To participate in this research, teachers and SLT are agreeing to the following:

  • 2 interviews per year (one in the Autumn term and one in the Summer term)
  • Observations of teaching (4-5 each year)
    • Lesson plans
    • Examples of children’s work
    • Additional documentation related to the lesson
  • Focus group participation, if needed
  • Optional: Coaching cycles to support implementation of knowledge-rich curriculum

It is important that teachers and SLT understand they won’t be named individually in any reports. Rather, I will analyse each iteration of the data and offer an executive summary highlighting themes and next steps. (You can access our data collection and analysis plan here.)

The purpose of this project is to learn (1) how to successfully implement a knowledge-rich curriculum in the primary years, and (2) the types of professional development needed to make this successful. Thus, we are looking to understanding the school’s implementation and needs broadly, rather than at an individual teacher level.

We are happy to share our research protocols and consent forms with anyone interested.

What is Powerful Knowledge, Powerful Pedagogy?

We are using this space to document what we learn about implementing a knowledge-rich curriculum in the primary years, and the professional development needed to support staff and leadership to do so successfully.

Our intent is to share analysis from several iterations of research conducted during the 2017-2018 school year. We will also share resources that develop our understandings of what teachers should know and be able to do in order to best support children’s learning.

We encourage you to participate by commenting on our posts and sharing your own resources.