The UCL Academy Connected Curriculum - an invitation to participate in shaping the lives of young learners

The UCL Academy Connected Curriculum – an invitation to participate in shaping the lives of young learners

Richard Donnelly, Director of Connecting the Curriculum at UCL Academy, outlines the Academy’s links with UCL Grand Challenges through its connected curriculum initiative, based on UCL’s principle of interdisciplinary study.

Based in Swiss Cottage, the UCL Academy is a school for 11-18 year olds sponsored by UCL. The Academy opened in September 2012 to serve our diverse local Camden community with a commitment to academic excellence, an inclusive approach to education, and to build on UCL’s vision and values of educating the whole person. In the last seven years we have established a reputation as an institution committed to grounded innovation, supporting all our learners and providing our staff and visiting educationalists with opportunities to develop their practice.

A key feature of the academy is our ‘Connected Curriculum’ – built on UCL’s vision and principles of interdisciplinary study. Our curriculum is providing transformative experiences for our students. Drawing on A Connected Curriculum for Higher Education, by UCL Professor Dilly Fung, we have applied the framework to our context as a secondary school.

1.Students connect with researchers and with the institution’s research

As a school sponsored by one of the world’s leading teaching and research institutions, we seek for our students to ‘engage with excellence’. Our Connected Curriculum aspires to broaden student and staff horizons. The curriculum enables secondary students to hear from, and work with, academics and students at UCL. This can occur through our ‘lecture series’, working with UCL students, both on and off the university campus, to give just two examples. The Connected Curriculum has an inbuilt enquiry process which requires our students to formulate their own research questions. This encourages them to be curious and to develop enquiring dispositions.

2. A through line of research activity is built into each programme

We aim to develop a curriculum with clear purposes, processes and products that is inspiring and has clearly defined principles. The Connected Curriculum is driven by important questions and big ideas. UCL’s Grand Challenges programme helps link these with the taught curriculum. The curriculum gives purpose and a consilience to students’ learning, for both their GCSE and A-level studies, as well as life beyond the classroom.

3. Students make connections across subjects and out to the world

Drawing on great educational thinkers like Michael Young and Christine Counsell, our curriculum aims to be ‘knowledge rich’ and features a curriculum by design that leads to ‘powerful knowledge’ (see issue 4, Impact). At the Academy, our interdisciplinary curriculum ensures subject disciplines and domain specific knowledge, understanding, and skills are core to building knowledge. At the same time, systems and structures across the Academy support effective interdisciplinary practice. Subject matter and content are enhanced when students are encouraged and directed to make connections between academic disciplines and the ‘real world’. Our ‘Big Questions’ scheme helps teachers and students make connections across subjects and, by making explicit links between concepts rather than being studied across disciplines, students gain a richer knowledge and understanding of topics.

4. Students connect academic learning with workplace learning

The opportunity to work with colleagues at UCL gives our staff and students unique opportunities to accrue knowledge and skills and know how these can be applied to real world situations. Over the past six years these opportunities have become broader, more varied, and increasingly impactful. These are particularly beneficial for those students who might not have family networks or are from backgrounds where aspirations could be limited.

5. Students learn to produce outputs – assessments directed at an audience

‘Celebration of Learning’ events are beginning to be integrated into the systems and structures of the UCL Academy. They allow our students to experience more authentic forms of assessment such as presenting or performing work to parents and visitors. Rethinking archaic forms of assessment to allow students to perform beyond the test will motivate students.

6. Students connect with each other, across phases and with alumni  

Collaborative Group Learning, as explained by one of our founding members of staff here, is a distinguishing feature of the UCL Academy Connected Curriculum. Many of the student outcomes and products are created as a ‘learning set’ of 6 students. As we continue to develop our Connected Curriculum, we will be developing opportunities for students to work with wider groups of people and across generations within the wider community to show our students that the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

UCL Grand Challenges are used as a vehicle for the UCL Academy Connected Curriculum in Level 2 & 2+ (year 10 and 11). The Grand Challenges programme at the Academy allows our students to transform their knowledge, think critically, and problem solve through dilemmas facing people and the planet. All six of the Grand Challenges have great potential to be enacted with significant impact through the Connected Curriculum. For example, our Level 2 students present ‘academic posters’ at UCL exploring problems facing cities (Sustainable Cities). Similarly, the students produce presentations about issues relating to Global Health, allowing them to mobilise their learning in disciplines as varied as the sciences, engineering and art.

Example of Level 2 ‘academic poster’ on theme of Sustainable Cities

Moving forward we will be developing additional extensive experiences for our students to learn utilising the topics and themes encompassed by other UCL Grand Challenges. For example, utilising the theme of Transformative Technology, will allow our staff and students to explore the impacts and ethics of AI (as discussed in books such as, Machine learning and Human Intelligence by Professor Rose Luckin and Hello World: How to be human in the age of the machine by Professor Hannah Fry). Likewise, drawing on the Grand Challenge of Cultural Understanding to facilitate experiential visits and explorations will give learning a new dimension and allow students to immerse themselves in different cultures. For example, by connecting with UCL’s academic initiatives, we will look at the concept of globalisation from various viewpoints, so as not to limit the students’ learning about this topic to single disciplines such as geography or economics.

In this way, we believe the Connected Curriculum is a unique example of how secondary education has been impacted due to working with a university. Our links with our sponsor are providing more and more opportunities to enrich and improve the education of our students, as well as enabling staff to develop and improve their own practice. The collaborative work that colleagues are involved in is truly inspiring, and as we seek to build on these partnerships, we continue to invite, welcome and explore more opportunities to develop this work even further.

If you would like to be involved, or find out more information, contact Visit the UCL Academy website for more information.