02 Using a spiral curriculum to build on children's prior knowledge

The ERO 2011 report Directions for Learning: The New Zealand Curriculum Principles and Teaching as Inquiry identified that the three least evident principles from The New Zealand Curriculum were:

Treaty of Waitangi - the curriculum acknowledges the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi and the bicultural foundations of Aotearoa New Zealand. All students have the opportunity to acquire knowledge of te reo me ona tikanga.

Cultural Diversity - the curriculum reflects New Zealand's cultural diversity and values the histories and traditions of all its people.

Coherence - the curriculum offers all students a broad education that makes links within and across learning areas, provides for coherent transitions and opens up pathways to future learning.

The curriculum at Papatoetoe North School was carefully designed to make sure it included all aspects of The New Zealand Curriculum and was structured so all students had maximum opportunity to learn and achieve success. Children were able to build on their prior knowledge and celebrate some of their culture practices through rich learning experiences across all the learning areas, key competencies and principles.

This narrative explains how the leaders, teachers and parents kept children engaged and learning through a responsive curriculum that incorporated connections to students' lives and built on their prior understandings and out-of-school experiences.

Papatoetoe North School has well over 800 students with the vast majority identified as Māori, Pacific or Asian (mostly Indian). Three hundred children were funded as ESOL (English as a second or other language) students.

Leaders and teachers collaboratively developed a coherent curriculum that gave all children sufficient opportunities to learn the processes and skills from across The New Zealand Curriculum. The school's curriculum was specifically designed to build on children's cultural and prior knowledge.

Culturally responsive curriculum

Knowing the learner was integral to planning. During planning, the 'Knowing the Learner' team worked to make sure the perspectives of the children's different cultures were understood and kept in mind. This team included teachers from the different cultural backgrounds. They shared personal experiences, internet links and YouTube clips that explained the kinds of cultural competencies the children and their whanau would bring to the learning. The team also led hui, fono and meetings with parents and whanau where they discussed what the term's topic or theme meant to them. Some topics such as wellbeing and sustainability also clearly linked to the children's cultures.

Teachers were expected to consider children's cultural competencies in all aspects of their curriculum. Sets of cultural competencies for teachers were outlined for Māori, Pacific and Indian children and were use as part of teacher appraisal. Teachers were expected to show evidence of how they were responding to each of the competencies. An example of the format of the competencies (including one competency the school has identified for Indian children) is shown here.

Indian Cultural Competencies

What does it look like


Support Indian learners' achievement

Develop rich tasks around the Indian perspectives, their family and their heritage.

Have high expectations for Indian learners.

Ensure Indian learners have special needs support when needed.

and their heritage.

Have high expectations for Indian learners.

Build Indian learners' confidence so they are not fearful to do/say the wrong thing in class.


Find out more about how teachers and leaders work with parents to understand the children's culture and develop their prior knowledge in the parent partnership report.

Using children's prior knowledge

Leaders were influenced by Mazano and Hadaway's Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement which shows that what students already know about something is a strong indicator of how well they will make sense of new, related material. Mazano and Hadaway suggest we acquire background knowledge through the interaction of two factors:

  1. our ability to process and store information
  2. the number and frequency of our academically oriented experiences.

Leaders and teachers developed a spiral curriculum that repeated topics every two years so children could build on their earlier learning and subsequent experiences. The theory that children need deep knowledge to ask rich questions and use higher level skills guided teaching practice.

Teachers planned and implemented broad inquiry topics and concepts each term to provide wide ranging opportunities for learning through topics such as innovation, wellbeing, sustainability, exploration and creativity. Although the topics were repeated every two years, the concepts, skills and strategies children learnt increased in complexity as they moved through the year levels. The topics were broad enough to be able to respond to the strengths, interests and needs of the current children. A Year 6 child summarised his perspective of the curriculum when ERO asked what it was like to repeat the same topic.

When we were in Years 1 and 2 we sort of learnt about things that we could talk about and what we were interested in then. In Years 3 and 4 we had to think creatively and try to innovate new ideas.

Now, when we are in Year 5 or 6, we do a lot more about technical processes and science and cycles and things like that.

Year 6 child

The spiral curriculum

Leaders made sure children had new opportunities to build on their previous learning by developing detailed curriculum guidelines that described the skills, progressions and strategies across Levels 1 to 3 of The New Zealand Curriculum. These linked the children's developing skills to the learning areas.

The comprehensive skill progressions they created showed teachers what children should experience through the year levels and gave children maximum opportunities to achieve success while avoiding repetition. Leaders expected teachers to integrate the skills across and between the learning areas. The concept teachers focused on each term formed the basis for much of the reading and writing children would undertake. The high level of integration across the learning areas intentionally maximised children's learning time, their depth of learning and the transfer of learning across the curriculum.

An overarching skills matrix supported teachers to become familiar with what students should experience through the years. The skills were determined through making the links between the learning areas of The New Zealand Curriculum and the Key Competencies visible. The skills were described as:

>   personal voice                                    > problem solving and solution seeking

>   prior knowledge                                  > decision making

>   questioning                                         > presenting.

An overarching skills matrix supported teachers to become familiar with what students should experience through the years:

Leaders and teachers worked with an external facilitator to develop a curriculum Level 1 to Level 3 continuum for each of the key skills above (e.g. know, what, how, learn and apply). Each continuum described what the child would do at that level with activities such as:

>   discuss the effectiveness of my presentation in conveying my message to my audience

>   design and make a pattern that involves translation, rotation or reflection

>   ask open and curious questions using what we know about similarities and differences.

Each continuum included a summary of the main focus to consider when planning each topic (as shown here in an example from the continuum "What - learning through questioning - creating and making meaning”). Key skills teachers and their students were to focus on were known and applied.

Leaders and teachers designed the continua to respond to the specific strengths and needs of the children at the school. They recognised that some new skills and processes would be difficult for some of their children to master in one step. As a result, many of the continua had clearly outlined two different stages for each curriculum level as shown in the example below from the personal voice continuum for Level 3.

Leaders wanted to make sure children engaged in cognitively challenging and purposeful learning opportunities in each of the learning areas of The New Zealand Curriculum. They introduced a matrix outlining the skills teachers were to develop through each of the learning areas. In some learning areas or strands teachers were guided by externally developed matrices such as the asTTle writing rubrics or the English Language Learning Progressions (ELLP). However, in other areas such as visual language they developed their own matrix. Their mathematics matrix outlined geometry, measurement and statistics objectives across the three levels to integrate into the termly topics.
An example from the Level 3 visual language is shown below.

Planning for each topic

Senior leaders decided on the key question and contexts for each term. Leaders and teachers planned the term's work the previous term to help children build their prior knowledge and academic vocabulary with their families in the holidays before the unit began.

The three teaching syndicates used the matrices and continua to collaboratively plan termly units of work that gave children opportunities to engage with the full curriculum and focus on the skills they needed most to succeed. Syndicates were released each term for teachers to discuss their unit planning and intentions with the inquiry learning consultant the school employed. Teachers recognised the value of collaborative planning when introducing more complex activities and skills, so when children revisited a topic, they were not repeating things they learned earlier. The matrices and continua reduced the risk of children working on skills and processes they had already engaged with and mastered when learning about the topic previously.

Following is an example of part of the overview planning for the one term's unit ‘Creativity1, for Years 3 and 4 children.

Here is an example of the children’s involvement in setting the direction during the topic ‘Belonging’. Some children changed the topic focus to animals belonging to different groups. Teachers were able to weave the skills they wanted children to develop into any of the contexts that matched children’s interests.

Teachers in each syndicate collaboratively planned purposeful activities that matched to the children's interests and drew on real life contexts, issues and experiences. The programme for the topic ‘Exploration' highlighted the considerable difference in the learning activities children engaged in when ERO compared Year 1 and 2 children's learning with that for Year 5 and 6 children.

The Year 1 and 2 planning overview and one teacher's reflections for weeks 3-6 during the ‘Discovery' topic. Objectives from the English, science and social studies curriculum are included here.

Teachers across the school used KWHL charts (mentioned previously) to get children to understand how they could build on their prior learning. Here is a partially completed KWHL chart being completed by a group of children.

At the same time, the Years 5 and 6 children were engaging in a teacher led inquiry before beginning their own independent or group inquiry. The overview for the three weeks of the child led inquiry also integrated parts of the English, science and social studies curriculum along with many other key skills and processes as shown below.

Children were excited about what they were learning. Years 5 and 6 children enthusiastically shared many highlights from their recent work with us and knew their teacher had high expectations for them. Some of the inquiries children focused on included the following:

>   What are the conditions for life on Earth and why do we have them?

>   What reasons are there to man an exploration of Mars?

>   Is sustaining life on Mars possible?

>   What do we know we need for sustaining life?

>   What do we need to consider about Mars if we were to live there?

>   How can we overcome the differences humans would face to colonise Mars?

>   What technologies are there that enable space travel for extended periods of time?

>   What future technologies need to be developed to enable extended space travel and colonisation?

>   What social and physical considerations do we need to have to live on Mars?

>   Why do we need to consider Mars as a future home?

After their investigations they determined a future on Mars was possible but they needed to go beyond what they currently knew.

The considerable work the school had done to develop and outline their local curriculum in detail allowed children to both build on what they had learnt previously and to experience engaging activities that focused on all the skills they would need for their future education.

Leaders and teachers carefully designed planning formats and guidelines that resulted in a highly coherent curriculum. Leaders promoted a culture characterised by high expectations for student achievement, shared aspirations to improve teaching and a desire to work collaboratively.