Designing a new SKE curriculum

I’d like to acknowledge Ben Arscott’s (2018) article in Impact, as the inspiration for the structure of this blog post, which is part of the Curriculum In Science symposium.

We’ve run a Subject Knowledge Enhancement (SKE) course at the University of Southampton since they were first introduced. They are designed to improve the subject knowledge of trainee teachers prior to their PGCE. If you want to know more check our website.

The shifting sands of ITT bursaries, DfE policy, HE finance metrics, and applicant profiles left us starting to look at a bit of a desert, where once our Physics SKE had been a fine oasis, where trainee teachers flocked to drink great gulps of science subject knowledge, so we’re in the process of re-designing the course from scratch.

Unlike most teaching, SKEs don’t have to conform to any kind of specification of content, nor is there any fixed standard or assessment requirement. Maybe a bit like KS3 (but even more so) this is an opportunity to think about the complete process of curriculum design in developing the new course. I’m going to try to take you through the process I’ve used, which largely follows Turner (2016): purpose; principles; expectations; big ideas; content; sequence; review (although as you’ll see, I think content and sequence are a glamorous couple in choreographed harmony, that progress together).

turner start

The course has several units that combine in different ways to match needs; I’m just going to focus on the unit on electricity.

The PURPOSE of the SKE is clear enough. We are trying to get science graduates, with gaps in subject knowledge, up to a level where they feel confident in their own subject knowledge before teaching. Along the way, they will hopefully pick up some ideas about how to teach circuits but there is a potential tension there. If there is a difference between the best way for them to learn circuits, and the best way to teach circuits at KS3/4 then we go for the first option.

For me, there are two key PRINCIPLES I want to construct the curriculum around. Both are to do with the structure and type of knowledge involved. I think that teachers need to be able to think quite flexibly about circuits. Sometimes the useful thinking is at the level of charged particles repelling each other, and sometimes it’s at the level of Kirchoff’s Laws. To me this is different to how I would teach children, where my focus would definitely be mostly on the macro-level. So the 1st principle is to design the curriculum to link these perspectives based on a narrative thread from the micro- to the macro-level. I am also sold on Ruth Walker’s descriptions of declarative knowledge (the things we know, that often have the power to explain across multiple contexts) and the need to link and sequence this, and procedural knowledge (the processes we follow to get from the start to the end of a type of problem). So the 2nd principle is to take account of types of knowledge.

The EXPECTATIONS are about what we want the trainee teachers to be able to do when they start preparing to teach electricity topics in school. As I suggested in this advice to trainees, the subject knowledge of a teacher needs to have at least the breadth of the school curriculum, but also be good enough to break things down into little steps, and to explain clearly and succinctly. Being able to cope with leftfield questions is a bonus but it’s not critical. That standard feels like about GCSE A* in old money and we will be setting a summative exam based on past paper GCSE questions. But that ability to explain is the key for me and not every A* candidate can do it well. We need to assess explanations directly. Which means we need to build in opportunities for trainee teachers to practise explaining.

Rogers (2018) and a group led by Harlen (2010), amongst others, have identified the importance of building the science curriculum around big ideas. Jasper Green’s post in this symposium picks up these ideas too. Although these three were thinking at a whole curriculum level, I think Turner’s process can be applied at this smaller, unit level (if not, I blew it back at the start of this post). I think to understand electricity well, you have to have a grasp of both the micro- and macro-scopic. So my BIG IDEAS within this unit are:

  • that like charges repel and therefore tend to spread out,
  • that when like charges are not distributed evenly that is a potential difference,
  • that a potential difference in a circuit causes a current,
  • that there are simple rules that describe how potential difference, current, and resistance in a circuit are related.

The narrative goes from micro to macro: my first principle.

I think there is already a SEQUENCE coming through there. Turner (2016) suggested CONTENT comes before sequence but I think that’s only true at the level of a whole course. For the whole SKE, picking the units is a case of content before sequence. We can’t cover everything so the physics is going to be this static and circuit electricity unit, energy, forces and motion, and a particle model unit that overlaps with chemistry. Pritesh Raichura has written more about making these kind of selections. Sequencing of units is about looking for ideas in one unit that support another but there isn’t going to be an ideal solution. The energy unit is easier if comfortable with P=IV, but power and energy in circuits are a problem if power and energy generally are woolly.

In the secondary curriculum I think there is a good argument for using these co-dependencies to plan interleaving. Not just round and round in a spiral but, for example, teach energy using W=Fs and P=W/t, but just energy meters where circuits are involved, then do circuits including P=IV, and then later on come back to energy and things like the required practical on SHC (where the energy transferred by the heater circuit causes problems).

In contrast, at the level of an individual topic, I think sequence precedes content, or rather the content builds on the sequences, although it has to be a sequence that takes in the content. Does that make sense? I don’t think it’s a road map – I don’t think we are starting at Dover and have to get to Holyhead, picking up relatives in Kilburn and Birkenhead, and asking, What’s the best route? It’s more choreography, where the two things come together to produce the dance.

How will this dance go? Let’s start with charged particles. As science graduates, a basic atomic model with electrons as negatively-charged particles is not the abstract barrier it can be for children in school. However, the movement of electrons due to friction does need to go in, with ideas about charging by induction. Always the sense is that charges repelling each other is why (negative) charges move. The exemplars I will use are charged polythene and acetate strips, attraction of paper fragments, sticking balloons on the ceiling, John Travoltage (and aircraft fuelling), and of course the Van de Graaff. This is classic school science terrain. The declarative knowledge leads to an explanatory sequence, adjusted to fit the context. This sort of work requires scaffolded writing, in the same vein as the evolution examples in my AfL blog post, with plenty of modelling and practice.

This leads to a cell in an open circuit, with electrons piling up on one side of the open switch. Again, science graduates get equilibrium; here the p.d. across the cell = p.d. across the open switch. Close the switch and charges move: current.


Next a different p.d. This one is due to the resistance of a lamp filament making electrons pile up: still an equilibrium though, so the p.d. across the lamp = p.d. across the cell.

  • pd2That’s Kirchoff’s 2nd Law
    • including potential dividers
  • What if we provide parallel routes?
    • Now we have Kirchoff’s 1st Law.

Here we have moved to the macroscopic level. They (hopefully) now have an understanding of very simple circuits, but I need to divorce them from trying to explain everything in terms of charged particles, and focus on the main rules – key declarative knowledge. I also need to give them concrete representations of abstract concepts:


  • rope model for current in series (a good opportunity to sneak in AC);
  • donation model for p.d. in parallel (flawed in other ways but good for this one thing);
  • blowing through straws for resistance in parallel

I think some or all of these are bridging models as Gethyn Jones described in his post.

I need to tie R, V and I together algebraically and I will reinforce the move to macro-scale by switching to the direction of conventional current. That always upsets them!

I want to use demo circuits to complement these models, and tie the thinking to real circuits. I need to show them all the ways in which real circuits will trip them up – particularly why two lamps in parallel may be different brightness, and the way adding a lamp in parallel can reduce the p.d. of the supply, even though internal resistance is an A-Level topic (and how to avoid this by choosing components carefully). Understanding practical assessment, described by Tim Oates in his post, is mostly a PGCE thing, but we’ll certainly do the required practicals here. There are also a few odd little bits to add like what happens if you put an ammeter in parallel or voltmeter in series.

They’ll need shed loads of practice particularly on circuit calculations, which I need to build in too.

I think this will end up with all the new material coming in small steps with opportunities for practice after each step. This is identified as important by Rosenshine (2012). Everything depends on clear explanations, identification and over-learning of this key knowledge. Just like for children, retrieval practice based on a knowledge organiser is helpful because it can be so hard to identify the key points from all the noisy context. I haven’t finished the electricity one but you can see the Flashcard Machine version for the Energy unit.

We’ll see how it goes. REVIEW is the last step in Turner’s (2016) design structure. I’ve taught most of this before but haven’t thought so carefully about how to sequence it and make sure I don’t get ahead of individual understanding. I’ll let you know what happens.


Arscott, B., 2018. Designing a secular religious studies curriculum. Impact, Issue 4, pp. 49-51.

Harlen, W., 2010. Principles and Big Ideas of Science Education. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 26 September 2018].

Rogers, B., 2018. The Big Ideas in Physics and How to Teach Them: Teaching Physics 11–18. Abingdon: Routledge.

Rosenshine, B., 2012. Principles of Instruction: Research-Based Strategies That All Teachers Should Know. American Educator, Volume Spring 2012, pp. 12-19.

Turner, S., 2016. Secondary Curriculum and Assessment Design. London: Bloomsbury.

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