Should You Stop Teaching The Curriculum?

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Increasingly, digital access is freeing teaching and learning from the constraints of prescribed curricular content. 

Michael Fullan and Maria Langworthy

There’s an old trope that goes round and round in which it is said: “Some teachers taught the curriculum today. Other teachers taught students today. And there’s a big difference.” I love binaries, they help focus debate and can be a source of an interesting dialectic but this trope is either a false dichotomy or an extremely telling statement about an unbridgeable gap in education. Most teachers teach students the curriculum, this is why it should be a false dichotomy but, a number of teachers keep re-quoting and reposting the above trope, implying that they are not teaching the curriculum, leaving me to wonder what they are teaching instead? I know… the student!

In Michael Fullan’s and Maria Langworthy’s publication ‘Rich Seam: How New Pedagogies Find Deep Learning’ the authors write that: “The new pedagogies require students to create new knowledge and connect it to the world by using the power of digital tools.” They argue that we need to redesign learning for the twenty-first century. Their new pedagogy revolves around student centred learning, using technology as the accelerator in a classroom in which content is discovered and where the creation of new knowledge replaces the old idea of teaching a curriculum.

Technology, it appears, is not useful for curriculum content delivery, there is evidence that its use is associated with lower performance, as Sir Michael Barber states in his foreword to Fullan’s and Langworthy’s book: “Where technology is used, research findings on its impact on learner outcomes are disappointing.” However, the book makes the case that, rather than dismiss technology one needs to disrupt the whole way of teaching. This new model dispels with the idea of a teacher teaching the curriculum and instead the pupil constructs their own curriculum by discovering it and making it. The teacher no longer needs to teach the curriculum, rather they  co-construct the learning. As the old adage goes: the teacher no longer teaches the curriculum, instead they teach the student, except they don’t even do that, this teacher doesn’t really teach at all.

The authority of the teacher is to be diminished, and her position as an author of a curriculum is destroyed. Teachers would no longer need to be trained in subject specialisms, they would need a breadth of knowledge to help point students in various directions, though this would not offer anything that an algorithm or two couldn’t do, the idea is that the pupil has authority over his learning, but will this really be the case?

The authors make the case that ‘deep learning’ will occur:

‘Deep learning’… develops the learning, creating and ‘doing’ dispositions that young people need to thrive now and in their futures. Premised on the unique powers of human inquiry, creativity, and purpose, new pedagogies are unleashing students and teachers’ energy and excitement in new learning partnerships that find, activate and cultivate the deep learning potential in all of us. Deep learning is more natural to the human condition because it more clearly connects with our core motivations: to directly and deeply engage in learning; and to do things that truly make a difference to our lives and to the world. In the best examples, teachers and students are teaming up to make learning irresistibly engaging, and steeped in real-life problem solving.

These learning teams should follow where the child’s core motivations lead, though algorithms might do this better with the hidden biases seamlessly connecting the child to items of ‘interest’ in much the same way as Amazon does. If the pupil wanted to learn something ‘specifically’ they could ask their computer and a more sophisticated form of Siri could navigate potential sources and resources, and then recommend a ‘sat-nav’ journey for the pupil to take – most of it likely online.

Shorn of their curriculum expertise teachers would need to be re-skilled, with their emotional intelligence coming to the fore, spotting when a child is in distress or in need of some ‘away from screen time’ – though I expect the computer could eventually take on this role too. The machine will be assessing the child’s work, it will be differentiating, co-creating a personalised curriculum for every child, adjusting the speed of delivery and maybe, move on in response to the child’s boredom threshold, we will have a truly child centred education, and the teacher will be in thrall to the machine and the child.

The ‘new pedagogies’ can be defined succinctly as a new model of learning partnerships between and among students and teachers, aiming towards deep learning goals and enabled by pervasive digital access. Most instructional elements of the new pedagogies are not ‘new’ teaching strategies, although we would say that the active learning partnerships with students are new. Many of the teaching strategies that have been advocated for at least a century by the likes of Dewey, Piaget, Montessori and Vygotsky are beginning to emerge and be embraced.

This deskilling of the teacher, the most expensive and annoyingly inconsistent part of education, is, almost with us. The machines that take centre stage will also be expensive but will be sold on their efficiency, reliability and that they will not only do the job better it will be a different job – not some boring teaching of a curriculum this will, instead, be preparing children to live in the 21st century:

The new pedagogies, as we… describe them, require students not only to create new knowledge, but also to connect it to the world, using the power of digital tools to do things that matter beyond school. It is through this final step of ‘doing’ things with knowledge that students gain the experience, self-confidence, perseverance and proactive disposition they need to create value in our knowledge-based, technology-driven societies.

The child reaches out to this world through the power of digital tools – much as we do today in social media but in the future this could be more powerful than we might imagine. The authority of the child will be paramount, but at what point will the child surrender his authority to that of the machine?

Watching Formula One, where man and machine pit their wits against each other – where the machine is designed and driven by human beings, in awe of the power that they have unleashed, aware of the noise, the amount of damage that can be done if anyone gets anything wrong, indeed aware of the fragility of humanity itself as death could be stalking round the next bend… This struggle to understand the machine is what gives motor racing its cache, to understand what it is to be human, one also needs to understand the machine. Yet if our classrooms are driven by the power of digital tools and the human is but a slave to the machine, we could lose sight of the essence of us. If we are excited by the ‘nearness’ of Australia to our London classroom, if we are excited by our virtual reality safari to Africa, but lose sight of the adult human next to us with their diminished role and their deconstructed authorial voice, we lose sight of slowness, of a lack of exciting machine driven stimulation, we will lose sight of the nearness of teaching, to our neighbours, to home. Teaching, in the first instance, is a human exchange.

The twenty-first century might be the age of AI. Just around the bend, we are told, sits the behemoth of ‘Artificial Intelligence’. Something, which Stephen Hawking believes is: “The biggest event in human history” and, he warns it could be: “The last [event in our history], unless we learn how to avoid the risks.” Bill Gates believes it: “Should be positive if we manage it well.” adding that he: “[doesn’t] understand why some people are not concerned. Because what happens if we don’t manage it well?”

Our child-centred classrooms will be churning out children who will be machine friendly, in fact their major educational relationship will be with technology, their major human relationships will be with co-learners and carers. Human beings for cuddles and companionship, machines for knowledge. Clearly all humans will have to learn to hold machines, both software and hardware, in positions of trust. Just as many of us use Google without thinking about it, so will Artificial Intelligence invade our lives by stealth. The Satellite Navigation of our physical selves will be matched with the navigation of our minds and as machines become clearly cleverer than us we would be foolish to look to each other’s flawed and inefficient modes of thinking, instead we will be more and more in awe of our technology, as it solves intractable problems that have puzzled mankind for centuries, composes music that plays our emotions like a harp, writes better books than us and beats us at every sport and leisure pursuit we have invented and are yet to invent. At this point we might wonder whether we need an education at all.

Is allowing technology to dictate how we teach, why we teach and what we teach ‘managing it well’? Will we be sitting in classrooms engaging with technology and co-learning and be ‘learning how to avoid the risks’? It seems that, instead, critique goes out of the window… Fullan and Langworthy want us to change our entire education system to make sure technology works and rather than change the technology to aid us in our art they want to take away the authored curriculum and instead of a teacher struggling with technology, the technology dismisses the teacher.

As the troubling Heidegger reminds us:

In its essence, technology is something that man does not control.

Do we want to allow it to control us?

Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this conception of it, to which today we particularly like to do homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology.

The essence of technology needs to be understood on its own terms, we aren’t there to ‘master’ it, it is not a mere tool but we should also not become mere tools in response to it. The instrumental use of technology can cause man, himself, to become technological. We become obsessed by data, by utility, technology itself becomes an instrument of domination, and this is where Fullan and Langworthy lead us: by refuting the authority of the teacher, we eventually replace it not with the naive authority of the child but by the authority of the machine… and behind the machine? The company that made it.

Then along might come a visionary who says: “Some teachers taught the curriculum today. Other teachers taught students today. And there’s a big difference.” They say what goes around, comes around, and if you sit in the staffroom long enough the old initiatives will return dressed up in brand new packaging. And people might be heard banging on the doors of the classroom of the teachers who teach the curriculum, those who hold stories in their hearts, those with fully formed narratives to tell…

Why would anyone want that? Because we are not machines for teaching, we are teachers and teaching is a humane activity that is deeply associated with caring and nurturing, but a teacher doesn’t just care and nurture children, she also cares for and nurtures the culture and the traditions in which she has been taught and, in turn, teaches others. She is interested in preserving the distinct voice of her subject, she knows that art is different to music, that maths is different to chemistry and this is important in our reaching different ways of understanding our world. Part of this understanding of the world is the understanding of technology in its essential form, not by giving it dominion over us, but by understanding that it can be a part of  the pursuit of wisdom. We should not outsource the curriculum to some future artificial intelligence, with its eristic voice, rather we should ensure the centrality of the idea of schooling, and within this school we have the authority of the humane teacher ensuring a range of eloquent and articulate voices are brought into the realm of each child and for this to occur the curriculum has to be at the heart of what we do, as it is the place where we organise our human stories and spark important conversations.

Teach the curriculum.

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13 thoughts on “Should You Stop Teaching The Curriculum?

  1. Brian

    ‘Technology, it appears, is not useful for curriculum content delivery, there is evidence that its use is associated with lower performance, as Sir Michael Barber states in his foreword to Fullan’s and Langworthy’s book: “Where technology is used, research findings on its impact on learner outcomes are disappointing.” However, the book makes the case that, rather than dismiss technology one needs to disrupt the whole way of teaching. This new model dispels with the idea of a teacher teaching the curriculum and instead the pupil constructs their own curriculum by discovering it and making it. The teacher no longer needs to teach the curriculum, rather they co-construct the learning. As the old adage goes: the teacher no longer teaches the curriculum, instead they teach the student, except they don’t even do that, this teacher doesn’t really teach at all.’

    I believe I understand where you are coming from but I also believe that your assertions above are almost all without substance.I also believe, that as a “Trivium advocate” you must be aware they are almost without substance.

    It is not essential for me to be face to face with a learner for me to teach them. I design materials which will introduce content to learners and then asses their knowledge and understanding providing feedback. My materials are responsive to learner answers. My materials build knowledge and understanding and then expect learners to apply this knowledge to familiar and unfamiliar situations.

    It is a fact, not an opinion, that learners can learn without teachers whereas teachers cannot teach without learners. Indeed the teaching/learning interaction is being re-engineered. Being scared of these developments will not stop them, it is an issue of the free market.

    You can rail against the dying light of traditional teaching, but it is happening everywhere. You are going to have to get over it.

    Students anywhere in the world can access my materials and having worked through them can contact me and discuss any outstanding issues, misconceptions and further learning needs.

    The rest of the post above is merely obfuscation. If you don’t get with the project, you will be left behind.

    Note: clearly there are some aspects of learning that require learners and/or teachers to be co-located but even in these cases a good part of the learning can be done “virtually”.

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  2. Michael fullan

    you miss the message.It is not stop teaching the curriculum; it is to use pedagogy to deepen the curriculum. Every we time we do this, curriculum knowledge increases dramatically. Do it on purpose, and measure increases in curriculum achievement-proof it the way we do.MF

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    1. Chester Draws

      Such lovely sounding words. Inspiring even. But vapid when examined.

      What on earth does “deepen the curriculum” actually mean?

      Can you somehow extract meaning out of quadratic equations that wasn’t there before for teachers? Because I don’t believe you can. Are you able to explain the meaning of a book better than previously? Because I don’t believe you.

      Technology is an aid. Anything else attributed to it is smoke and mirrors.

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      1. mmiweb

        Technology is more than an aid – when the printing press arrived it revolutionised access to information making it cheaper and easier this led to a change in the nature of education – there is a symbiotic nature between technology and pedagogy – at least there should be. New technological changes should thus challenge us to think about pedagogical processes. Of course there should not be a knee jerk reaction to change (or a knee jerk reaction to refuse to change) but it should make us consider and reflect on our existing process.

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    2. Philip Crooks

      Have you actually done this in a classroom? I would like to see it happen in real time just to see if it will work. It is just to easy to say this is what you should do never having done it yourself.
      Please do it then say how great it is.

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    3. Chester Draws

      when the printing press arrived it revolutionised access to information making it cheaper and easier this led to a change in the nature of education

      I don’t believe the printing press changed education in any significant way at all.

      Our classrooms today would be recognisable as such to Chaucer. We can move a bit faster, and do some more difficult things, but we still teach pretty much as ever. We still teach many of the same subjects in my school, given that we do Algebra, Speeches (Rhetoric) and RE (Divinity). Although he might be surprised to see Woodwork and Horticulture as academic rather than vocational, they were taught back then too.

      That modern technology is somehow going to change in the near future seems unlikely to me. At least until the technology actually can think for itself (and Artificial Intelligence has been promised to be “just a couple of decades” for my entire life).

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  3. IanH

    I’ve always been bemused by the idea that we should allow students freedom to choose what they learn in school. The whole point of education, surely, is that over time we in society have come to an understanding of what is useful knowledge for a citizen. Now, that list is high contested and naturally changes over time. But it’s collaborative, not based on individual preference. If someone has a particular interest that they want to learn more about, without reference to it’s potential use in developing their skills or future use, we call it a hobby.

    An analogy I find helpful is diet. We would never assume that a child’s food preferences will naturally lead him or her to a balanced, nutritionally complete diet. We guide them, blending peppers into the tomato sauce or mashing extra veg into the potatoes if needed, putting the chocolate on a high shelf when they’re young and handing over responsibility for free choice gradually. Just because ordering food with a supermarket app is easy for a ten year old didn’t mean the choices they make will be any better.

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  4. mmiweb

    I think you are rather mis-representing Fullen and Langworthy who I read as suggesting that we need to use the tools of the time to engage meaningfully with the curriculum – as indeed you are doing Martin as you blog, why are you not sticking with writing a column in a newspaper or printing leaflets on your Gestetner – you doing this, I assume, because it ticks one of the boys of efficiency, effectiveness or transformation (McCormick and Scrimshaw, 2001).

    Like others above much of the rest of your argument is rather straw man the underlying processes of learning and teaching have not changed hugely – reading, communication, transmission, collaboration, inquiry but each generation of technology does challenge the mechanisms and the internet and (relatively) cheap portable computing is doing that again – as Fullen and Langworthy suggest.

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