Creating a New Curriculum

Creating a New Curriculum – Answers on a Postcard

Peter Tait
July 16th 2018

Is it time to approach the UK curriculum anew? Even if it involves dismantling and rebuilding the education paradigm we are comfortable with? Peter Tait discusses...

‘All major systems in the world are experiencing disequilibrium. The challenge of the times we live in is being felt everywhere; but education seems to be faring worse than most, and is responding very slowly to the challenges.’ Dr Lesley Murrihy 

‘The emergence of the digital age, the growth of artificial intelligence, and the huge social disruption that these entail have had fundamental effects both on our relationship with knowledge and on the world of work. Yet school-based education has hardly acknowledged this disruptive change.’ GlobalNet21 

Last October, Ofsted's Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, wrote a paper which discussed findings from recent research on the curriculum. In it, she provided her own definition viz ‘at the very heart of education sits the vast accumulated wealth of human knowledge and what we choose to impart to the next generation: the curriculum.’ Later, she alluded to a number of related issues - vocational education; teaching to the test; the narrowing of the curriculum, especially in Key Stage 3; and the importance of the Ebacc before ending with the observation that ‘expertise in and focus on the curriculum had waned.’ 

The response was not slow in coming and debate has waxed ever since.

Initially, her attack on the culture of teaching to the test and encouraging schools to show initiative by interpreting the curriculum was welcomed, but there were soon rumbles. It was noted, for instance, that her definition of the curriculum was not consistent with that given by her deputy, Sean Harford last year with its three stages of intent, implementation and impact / achievement. Crispin 

Weston joined the debate with a paper entitled ‘Why Curriculum Matters’ (sub-titled a response to Tim Oates, Dylan William and Daisy Christodoulou) in which he criticised their views of the curriculum while offering his own, a process being undertaken in three articles under the heading of ‘Untangling the Curriculum.’ Apart from wrestling with the definition, Weston was sceptical of the call for teachers to be more involved in helping shape the curriculum stating ‘If the experts cannot sort out what curriculum means, there is not a cat-in-hell’s chance that thousands of isolated schools will be able to succeed.’ 

All of which is a long-winded way of suggesting that it may be time to introduce some fresh thinking on the curriculum without the risk of being drawn into debates over data and definition in some naval-gazing twitter feed.

Perhaps it is time to approach the curriculum anew, even if it involves dismantling and rebuilding the education paradigm we are comfortable with. We have waited long enough for experts to sort out a workable model moving forward, but too much research and data has been focused on improving the current paradigm, rather than looking at ways of reinventing it in a form that may better meet the needs of children here and now. Dr Lesley Murrihy, in advocating such a change, recently wrote ‘It is time for those of us in education to stop simply commenting and to start creating proposals, to test models and to look to hybrid solutions that take account of the complex nature of the 21st century and of education and create positive sum outcomes’ asking the question ‘If we, ourselves, cannot demonstrate this very same creativity by creating solutions, how can we model this for our students? 

How indeed? When we follow the education debate on social media, it is hard to escape the view that a great deal of energy is being wasted along the binary spectrum of skills vs. knowledge, growth mindset vs. fixed mindset, STEM subjects vs. the arts or numerous similar debates, or by mining down into cognitive bias, the place of technology in assessment, parenting and so on, each thesis invariably accompanied by a new book for the exhausted teacher to read at their leisure. Perhaps, just perhaps, it is time to stop dealing in the finer points of interpretation, with nuances of meaning, shifting stances and arguments about what is research and what is opinion sidestep the jargon and hyperbole with such clichés as ‘smashing glass ceilings’ or ‘levelled playing fields’ inhabited by helicopter parents and the snowflake generation. Perhaps it is time for a more imaginative vision. 

Does much of the current education debate we find in social media help?

In filling in the detail, yes, but in the larger sense, not so much. I am not alone in hearing the fingernails on the chalkboards as teachers scream for something more than endless analysis and proselytising? Something that recognises why our curriculum is not working for too many of our children, why its obsession with data and grades is distorting our teaching and why the numbers of teachers leaving the profession keep increasing for reasons that seem obvious, but for elucidation include ever-expanding workloads; more bureaucracy; more pressure for results and assessment targets; greater social and pastoral roles; the failure of successive governments to offer sufficient separation between education and the state; and the lack of support and status accorded to the profession. 

So what am I suggesting?

Not another curriculum review, or more think tanks and debate over definition and degree, but a return to the essential question, ‘what is the best education we can give our children’. It should not be an exercise in semantics where we get hung up on debating what is ‘best’ (or ideal), in the first instance, but it should challenge us to risk suspending, even abandoning our views on whether our curriculum works or not. It may be that we need to establish some fresh foundations, thereby embedding a different attitude towards education, towards the environment, towards community, perhaps a whole new ethical framework or paradigm, that identifies the impediments to change (which includes funding, inevitably, as well as vested interests of the sector, inertia and uncertainty brought about by the advances in nanotechology, brain research and technology; social stratification (as pernicious as ever); and political will). We need to address the inequality of opportunity, the shortcomings in teacher training and the adversarial nature and irrelevance of education to too many children. What is needed is not merely a bank of ideas to dip in and out of, but the answer to the question, ‘what values, knowledge, understanding, and skills do we want for our children? ‘ Putting our prejudices about selection and what constitues a good education to one side and uncoupling the carriages of curriculum and assessment may help us see just what works and what doesn’t. 

At the risk of sounding philodoxical, in looking for answers to some very elemental questions, it is always better to put something down for others to flay.

There are too many raised voices for us to do otherwise. We should rightly be concerned about the decline in the influence of the family and church and commensurate lack of values and ethics exhibited by many of our ‘well-educated’ leaders (it is shameful they can still talk about ‘good schools and bad schools’ without blushing). We should recognise the needs of the increasing number of children for whom school is a holding bay because it isn’t giving them the courses, the skills and knowledge or the future they need. Citizenship, values, attitudes, environmental awareness - what we would broadly see as constituting ethical behaviour should be an implicit part of learning from the first day of school, so that they come to the more formal part of learning better prepared. Instead of the push for longer schools days, we could look at shorter and more targeted teaching time (I often wonder at those who advocate longer school days when so little classroom time we have is used effectively). We need discipline in our classrooms and schools, preferably greater self-discipline and higher expectations, but conversely less pressure and fewer parents and adults over-complicating their world by too much information. Children don’t eschew hard work, but they tend to avoid it when they see it has little relevance to their lives or is done at the behest of the teacher and school rather than in their evident best-interests. 

We all accept technology will play an ever greater part in teaching and assessment, and that all courses will soon be available to students on-line and that with more blended education, teaching may be shared between teachers and facilitators or specialist tutors.

We should examine what we mean by a knowledge rich curriculum in subjects such as History where the selection of what history we choose to teach is hugely significant. We should even question the value in dividing learning into subjects at all levels of schooling. We should push for the end of academic selection (nothing is more irritating than those who equate selection with academic rigour) and provide for more opportunities for SEND children by recognising and meeting their specific needs. We should recognise such attributes as a sense of purpose, manners, good communication skills and a good work ethic as trumping the data that sometimes sits on children like a straightjacket. And we should focus on the cause of issues such as the current mental health epidemic and address them at their roots rather than just offering aftercare. 

Six years ago, Laura McInerney suggested a rolling curriculum review, an idea which might be worth revisiting, but before we even get that far we need to ensure we have in place a new philosophy of education that can sweep children up and inspire them, that will help them see education as useful and relevant and help make better citizens. We have dumped so much on our children - stress, ambition, guilt, pressure. Now, we need to change the goals which centre around money, jobs and individual achievement to recognise the diversity of human types, qualities and abilities and extol the value of living well in a new world in which ‘every person matters.’

About the Education Consultant

Peter Tait is a former independent school Head and is part of the William Clarence Education Advisory Board

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