For a variety of reasons, all good, some timely, I have been thinking about curriculum in schools over the last week or so. Both the last two posts have had a curriculum focus (the CCT one incidentally, because it is actually the curriculum – the irresistible curriculum – that will attract learners to the teaching we offer), and they were written immediately before the first of a series of Milton Keynes Improvement Partner events called IP Essentials. (Nothing to do, incidentally, with the IP Essentials that Wiley publish to advance the public understanding of intellectual property). I went to the first of these sessions on Thursday morning and found it really useful. Alison Talbot led it, and it was principally an insight into the way that Amanda Spielman and her new emphasis on curriculum is being translated into day-to-day practice in inspections. Some of the stories that came from participants for whom curriculum was the main focus of their recent inspection bordered on the scary, but they were a useful reminder that if we want to take a broad and balanced curriculum seriously, then we need to find ways to assess that curriculum properly and show progress in it. This has implications for teacher time, for curricular leadership at Christ the Sower and for a holistic way of showing both attainment and progress for children from different groups (SEN, pupil premium, EAL, etc). This will have to be a major effort for teachers this year if we are to take it seriously, and we must. It also has some implications for planning, in order that we teach enough material in each term, in each year group, to assess in each subject. The way we have approached RE assessment is a start, but it also means that our planning will have to start “with the end in mind.”

In Thursday’s course, there were some more-or-less hopeless definitions of curriculum given us, presumably to wind us up deliberately, but it was the wider referencing of important documentation that I found most helpful, so this blog actually exists to signpost the main three documents that arose from the morning’s discussion – two directly, and one that I started hunting for online during a less convincing part of the course.

This latter was Michael Young’s paper in Arquivo (Portugal) entitled: What are schools for? Young (from the IoE) argues that in every generation, we need to redefine this question. It is a different question than “what should we teach in schools?” but it comes to the same conclusion: they provide the intellectual content and skills for children that neither parents nor the community can provide. Young’s conclusion is:

Although answers to the question «what are schools for?» will inevitably express tensions and conflicts of interests within the wider society, nevertheless educational policy makers, practising teachers and educational researchers need to address the distinctive purposes of schools…. (secondly) there is a link between the emancipatory hopes associated with the expansion of schooling and the opportunity that schools provide for learners to acquire «powerful knowledge» that they rarely have access to at home. Third, I introduce the concept of knowledge differentiation as a principled way of distinguishing between school and non-school knowledge. Contemporary forms of accountability are tending to weaken the boundaries between school and non-school knowledge on the grounds that they inhibit a more accessible and more economically relevant curriculum. I have drawn on Basil Bernstein’s analysis to suggest that to follow this path may be to deny the conditions for acquiring powerful knowledge to the very pupils who are already disadvantaged by their social circumstances. Resolving this tension between political demands and educational realities is, I would argue, one of the major educational questions of our time.

This is one of the best counterarguments to the prevailing supposition that we are just facilitators of general knowledge, and that there is a requirement to allow parents to be the chief educators. That might be the case in societies or cultures where parents and the communities are highly knowledgeable about everything (name me one!). I have made this case in the past – for parents to be the main educators of their children, but I have not for one minute implied a dumbing down of the teacher role. Indeed, my (mostly unspoken) assumption is that teachers in many countries (UK included) are dumbed down quite enough! Thus it seems to me that Young’s concept of knowledge differentiation, a principled distinction, is critical here:

  1. We respect and honour the knowledge that the community and the family has, and seek to find ways to extend and emplace that as critical elements for the basis upon which children learn. This has to be real common knowledge (we cannot give any place to cultural wrong assumptions just because they come from an ethnic group we do not want to offend). This has to be the basis of all we do, lest we bring our own wrong assumptions and points of view into the mix simply because we have (or increasingly have not) been to a university to learn our teaching craft.
  2. We strive as hard as we can to educate our teachers in the fulness of the cultural and “received wisdom” of previous generations AND in the skills they need in pedagogy AND in a strong, skilled and principled (read Borgmann’s Power Failure for this) awareness of the technological demands of today’s society. These are true IP essentials! These are the things that all teachers must have as their own intellectual property!
  3. With this separation of these two areas, we can build on a proper understanding of what our role is, of what the parents’ role is vis à vis our taught curriculum, and how they can truly help us should they choose to, without for a moment trespassing on the authority of parents as the chief educators of their children.

You can see why this paper of Young’s is so helpful.

The second paper – one that Alison brought to our attention – was a UNESCO document called What makes a quality curriculum? The principal author is Philip Stabback from Education Works (Australia).

The paper is based on a UNESCO attempt to define a curriculum for Iraqi schools, who do probably need a level of re-education. However, the authors are really principled about the basis of it, insisting that all children matter and all are to be valued equally – and this is placed right at the start of the curricular process. In addition is a properly content-driven, well-defined curriculum, organised properly so that learning is effective, combined with the most recent research on how children actually learn. We are in a position now to know more about this than ever before, so this is a timely piece of research for school leaders to know about:

However, I have some reservations. There is no place in the UNESCO world for Religious Education within the curriculum. This is a grave error (especially in Iraq!!). Using Young’s model of knowledge differentiation, we would therefore imagine that UNESCO wants any religious knowledge to be taught by families and the community. Well, Iraq has seen how well that one worked out. As has Northern Ireland. And most catholic countries in Europe. And Turkey. It is really not a good idea. RE has to be rooted in the taught curriculum, common to all in a national community, taught by professional teachers who themselves are well taught in RE (yes, I can see the problem you are imagining already…).

The second reservation is that their view of all children being equal really refers to a differentiated approach to learning, so that all needs are met. This is good and pragmatic, but it does not, in my view, place enough emphasis on the intrinsic uniqueness and value as a created human as I would wish. I can’t expect UNESCO to think like this, but as a Christian educator, we have to state it over and over again: every single child is of undefinable and immense value to the loving God who made them. No exceptions.

The third piece of writing is another piece by Michael Young from the IoE, brought to our attention by Alison, entitled The Curriculum and the Entitlement to Knowledge. It is unpublished, but represents an edited talk at a Cambridge Assessment seminar three years ago. It is again a strong attack on the “situational knowledge” advanced by many, and a plea for there to be an accepted understanding of what powerful knowledge is and what it could mean in our curricula.

I am not going to go into it fully, except that it puts me in mind of a comment by Tom Wright in an essay entitled How the Bible Reads the Modern World. There, he presents a view of knowledge that informs our pedagogic work, showing children what knowledge is for: ‘In the Bible, we find a vocation to human knowing that is always relational…. responsible….. fully attentive to the person or thing that is known, and yet always bringing it to the larger world of narrative, imagination, metaphor and art that enables us to know things more fully than merely as a list of facts or a string of formulas.’ Whilst content is important, we also must realize that the ‘knowing subject has a vocation in relation to the known. Knowing about the world is supposed to be part of the work of bringing the creator’s wise ordering into the world, thus enabling the world and its various parts to flourish.’ Where knowledge within Enlightenment thought leads to the knower standing outside that which is known, the knowing that is rooted in God’s wisdom ‘sees the object of study not as an isolated entity to be exploited or manipulated, but as part of a much larger world of interlocking connections and mutual relationships.’ Finally, Wright contends, we never know in isolation. Knowledge embraces both boldness and humility – we are unafraid to say what we know, but we ‘always covet other angles of vision.’

This is a fuller definition of knowledge that we need to explore. It shows that knowledge has a purpose under the hand of God, not just for that advancement of humanity’s own understanding of itself.

More to come, but my thanks to Alison Talbot for opening up this subject so well on Thursday.




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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