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.
Creating an education system where all students reach their full potential is a statement you will find somewhere in most school prospectuses. How we do this is a subject of debate.
A discussion was started in LinkedIn which touched on this topic has led to some interesting comments. This is how it started:
Set to fail: why do we continue to group pupils so that their learning and achievement are limited?
OK , the question presents itself as a fact and we need to be cautious of such hazards (of responding as if it were a truth or fact). It raised in my mind what I see as a critical aspect of the way we comment on, and how many appear to view, education and intelligence.
Grouping in education is most often seen as a function of intelligence with the reasoning of putting equally intelligent people together so that they can learn at the same pace. But it is not as easy as that, is it? To many this is the “production line” or “Victorian” model of education which uses conformity, consistency and standards as its principles of design and implementation.
I have copied one of my contributions to this debate because it deals with my concerns and I think it needs ‘airing’ in a wider forum.
“Intelligence as a trait or ability is not as easy to recognise as physical prowess. Intelligence can go unrecognised or even subjugated so easily and as a result of the most innocuous comment or action. It develops or presents itself in different ways or in different forms and at different times and there is no clear indicator. Some can feign intelligence just as some can hide it. We must not allow ourselves to see intelligence in the same way as we do physical prowess which so easily presents itself. Not being good at sport does not carry the same risks as not being good in class.
It is for these reasons we must avoid the label that leads to classification. We must be careful that they do not ultimately lead to closed routes or pathways and limited learning opportunities.
It is easy to point to the extremes and say how unfair the mixed ability arrangement is, but this ignores the benefits of the opportunities offered to the majority. Sensible mixed ability is a much more equitable arrangement and worthy of consideration. Having your flowering intelligence recognised, in whatever form it presents itself and at whatever stage in your development it does so, and being provided with the opportunity and pathway to explore it is a fundamental right. It is this alone that provokes my rejection of selection and of labelling without mobility.
I believe it has been proven that IQ (the most common form of measure when talking about intelligence) alone does not predict future success in life or career and so to select or group on this single criteria alone must be a fundamentally flawed proposition. Emotional intelligence has been suggested to have a greater part to play on a person’s future success so should we group or select on this basis?
If of course we judge the value of education through league tables or examination success rates then we can so easily make the case for selection for we want these people to be successful. After all a reputation may well be at risk. There will always be a problem whilst we have differing range of abilities and a single simplistic measure of one narrow ability.
We owe it to our children and to society to make the most of every ability, no matter what form it takes or when it presents. Our past failures to do this surround us and we must not be drawn back to the past with a promise of better. The latest Nobel winner, Sir John Gurdon may attest to this since he was ‘too stupid’ for science.”
The key points I am trying to make are:
- We do not have a single measure of intelligence and nor do we fully understand how it develops.
- Labels are seductive in education, especially in a “Victorian” model and we must avoid them.
- By wrongly labelling we can as easily prevent an individual reaching their potential as we can attempting to ensure they do.
- Labels are driving the curriculum and many are “historical” in nature.
- A traditional single measure of intelligence ignores other “intelligences” or traits that make us successful in life.
A follow up comment I made in response to my comments highlights my call for caution.
“I have offered a warning of sorts, not aimed at you but at the manner in which such simple terms can be so easily applied to the situation we face in education. ‘Standards’ is the alter on which so much is being sacrificed and having spent time with teachers I can tell you it is destroying the profession and limiting the opportunities of our children. Using simple analogies is tempting but they do nothing but undermine what is a very complicated situation by pretending it is otherwise. I caution all for doing so.”
The echoes of the past are still with us in education. References to “standards”, “conformity” and “consistency” are all by words for the industrial age as are “academic” and “vocational” for a Victorian model of education.
Finally a most apt quote for this simplistic approach to education.
For my ideas on intelligence see the introductory article on “Learning Quotient” @ http://wp.me/p2LphS-3p