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Supra curriculums: what they are and why schools and students need them

Supra curriculums are activities, events and learning that enrich what already goes on in the classroom. The supra curriculum differs from extra and co-curricular programmes because it deepens and enriches academic learning, provides time and space to make authentic connections with students, and can make up for some of the limitations of exam driven academic courses.

Supra curriculums are often associated simply with university preparation, but I would counter this and say that supra curriculums are most effective when begun at a young age and in mixed age groups.

Intellectual character can be developed in supra curriculum time. Curiosity, investigation, the use of mental models, critical thinking, self regulation, motivation and resilience can be just some of the aspects of life that students can practise and develop while taking part in a supra curriculum. Watch my video below that conveys the importance and value of critical thinking:

I offer a supra curriculum through my weekly Politics and International Relations Society. This self-selecting group of around 30 students between the ages of 12 and 18 eat their lunch while considering issues such as the impact of trilateral security agreements on the countries left out, the current political situation in Tunisia and the impact of China's Belt and Road Initiative. You can read some reflections on these sessions here, here and here. The students are afforded the opportunity to practise active listening and accountable talk. Watch my video below where I explore how to do this with a group of students:

What I came to realise over the six years I have organised this supra curriculum is that it is genuinely interdisciplinary. The students have also come to realise that global politics is not a silo associated with the study of politics. They have appreciated that religion, alliances, proxy wars, agriculture, economics, climate change, etc are all interlinked with politics. This helped me to start developing the students' system thinking skills. I talk about systems thinking in this video.

Each session I teach the group a new mental model or way of breaking down the event or journal article so they are practising self regulation, strategic, critical and creative thinking. I always encourage the group to make connections to other issues we have discussed and they use their prior knowledge from their academic subjects and prompts I share with them a few days before our meetings to do this. Sometimes I will present the group with an unseen problem they need to solve using mental models to think it through. In essence, the solution is rarely the destination because the thinking journey is the priority. Granted, some of the group are preparing for university interviews and will be able to demonstrate their advanced thinking skills here. Others are very young, but continued attendance throughout their senior school years will transform and embed their abilities to think, collaborate and communicate.

In my most recent session with the group, I was teaching them how to break down a complex story and convey it articulately using a technique known as Story Mapping. It is the person that can communicate effectively, and by effectively, I mean clearly and concisely, breaking down a story into context, main characters, conflict, series of events and possible solutions, that will be entertained and listened to by their peers, colleagues and bosses. Take a look at me explaining this strategy in the video below:

There are many manifestations of a supra curriculum that do not have to involve lunchtime or after school clubs. Here are some examples and ideas:

  1. Inviting a university professor, journalist, industry expert or business leader to speak to a group of students who will be encouraged to question the speaker and respond to their ideas.

  2. School trips. If domestic or international travel is feasible, there is nothing quite like taking students to the scene of a battle they have been studying in the classroom, or to visit a laboratory to see biomedical scientists in action or climb a mountain to teach the students about physical geography. Each of these examples could be interdisciplinary.

  3. A reading group. Book clubs can offer a really effective opportunity to explore a genre of writing, an author or literature from a specific period of time that is being studied in Classics or History lessons.

  4. School newspaper article writing and editing where students have the opportunity to think and express themselves creatively, work with others and meet deadlines.

  5. Develop a range of online courses for your students to access. There are thousands of high quality free MOOCs available for students to access independently. For my students applying to study Law, Politics or PPE at university, I recommend this course at Yale. Establishing 'office hours' with students to discuss the main issues in each week's online lessons is a fantastic way to draw out their learning. Using Socratic questioning is one way to do this.

One of the issues with supra curriculums is the time and commitment is takes for teaching colleagues to research, prepare, organise and deliver. In order to alleviate this very real barrier, I created two comprehensive supra curriculum courses: one on critical thinking and one on design thinking. Entirely interdisciplinary with original video and other resources, these courses are free for schools to use with their students:

If you are looking for a shorter, taster supra curriculum offerings that work well in person, as a blended or 100% online scenarios, I have another suggestion. You can access my original, free programmes on vaccine nationalism, international terrorism, food security and astropolitics here. Another example of one of my supra curriculum programme can be found here.

In my experience leading a supra curriculum, I've found the most success when using real-world issues with my students. From this, I can draw upon myriad subject areas, ideas and themes. It also attracts a wide range of students without a barrier to entry. If they are curious and willing to think, they will flourish within a supra curriculum AND improve their academic performance and life skills.

I am building more supra curriculum programmes. If you would like to be notified when these resources are published, recommend or request specific programmes, please contact me here.

Follow me on LinkedIn where I write regularly about education. I outline my education philosophy and vision in the videos below:

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