The real curriculum: it may be wrong – but it’s coherent

A little-made observation about schools is this: teachers don’t see curriculum – students do. This is true in two senses: one, the obvious one that the teacher teaches only their fragment, while the student moves from class to class picking up all of the fragments. Unless teachers are as mobile across a school as are the students, they will never get to see what the whole package of knowledge looks like.

In a less obvious sense I refer back to my previous Blog. There, I suggested that curriculum is more than the sum of the subject ‘fragments’ (Maths, History, Geography, etc.). It is the sense of coherence that pulls these all together, whatever it is that allows a student to put together historical, grammatical, geographical, scientific and linguistic knowledge to create a world picture, to be able to see themselves in the world, to work out who they are and what they are for. For this, the teacher is, at best, a resource – most likely excluded from that reality. How many individual students can you know?

This is true under any school regime, as hard as we might try to control events with an Ofsted, a National Curriculum, Key Performance Indicators, or whatever. At best, a teacher might be a ‘midwife’ for curriculum – they are at one remove from the experience itself. This is why there is no directrelationship between what is taught and what is learned. The idea that a teacher teaches knowledge – a Maths formula, say – and the student learns it as given is an attractive and elegant idea, but it is mostly fanciful. Why? Because we know is that a student learns stuff in relation to who they are and what they already know. Students, all of us, process knowledge, we don’t just ‘take it in’ like loading a hard disc – and in the processing, knowledge changes.

Research commonly shows that, for example, if you ask a student what happens when you throw a ball in the air and it falls down again they may well give a wrong answer (e.g. your hand puts energy into the ball, it runs out of energy, stops and falls down again). If you say, ‘no – that’s wrong, this is what happens – ‘, you might persuade the student to strategically agree with you, adopt the ‘correct’ answer and subsequently pass a test. But you are less likely to persuade that student to change their minds – and this is because in ways not obvious to us the student has, let us say, a ‘theory of the world’ out of which her answer came. The wielding of authority (I know better as a teacher) is just too blunt and unresponsive an instrument to challenge that – and, anyway, it misses the point of curriculum.

When we do make that challenge (‘that’s wrong – this is right’) we undermine the sense of coherence that student has – we literally tear at the fabric that holds things together. But we make that challenge on a routine basis in classrooms – so little wonder that we undermine the confidence and intellectual autonomy of our students. When we fail students we are not just making a judgement about their response to a task – say, explaining Newtonian Mechanics – we are making a judgement of them and of their ability, independently, to make sense of the world. For the purposes of sorting, grading and winnowing there is a good case to be made for such assessment.  In terms of educational quality there is none.

Here’s a simple example of a teacher who understands this and tries to get at that fundamental curriculum challenge – how to improve the autonomous thinking of the young person, whatever the task in hand. This is a real case of a teacher with whom I did some research.

Okay, here’s the teacher in a primary school – in Birmingham, UK, actually. She is a Primary years Maths teacher. She wants her students to understand that there is no such thing as a ‘right’ answer – for example, there are many ways of multiplying and dividing, somewhat according to the way you think. But more fundamentally, 2 x 2 = 4 is true, but only under certain circumstances. (Set aside your prejudices, here – this is a useful, practical and complex thing she is trying to teach – 2 x 2 apples = 4 apples; 2 apples x 2 oranges = 4 fruit, but only because we have changed the category system and introduced a new category – ‘fruit’). Her students resist. She joins a music project happening in the school involving musicians from the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. She is not a musician, cannot play a note. But she imagines that if she can show in music (a complex form of mathematics) that there is only such a thing as a ‘correct’ note under certain circumstances (e.g. given the context of a harmonic structure) but that circumstances can be changed to make any note ‘correct’ (e.g. change the harmonic mode) – she might be able to carry that learning back into her Maths class.

Now, this is curriculum thinking– beyond the surface dynamics of ‘teaching-and-learning’ – it is a way of discovering a general principle that is usefully applied across the fragments – mixing up some of the mortar that will help hold together the mosaics of knowledge fragments. The principle is that ‘right’/’wrong’ is contextual, fluid, adaptable. Here are the beginnings of that sense of coherence, which I refer to as the basis of curriculum. Teaching a bit of Maths here and a bit of Music there is not curriculum. Deriving a principle that links the two to create an overarching and practical sense of coherence is.

To reinforce the point, imagine being the history teacher giving the next lesson. You have a class of kids sitting in front of you armed with this potentially devastating insight that you, yourself, might or might not have – that all knowledge is provisional and has to be verified according to context and circumstance – and in a way that makes sense to the knower. 2 x 2 might= 4; a G Flat is an ‘incorrect’ (jarring) note in the key of C, except when we play in the Locrian mode, in which case it fits; the English Civil War was a cornerstone of parliamentary democracy – or else a historical disaster for the English peasant classes. If you, as the History teacher, have that insight then your teaching of the Civil War may play well to the students’ curriculum and you might find yourself riding a wave. If you do not, then…well, then you are behind the wave and stuck at the level of fragments.

So, teaching is a far more complex transaction than the mere transfer of information. The reality – as I say, whatever fantastic schemes of control we have in mind – is that the teacher struggles to find a place in the thinking and the theorising of the student. Of course – of course– it does not appear this way. Far from it. What we seeare cohorts of student dutifully listening, affirming, conforming and repeating what they have been taught in tests and exams. They pass exams and tests. But this is merely a demonstration of compliance, of surface learning which, in reality, has a short half-life. It can be easily shown – but don’t take my word for it, think back to your own learning – that knowledge that is crammed and revised for an exam falls away rapidly – compared with knowledge accumulated over time and through reappearing in different contexts. The real, inner learning, the result of the curriculum, the sense of a coherent world – where it is achieved – is enduring, concealed from view, private and individual. Tests and exams create colossal waste.

The tragedy is that in its concealment and individualisation this sense-making, this curriculum accomplishment of a sense of coherence in the world, this understanding of how you as a person relate to knowledge and the world – that all of this remains underdeveloped, forced into quiet submission to the oafish posturing of test and examination. There are some examples of how and where schooling revolves around this more elevated notion of curriculum – this building of a personal sense of coherence – and the next Blog looks at two of the: the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme, and Summerhill School.





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