The school curriculum has many masters, and whilst we think in subjects, few options. We need to rethink our approach and it starts with developing a new specification.
Where we are now.
Any present curriculum is a specification consisting of ‘subject areas’ and listing ‘content’ under those areas, content being the things learners should know and understand. The specification sets out a standard for education and provides a basis for measuring conformance. Demonstration of the success of the teaching of this curriculum is by assessment of the learner through formal examinations or tests producing grades or levels.
The problem with a specification
The very nature of a specification requires it to be exact but if what is written is ‘criteria specific’ then it can soon become obsolete. The reason for this is because as either the expectations change, or the standards required increase the specification becomes no longer appropriate. This is both a good and bad thing depending on how flexible the system is to adapt to changing specifications. If the system is inflexible, unable or unwilling to change then the specification can act as a limiting device preventing future developments keeping pace with change. In such circumstances it can also lead to those with a vested interest unwilling to change frequently resulting in a conflict between the existing specification and the new ‘reality’ or requirements of the system. We often observe such stakeholders battling to retain the existing system ‘as is’ and insisting on a set of ‘basics’ represented by the current specification as being essential.
A simple example of a limiting or hindering specification
- The new vehicle design MUST achieve 40 miles to the gallon.
Here we are limited to the figure of 40 mpg, there is no incentive to explore 80mpg. Further we are referencing a ‘gallon’ requiring a liquid fuel solution.
It is possible to write a specification that is less limiting and more liberating.
- The new vehicle design must represent the most efficient form of energy conversion currently available or planned in the near future (5 years), and also be able to be adapted or upgraded to future systems.
Please don’t pick holes in my two examples, they are just that! I am trying to make a point that is critical to education. That the knowledge we teach today and the understanding or skills we require to be demonstrated today may not be that which is necessary in the future. If we have a limiting specification then it is more than likely that we will be ‘out of date’ and caught up in that vested interest cycle (think EBacc, STEM, STEAM etc).
Where to start in writing a specification
It is easy to write a limiting specification, we list the traditional core subjects and rely on what we were taught in order to define the curriculum. We can insist on the ‘basics’ and on ‘traditional values’ and say we are going to raise standards, but I would argue we are creating a conflict between ‘what is’ and ‘what is needed’, we are being inflexible. Writing a specification that will produce a more ‘liberating’ curriculum will help us respond to future needs, to be more agile or flexible in our approach. We will still need ‘checks and balances’, a way of evaluating the effectiveness of the specification in achieving our desired outcome but this will not be one looks backward to determine its success but instead very much forward.
To put this argument into context I would recommend you read the “The Sabre Tooth Curriculum” by J Abner Peddiwell. There are many online accounts and a book is available too.
In the Sabre Tooth Curriculum it is survival needs that lead to identification of the tasks that need to be taught. There is both spiritual and political impediment to the development of a curriculum and to the teaching of these things. Success based on the initial criteria promotes the curriculum and the content but as the initial need and challenges change the curriculum does not. Sides are taken and arguments made. Those for continuing with the current system reference greater virtues than suggested by the now outdated skills in order to justify their continuance. Those that suggest change are admonished for their lack of education.
My advice in writing a curriculum specification
You start at the beginning and that is not with the specification at all. Alvin Toffler is accredited with saying ““The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. ”
Learning as a problem-solving exercise
We need to look at education, specifically learning, as a problem-solving exercise. We need to decide what we want to achieve. Once we do then we have available a language and a set of tools that will help us design, specify, generate ideas (for there is always more than one),build, test and evaluate a dynamic system that will equip people with the abilities, knowledge, insights, understanding etc to teach themselves in whatever environment they find themselves in. We will have done what Alvin Toffler suggested the literate of the 21st century need from our education system and we will have cut the strings that presently bind us to the Sabre Tooth Curriculum mentality.