The Dangers of a Personalised Curriculum

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Trying to fit a personalised curriculum around the desires of a child is a dangerous idea. If we only ever follow the extreme individualisation where the child’s own innate tastes are paramount we might never move out of McDonalds.

The argument for personalisation goes hand in hand with the idea that much that is studied is of equal value. As long as they’re reading something it doesn’t matter what it is. Why not let a child pursue their own interests? Well, because sometimes those interests might not be in their own best interests. Great Art teaches us truths, just as much as science can. Just not the same ‘type’ of truth.

In a conversation with a science teacher about ‘why we teach Shakespeare’ I suggested it’s because his message is universal, a great expression of the human condition, and exactly the sort of thing that a great education should be focused upon. Absorb a child in the words of Shakespeare and she has a companion for life.

‘It’s all subjective,’ was the reply…

And I tried to reply: yes we are talking about the ‘subjective’ but some things are better than other things and, as teachers, we need to teach children how to make the right choices – how to discern quality in all the arts, how to develop taste, how to open one’s heart to beauty and how to get involved in the conversation. It is important that the teacher opens the world of the subjective so that it becomes a place in which a child can traverse confidently.

For Kierkegaard it was the subjective truth that mattered. For him:

The subjective thinker is not a man of science, but an artist. Existing is an art. The subjective thinker is aesthetic enough to give his life aesthetic content, ethical enough to regulate it, and dialectical enough to penetrate it with thought.

It is the passionate embrace with this ‘subjective’ truth, which is a constant striving towards something, knowing it has depth, knowing it has infinite engagement and argument at its core which works like Shakespeare continue to have for us that make them great.

‘I’m a relativist.’ Said the science teacher. ‘There are objective truths which is the realm of science and everything else is relative.’

For Kierkegaard objective truth suffers for once known it no longer needs us to engage with it deeply. For some this is why they miss Shakespeare’s importance, because they switch off when they are told he is ‘good’.

But the scientist who is striving, wanting to know more, engaged in a struggle to find out is on a similar trajectory to those trying to find the truth in the subjective realm. This, not quite known, quest – keeps us involved. This is the realm in which science and art can come together.

Shakespeare is great, but how great? Shakespeare tells us truths but how true?

The need to teach a pupil about quality is a central tenet when creating a curriculum for them. The alternative to quality driving our decisions, perhaps pandering to what we think they might like, is relativism – where everything has equal value, no truth, this just opens us up to a vile petulant cynicism. And instead of the engagement with great art we have personalisation of the worst sort. Whatever you think is good, is good. Not about truth, just individual gratification. The ‘well, it’s my opinion’ argument gets us into dangerous areas. The  inability to grasp the importance of subjective truths changes the centre of gravity from a relationship with great works into a full focus on one’s own self:

From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value, that all ideologies are mere fictions, the modern relativist infers that everybody has the right to create for himself his own ideology and to attempt to enforce it with all the energy of which he is capable

Mussolini (talking about his ‘relativism by intuition’)

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5 thoughts on “The Dangers of a Personalised Curriculum

  1. David Weston (@informed_edu)

    I absolutely agree with the fundamental idea here. We should help children attain a richer and more exciting understanding of relevance, rather than stick only to whatever interest their current knowledge would have them follow. There are huge numbers of fascinating areas that I, as an adult, find hard to access because my background knowledge makes it hard to decipher. So much philosophy, history, politics and economics that fascinates me feels inaccessible because I have insufficient grounding in the basics.

    That said, I feel that I keep meeting adults who recall a school career where nothing really engaged them, where they always felt stupid and bored. Others talk of a turning point, how one particular teacher and one particular subject caught their attention and rejuvenated their interest in school. I remember myself how I viewed Religious Studies as a narrow subject which was trying to push religious views on me, rather than as a way to understand how the world and its cultures developed. I wish someone had helped me understand its relevance as I now mainly remember the lessons for the many ways in which I found them boring.

    The answer, surely, can’t be to put a great curriculum aside and just follow only the child’s curiosity. This has the danger that huge areas of wonder and wisdom are never explored. But I’m not sure, conversely. that the answer can be to plough on while a child is deeply disengaged from the subject matter.

    It strikes me that we need a level of pragmatism. If a child is entirely switched off school then we need to find a hook, a way to spark their curiosity about something tantalising at the edge of their current knowledge. This can lead them into new wonders and new learning, building confidence that perhaps, by following pathways that their teachers recommend, they may find further valuable insights. This makes me wonder. For some children is there a benefit to pausing something truly great in order to do something less high quality but more engaging as a pathway back into the ‘good stuff’? Then again, how on earth do we make that work in schools with overworked teachers and packed timetables? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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  2. Martin Robinson Post author

    I think the art of teaching is something we shouldn’t dismiss, the ‘switched offness’ might be due to all sorts of things, one of which might be content. The teacher is the bridge between the content and the human being in front of them. It is for them to establish the relationship between the three: the content, the pupil, the teacher and from early on as possible in the pupils school ‘career’.

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  3. shaunapollard

    I absolutely agree with the principle that we have a responsibility to introduce young people to arts which have stood the test of time, offering us all insights into the human condition. I also understand the importance of offering them the chance to discover new, vibrant authors reflecting on worlds they recognise.
    There is a place for both

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