Complicated Problems with a Curricular Solution

I was extremely impressed when I read the transcript of the ResearchED Kent talk from Becky Allen and Ben White (2019). As I commented in response, I think it is a sign of a good piece when it has the reader nodding along in pious agreement at certain points and feeling challenged to the core at others. For me the former included the incisive analysis of the data wave and the recognition that when lots of school leaders talk about curriculum improvement, they really mean trying to prove to Ofsted that the curriculum is already good enough. The latter was mainly the probing questioning of the assumptions on which the knowledge-rich curriculum agenda rests. As a card-carrying supporter of this movement, and as somebody who is aware of his own susceptibility to utopian solutions, especially if they come with the added enticement of intellectual stimulation, this forced me to confront whether I am actually doing any good whatsoever by asking subject leaders and teachers in my school to engage in an extended process of curriculum development.

The existential crisis didn’t last long. I still feel pretty confident that it is a sensible thing to do. But I might scale down the internal rhetoric a little (I normally only subject myself to it), since it can reach an almost millenarian pitch. I accept that the curriculum, no matter how knowledge-rich, can never be the perfect solution to the wicked problem of school improvement, closing the gap, or however else it might be framed. But I still think there are plenty of smaller-scale, complicated problems to which it can represent a worthy solution, and a much-needed one at that. In this short post I will identify a few of them.

1. Curriculum and lesson planning have been too focussed on what topics teachers will cover rather than what students will know by the end.

Undoubtedly, when I was a head of department, my colleagues and I thought primarily in terms of topics to cover, rather than knowledge to be gained. This often led to us rushing over material, so we could say we had ‘done’ the Civil War or whatever, without actually stopping to consider what exactly students were supposed to learn or whether they were actually doing so. It also meant that in our choice of activities we worried more about keeping the students occupied than in choosing the most appropriate pedagogical techniques to secure understanding. Precise identification of what we want students to know is a more sensible starting point.

2. We have not paid enough attention to whether knowledge is retained.

Drawing again on my experiences as a head of department, there was no real attempt until Key Stage 4 to build student knowledge in long-term memory (I would not even have been aware of the cognitive science which underpins the term). I am sceptical of how much we can realistically get students to remember from the small proportion of their lives which they spend being instructed by each one of us, but I’m pretty sure that it’s worth aiming for more. Any increase will make students more knowledgeable young people, who are likely to do better in exams and view the world in a more informed way. After all, if knowledge is not retained, it isn’t really knowledge at all.

3. Insufficient attention has been paid to the authenticity and coherence of each subject’s curriculum as a whole.

I take on board the point made in the talk that we do not know the extent to which students will benefit from even the most rigorously sequenced curriculum, but it still seems reasonable to think that they will do better with one which has been carefully and thoughtfully constructed by subject experts than from one which has not. Schools have significant control over the curriculum (especially below Key Stage 4) and it seems wise to ask those responsible for it to think about why certain content is selected over alternatives, why a particular order is the most logical, and whether it all adds up to an authentic education in the field (allowing for the fact that there is no universally accepted definition of what such a thing would look like).

4. Assessment has frequently lost its connection to what students know.

In the world of the data wave, assessment was all about climbing ladders, hitting targets and meeting criteria. The data which emerged from this process was rarely interrogated to ascertain what, if anything, it could tell us about what students actually understood. This had all sorts of unhelpful knock-on effects e.g. interventions for underachievers which did not logically follow from the causes of their underachievement, pressure on teachers to serve up the expected data and complacency once students had attained the expected standard. None of it promoted an honest assessment of whether students had learned what we wanted them to learn.

5. Teachers have felt alienated from the means of production.

I hope any readers will forgive the Marxist terminology here, but at the height of the data wave, when the main aim of our jobs seemed to be to plot points on a graph, it felt at times as if teachers had lost all control over the means by which our goods (educated students) were produced. This was disheartening for teachers, and doubly so when we were held accountable for the outcomes in what often seemed like unreasonable ways. As Allen and White acknowledge, the curriculum is a more appealing solution to most teachers than data (I accept that we need to be cautious not to buy into it purely on those grounds), and working on it can be a fascinating, empowering thing, which is more likely to retain high quality colleagues in the profession than asking them to explain why 57% of low ability, disadvantaged boys have fallen below the flight path. I’m sure I don’t need to explain why recruitment and retention of good teachers is a worthy aim in its own right.

Having reflected on it for a short time, and having used that time to write this post, rather than doing more useful things with my life, I feel reassured that developing a knowledge-rich curriculum is a worthwhile activity, which can be at least part of the solution to some of the complicated problems we face in schools. I might secretly hope that it will also cure all the ills of the world, but I know that it won’t, and I’ll try to avoid giving the impression that it will. I suppose a useful rule of thumb would be to expect curricular improvement to solve curricular problems, on the whole, rather than those to which it only has a loose connection. Even with that acceptance, I still think it will make a great deal of much-needed difference if we do it honestly, wisely and thoroughly.

And maybe, just maybe, it might even lead to (or at least play some role in contributing to) disadvantaged students (or at least some of them) getting a better (according to my view of betterness) education (whatever education is).

References:

Allen R and White B (2019) https://rebeccaallen.co.uk/2019/12/04/careering-towards-a-curriculum-crash/ (accessed 0411219)

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