#Vis2040: The Inverted Doughnut Curriculum

March 13, 2014
Stephen Tierney

Post is reblogged from Stephen Tierney’s personal blog as Leading Learner

How will we use the next twenty five years to develop one of the highest performing school systems in the World?  There is possibly much we can learn from the analogy of the inverted doughnut (Handy, 1991).  This can be applied to the curriculum as well as the role of government in education and our own roles within schools.  It is hopeless to ever try to fully describe and then dictate the whole, there is always a need to leave space to allow professional judgement and distinctiveness to enter into our systems.

Photo Credit: t-mizo via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: t-mizo via Compfight cc

“The do’nut is an American doughnut.  It is round with a hole in the middle rather than the jam of its British equivalent.  Call it a bagel if you live in New York.  This, however, is an inverted American do’nut, in that it has the hole in the middle filled in and space on the outside …

The point of the analogy begins to emerge if you think of your job, of any job.  There will be a part of that job which will be clearly defined, and which, if you do not do, you will clearly be seen to have failed.  That is the heart, the core, the centre of the do’nut.  The tasks may be written down in a job description, or, if it’s a classy organisation, in a statement of objectives; the snag is that when you have done all that you have not finished, for there is more.  In any job of any significance the person holding the job is expected not only  to do all that is required but in some way to improve on that, to make a difference, to show responsible and appropriate initiative, to move into the empty space of the do’nut and begin to fill it up.  Unfortunately, no one can tell you what you should do there because if they could they would make it part of the core.  It is another organisational Catch 22.  All they can tell you is the boundary of your discretion, the outer rim of the do’nut.”

(Handy, 1991)

The Finnish Doughnut

Photo Credit: p.a.u.l.i via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: p.a.u.l.i via Compfight cc

The Finnish doughnut has been created with the recipe of Law, Prophet & Wisdom.  Finland has long been regarded as one of the highest performing school systems in the World but this was not always the case.  Forty years ago it had a central imposed system that included state-approved textbooks.  It was the rigorous selection of teachers which then allowed the profession to act as a prophetic voice, within the system, and take responsibility for the curriculum as the profession became the reservoir of wisdom.  Teachers in Finland now have control and responsibility for the curriculum.  One of the problems we need to overcome in Britain, as we keep getting the Law to Yet More Law curriculum, is the dismissal of prophetic voices as the “enemies of promise” or the “blob”.  Saying this is not helpful is an understatement.

The Singaporean Doughnut

Photo Credit: williamcho via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: williamcho via Compfight cc

Singapore’s education system does a wonderful job of ensuring low spread at age 11, high attainment and high enjoyment. Dig deeper and you will find excellent pedagogic models in maths, a responsible approach to innovation, and a technical and realistic approach to challenges in the system.

(Oates, 2013)

Oates (2013) asserts that part of Singapore’s success is “avoiding the false skills/knowledge opposition – move to ‘and’ rather than ‘instead of”.  It is this rich view of multiple forms of knowledge – factual, conceptual and procedural knowledge that is at the heart of them locking quality into the system.  The focus seems to be on the development of “conceptual knowledge” a critical element that helps us make sense of, organise and retain factual knowledge.  The core of the Singaporean Curriculum Doughnut is clearly defined and teachers build out from it – this is an example of the Inverted Doughnut Curriculum in practice.

The English Curriculum Doughnut

In England I fear we have been implementing the _Law, Dictate, Disagreement, Dichotomy, Argument … Yet More Law _curriculum for the past twenty five years.  We’ve ended up with politicians desperate to dictate almost every facet of the curriculum and the paralysing fear that if they miss something out teachers will be unable to join the dots.  We cram everything we can into the curriculum and end up with something a mile wide and inch deep.

There is also sometimes a lack of richness in many people’s thinking and proposals around the curriculum.  Antagonists keep debating knowledge (often linked to factual and conceptual knowledge) versus skills (usually referring to procedural and metacognitive knowledge) instead of viewing the richness of the whole.  I put my thoughts in a post called Education for Wisdom.  Whilst I get dismayed sometimes at the lack of recognition for the development of metacognitive knowledge and the development of these skills in the classroom I would paradoxically not want to see it in any kind of National Curriculum.

The latest twitter debate seems to centre on whether lessons should be fun with the usual antagonistic views being tweeted and retweeted.  If lessons are fun and students are learning that is great, however, just because lessons are fun it doesn’t mean students are learning.  Fun and learning are neither mutually inclusive nor exclusive.  This type of dichotomy abounds in discussions around the curriculum in England as we try to determine the whole curriculum, both the what and the how.  This isn’t sensible, desirable nor possible as the interactions between teachers and students are not within our direct control and this is where the curriculum comes alive.  Guidance isn’t required rather more professional judgement.

The Inverted Doughnut Curriculum

Not being able to define the whole does not equate to defining nothing.  There is however caution needed in order that we keep the prescribed curriculum to a minimal core content that would gain overwhelming support from politicians, academics, teachers, schools, students and parents.

Maybe a National Curriculum should be focussed on an “essential core” of conceptual and procedural knowledge.  From this clearly defined core schools and teachers can determine the prerequisite factual knowledge required to build the accepted key concepts proposed and look at the development of their students as learners from the school’s perspective.  This core should be one coherent whole and not subdivided into key stages of phases.  The learning required follows the learner as s/he seeks to master the key concepts and ways of working within disciplines.  This type of National Curriculum may also encourage us to focus on fewer things in greater depth.

Innovation that Works, Dylan Wiliam, November 2010

Innovation that Works, Dylan Wiliam, November 2010

As we develop high challenge through the conceptual element and high competence through the procedural element can we move students towards that “flow”, where time seems to disappear as we become engrossed in what we are doing.  It’s the “as well as” not the “instead of” that makes a curriculum coherent and worth having.  This “as well as” is a way of thinking at a national level that comes alive within schools and classrooms.

Guidance Isn’t Required, Professional Judgement Is

The primary responsibility for improvement rests with schools… Our aim should be to create a school system which is self-improving… We know that teachers learn best from other professionals… We will make sure that schools are in control of their own improvement and make it easier for them to learn from one another.

_The Importance of Teaching _(Schools White Paper, November,2010)

So why doesn’t it feel like that?

The new National Curriculum is out for many subjects, some of it is very good and some is idiosyncratic and of dubious quality.  The problem is the Department for Education has not learnt and applied the lessons from some High Performing School Systems, nor has it done what it set out to do as stated in The Importance of Teaching.  Instead of focussing on developing and defining a high quality conceptual and procedural core, which few would disagree with, it can’t help but add a whole set of guidance.  Whilst the guidance doesn’t have to be followed, it is after all guidance, it isn’t required and muddies the water.  It particularly confuses schools who are in difficult circumstances and actually require the greatest clarity.  Schools in categories or those termed requiring improvement feel straight jacketed by every bit of information that comes out of the Department for Education.  Linking back to Our Top 3 Priorities: Teacher Quality, Quality, Quality, a clearly defined core curriculum could be successfully implemented by highly effective teachers building the additional required elements around the prescribed conceptual and procedural core.

Freedom to Choose.  Freedom to Do What?

This is about doing what you ought not what you want.  A lot of popular blogs argue for allowing teachers to do what they want in the classrooms.  This is just another “snake oil” no matter how appealing it may seem on first reading.  However, let us not forget governments, Ofsted, consultants, local authorities, advisors and senior leaders have all been guilty of selling their own particular brand of snake oil.  The challenge for us as a profession is to use what we know works and build on what we know works to develop new insights into our own classroom practice and teaching more generally.  The Education Endowment Foundation has neatly summarised a lot of what we already know about what works in education.  The following are screen shots of its toolkit.  Top ranking interventions are:

EEF - High Impact Strategies

Other average interventions include:

EEF - Above Average Impacts

Other people refer to the work of John Hattie but our knowledge of what works is always in transition, it is never complete and fixed.  As a profession we must develop our knowledge of effective classroom practice through disciplined innovation working with academics and colleagues.  The introduction of lesson study and small scale teacher research projects alongside supporting research based organisations must be part of a wide approach to the development of teaching.

Let’s All Do Our Own Jobs

We are not, most of us, used to running organisations by results, with large and empty do’nuts.  Most managers feel more comfortable when the cores are large as well as closely defined, when they can control the methods and therefore the results, the means and not the ends.  To let go, to specify success criteria, to trust people to use their own methods to achieve your ends – this can be uncomfortable.  It is particularly uncomfortable when we realise that after-the-event controls, or management-by-results, means that mistakes can and will be made.  It may be true that we learn more from our mistakes than from our successes but organisations have in the past been reluctant to put this theory into practice.  Now they will have to, and they will have to learn to forgive mistakes.  Not all mistakes, of course, can be forgiven but most are less critical than they seem at the time and can be the crux of important lessons.

Handy (1991)

The latest classic from the Department for Education is its list of “approved” punishments.  Not only is it now taking responsibility for policy development but it’s getting into the minutiae of policy implementation.  Following a bit of a light-hearted discussion at @HeadsRoundtable clarification is being sorted on the most appropriate litter pickers for use in schools.  Hopefully guidance will shortly be released on whether spring loaded, trigger and wire, gloves or, for the more macho amongst us, the use of bare hands for litter picking would be best.  This is madness.

Photo Credit: mooganic via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: mooganic via Compfight cc

Policy development is for government.  That is right and proper and a government with any sense would want to actively engage with the profession, interested and informed partners, parents and students on the development of these policies whilst reserving the right to make the final decision.  By 2040, we need to have a broad political consensus on the purpose and direction of education.  The Inverted Doughnut of Policy Making – fewer policies dealing with areas of substance that require primary legislation – understood, respected and accepted by all political parties.  Clusters and families of schools would be responsible for the unfettered implementation of this broad educational policy framework.

Lessons here can also be learnt by us school leaders.

The Assessed Curriculum

Interestingly @SLTChat has been one of the forums where this engagement in discussions around policy has been made easier for teachers, for example, through a recent jointly hosted session with @educationgovuk and @Ofstednews.

Assessment - Shared Language & Continuity

Part of the role of leaders throughout the system is developing greater coherence in terms of the direction of travel through linking policies into one coherent whole.  If we seek to develop an “Inverted Doughnut Curriculum”, built around a small number of key concepts, use a process of mastery teaching within our classrooms then we need a system of assessment, I would argue a national system, which assesses whether students have mastered the key concepts that is cohesive, appropriately structured and sequential from the beginning to the end of a child’s time in school.

Assessment - Mastery Learning

Other high performing systems see all children capable of anything. In the UK we have been prone to labelling – including labelling with ‘levels’ (against the very reasons why Paul Black suggested levels in the first place), with implicit ideas of fixed ability or differential rates of progress. When we ask ‘why hasn’t this pupil grasped X yet?’, we should not answer ‘because they are level 3A’ but instead ‘because I haven’t presented it to her/him in the right way yet’. We need to be less prone to simple models of progression and open up the importance of expansion and consolidation (a key feature of education in Singapore and Hong Kong) and their role in deep learning – stuff you retain as personal capital.

Oates (2013)

I would suggest the Inverted Doughnut type of thinking has much to offer us all!

Vision 2040 needs to consider what is the balance between the nationally agreed and imposed elements of the curriculum and related assessments and what should be determined locally.  Much of this will actual depend on the professional capital at a local level, determined through the organisation of local families of schools and the quality of teachers within them.  The greater the professional capital the smaller the core national curriculum needs to be.

If I were to write a manifesto it would include:

  • A core, coherent National Curriculum consisting of the conceptual and procedural knowledge required by a student, from 3-19, to build her/his personal capital.
  • A national assessment framework built around the mastery of key concepts that would be used to assess students when they were ready.
  • A promise to do my job to the best of my ability, no more and no less, and allow teachers and schools the professional space to do theirs.

I’ve sought to develop three interlinked and hopefully coherent ideas presented in three posts, including this one:

**#Vis2040: Island of Archipelago Education?  Creating fertile conditions to grow the teaching profession – the spade work.  **_(This post looks at the rationale for local clusters/families of schools to be the key building blocks within the__school system.  This new middle tier would be held accountable for outcomes.  Local clusters of schools would have the autonomy to act together powerfully within a tight, deep but outward facing partnership.  This is the fertile ground in which we can build professional capital).  _

**#Vis2040: Our Top 3 Priorities: Teacher Quality, Quality, Quality. Selecting the best and helping them get even better.  **(The post attempts to set out a rationale for developing a coherent Curriculum for Teacher Development from the recruitment, with a much more rigorous and exclusive process, to retirement stage of a person’s career.  Early investment of both time and salary is required if we are to develop the people required and build quality into the system).

#Vis2040: The Inverted Doughnut Curriculum. Defining a powerful knowledge core with “ands” not “ors” plus what politicians should make decisions about and what they should not.


Handy, C (1991). The Age of Unreason. 2nd ed. London: Century Business. p102-105.

Robinson, M (2013). Trivium 21c: Preparing Young People for the Future with Lessons from the Past. Carmarthen: Independent Thinking Press

“Teacher quality: why it matters, and how to get more of it”, Dylan Wiliam, Institute of Education, University of London (2010)

_“Using International Comparisons to Refine the National Curriculum”, _A speech by Tim Oates, Group Director of Assessment Research and Development, Cambridge Assessment, to the Mayor’s Education Conference, November 2013

“Innovation that Works”, A workshop by Dylan Wiliam at the SSAT National Conference, November 2010

Related Posts for Further Reading

Education for Wisdom

#Vis2040: The New Professionalism - Re-imagining the Assessment System #SSATRS

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In September 2013, Stephen (@LeadingLearner) became the Executive Headteacher of a Blackpool federation. He is one of SSAT’s  long standing advocates and his contribution to the early System Redesign and Four Deeps research is valued highly.