One of the joys of the education landscape in 2018 has been the move from endless discussions about how to teach towards a renewed focus on what we teach. On curriculum.
At ResearchEd ’18 I was fortunate enough to listen to Christine Counsell speak about curriculum and the questions we should ask of it and then follow that by taking part in a panel discussion on curriculum coherence that she was chairing.
Following that we have had an excellent edition of Impact from the Chartered College of Teaching with a focus on curriculum and edited by the great Michael Young with contributions from Christine Counsell, Martin Robinson, Tim Oates and Tom Sherrington amid many others. Inspired by an article in this journal we had this brilliant contribution to the discussion on curriculum design by Grace Healey and this one from the anonymous Curriculum Team Leader on The Palimpsest Curriculum.
One of the people that have had the most impact on my own thinking about curriculum has been Mary Myatt, both in her talk at Durrington’s ResearchEd conference and in her book Curriculum: Gallimuafry to Coherence. In both of these she reminds us that a curriculum is a journey. It needs to take our pupils somewhere. There should be a story behind what we are teaching them, a purpose that underpins out thinking. A sense of progress towards a goal. As Christine Counsell says, a truth-quest.
The mess we are left with
In my 15 years of teaching geography in various schools this has not been my experience of curriculum. Instead of coherence we have had a Key Stage Three that is a hodge-podge of different topics that have been added to over the years as the national curriculum has changed, heads of department have come and gone or school requirements have shifted. Topics on tectonics have been added to fit where ever GCSE options have been selected, units have been plucked from the Royal Geographical Society to fill in gaps and a sudden interest in plastic in the oceans means a unit have been tacked on to one about sustainability.
Key Stage Four and Five curriculum has been little more than the exam specification broken down into a series of power points.
The problem is that curriculum is left to evolve over time and so any sense of coherence becomes lost. The point, the destination, is lost and the journey involves wandering around not a museum but a flea market.
The source of the problem
The reason for this is fairly obvious. Time and frequent changes. Ideally, you’d want to plan out a seven year journey from Year 7 to 13. You would plan out an overview and start planning a new curriculum for the Year 7 and then plan up from there as they go through the school. However, by the time you got to Year 10 there would probably be a change in the national curriculum that sends you scuttling back to replan Year 7 or a change to the exam specification that sends you off to focus on that and then to have to plan back again to support these changes.
Or over the seven years it would take to work through these changes the head of department would leave, or be promoted or there would be a huge change in staffing and those coming in would have missed the journey so far. Coherence becomes lost through these shifts and changes. The “curriculum” as a platonic ideal in the mind of the head of department becomes a shadow on the wall of the cave. It becomes distorted and lost.
A call to revolution
For us to develop a truly great curriculum needs stability, in staffing, the school environment and the education system as a whole. It then needs courage to leave behind the comfortable hodge-podge of what is already there and to start again with a new and clear vision. It also needs the courage to step back from exam specifications and to see this as a no more than a checklist of what needs to be included somewhere and not the entire curriculum plan. This is hard to do in a system where exam results make or break a teacher, department and school. It becomes too easy to use the specification as a crutch and allow the curriculum to atrophy.
If we want to move on we need a Year Zero. To rip it up and start again. Revolution not evolution. See you on the barricades comrades.