Curriculum in a Coma

We live in a world of contradictions and uncertainty. Children have instant access to a world of knowledge around the clock yet their access is restricted in the very place you would expect it to be most readily encouraged. For many, school is still a place where you go to have your head filled with ‘certainties’, a core knowledge base which grows increasingly irrelevant to the world we live in. According to New Brunswick Department of Education, Canada, the top 10% of jobs last year didn’t exist in 2004!  Is the best way to prepare our youngsters for this level of uncertainty to continue feeding them a diet of shallow learning experiences dictated by political presumption?

There is much discussion around what the curriculum should look like but one thing is clear, more of the same won’t lead to different results.   Einstein stated the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, we’re in danger of doing just that with the curriculum.   While Geographers and Historians argue for their subject’s importance and Gove tries to convince the nation of the relevance of learning Latin and the need for the English Baccalaureate, those in education look on in disbelief as traditional themes and learning paths are revisited once more.   As a nation we appear to be depserately trying to climb up the down escalator.

No one would argue against the need for every pupil to leave school literate and numerate but to function in an uncertain future society we also need to ensure all are resilient, resourceful, creative and able to adapt and change as required – a core set of skills that many are left to pick up by chance.   Rather than leave these important learner qualities outside of the curriculum, it would mark a real shift and recognition of what children need if they were be placed at the heart of any reformed model.   The problem is, such qualities are hard to measure and no goverment will be brave enough to release the stranglehold it has on the nation’s education system.   As we prepare for ‘greater flexibility and freedom’ it is important to note that the current crude measures by which a school stands or falls are unlikely to disappear any time in the near future.  Mick Waters makes a relevant and poignant observation about the impact of testing on learning:

‘One of the dangers is that the winning post of examinations has untold influence further back down the age range, so the real purpose of learning is lost in the quest for exam success.   When children are only learning how to sit exams, other vital things are squeezed out.’ 

Our current national curriculum suffers from a lack of response to the changing world around us.   Its compartmental approach to traditional subjects and exam fetish makes real, significant change unlikely.

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About smichael920

Headteacher of a large primary school in North West England. Helping me to blur the distinction between work and home, I am also father of five, covering most phases of education thus giving me the lowdown from within and without. Education is about enjoying today and preparing for tomorrow. This can't be done using the tools of the past. View all posts by smichael920

19 responses to “Curriculum in a Coma

  • Rob Spence

    “No one would argue that every pupil should leave school literate and numerate”. Call me old-fashioned, but I think I would…

  • Daniel Kennedy

    Rob Spence – I think you’ve misread. I think Michael was saying that nobody would argue against the premise that every child… etc.

    Michael – I just read this post with increasing expectation. I agree with most if not all of what you say. BUT, I think you’ve stoppped short. You’ve articulated the problem – but you don’t try to give any solutions?! The post seems half finished? Given your bio – I suspect you have lots of ideas about how this can be achieved?

    • smichael920

      Hi Daniel – many thanks for the comments and you’re dead right! As I discussed what I’d written with my wife she said ‘well, how would you go about changng it then?’ The work of Chris Quigley and Guy Claxton has begun to have an impact on our curriculum design but we’ve still some way to go. Both argue convincingly for life long learner qualities to be brought to the fore to enable children to develop the skills needed. I will write another post to try and explain how I think this could be achieved. Thanks again.

  • Rob Spence

    Daniel – I didn’t misread. The author miswrote.

  • Mick

    The information regarding the jobs comes from the New Brunswick Department of Education, Canada. They produced a film very similar to Shift Happens to get their schools thinking about learning. It’s an interesting piece and provokes discussion just as I intended this post to do! You make the point that little of the curriculum is any more outdated now than it ever was, quite right! So, is it time for a change? My main point is that there are a core set of learner qualities that we need to equip children with if they are to succeed beyond the confines of institutional education. I’d be interested in reading some of your posts if you can direct me to your blog.

  • Kevin McLaughlin

    Great post Michael, there is a need for change but we are witnessing yet another Government seeking to establish a curriculum that can be tested rather than one that can encourage learning. Yes we need facts, yes we need mental arithmetic, yes we need knowledge but not a system that’s sole purpose is to gather test data for governmental comparison charts. Change will not happen because governments rely on data. For a real change to happen, education must be taken away from government and decisions given to schools. No more comparisons using unreliable data and test scores that reflect only retention of knowledge, no more bickering over which school has better results ‘therefore’ a better education grounding than another. But a sharing of knowledge, a sharing of learning, the beginning of communications between schools world wide to enhance teaching and learning to everyone’s benefit. That’s change.

  • Kevin McLaughlin

    No worries. Change is happening.

  • Rob

    You write “Rather than leave these important learner qualities outside of the curriculum, it would mark a real shift and recognition of what children need if they were be placed at the heart of any reformed model.” This is presumably “the message” that you exhort Kevin to “keep pressing home.” So, how, exactly, would this change be effected? I can’t see any concrete proposals in your comments. How would you promote the attributes of resilience, resourcefulness and adaptability outside of the “traditional themes and learning paths” that you revile? I looked at the New Brunswick film, which cites no sources at all for its claims. Interestingly, though, its vision is grounded in “literacy, numeracy and science,” which hardly seems revolutionary. Oh, and in answer to its question “when did you last use correcting fluid?”- yesterday.

  • John Connor

    This debate always seems to polarise opinion, especially for those with right wing leanings. They seem to think that what is beong proposed is a nebulous, fluffy skills agenda without academic rigour, destined to prevent children from poor backgrounds from attending Russell Group universities. I don’t know where this comes from. The point is, as Michael demonstrates, and overemphasis on what is easily measured at the expense of the very learning dispositions and flexibility that are vital for success in the global economy. As we all know, if you only measure what you value, you end up valuing what you measure. The obsession with exam-driven data and league tables has a very negative impact on creativity and nurturing those qualities that will be essential for students to become functioning citizens of the global village. The work of such luminaries as Sir Ken Robinson, Geoff Petty and Mick Waters give plenty of food for thought in terms of soultions, and schools using the RSA Opening Minds programme report better quality and deeper learning from students. Surely the answer is not either knowledge or skills, but both/and? I finish with a quote from a colleague – “We have not changed anything to accommodate the English Baccalaureate – options are for students, the EBacc is for the government.” I rest my case.

    • smichael920

      Many thanks for the feedback John. Really pleased you see where I am coming from as I seem to have antagonised one or two people with the post! As we prepare for another round of SATs with children and parents questioning their existence it felt fitting to share some of my concerns about the curriculum.

  • Rob

    I have a feeling I’ve just been characterised as right-wing. Blimey. For the record, I am anti league tables, SATs, and all the other ludicrous measures that successive governments have foisted on a hard-pressed profession. I think Gove is an absolute disaster as a minister. But I still don’t see anything being actually proposed here – so unfortunately, it *does* look like a nebulous fluffy skills agenda, to use John’s term.

    • smichael920

      Hi Rob. The main purpose of the post was to provoke discussion around the curriculum and how it might be made more relevant in this climate of reform. Sadly I think many would be happy to stick with what’s easily measured but I guess we’ll have to wait and see how things progress. The skills I’m keen to see take centre stage are well researched and promoted by the likes of Chris Quigley and Guy Claxton – most notably in Guy’s book ‘Building Learning Power’. We’re working closely with schools in Australia on developing the learner qualities I mentioned in the post. The children have looked closely at how being reflective, resilient and resourceful can help them become better learners. I know many see such an approach as ‘fluffy’ but I hope we’re challenging that assumption through the work we’re doing both here and with our national and international partners.

  • Alex

    I’ll start by saying I enjoy reading your work; so thanks for sharing. However…..I have lots of problems with this particular post. I’ll start here:

    “Children have instant access to a world of knowledge around the clock yet their access is restricted in the very place you would expect it to be most readily encouraged”

    Simply not true. To quote Einstein, “A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be. Information is not knowledge”.

    I can look things up on the ‘net or in a book, but that is a far from instant process and doesn’t automatically convey understanding – which leads to knowledge. I teach 6th formers to write computer programs ( A-Level Computing). In principle the commands needed and the syntax rules to be followed can be looked up on the ‘net. In practice, to be able to solve any non-trivial problem in a reasonable time frame requires students to have a personal knowledge of the programming language used. Once they have a secure knowledge of the language they are studying then they can then devote their energies to higher order skills; i.e. designing algorithms to solve problems. The ability to be “resourceful, creative..and able to adapt” are surely not independent of knowledge.

    “For many, school is still a place where you go to have your head filled with ‘certainties’, a core knowledge base which grows increasingly irrelevant to the world we live.

    “…According to New Brunswick Department of Education, Canada, the top 10% of jobs last year didn’t exist in 2004!”

    This often advanced argument is one which Microsoft’s head of academic relations (Alfred Thompson) puts in its place: “A lot of people look at a piece of technology that is “six months old” and think that it suddenly sprang from thin air, there there is not a previous art that lead up to it, that there is some sort of virgin birth for technology” (Alfred Thompson, Jan 2011).

    The fact that I can program Internet applications and the fact that I could program the BBC Micro back in the eighties (as a child) is not a coincidence. I try to give my students as much certain knowledge about today’s technology as I can so they will be well placed to understand tomorrow’s developments. They use their knowledge of maths, language vocabulary and syntax to solve problems creatively. When the next programming paradigm comes along I think they will be well placed to adapt their skills to new technology.

    “Gove tries to convince the nation of the relevance of learning Latin”

    If Latin GCSE were easy, like some KS4 courses, then your point may have validity. As it is I think your point is both inaccurate and childish. Ancient languages were given the same status as MFL after petitioning by the likes of Oxford University. As a primary school head you may be unaware of the extent to which secondary schools have used some courses to boost their statistical performance. I think you probably are aware that a child who passes Latin GCSE (worth one GCSE for league tables) is actually more cognitively capable than many who pass BTEC PE (thus gaining 4 GCSE passes for their school’s exam table purposes; so far nobody at my school has failed BTEC PE). I think Gove wants this fact recognized in secondary league tables. There are some people in education, that believe that teaching a child to speak Latin represents a teaching achievement greater than passing ¼ of a BTEC and this should be reflected in school performance criteria. Gove is not some kind of lunatic for valuing Latin GCSE.

    “those in education look on in disbelief as traditional themes and learning paths are revisited once more”

    You may look on in disbelief, but you don’t speak for all “those in education”.

    “As a nation we appear to be desperately trying to climb up the down escalator.”

    You don’t like the changes, fair enough. However, its ungracious to to ascribe wilfully destructive motives to people with different views. I think your views are about as wrong as they can be, but I have no evidence to suggest you don’t want the best for your students.

    “One of the dangers is that the winning post of examinations has untold influence further back down the age range, so the real purpose of learning is lost in the quest for exam success.   When children are only learning how to sit exams, other vital things are squeezed out.” Mick Walters

    I agree to the extent that I don’t like statistical goals for schools to achieve. I think so long as governments define success in statistical formats then school leaders will be tempted to put such performance criteria above the needs of their pupils –i.e. they will game the system. In so far as your posts suggest you see your school’s value to your local community as not being determined by latest government performance criteria I applaud you for your integrity. However in general I think you take the easy way out. You criticise the the reliance on external examinations to measure achievement without suggesting an alternative. Governments world wide use exams to gauge competency. You should suggest an alternative allowing us to cross examine your ideas. I like the fact my aircraft pilot (when going on holiday), my GP and my dentist have all passed relevant exams. What better measure of an individual’s competency do you suggest and why do you think it serves better than examinations?

    Alex Hughes, Poynton High School, Cheshire.

    • smichael920

      Hi Alex and many thanks for your comments. I posted this in frustration as we enter another round of SATs. My worry is that the curriculum is already narrow at the point of transition and I fear it may be further narrowed although we’re being told otherwise. I care passionately about the pupils and want only the best for them. I have spoken to many secondary colleagues about the kind of qualities they would like to see in the children as they enter high school and the ones I mentioned in the post featured high on their list. If we can help children become reflective, resilient and resourceful in their primary years I think this can only help when they begin their secondary education.

      I would like to see a system where moderation and teacher assessment feature more prominantly than exams. The exams provide a snapshot that can be inaccurate, a fact echoed by high school colleagues. The truth about the SATs is that they are for government, not parents and schools as we’re urged to believe. I am keen to see a curriculum that is relevant to life outside of school and meets the changing demands of society, I am sure you do too but we obviously see this happening in different ways.

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