Take on the curriculum

2011-07-24 19.06.24

This is my take on the proposed National Curriculum for England and the manner in which it has been revised. I should first outline my views on the purpose and best conditions for education, since these are the basis on which any curriculum is built.

I believe that the purpose of education is to nurture gentle healthy people with great capacities for learning so that they can contribute to global wellbeing at a time of immense crisis. I do not believe that education’s primary purpose is to turn out model employees to serve unsustainable industries so that our nation can compete in the ‘global race’. I believe that knowledge cannot be administered like medicine: it can only be formed by willing learners through their own practice and reflection, and the knowledge is transformed by learners through that process. Because of this, I challenge the premise of most debate about ‘what should be on the curriculum’ and ‘what should be taught’ because it assumes that knowledge can be delivered.

Based on a good deal of reflection and experience, I believe that the schools which best achieve this purpose of nurturing whole people support self-managed education or progress towards taking greater responsibility for learning over time. I’ve seen that young people have a strong instinct for what kinds of activities, questions and environments are most likely to help them learn and thrive. Self-managed learners tend to choose:

  • open-ended exploration (often outdoors)
  • interdisciplinarity
  • hands-on making and creativity
  • multimodality (not just text but visual, aural, sensory and mixed modes of communication especially those made possible with digital tools)
  • emotional expressiveness and practicing social skills
  • vigorous exercise combined with rest when it’s needed
  • stories and word play 
  • contemporary topics relevant to their lives and communities
  • learning through enquiries that go beyond just simple questions, testing and stretching through practical and creative research
  • finding shortcuts to get timely information, and constructing knowledge by reflection and practical application over a long time
  • learning from peers or adults with whom they feel most relaxed
  • immersion to master particular skills, especially those perceived to meet strong personal or local needs 

All of these choices serve them very well if they are also well supported by adults and peers who have more mastery than themselves, are exposed to diverse perspectives and have good access to resources. An example of successful self-managed learning is the Hellerup school in Denmark where students set their own projects each week and are free to use resources inside and beyond the school.

Many teachers even in traditional schools in England endorse some of the factors of effective learning listed above, although it has become increasingly difficult to give adequate time to them. However, the reforms in England are going in the opposite direction to this model.

You might say I’m not a valid commentator on a National Curriculum if I don’t strongly believe in nationalistic purposes for education and if I believe that learners should design their own learning. Given that even the validity of senior educationalists is being questioned, I may as well say my own piece. I do still believe in the state-funding of comprehensive schools. I think that schools across a nation or region benefit from a deliberatively constructed statement across the education domain about what constitutes an optimum education. You might not call that a National Curriculum but perhaps that’s what we should ask it to be.

Gove’s proposed curriculum has not been arrived at deliberatively.

I’m arguing it should be deliberated with learners but he hasn’t even consulted teachers. He has only listened to the most conservative voices. Gove with his attack dogs has answered criticisms of the new Curriculum by:
a) saying ‘look, some of the good things we’re influenced by are from lefties like you (so don’t say we haven’t listened or given you what you want)’, and also by justifying his policies as being inclusive of all children in the great push for an ‘aspiration nation’. On the other hand,
b) homogenising and demonising the entire diverse education profession as Marxists.

A deliberative revision of any National Curriculum should first gain agreement on the ultimate purpose of education in relation to emerging needs, by considering what an educated person might need to be capable of, and then through agreement on the values and core competencies required. (This might seem self evident but according to the panel on The Moral Maze discussion about the History curriculum, starting from this point is bizarre and ‘chilling’.) This should lead to open-minded review of the subjects to be included, how they relate to each other and how learning can best be enabled. In the new curriculum, one or two subjects have been dropped or their names changed but it’s largely unaltered in its illogical bundling of traditional subjects.

The process of revision has been lazy and rushed, only slowed by delays caused by inadequate consultation from the start. There are a number of ‘outrages’ in it: the exclusion of climate change from most of the Geography curriculum (until a small mention in KS3) and the removal of ecological literacy and caring for the environment from Science and Citizenship. (Compared to the Scottish curriculum sustainability is near invisible.) Another outrage is the exclusion of drama, film, media and inadequate mention of dance in the Arts subject statements. It would take me days to outline my problems with all the statements in detail, and there are better places you can read the informed and consensual criticism by subject experts.

I want to focus for now on History and Geography, given that they are so problematic and most relevant to my work in both cultural and environmental heritage learning. Practitioners in these overlapping sectors have evolved a viewpoint of curriculum learning that is very integrated. Working in collaboration with, or sometimes in role as, classroom teachers, we facilitate learning that arises from children’s responses to concrete and emotional experience – of objects, places and people. We help children construct their learning by drawing out from and comparing with what they already know. This doesn’t mean restricting what they learn only to what is familiar and local but extending their knowledge out to global human cultures and human interactions with nature over time.

Geography is an absolutely vital subject because it is the grounding for human history. We need to understand the changing geophysical, climatic and botanical conditions for the human story. Differences between cultures are not innate (or racial) but they emerge within bioregions and when groups have to migrate to other regions, or when they impact so much on the environment that peoples must adapt to abrupt changes. These are complex concepts for young children but they are vitally important for an ethical education. The proposed History curriculum is so devoid of any reference to the environment that it doesn’t even mention the Agricultural Revolution.

We can begin to introduce these ideas early with positive appreciation of biodiversity and cultural diversity, and gentle introduction of more complex and worrying ideas about change. The Geography curriculum as it is written is perhaps open enough for some teachers to implement this if they are inclined. However, it emphasises particular local scenarios (e.g. polluted rivers) perhaps too much without introducing enough cultural geography or global ecology. I’m also concerned that Geography has a low status and inadequate time allowed for it. If History becomes so arduous that it takes up too much time, this will be even more so.

It might be acceptable to focus on national topics in the History curriculum if there was more time created for cultural histories (e.g. trade, migrations, agricultural practices) within Geography and Science. The overarching message of the new curriculum is that concepts in Science and the Humanities should be learned as agreed facts, without enquiry or debate. The argument is that if you move on beyond core concepts too early you will only swim superficially around in contemporary issues and become confused.

It’s ironic then that the History curriculum pushes ‘too much too young’ the intricate deliberations and dynamics of particular ruling classes and figures. If schools do start teaching about the ‘heptarchy’, and other difficult but supposedly foundational concepts, they will have less time for ways of learning that children choose for themselves: exploring nature, inventing stories, asking why and why again, using art as a tool and so on. Because the History curriculum has been conceived as an ideological instruction manual, there is no understanding of ways that foundational concepts for early years are like seeds out of which complexity arises.

I hold out for museums, arts and environmental heritage sites as supporters of this kind of learner-led investigative learning: where Geography and History entwine, where Place and Time are seen in complex intersection, where you can see layers of history unfolding in a particular place. This helps children think diachronically and synchronically so that they can both understand the ‘sweeping chronology’ of history and see that this is always a cultural construction. By exploring the world through art and stories they learn to distinguish between myth and reality, and learn where it is difficult to disentangle them. In these ways, children learn about change and can perhaps better cope with changes yet to come.

Note: This was written before the History curriculum was further revised, dropping terms such as the ‘Heptarchy’.

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2 responses to “Take on the curriculum

  1. Very broadly agree, Bridget. Though schools do need to prepare people for the world of work too, in my opinion, it’s just that the world of work needs to change. There is already a diminishing vocational role for clowns like Gove and the attributes and appetites you mention in your bullet points will need to be enacted in the workplace, linked, as you imply, to a recognition that growth and global dominance are a very dead end.

    • Yes, I agree they need to prepare for work but I see that as any kind of adult role that contributes to the common good and enables survival. I think that education needs to help people change the nature of work.

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