Category Archives: Liberal Arts

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.”

image.png

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.

 

 

The Narrowing Curriculum

nietzsche.jpg

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.

Knowledge Belongs to the Many, Not the Few

Angela-Rayner.jpg

Angela Rayner’s speech to the Labour Party conference contained many interesting ideas. The National Education Service, of course, echoes the UK’s beloved NHS:

The next Labour Government will create a National Education Service, a cradle-to-grave system supporting everyone throughout their lives. It would start in the early years, where we know it has the most impact in changing people’s lives – just like my life was changed by a Labour Government.

And Rayner’s backstory is an important one, secondary modern, left school at sixteen, is as much a part of our school experience as left school at 18 with three A levels to go to Russell Group Uni.

The idea of education starting through Sure Start centres – maybe helping children to read and write and do number early on is a pertinent one.

To never give up on children, on people, is also important, again Rayner refers to her own experiences:

Workplace education meant we had the chance to learn more and earn more. Other people need that chance. So, our National Education Service will be lifelong, providing for people at every stage of their life.

This idea of lifelong learning is a vital one. I think every business and industry should either provide training or give employees the time and the wherewithal to study. Rayner wishes to start the conversation about what a National Education Service would be like:

I look forward to that conversation, to visiting schools, colleges, and universities, to talking to pupils, parents, teachers, and businesses, so we can truly build a National Education Service for the many, and not just the few.

This brought her to the strongest part of her speech:

The Labour Party was founded to ensure that the workers earned the full fruit of their labour.  Well, the sum of human knowledge is the fruit of thousands of years of human labour. The discoveries of maths and science; the great works of literature and art; the arc of human and natural history itself; and so much more that there is to learn. All of it should be our common inheritance. Because knowledge belongs to the many, not the few.

This is our historic purpose as a movement. Not just to be a voice for the voiceless.

But to give them a voice of their own. That is the challenge we face. And it is what we will do, together.

This is exactly what education is for. I heard no-one shout Rayner down with calls of: ‘Whose knowledge? Whose inheritance?’ In these concluding remarks she embodied all that is best in the great liberal arts tradition, the great works, knowledge for the many and giving them a voice of their own.

And yet later that same day in Tom Watson’s speech we heard a call for a very different kind of education:

In an age when every child has access to all the knowledge that has ever existed on a device that fits in the palm of their hand, just teaching them to memorise thousands of facts is missing the point. Michael Gove’s curriculum reforms were a useless return to the past – obsessed by what children can remember, instead of how they use the knowledge they have.

The confusion here seems to be about memory and ‘having’ knowledge. Having a device in one’s pocket doesn’t mean ‘having’ that knowledge, just as sleeping with a dictionary under your pillow doesn’t mean you’ll become highly articulate overnight. A child, indeed an adult, does have to learn something and this means committing learning to memory – Gove notwithstanding.

We don’t yet know what the jobs of the future will be, so we’ve got to teach children not just what to learn but how to learn. And how to be. Self-awareness, emotional intelligence, social skills, creativity and collaborative learning. Transferable skills they can adapt as the new world swirls around them.

In this part of his speech Watson reminds us of the problematic 2007 National Curriculum, where skills and the unlikely nature of their easy transferability is to be suddenly absorbed by children who will, no doubt, ‘have’ these skills in a downloadable form from their phones.

Watson wants our kids to be educated for the unknown:

economy of the future.

Where… Angela Rayner… will lead an education system that prepares our young people for a world we can’t yet see.

A utopian hope built through utilitarian means.

The next Labour Government will educate and train a nation of workers that are the most creative and adaptive on the planet. We’ll give working people the tools to use technology to enhance their lives, rather than restricting them to a digital elite.

The digital economy succeeds only when it gives each of us the means to realise our true potential. Which doesn’t stop in our schools. It must be threaded throughout our economy, throughout our lives.

This is not education, it is training. It is an apprenticeship in becoming working fodder for the needs of business. But business should be providing this. Training for jobs that do or don’t exist should be provided by companies throughout a person’s life, training and retraining them. Yes Government can help with this – it might be a National Training Service – but it’s not a national education service.

Education is about the quality of a human life, it examines what it is to be human in this world. It teaches knowledge that should belong to the many and not the few, this is truly a great hope but if Labour are to return to Government I worry that instead of teaching the great books and thoughts they will, instead, insist on a second rate diet of scientism in which:

Self-awareness, emotional intelligence, social skills, creativity and collaborative learning

take the place of

the sum of human knowledge [from] the fruit of thousands of years of human labour

Please don’t let this be so.

The Need for a Progressive Attitude

Hannah-Arendt21.jpg

In her thoughtful essay ‘The Crisis in Education’, Hannah Arendt addresses the difficulty of teaching in the modern world. If you go into teaching with the sole purpose of making a real difference, changing the world one child at a time, you might end up doing nothing of the sort.

A revolutionary or radical attitude is needed in the adult realm because we always need to remake our world. The world is always on the verge of ruin and a traditionalist conservative view where one stands and merely ‘admires the ruins’ will do nothing to make the world a great inheritance for our children.

We should try to make the world a better place than it is. Always. This doesn’t mean an unalloyed progressive mindset is a good thing. It does mean that our arguments are continual, our disagreements fundamental and our need to work together essential. Education has an important role in this, we need to prepare children to take part in the conversations, the arguments and help them develop the wherewithal to do, to contribute and to make change.

In order to do this one can imagine the unthinking classroom being full of novelty, in which the ruins are not examined and the future is always in sight. A classroom that shapes the new utopia and children practice the skills with which they will actively make their contribution. A room where their will is the authority and in which the teacher has the role of guiding them, responding to their playful desires and wishes. This world, shaped by the teacher’s idealism, and the burgeoning youthful enthusiasm will not be tainted by the old.

Here then is the paradox, this world that comes into being will not be radical, as it will have no root. Shaped by a tyranny of the present, it won’t understand the ruins it knocks down to build its gleaming new pathways and concrete blocks – or even the blocks it is cladding. Arendt sees the role of the teacher as a difficult one for an idealist, for the teacher’s job is to bring the past into the realm of the young:

To avoid misunderstanding: it seems to me that conservatism, in the sense of conservation, is of the essence of the educational activity… But this holds good only for the realm of education, or rather for the relations between grown-ups and children, and not for the realm of politics, where we act among and with adults and equals. In politics this conservative attitude–which accepts the world as it is, striving only to preserve the status quo–can only lead to destruction, because the world, in gross and in detail, is irrevocably delivered up to the ruin of time unless human beings are determined to intervene, to alter, to create what is new…

Basically we are always educating for a world that is or is becoming out of joint, for this is the basic human situation… Because the world is made by mortals it wears out… The problem is simply to educate in such a way that a setting–right remains actually possible, even though it can, of course, never be assured. Our hope always hangs on the new which every generation brings; but precisely because we can base our hope only on this, we destroy everything if we so try to control the new that we, the old, can dictate how it will look. Exactly for the sake of what is new and revolutionary in every child, education must be conservative; it must preserve this newness and introduce it as a new thing into an old world, which, however revolutionary its actions may be, is always, from the standpoint of the next generation, superannuated and close to destruction…

the modern crisis is especially hard for the educator to bear, because it is his task to mediate between the old and the new, so that his very profession requires of him an extraordinary respect for the past. 

If, however the teacher is determined to make the child make the future in a certain way by dictating the terms of the newness of the world that they make we defeat our darker purpose. The child cannot be told how to draw the new world, they can however be painted pictures of the old one, and these pictures must be painted with warts and all. Cromwell is a great example, hugely important figure, hugely flawed and the English Civil War and its ramifications painted in as many shades of grey one can muster.

As the past isn’t one story but a continuation of one damn argument after another, children should be made aware of these arguments, that we admire ruins but the reason that they are ruins might be this… or this… we conserve in order to learn. We treat the pupil as a stranger to these facts and fictions we teach and by presenting arguments, dialectic, we give them the old world to ensure they will be able to intervene, alter and create the new.

The balance between presenting the old and the arguments within is a careful act. This includes, for example, what should be read and how it should be read. These questions are vital when considering the design of a curriculum and if we listen to the words of Arendt we are helped in our choices.

The trivium curriculum gives shape to these choices – the grammar – ‘the structures, the ‘ruins’ of the past, are examined in context, and, later, examined when the arguments of the past and the present are brought to bear, and, finally, the pupil, with this knowledge, is given the wherewithal, the ‘voice’ with which to express herself. She expresses herself freely within the constraints offered, by accepting or rejecting these chains (or degrees thereof) and offers herself up to the criticism of her teacher and, eventually, her peers. This is a truly progressive approach, rooted in the past.

The Dangers of a Personalised Curriculum

shake.gif

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’)

A Level Results Day and the Polymathic Adventurer!

main-qimg-f357f2c3d2e19efbaa1a4f9ba8ee5a2a.jpeg

A level results day is always a bittersweet day for me, school left me when I was sixteen and by the time many of my friends were getting their A level results I was working on a market stall selling, amongst other things, whoopee cushions and fart powder. Both products with clear results.

But I digress. As a teacher I loved A level results day, it is exciting to see children, who you have seen grow, at a crossroads in their lives. Where to go? What to do? Did I get the grades? Fear, joy and misery, it’s an emotional day for all. Opening my results as a teacher was nerve-wracking, and sometimes there were individual students I’d think didn’t get the grades they deserved and sometimes the opposite, but mainly it was a day when I’d celebrate the successes with my students and say goodbye and good luck.

Despite this I can’t help think that A levels are doing our kids a disservice. Some years ago the AS level was brought in with one of the results being it gave pupils the opportunity to study a slightly wider range of subjects. A mainly Arts student could carry on with Maths, and a Science enthusiast could keep up their studies in Art; though for only a few months.

We have now returned to the ‘gold standard’ three A levels. Yet all around us we see the results of our system’s narrowness in our intellectual and academic lives. Some scientists don’t understand the Arts, and, in return, some arts graduates don’t get science, statistics; many of us struggle with languages, and the humanities become a world of their own. It seems we can’t rely on GCSEs to carry the burden of breadth.

This is why I’d like to see more schools taking on the IB, and in an ideal world where funding and staffing wasn’t an issue, I hope that many would.

I am fascinated by the polymathic individuals whose knowledge across the two or more cultures sustains their intellectual curiosity. This is why I look forward to listening to Monkman and Seagull’s Polymathic Adventure on BBC Radio Four next week, a programme I hope will appeal to all teachers and all students. Despite a narrowness in exams studied it is possible, with great effort, to keep up interests in a wide range of subjects. The effort, however, is worth it –

So here’s to some great A level results and a continuation of a life lived as a polymath adventurer!

STEM and the Narrow Curriculum

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An article in Schools Week reports:

A free school in Newcastle that does not teach humanities, arts or foreign languages has been branded ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted in its first inspection.

The education watchdog singled out the “unacceptable” absence of subjects at Discovery School, which also omits physical education, in its report from an inspection conducted in May.

“The curriculum is failing to meet pupils’ needs and does not prepare them for life in modern Britain,” it said.

The school focuses on: ‘science, technology, engineering and mathematics.’

STEM, an acronym that implies narrowing of the curriculum, is meant to be all about preparing for life in the modern world, a life of robots, 21st century skills and a global market, it is good to see that OfSted believes there is more to life than just these narrow goals. Some would argue this narrow focus is a result of utilitarian thinking.

Jeremy Bentham, the great utilitarian, devised a curriculum for secondary schooling that emphasised science and technology rather than the subjects of Greek and Latin, a curriculum that would be clearly lacking in breadth. John Stuart Mill, a great admirer of his mentor Bentham, described him as being a great thinker but one who lacked the natural feelings that belong in a human being.

As a child Mill was home educated and kept away from other children by his domineering father. He learnt Greek at the age of three and read a lot of Plato, in the original, by the age of twelve. He was never allowed a holiday as the potential of ‘idleness’ worried his father.

His father encouraged John Stuart to think for himself: “Anything which could be found out by thinking I was never told, until I had exhausted my efforts to find it out for myself.” But this education, he thought, turned him into: “…a mere reasoning machine.”

Mill later suffered a mental breakdown and became very depressed. He said that he recovered from this crisis by reading the poems of Wordsworth:

They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings; which had no connection with struggle or imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind. From them I seemed to learn what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed. And I felt myself at once better and happier as I came under the influence. 

Mill moved on to Coleridge and was to describe him and Bentham as ‘the two great seminal minds of England in their age’.

Science and technology should be a central part of the curriculum AND so should poetry, the arts, humanities, languages and physical pursuits. This is the right sort of education for the human being. As Charles Darwin put it:

If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry & listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, & may possibly be injurious to the intellect, & more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.

Where Ofsted says: “The curriculum is failing to meet pupils’ needs and does not prepare them for life in modern Britain,” they are referring to life beyond the narrow confines of utility and this is to be applauded.

And don’t think that by turning STEM into STEAM you solve this problem. STEAM is a bastardised acronym in which the arts are subsumed into some sort of cross curricular service of commerce, science and/or tech, this is not art, it is subterfuge.

History of Thought

In these days of very little time or space on a timetable it is still heartening to know that some schools are trying to make a space where children can be taught in a way that celebrates education for its own sake. Paradoxically this approach might have benefits beyond education, as Stefan Collini puts it: “with ever narrowing specialism there is a need for generalists to synthesise information, to make connections between the discipline silos.”

This course is an introduction to cultural capital, literacy, or whatever you like to call it in your context, where children can learn, discuss and make connections across the curriculum. It is with this aim in mind that I have been working on ‘History of Thought’, a course that enriches and stretches even the keenest of minds.

Please see below for details:

Screen Shot 2017-07-28 at 09.55.35.png

The History of Thought (Ideas)

Purpose:

To connect ideas and thoughts across disciplines. (Inter-disciplinary)
To stretch and challenge pupils and widen their horizons.
To give pupils an in depth appreciation and knowledge of the ‘Great Western Tradition’ through a ‘Grand Tour’ of ideas and historical epochs.
To develop independent learning.
To develop pupils skills in writing and verbal communication.
To develop confidence and ability for university entrance procedures.
To enable pupils to develop their own interests and character, education for ‘freedom’.
To use the trivium as a teaching methodology.
To train staff and to encourage collaboration across departments.
To enable staff to think strategically about curriculum design and delivery.

History of ideas is intended to run alongside other disciplines. It could take the place of Religious Studies and PSHE or it could be given curriculum time of its own. The course takes a ‘liberal arts’ approach, in that it aims to ‘free’ the pupil to think for themselves and be able to make thoughtful criticisms, follow their developing ‘unique’ modes of thought, and become confident academically and be able to develop the art of conversation.

“liberal learning… above all else, is an education in imagination, an initiation into the art of this conversation…”

Michael Oakeshott

Content:

A series of historical epochs, such as: ‘Classical’, ‘Medieval’, ‘Renaissance’, ‘Enlightenment’, ‘Romantic’, ‘Modern’, ‘Contemporary’. The study could be frame by ‘what was distinct about the —— period’? or ‘what might we mean by the — – mind’?
Each of these could include a look at: science, art, architecture, geography, philosophy, literature, language, politics, ’events’ etc. in the UK, Europe, the ‘West’ and the world.
Other strands could be incorporated: ‘civilisation’, ‘trade’, ‘moral truths’, (or indeed ‘truth’ itself), ‘people’ – themes such as the growth of the individual, the nation state, ‘empire’, ‘democracy’, race, class, gender, sexuality etc.
Introducing Great Books/Objects (And discussing What is great? Why? Is this great? What is excluded/included, why might this be? Challenges to the canon) Context and Argument)

Screen Shot 2017-07-28 at 10.39.48.png

Trivium:
The teaching of the course is designed to fit with the ‘trivium’: Pupils are introduced to the ‘knowledge’ of the era, they look at the main arguments, explore things in their context and also, maybe, with a contemporary eye (as long as that distortion is made clear). They are then invited to debate, write, argue and question one another, with the teacher ensuring that ‘the facts’ are always at the root of the discussions rather than ‘mere opinion’. Speeches, projects, essays and also products in a range of different media can then be produced – either for each epoch and/or at the end of the whole course.

EPQ:
The course can fit alongside the EPQ and be a good way of introducing it.
In Harvard all students follow a ‘programme in general education’ which, they argue: ‘…seeks to connect in an explicit way what students learn in Harvard classrooms to life outside the ivied walls and beyond the college years. The material taught in general education courses is continuous with the material taught in the rest of the curriculum, but the approach is different. These courses aim not to draw students into a discipline, but to bring the disciplines into students’ lives. The Program in General Education introduces students to subject matter and skills from across the University, and does so in ways that link the arts and sciences with the 21st century world that students will face and the lives they will lead after college.’

NB: The ‘History of Thought’ is intended as an academic core, not a second rate addendum. It is meant to be ‘highbrow’ and to furnish pupils with a good amount of cultural capital as well as give them a context to all their studies in the wider curriculum.

“Reading makes a full man, conversation a ready man, and writing an exact man.”

Francis Bacon

Screen Shot 2017-07-28 at 09.56.59.png

Read about and listen to ‘Does the World Need Polymaths?’ here.

If you’re interested in seeing whether this course can be tailor made to fit in with your needs: please do get in touch here.

You Can’t Teach the Best That Has Been Thought and Said

Here are the slides in PDF format from my talk at the Telegraph Festival of Education at Wellington College on 22nd June 2017:

You Can’t Teach The Best That Has Been Thought and Said