Category Archives: Curriculum

Curriculum Design and Spacing

Curriculum Shorts (Some short musings about curriculum)

‘Spacing’ is a really useful way to improve learning and retention. Basically it means delaying before you re-study something. The opposite would be ‘blocking’, where a topic is learned over a period of a few weeks. This is a curriculum design issue as, often, teachers and departments design their curriculum around half-termly chunks.

This tends to mean that by the time, say, the class get to their mock GCSE-exam in a given subject the vast majority of pupils have little recall about the knowledge they ‘learnt’ in the first Autumn half term of year ten. Teachers then arrange extra classes after school, half term holiday catch-up classes, Easter cramming sessions, etc. Pupils are more stressed, as are their parents and teachers neglect their family and social life to squeeze a couple more percentage points from their charges.

Instead of learning and finishing an area of study in ‘convenient’ half-termly chunks, spacing the information over the duration of a course makes sense. And means less panic at the end of the course when it becomes clear that pupils have no longer forgotten a lot of what they were taught.

The way I make sense of this is to think of a rehearsal timetable for a school play. If the budding thespians just did scene one for a few weeks, then moved to scene two etc. when it came to the dress rehearsal it would come quite clear that most of the little divas had forgotten scene one but remembered most about the last scene they rehearsed before the ‘dress’. This is why a director of a school play tends to use spacing in order to structure the rehearsal schedule. (see diagram)

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If you think of each rehearsal as, perhaps, a two or three-week chunk of lessons, you can see how a rehearsal timetable model can help us think about designing a curriculum with spacing in mind.

Spiral Curriculum

Curriculum Shorts (Some short musings about curriculum)

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In his book, The Process of Education, Jerome Bruner wrote that:

‘A curriculum as it develops should revisit… basic ideas repeatedly, building upon them until the student has grasped the full formal apparatus that goes with them’

This idea was central to the spiral curriculum. It should also be central to any knowledge-rich approach to education today. In every subject there are ideas, concepts – foundational knowledge upon which a subject studied is built. (Some examples: Empire and Colonialism, Revolution, Drawing, Painting, Sculpture, The Novel, Poetry, Sauces and Gravies, Particles, Cells, Staging, Physical and Mental well-being…) Some of these might be argued about, and should be, but the point is ascertaining what are the organising principles around which a subject curriculum might flow. These ‘basic ideas’ recur.

If we think about painting in an art curriculum we know it covers a lot of different techniques, tools, paints, styles, eras, artists, etc. and each time we revisit ‘painting’ we learn more about painting as a whole as well as the particularities of painting being taught at the time. It would be ridiculous to teach painting all at once and never return to it. By returning later the learning is reinforced and, if we take into account forgetting as a way of forging better learning, it seems sensible to keep returning and building upon what was done before rather than leaving it so long as to render it completely forgotten or so lost in the midsts of time as to be difficult to resurrect. ‘We do painting in the Autumn term of y7′ doesn’t really cut it.

By spiralling around, we return, but when returning we build upon previous knowledge and expand the pupils’ repertoire, their knowledge.

What are the organising principles, ideas, concepts, precepts, the foundational knowledge in the subject that you teach? A knowledge-rich curriculum can be built around these, ensuring good retention, good thinking, ‘joined-upness’, good progress and a curriculum in which the central narrative(s) and tenets are clear.

T-Shaped Curriculum

Curriculum Shorts (Some short musings about curriculum)

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The T-Shaped curriculum idea can be thought of, quite simply, in this way: the horizontal line of the T represents breadth and the vertical, depth.

The concept is prevalent in design education and also in other ‘progressive’ scenarios with breadth sometimes representing employability and/or multiple intelligences and the vertical as subject expertise. The horizontal line can be seen as transferable skills and the vertical as knowledge and experience. 

Without overcomplicating it, and instead by sticking to the competing notions of breadth and depth, it can be a useful concept can be when thinking about curriculum design. For example, in his book, A Short History of Europe, Simon Jenkins writes:

I disagree with syllabuses that maintain history is better taught in depth rather than breadth. Depth should follow breadth, for without it history is meaningless. Without awareness of the timeline of human activity, individuals become dissociated figures on a bare stage. Those who cannot speak history to one another have nothing meaningful to say. Context – which means a sense of proportion – is everything.

A knowledge-based curriculum could easily become a list of facts, but if a knowledge-rich curriculum is sought then one of the things that can enrich knowledge is knowing the context in which items of knowledge can sit. This context can be extremely broad and, yes, it can cross subject-boundaries (think of the context of modernism, or renaissance, for example) it can be concept-oriented, values-driven or a number of other ways in which we make meaning. Without the breadth, depth can be left bereft.

What is the balance needed between depth and breadth? The answer is context-dependent.

The Socially-Mobile Curriculum

Curriculum Shorts (Some short musings about curriculum)

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The thought that the only thing keeping the unwashed hordes from taking up positions at the highest echelons of society is a knowledge-rich curriculum is, somewhat, ludicrous. The idea that by learning a smattering of Latin, the history of kings and queens, Darwinian theories, and iambic pentameter the offspring of the poor downtrodden masses will find themselves in positions to Lord it over the rest is unlikely. Firstly, it hasn’t happened ((yet…) perhaps the lack of a growth mindset is what keeps the revolution at bay…) Secondly, if the theory is actually right, that curriculum will result in social mobility, then the curriculum has to be used strategically… in other words if the hoi-polloi are to receive their socially-mobile knowledge-rich curriculum then the fruit of the loins of their lords and masters need to have a curriculum that positively disadvantages them.

Unto the rich shall be the knowledge-poor curriculum.

Unlikely.

I wrote here about how the myth of social mobility drives many an education aim.  

Social-mobility cannot be the aim for curriculum.

On A Knowledge-Rich Curriculum

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The aim of education is the knowledge, not of facts, but of values.  – William Ralph Inge “The Training of the Reason” 

Do we know that torturing or killing a person for entertainment is wrong? Or is it that we just find it unpalatable? Is it merely guesswork on our part, is truth, outside of scientific truth, merely relative? These questions, asked by the late, great, Mary Midgley give me pause. If knowledge is to free us from superstition, from being wrong about something then what of the knowledge that explores doubt and uncertainty. Is knowing that I don’t know feasible, is much knowledge of a non-certain variety, potentially both truthful or non-truthful, or degrees in between…?

Context, time, place, people might make it so…

Midgley wonders whether we can divide knowledge into two parts asking whether these two parts are:

…science, which securely meets… high standards of certainty, and the rest which is mere amateur bungling.

How much of a curriculum should be given over to dealing with ‘amateur bungling’? She goes on:

There are innumerable aspects of human experience besides the scientific one that we can perfectly well discuss – not, indeed, ever expecting to say anything final and infallible about them, but still successfully communicating, establishing certain things, understanding each other to some extent, and managing to alter our lives sensibly in many ways in consequence. p37-8*

Knowledge, for Midgley has an important role – knowing what to think, what to do, even not knowing what to think and do. This knowledge is organised by values. Sometimes it seems obvious to many people what might be wrong or right, what is good, bad, what is better, not so good, beautiful, not so beautiful… judgement, taste, tradition, revolution, discrimination, all come into building arguments, discussions, comparisons but not certainty. This knowledge, about how to get involved in the conversation, takes a lot of knowing about things, organised into schema of competing values in which what we know is always open to amendment.

The committing of knowledge to long-term memory begs the question about the value of that knowledge. And about the attitude of the ‘knower’ of the knowledge to the knowledge they are being taught. The input-output model of education in which something is taught and is, through various methods, lodged in long term memory is problematic because knowledge is never known nor remembered by each child in the same way. Knowledge is imbued with each pupil’s, indeed person’s, way of knowing it. Values might be marshalled for argument’s sake in defence, attack of said knowledge before, during or after it having been taught. Stick that on a knowledge organiser.

We don’t just teach things that are right or wrong, we also open up huge caverns of doubt in which truths are more difficult to ascertain, but ascertain them we do, in the world in which we live, in our time, in conversations with others to establish how we might live. This is the sort of knowledge that concerns many areas of schooling and is the sort of knowledge that helps ensure a curriculum is knowledge-rich. But don’t expect a child to know it in the same way that the teacher does.

A knowledge-rich curriculum is values driven – and not just one set of values determined as right or wrong – but the difficult search through competing values that help us determine how we might live.

 

*Wisdom, Information And Wonder: What is Knowledge For?

 

Curriculum is Not a Journey. An Argument Against an Aims-Led Approach.

The curriculum as journey, has a destination. After-all destination is often the point of a journey and one usually makes decisions in the light of where we wish to arrive rather than the possibilities afforded en-route. This goal-directed approach absolutely has its strengths, especially in travel, but in curriculum design and delivery it can result in a narrow focus or even become a distraction in that the destination destroys the fabric of the things being studied. It is for this reason that curriculum is far better thought of as narrative, a collection of stories, in which the final destinations are within the gift of the readers.

Why?

In the book ‘The Curriculum and the Child’ John White suggests that:

“The main argument for shifting from professional to political control; of the… curriculum is that questions about the aims and content of education are intimately connected with views about the kind of society we wish to live in.” 

The well-being of the learner and the well being of society must be, White claims, at the heart of a curriculum. For him, an aims-led curriculum is necessary in a democratic society and that what and how a child learns must change in order to deliver on these aims. He suggests that the curriculum should be decided through local, national and supra-national bodies – Local Authorities, National Government and (relevant to when he wrote it) the EU.

Whilst many of his aims seem sensible and his arguments are well-made and clearly thought through I have reservations about the overall approach. It is a type of thinking that appeals to control-freak politicians and bureaucrats, it leads to spurious activities in schools in the name of curriculum aims, and due to the aims being either impossible to measure, or measured to a point of meaningless, most obviously in the more recent case of ‘national curriculum levels’ it is the desire to ensure aims are met that does more damage to education than people who support an aims-led approach might have wished for..

Mike Newby, Emeritus Professor of Education at Plymouth University, wrote:

‘A curriculum is a blueprint for what we want children to become’.

For me, this short, clear statement is rather chilling. The thought that through various machinations the EU, Her Majesty’s Government and my local council, who have proven over years to not be so adept at managing many things should busy themselves in deciding what our children should become is positively North-Korean.

This whole approach including phrases like ‘curriculum is a journey,’ or ‘our pupils follow a flight-path’ and measures such as tracking and the inevitable ‘interventions’ that might follow if one deviates from the chosen path can easily have sinister overtones. For some it’s even an aim, although possibly a joke, to educate children not to be Tories… 

For deciding what a child is to become is not the job of government, arguably it is not even the job of a parent. Instead, amongst all the constraints, physically, culturally, socially that a child encounters in their life it should be down to them to become and continue to become the person that they might wish to be. Despite what the EU might have in store for them.

This is not to say that schooling should be an anarchic hotchpotch of ill-thought through activities, far from it, but the direction should be based not on shaping what they are to become but giving them a sense of where the world is and how it got to here so that they might find themselves to be culturally mobile enough to help make the world as they see fit. This is an education in the pursuit of wisdom in which children are able to join in with the great conversations of our time, with the knowledge, competence and ability to contribute and make a difference should they see fit. This is an education for freedom.

In their publication, Subject to change: new thinking on the curriculum (2007), The ATL union proposed a national curriculum that:

“Being a statutory curriculum … the Government answers the big questions about the aims of the curriculum, whilst the implementation is put in local hands.”

In her foreword Mary Bousted wrote:

“if we are to prepare young people for a world in which what is known to be true changes by the hour; a world in which access to information is at the touch of a keyboard, where rote learning of facts must give way to nurturing through education of essential transferable skills that enable the next generation to navigate the information age. That is why we advocate a skills-based curriculum. One that is focused on communication, physical, interpersonal and intrapersonal skills and thinking and learning skills; all essential components of the educated person able to think and act effectively in the twenty-first century… We need to radically change our approach to what we teach, how we teach and what, when and how we assess if we are to remain a competitive nation in the globalised economy. There is not much time left, so we need to act now.”

The then new national curriculum was heavily invested in a skills-based approach, championing the aims of all children in becoming Successful Learners, Confident Individuals and Responsible Citizens who would Be Healthy, Stay Safe, Enjoy and Achieve, Make a Positive Contribution and Achieve Economic Well-Being. In his preface to the ATL publication Mick Waters, the then Director of Curriculum at the Qualification and Curriculum Authority (QCA) wrote that:

“by seeing subject discipline as more vital than subject content, by seeing links between subjects, by seeing the world through important dimensions such as globalisation, technology or sustainability, we start to create a sense of learning. By providing a curriculum based on real purpose and real audiences we have a chance of engaging children in compelling experiences that offer a chance for them to understand processes. By assessing progress on a range of measures we will see growth in the individual.” 

This ‘growth’ in progress towards the ‘aims’ as stated in, what was called, ‘the big picture of the curriculum’ was through a variety of lenses, including ‘personal, learning and thinking skills’ such as creativity and collaboration and ‘overarching themes’ such as ‘identity’, ‘critical thinking’ and ‘technology’.

Yet this wasn’t enough for the ATL:

“The classical and elite model containing a narrow range of intellectual knowledge and skill is inappropriate for an age of universal education. In Britain, this model, with its organisation based on the academic subject, continues to be in competition with models built on the needs of children. Although there has recently been a greater recognition of the importance of developing a wider range of skills, attempts to integrate them into the subject-based curriculum has had limited success.

It is time to make a fresh start. If a curriculum is to centre on the whole range of skills needed by tomorrows’ citizens, it must be designed that way from the start.”

It goes on to say:

“The approach suggested here is to move away from defining the curriculum in terms of knowledge, whether generally defined as ways of knowing or as detailed knowledge content, and to replace it with a definition in terms of skills.”

Adding:

“Most people are not intellectuals. Most people do not live their lives predominantly in the abstract. It is not clear that it would be preferable to do otherwise; the world cannot survive only through thought. It is more appropriate now to move towards encouraging action based on understanding.”

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The legendary darts player…a model for the acquisition of these skills.

Suggesting that:

“Science is not to be abolished, but refocused to provide the knowledge base for practical activity.”

This “comprehensive curriculum… recognises that to access fully these skills and understandings we all need some basic skills, especially numeracy, oracy and literacy, but would acquire them integrally with the practice of other skills. The legendary darts player who becomes numerically competent would be a model for the acquisition of these skills.”

And this encapsulates the problem of the aims-based national curriculum. If your aim for curriculum design is to result in the darts player approach to education then you are completely at odds with an approach that might wish children to be more academic, I don’t know, ‘the physics professor approach…’

In the late 1960’s Popham posited:

“It is somehow undemocratic to plan in advance precisely how the learner should behave after instruction.”

arguing that serendipitous education would be overridden by the teacher pursuing, doggedly, the outcome required, rather than the educative opportunities afforded by the subject being studied.

From White’s idea that aims-led is more democratic, we have the direct opposite idea that it is essentially anti-democratic. My thoughts are with the latter. Consider this, it is the mechanistic overtones of flight-path following, aims-led education, that leads one into totalitarian territory. The Chinese aims for education are stated as:

“In general terms, education in the People’s Republic of China must serve the construction of socialist modernization, be combined with production and labour, and foster builders and successors with all round development of morality, intelligence and physique for the socialist cause.”

And in North Korea:

“The State shall embody the principles of socialist pedagogy so as to raise rising generation to be steadfast revolutionaries who will fight for society and the people, to be people of the new Juche type who are acknowledgeable, morally sound and physically healthy.”

Now you might agree, or have some sympathy, with those aims or any one of the other of the aims listed above but would you want your child to be completely set on a journey where some faceless officials have decided already how they should turn out rather than discover their various destinies through the trials and tribulations of a more organic and authentic life as lived rather than a journey with a singular destination in mind.

It might be that you sense that the destinations suggested in the 2007 English National Curriculum are so open to interpretation that they can’t do any harm. But these destinations ensured how levels were written, how content was shaped and how classroom activities were to follow ‘creative’ and ‘engaging’ lesson plans that began the long day’s journey into night for that ill-fated national curriculum. Overall aims can cause chaos throughout a system, especially when those aims are written by well meaning bureaucrats who think that social-engineering is part of their remit and that schools are the very means of achieving it.

Lawrence Stenhouse wrote that:

“Education as induction into knowledge is successful to the extent that it makes the behavioural outcomes of the students unpredictable.”

This echoes something that St Augustine wrote centuries earlier:

“Who is so foolishly curious as to send his son to school to learn what the teacher thinks?”

Stenhouse suggested that:

“Education enhances the freedom of man by inducting him into the knowledge of his culture as a thinking system.”

It is this that we need to have in mind when designing curricula. We are not presenting a journey with a destination, instead, we are opening up a number of perspectives and narratives through which a child can make the most of their life. This key to cultural mobility and nimbleness is the essence of a subject-based, knowledge-rich education in which the pupil is inculcated into the arguments, debates, controversies and great questions and works of the time and all-time before so that they at least have a chance to have a view on the complex world in which they will live their life. And also help them raise their children in a way that values the culture and cultures of the world in which they, too, will be born.

 

 

Dumbing Down the Arts

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The Guardian gushes: At a time when arts are squeezed in some schools, teachers are embracing them as a tool to teach the environment without realising it is this insidious belief that the arts are merely a pedagogical tool that is leading to a paucity of engagement with great art.

The tragic figure of the starving artist in the garret eking out an existence is such a romantic image that it has informed great works of art like Henry Wallis’s ‘The Death of Chatterton’ and Puccini’s sublime La Boheme yet in the future our art will be a dreaded commercial enterprise trying to turn people into environmental warriors.

‘At primary school children are ‘learning songs about climate change and the environment… It’s a fun way to learn… we learn the ‘compost and growing’ song and produce artwork in relation to it, too. The arts and other curriculum areas are continually connected. Teaching the children to be sustainable has nice science, humanities and responsible citizenship links.’

Instead of singing the ‘Ode to Joy’ these children are singing odes to compost.

Instead of making pots inspired by Grayson Perry or Bernard Leach children are making:

‘footballs out of recycled paper, carrier bags and elastic bands, and they discuss global issues around poverty, fairness and fair trade…’

Instead of wrestling with Sophocles, Shakespeare and Sarah Kane pupils are engaged in:

“farmer drama” sessions have been encouraging students to put themselves in the position of those working within the supply chain.

Now of course Sarah Kane isn’t suitable for primary children, nor for adults if the Daily Mail review that called her first play a ‘disgusting feast of filth’ is to be believed. But primary schools are essential breeding grounds for artists and audiences, future amateurs and professionals and also the foundations for what Chesterton called the ‘soul of a society’. By embedding the arts in the service of farmer drama and compost songs, and by hiding real art in project based learning, children will not know the deep truths that making difficult art can uncover. This starts young, with specialised art teachers teaching art, to children, as subjects in their own right.

In primary schools pupils should have art, music, drama and dance lessons and not only in the service of the rest of the curriculum. If teachers want to teach ‘the whole child’ then do this through the depth of study not merely by ticking some breadth boxes in the name of arts coverage as ‘a useful tool in explaining subjects that may otherwise be considered complex or inaccessible’

 

A Knowledge Organiser and the Trivium

Knowledge organisers are gathering momentum in a number of schools. This is a good thing. Some people have misgivings about their reductive nature but many can see how they assist pupils in getting to grips with basic subject matter and being able to memorise key bits of information.

There are many different designs of knowledge organiser and it is probably worth, as a teacher or department, designing your own so that it fits with ‘the way you do things’ but I would like to share a few principles that form the basis of a ‘trivium’ approach to designing a knowledge organiser. In classic Blue Peter style – here is one I prepared earlier, it is about the theatre practitioner and playwright Bertolt Brecht – someone I have taught about for over twenty years. By teaching something for such a long time I have really got to understand what is helpful for students to know about him, these are the concepts and ideas I keep repeating when teaching that really make an impact on the knowledge of my students. This is useful to know – experienced staff can really help in the design of these organisers.

The first principle is that it should be on one side of A4. This is to make it ‘at-a-glance’ and can fit into a folder. Any bigger than this or going onto more pages seems to defeat the object and over-complicates something that should be simple.

The next principle is that it is part of an ongoing ‘joined-up-curriculum’. A trivium curriculum is a narrative not a collection of one-off lessons or schemes of work. Therefore the first part of the knowledge organiser is the section ‘influenced by’ and ‘influence on’. This section could be labelled ‘connections’ but whatever it is labelled it should refer back to previous study and then forward to study yet to come.

The next part I have emphasised are his major theories and works, followed by techniques and quotes and some other notable features. A short Bio is included and then I move on to other areas of the Trivium.

Central to trivium teaching is the idea of argument and debate. This is also a great way to learn as by setting out his arguments for theatre and others’ arguments against his work pupils can really involve themselves in the issues being explored. Please note that when I am teaching Brecht it is always set alongside the work of another great theatre practitioner, Stanislavski. This interleaving and juxtaposition enables pupils to really understand the issues being talked about and also helps them to begin to decide which ideas they might prefer and why.

Finally I have put in a small square ‘rhetoric’. This points the pupil towards the pieces of major work that they will be expected to complete. One of these is an essay and the other two are practical realisations of Brecht’s theories. The essay question is connected to my ‘major organising principle’ for understanding this practitioner which, in this case, is based on a quote by Brecht about creating a theatre ‘fit for the scientific age’. By knowing the essay title so far in advance they can begin to prepare for it earlier should they so wish. This is followed by some further reading suggestions. Pupils are expected to use wider reading in their essays. This wider reading has to be quoted by them in their essay where relevant and can also inform their own ‘extra’ knowledge organiser on Brecht should they wish to complete one or should I decide they ought to!

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You can access the PDF here:

Brecht Trivium Knowledge Organiser

 

 

The Narrowing Curriculum

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Today’s identity politics has another interesting feature: it teaches students to think in a way antithetical to what a liberal arts education should do. When I was at Yale in the 1980s, I was given so many tools for understanding the world. By the time I graduated, I could think about things as a Utilitarian or a Kantian, as a Freudian or a behaviorist, as a computer scientist or a humanist. I was given many lenses to apply to any one situation. But nowadays, students who major in departments that prioritize social justice over the disinterested pursuit of truth are given just one lens—power—and told to apply it to all situations. Everything is about power. Every situation is to be analyzed in terms of the bad people acting to preserve their power and privilege over the good people. This is not an education. This is induction into a cult, a fundamentalist religion, a paranoid worldview that separates people from each other and sends them down the road to alienation, anxiety, and intellectual impotence.

Jonathan Haidt

A good education doesn’t offer one lens through which to see ourselves and the world, rather it offers a great variety of lenses. Whatever reductive pressures are exerted onto a curriculum or onto the teaching of a subject, those of us who have an interest in what we term, broadly, ‘the liberal arts’, need to ensure we teach and design courses which offer up arguments rather than just presenting narrow answers or a ‘world view’. The pursuit of wisdom is never served by insisting one way of seeing the world has dominion over all others.

This is not to say that all things are relative. Far from it. It is only by engaging in debate, by testing out ideas and hypotheses, with the underlying belief that some things are better than other things can we free up individuals to think for themselves and enable them to add to the great conversation in a way that opens and engages minds rather than closes and disengages them. A relativist can leave all others numb by saying ‘well, it’s my opinion,’ and refuse to engage any further. In other words: ‘truth is an individual construct – so leave me alone…’ relativism is also antithetical to a liberal arts education.

An educational institution should not be a place which suggests it ‘knows’ the truth. The age old adage that the more we know, the more we realise we don’t know should underpin the academy. This gives us great hope in that it has a vested interest in the importance of the voices of those who teach, the voices of those whom they teach about and also the voices of those who are taught and those whose voices will follow. This social contract between the dead, the living and the yet to be born insists on no group having more insight than any other but that by coming together we might find ourselves closer to wisdom than by keeping resolutely apart.

The academy should be notable by its variety of subjects from across the spectrum of knowing and students at school and university should be educated through as many substantial and different lenses we can muster to enable a more thoughtful engagement between themselves and the world. The more perspectives that we can offer the more likely we are to educate successfully. These perspectives need to offer breadth and they also need to be experienced in depth in order to unveil their truths. This means some inevitable compromises are made, but young people should experience learning from as many broad lenses as we can muster.

There is only a perspectival seeing, only a perspectival “knowing”; and the more affects we allow to speak about a matter, the more eyes, different eyes, we know how to bring to bear on one and the same matter, that much more complete will our “concept” of this matter, our “objectivity” be. (Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic. trans. Maudemarie Clarke and Alan J. Swenswen. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1998)

If we narrow or reduce perspectives we are more likely to falter in error than we are to glimpse the truth. Students need to access a full and varied curriculum from an early age and for as long as is possible in such a way so that their thinking and experiencing will not atrophy over time. Subjects should be taught with dialogue, argument and debate at their heart, to ensure that perspectives can clash along nicely throughout the heart of the school’s offer. Pupils should also get a good grounding in philosophy, thought, ethics and aesthetics.

In order to ensure an education that offers a good range of perspectives there needs to be a range of subjects on offer. This means starting specialist subject teaching sometime during primary education, expanding the offer during key stage three and ensuring pupils are able to access a good number of subjects at key stage four. The arts and humanities, languages and social sciences, technology and physical/health education options ought to be kept up as long as is possible alongside English, Maths and Sciences. This means either not worrying about the Ebacc or ensuring other options are available alongside it. It is essential to offer a good extra curricular programme as well, including the traditional, school productions, orchestras, galleries, sports teams, quiz and debating teams etc. At key stage five either the IB or A levels with EPQ, voluntary work and a recognition of involvement in extra curricular activities. A house system helps develop pupil leadership and widens participation in such team events beyond elite inter-school level competition.

For those who study or intend to study more vocational options I would hope an academic/cultural stream of opportunities both for study and extra curricular work is also accessed. All work and no play/reading/writing/thinking about ‘the big questions’ makes Jack and Jill dull…

This is what an expansive curriculum can offer, not dullness, but vibrancy, and the opportunity for young people to flourish.

A Knowledge Based Liberal Arts and Sciences Curriculum. Curriculum Series Number Seven.

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A liberal education is focused on teaching knowledge ‘for its own sake’.

The two words ‘liberal’ and ‘arts’ might stand somewhat awkwardly in our current landscape, the phrase implies freeing the human being through a study of a curriculum exposing pupils to a wide range of influences, arts, ideas, opinions and facts so that they can acquire an understanding of the human condition and reach their own conclusions and judgements. An education for freedom.

Many ‘knowledge-based’ curriculum programmes claim to embrace the ‘liberal arts’ but fail to understand the enormity of teaching knowledge ‘for its own sake’. It has been said that the aims of a liberal education are to have ‘no aims’. And, on occasions when aims are proscribed for the liberal arts they are often wooly enough to encompass all sorts of interpretations, for example  the aim for the liberal arts that Daniel Denicola suggests is: ‘the activity of living as a human being and one’s life as a whole’. Or, in one word, ‘flourishing’.

In the title I have added the word ‘sciences’ as the ‘arts’ in their original meaning covered areas that were to later become ‘science’. However, it is useful in our understanding of knowledge for its own sake to see why the addition of ‘sciences’ to the liberal arts can be problematic. In The Closing of the American Mind,  Allan Bloom writes of the destructive nature of ‘modern’ (enlightenment) science. He paraphrases Jonathan Swift and his idea that modern science has lost the human perspective, and that science should ‘understand man as a man, and not as a geometric figure with flesh on it.’ A liberal arts and sciences education would restore, as Bloom puts it: the ‘self consciousness’ about science that is connected to ‘poetry’. This is echoed by Michael Oakeshott who makes the rather disparaging comment that ‘chemistry has never outgrown its character as a sophisticated kind of cookery.’ He makes this distinction: science that is liberal is science that is taught as ‘one of the great intellectual pursuits of mankind,’ rather than in fulfilling a utilitarian need for more ‘first class surgeons, engineers, chemists, psychologists, social scientists etc…’

This is what sets apart a liberal arts and sciences education. It is resistant to utilitarian, managerial, instrumental, vocational and simple ‘utopian’ arguments as to why we educate. Knowledge for its own sake is anti-utility and training. It is against the idea of knowledge as cultural ‘capital’ or ‘literacy’. It resists the ideas of knowledge for social justice or mobility. This impacts on the choices made for what is ‘in’ the curriculum.

Raymond Williams drew a distinction between the ‘industrial trainers’ who want to train the working classes for jobs, the ‘public educators’ who want a common curriculum for all and the ‘classical humanists’ who want to preserve high culture through a liberal arts education for the elite. These distinctions are salient, we still hear their echoes. The training for jobs that don’t yet exist – soft skills – vocational qualifications; the need for all to have a common core curriculum; and the threat of having to dumb down an education based on the finer things in order to make them accessible for the children of the majority – even a struggle for Matthew Arnold who wished to transform as many people as possible by providing them with access to ‘the best that has been thought and said’.

The liberal arts approach is anti-training because it refuses to leave children with the impression that there is only one way to think, rather it wishes young people to realise they are free to think and reason. The pupil becomes free. As William Deresiewicz describes it:

Creating a self, inventing a life, developing an independent mind…

An independent mind is not developed if your school has trained you in certain skills for the jobs market. An independent person free to ‘invent’ their life cannot do so if their curriculum has reduced their thinking due to a narrow range of subjects. One can’t create a self if one is subject to a daunting regime that wishes to stifle your individuality.

RS Peters identified three different strands in liberal education:

  1. Knowledge for its own sake.
  2. Broad and balanced.
  3. Non-dogmatic – because authoritarianism restricts the reasoning power of the individual.

Any approach to the curriculum that wishes to prepare children for the world of work cannot be described as a ‘liberal arts’ approach. Neither can one that intends to drive children towards certain outcomes such as being socially mobile, or in competing with the outcomes from other countries. An education driven by technological imperative or a diet of knowledge that is to enable school leavers to become high earners cannot said to be liberating. Any outcome which is to improve the lot of the nation economically or socially is not liberal because this reduces the self to a ‘geometric figure with flesh on it’.

Education as commodity, with qualifications as capital to be exchanged for certain vocations is anathema to a true education for its own sake which is a cornerstone of a liberal arts and sciences approach to curriculum. All acronyms such as STEM or STEAM are anathema as they are endowed with economic justifications. Culture as capital leads to children muttering: ‘Why am I doing this, is it in the exam? Why am I doing this it’s not relevant to the job I’m going to get? Will this make me more likely to get a top job?’ In answer to the question: ‘why do this rather than that?’ RS Peters suggests:

It is… the attitude of passionate concern about truth that informed Socrates’ saying that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’.

The focus should be on the curriculum they are being taught, not some far off abstract aim. Pupils are learning to engage fruitfully with knowledge to examine their life, our life, and the expression of those lives.

This is why, in the liberal arts, there is an emphasis on the pursuit of truth. This truth is to be found in ‘great’ books, authentic experiences and a discursive ‘dialectical’ method of teaching. Children learn important knowledge, they have great experiences – cultural, physical, thoughtful. They learn to debate, write, make speeches, play sport and make art, they learn other languages for the joy of having their minds expanded by different ways of seeing and interpreting the world. And they learn sciences to explore the wonder of the world. Through the breadth of curriculum experiences or, as Arnold called it, ‘the whole circle of knowledge,’ they are expected to learn the importance of truth – and that there are different ways to truth – some more objective and logical, and some more subjective, spiritual and emotional.

The central problem for a liberal arts curriculum is the charge that it is only for the leisured elite. James Burke recently suggested on the Radio 4 PM programme that most jobs will be taken by Artificial Intelligence within thirty years – algorithms networked and learning by themselves for themselves. What will education for humans be for if we are all part of the leisured class? He added that it is ‘our open ended self awareness that makes us sentient and creative humans.’ It is this ‘humanist’ echo that reverberates throughout a liberal education.

But I digress.

The liberal arts curriculum has a moral imperative behind its construction. It is taught through direct instruction, through dialogue, debate and discussion and through pupils creating their own responses to drive the conversations forward. The essay form is central as are other means of subject specific communication. The whole curriculum being subject based means there is also a need for ideas to be brought together through, what Christine Counsell refers to as, ‘intelligent inter-disciplinarity’ rather than ‘crazy cross curricularity’.

A liberal arts education is an aesthetic education. As Keats put it:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

It is rooted in the realm of passing on beauty, on truth but not in a way that just admires the ruins of the past. It is a conversational education. What is included in the curriculum are not pieces of work – the ‘best’ as suggested by what might be talked about at a middle class dinner party or broadsheet newspaper – the best here is something that defines us, a pretence to the universal maybe – but it helps us work out who we are – what it is to be human. It is subjective in this sense but is given a moral imperative through its underlying pursuit of wisdom and truth.