Back in December I began to talk a bit about the whole issue around a curriculum having well-grounded aims – the ones I favoured then and still think bear strong scrutiny, are those from the Cambridge Primary Review, whose response to the government’s draft curriculum proposals can be found here. The issue for the CPR then and remains now, one of directionality. Are we going from “the existing” to “yet more existing” in terms of the subject-led curriculum, or are we going to look to the root of what we want children to be and do? This is a key issue and as we will see later on, is a fundamental one in terms of the way that we think about ourselves. The CPR aims, for reference, are as follows:

  • The needs and capacities of the individual: wellbeing; engagement; empowerment; autonomy
  • The individual in relation to others and the wider world: encouraging respect and reciprocity; promoting interdependence and sustainability; empowering local, national and global citizenship; celebrating culture and community
  • Learning, knowing and doing: knowing, understanding, exploring and making sense; fostering skill; exciting the imagination; enacting dialogue.

Aims-based-Curriculum_front-coverSo far, so good. However, from another stream, this time an equally well-founded academic one at the Institute of Education, comes a remarkable publication by Michael Reiss and John White that places the aims of the curriculum at the heart of the curriculum-building enterprise. What is it, they ask, that we desire for children and thus for humans as they grow and flourish? What do we mean by human flourishing and how can we place it in the heart of the curriculum for English children so that we know why it is we are learning what we are learning?

These are all good questions, and if the CPR has made more than a partial stab at answering this question, then it is really because it seeks solutions as well as questions. It proposes a clear idea of the aims of English education derived from its research and the people who answered the survey, rather than simply forcing us to ask the questions and devise the answers for ourselves, which, largely, is what Reiss and White have done.

None of this matters. White man (no pun intended) does not speak with forked tongue, and both approaches force us, in our curricular design, to say what it is we desire for children through the medium of the curriculum for them. In this aspect (but only in this aspect) it reflects and enhances my argument in an earlier post that we begin to look at school from the needs of family, community and God’s love for children, rather than the needs of the state. However, this work on human flourishing does not touch on the theological aspects of this work, as in the paper by Miroslav Volf on this subject, nor would you expect it to.

Today, Verity Stobart and I were fortunate enough to go down to the IOE to hear Reiss and White speak about their work, to hear four prominent “beneficiaries” of education comment on the work and give their own perspective, and finally, the hoi-polloi amongst the 80-90 people in attendance to ask questions of those on the panel, or the authors themselves. All this in under 2 hours. It was absolutely absorbing. And unlike many of these things, it got better once the questions started. Some of the questions (one by Tim Oates in particular) were amongst the clearest and most erudite things I have heard for years. It was absolutely a privilege to be there – something a cut above your average book launch. Commenting on Reiss and White’s work were Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL, who proved to be another intellectual tour de force once away from her union hat, Kevin Brennan MP, Shadow Minister for Schools, Ian Duffy, community development manager for BP, and Vanessa Ogden, headteacher at Mulberry School for Girls in Tower Hamlets. There was not a powerpoint in sight (hooray!) but the consequence is that I have very sore hands from writing, and most of what I wrote could not be deciphered tomorrow – so I write today.

Defining and using the central aims (John White)

John White began with an overview of why the work came about. The work flowed from a consideration of what came first in education. In 1988, the first National Curriculum was proposed by Kenneth Baker where a list of subjects was proposed, pretty much the “standard model” of subjects, and the debate that arose was not about the subjects themselves, but about the role of different components within the subjects. Fast forward 25 years and Michael Gove is promulgating the present melange, which has exactly the same subject areas, but different debates within the same subjects – hence the hoo-haa about the history content. No-one has actually asked the question why we learn history anyway, from first principles. Both of these approaches start “too far in”, argued White, because neither addressed the larger educational aims, of what school education is actually about. there has been a framework of general aims, but these themselves have not generated the next level of aims, so there is no link between the aims of the current draft curriculum, for instance, and those written out for, say, design technology, or science. As a result, the aims tend to become high sounding mission statements, rather than the motors for the remainder of the curriculum. Except in the 2007 revision of the national curriculum for KS3 and KS4, there has been no attempt to link general aims to the aims within subjects. So the first thing to begin with is to propose serious aims for national study, and these should first of all be articulated and developed clearly, and secondly used to generate mode specific aims in the two main areas. The two central aims of any curriculum should be:

  1. To equip every child to lead a personally flourishing life (to summarise from the book “to prepare students for a life of autonomous, wholehearted and successful engagement in worthwhile relationships, activities and experiences” including the fulfilment of basic needs and the need to develop strong and useful personal qualities)
  2. To equip every child to help others to lead a personally fulfilling life (to include moral education, education for citizenship in a democracy, education for productive work).

John White went on to define the fulfilling life as one where engagement was wholehearted and where autonomy, a basic 20th century western expectation, leads to an imagining and scope of some breadth in a person’s experiences and hopes.  This has implications in the curriculum for student choice, for the role of the arts, for cooperative activity and for discussion. The imagination is critical in this, because whilst not all things can be experienced at school, that should not limit the thinking that we can do about what we might like to achieve. It means that a “taster option” model of curriculum should be available, so children can have the widest possible experience of what life holds. It also means a curriculum where the personal qualities needed for a good life are talked about and taught. Finally, it meant that we had to think about what the nature of our society was at the moment and how we live in it. For White, this was principally about the economy; that means that maths is required to think sensibly about the economy, and then science and technology, because they drive and develop the economy (you can see, perhaps, where I might depart from this line of reasoning). Thus he demonstrated that an aims-based curriculum leads to the subjects we know, but is not derived from those subjects.

However, the aims-based curriculum might also lead to a view of the curriculum based around projects, where cooperative learning and activity is involved and where relational learning is the core of the experience. Such a curriculum is necessarily derivative.

Who, then, controls the aims? This has to be a political decision – not party political, and not the whim of a succession of Secretaries of State – but rooted in the national debate of what we wanted for our children, seeking a level of consensus (something that White would come back to later in the afternoon) that could form the basic answers to the two “aims” questions. The practices of the curriculum must be relevant to, and desired by, the society we hope to create. One route to this might be a national commission on the basic shape of the curriculum, leaving communities and teachers to fill in the gaps according to their local circumstances. The important thing was not to take “subjects as read”. The aims-based curriculum challenged the precepts underlying the current subject-based model, and would not be able to be established overnight.

Applying the aims-based curriculum to school science (Michael Reiss)

Reiss then developed some thinking about how an aims based curriculum would apply to one subject – science. Could we derive a workable and useful science curriculum from the aims above? This was a good approach to take, mainly because it demonstrated both the vulnerabilities of the model as well as its strengths.

Reiss began by showing how science was privileged in the school curriculum. It is part of the mandatory core curriculum throughout the western world. What is in it varies a bit, but not much, and the presence of science in the curriculum is always accepted. However, what is taught in science is determined more by recent curricular history and has been dominated by debates around whether science should serve to stretch the scientists of the future, or meet the needs of all for a basic scientific understanding.

If the school science curriculum is to derive from the two basic aims outlined above, then it must meet the requirement for individual flourishing and enable students to help others to flourish. A third aim derives from these – to teach an understanding of human nature, the social life that this predicates and the natural world we live in. It is here where science asserts its claim, in, for instance:

  • biological aspect of our own human nature
  • our connection with the rest of the living world
  • the cultural aspects of our living species – the uniqueness of language acquisition, of deep self-consciousness of our own existence, etc.
  • the implications of this for our own lives – social biology, anthropology, sociology – things that drift away from empirical scientific endeavour
  • the place of the earth in the solar system, and that of the latter in the universe, and thus a deeper sense of who we are in the universe.

So, the aim to enhance human flourishing does lead to a wide range of scientific knowledge, BUT it is done in the service of how we see ourselves in our society, our family, our place and time. Sciences help students situate themselves in place and in time, and give a sense of both. A proper study of science should give us therefore a sense of what science can say and what it cannot, and thus contribute a window into ethical considerations. All of this, Reiss argued, must flow from the central aims of the curriculum.

He finished with two observations.

  1. There is no reason, except for historical practice and silo thinking in the professional traditions, that biology, chemistry and physics should be studied equally strongly, and have equal weight in the teaching of science. Why is it we are teaching forces, for instance, in Year 6? Should physics and chemistry be as important as biological science for children?
  2. A curriculum that takes seriously the need for human flourishing would give more weight to some aspects of science than others. For instance, young people need to know, as of first importance, sex and relationships education. As interesting as balanced chemical equations or magnetism might be, they are of less importance to the lives of teenagers than how the body works sexually.

After this, we heard from the four panellists. However, it is late, and I am signing off. More tomorrow, I hope.


About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011, looking to make education effective for the whole child and keeping a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for all our children. The views on this blog are all my own, and not in any way those of the school I lead!

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  1. […] echoes White and Reiss’ Aims Based Curriculum approach, but also “makes do” with the content of the existing 2014 national curriculum […]

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