I recently enjoyed reading a blog post by Steve Adcock, which considered curriculum intent using the analogy of the mirror and the window. The mirror suggests a curriculum which represents the students, allowing them to recognise themselves in what they learn, while the window is about giving them sight of something new, enabling them to learn things beyond their experience.
As a fan of Michael Young, my own curricular thinking has mostly been focussed on the window side of the equation. I am convinced that school should give students access to ‘powerful knowledge’, welcoming them into the world of academic disciplines and teaching things which are ‘distinct from the “common-sense” knowledge we acquire through our everyday experience’ (Young, 2014). I see this as the most important role of the curriculum.
I have certainly not changed my mind about this, but recently I have been giving more thought to the curriculum as mirror. How far should we seek to plan a curriculum in which every student can see themselves in some way?
I tend to put this more in the desirable camp than the essential one. This is partly for reasons of practicality: we cannot possibly plan an entire curriculum on the basis of the personal experiences and identities of the students who happen to be studying it in that particular year. I also think there is a point to be made about coherence: there would be a danger of a checklist approach to representation, resulting in a very disjointed offer overall. Therefore in my own subject of History, alongside doing justice to the academic discipline, I think a better bet is to plan a curriculum which attempts to be broadly representative of both historical and modern society, looked at through a local, national and global lens.
That said, when a student can see themselves in the content they are studying, it has a raw power quite unlike anything else, which we should not sneer at from a lofty perch. To make my point I will draw on my own experience of studying History at school, which I was reminded of when reading Steve’s blog post.
As a white, straight, cis man, I look like somebody a traditional curriculum was written to represent. Even so, I felt like an outsider for most of my schooling, probably because of a combination of socio-economic status and cultural non-conformity. I thoroughly enjoyed History and aspired to teach it one day, but I was primarily interested in it as an intellectual pursuit. I enjoyed accumulating lots of knowledge about the past and communicating it, but it didn’t feel as if it was about me in any way and certainly not that it might be something to which I could contribute.
Something changed during my A Level studies when I encountered the Reformation. As a kid from an ultra-strict Protestant background, this was different. I could relate to it. The theological disagreements which made little sense to my classmates, the scriptural basis of the arguments and the prominent role played by religion in society chimed with my experience and I had an insight which others lacked. I started reading beyond the compulsory material and got positive feedback from my teacher when I was able to use my insider knowledge to good effect in my written work. It felt good to look in the mirror.
It got even better when I discovered the Anabaptists. I felt at home amongst these people who would argue endlessly over the correct interpretation of a passage from the Bible, who chose their beliefs over everything considered respectable by society and were willing to endure so much persecution for them. I found it hard to believe that scholars wrote books about them and wanted to challenge historians who were too credulous of contemporary propaganda, which tended to label all the radicals as social revolutionaries. I wasn’t prepared to stand for that. These people were my people and their history was my history!
Learning about my new obsession didn’t feel like work. Oddly it felt like cheating. History was supposed to be about kings, noblemen and archbishops, not people like me. Reading about it wasn’t supposed to be so much fun. I sought out everything I could find in the school library which touched on the Radical Reformation, scoured second-hand bookshops for more material and talked about it to anyone who was patient enough to listen.
You might be surprised to learn that this did not immediately translate into better grades. If anything, the opposite happened in the short term. I tried to shoehorn information about my favourite topic into essays where it didn’t really belong and attempted to give everything a spiritual interpretation, so in fact my scores dropped a bit. I had to learn to keep my new obsession in perspective and over time I did so.
By the time I went to university I was more in control, and was able to use my enthusiasm to my advantage. I learned to harness my emotional and intellectual responses to religious history and use them in tandem. As a result, I can trace a theme running through the best work I produced in my degree, taking in 16th century preaching, the witch craze, modern African Christianity and plenty more besides. I loved to defend the sheer power of faith as a historical force in its own right rather than as a mere front for things like class struggle. I had managed to integrate my personal insight into the world of academic study. It was now ‘the basis for generalisations and thinking beyond particular contexts or cases’ (Young, 2014). My knowledge had become powerful.
I never lost my enthusiasm for that particular branch of history, even long after I moved out of the world which gave it to me in the first place. I even considered pursuing my interest through further academic study, but not enough to overcome my wish to be a schoolteacher. It was an intoxicating experience to look into the mirror of the curriculum, and I will never forget it. I would like to think we can offer it to more young people, including those from more diverse backgrounds than my own and who have far more reason to feel like outsiders.
So while I still think we are right to prioritise using the curriculum as a window for our students, I reckon we write off the mirror at our peril. We can’t hope to reflect every student’s experience, but when we do, there is nothing quite like it, and it can be a gateway to something more. Take it from someone who knows.
Michael Young, David Lambert et al – Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice (Bloomsbury Academic, 2014)
Image found here and labelled as available for noncommercial reuse.