Curriculum matters

The June 2017 edition of Education Politics contains several articles on the school curriculum. These raise a number of issues which need discussion. My concern is that they all come from a similar viewpoint. That viewpoint certainly expresses ideas commonly held from the centre to the left of politics. An informed discussion will, however, require the expression of a rather wider range of views.

It is suggested that the idea that “Really useful knowledge is knowledge calculated to make you free”, whatever its precise meaning, is a useful counterweight to the “Govian” idea of “powerful knowledge”. But one might ask (1) if knowledge can really be defined by whether or not it was “calculated to make you free” (Newton’s laws of motion are certainly useful irrespective of whether he “calculated” them to make you free) and (2) the idea of “powerful knowledge” was developed by Michael Young (using the work of Lev Vygotsky) who is certainly no Govian – see Eddie Playfair’s blog for discussion of this point.

What seems to be missing from much left curriculum discussion is a perspective on the role of education in overal social reproduction. Were such a perspective to be taken into account then, in my view, much of what is commonly said in left-wing debate about such things as the role of subjects in the curriculum, the nature of knowledge, and so-called child-centred learning would come to be seen as highly questionable.

In modern society young people spend ever longer periods of their early life in education. Unlike the rest of the animal world humans create around themselves a vast cultural edifice which is augmented by each generation and then passed on to the next. Human maturation, unlike that of the other animals, requires the assimilation of large chunks of this pre-existing culture and it is through that process of socialisation that we develop the capacities that allow us to develop and express our individuality.

The point in all this for curriculum discussion is to recognise that the educational process acts as a vector of objectively existing culture from one generation to the next. Through education we assimilate that culture (arts, sciences, morality, sociality, know-how …). This “assimilation” is a highly complex process which cannot be reduced to mechanical repetition. Each individual has to come to terms with it in their own way. This is a creative process in which we work to internalise the creative potential of existing culture.
If this is right then there is something deeply suspect about the “radicalism” that suggests that there is something reactionary about believing that there is a body of knowledge/know how/values which it is, in large part, the role of education to transmit to the rising generation.

So when I read things like “Increasingly, my own disposition to the curriculum has been informed not by abstracted philosophical or psychological theory, but rather by the reported experiences of children and young people …”. Then I have a sense of the wood not being seen because of the trees.

And further when I read “…the organisation of knowledge into neat disciplinary categories is always more a matter of institutional convenience than a representation of some underlying truth” I feel sure that things have gone badly wrong. Can the person writing such things have ever wondered why physics textbooks use such different language to biology or geology textbooks? The idea that the “subjects” into which the curriculum is divided are entirely an arefact of institutional convenience will bear little examination.

Who said this (below)?

There used to be an almost instinctive understanding on the Left of the liberating power of traditional education. Cultural capital, like every other kind of capital, should not be the property of an elite. The rich should no more have exclusive access to the means of intellectual enlightenment than they should have an exclusive hold on the means of economic production, distribution and exchange. And the desire to give working people access to the best that has been thought and written – very far from being an idealistic enterprise doomed to failure – ran entirely with the grain of working people’s aspirations.

It was none other than Michael Gove. He became something of a hate figure for teachers and for the left and not without reason (although few of them, in my experience, actually read any of his speeches). All the same, not everything he said was wrong and some sections of the educational left in taking up a diametrically opposed position have left themselves without a stable basis for analysis and without a coherent view of what education is about and how we should approach the construction of the curriculum. Some have gone so far as to suggest that even a framework national curriculum is unacceptable and that “Curriculum, rather than arising from some central mandate, [should be] locally negotiated”.

I suggest that people who talk like this have lost contact with the reality of education and its necessary role as a vector for the achievements of previous generations and the process of assimilating those achievements and creatively carrying them forward. When, as in Education Politics for July 2017, I am told that education should “re-focus on … the aesthetics of self-formation” and that it should be “reframed as a site for self creation through an advanced ethics of practice” then I find it hard to resist the conclusion that those who talk like this have lost their way in the ethereal regions of post-modernism to such an extent that they hinder rather than help the process of curriculum design.

One Comment on “Curriculum matters”

  1. Paul Atkin says:

    On curriculum content it seems to me that there is an over riding need to rejig it completely to match the needs of a transition to a sustainable society. See (somewhat polemical) article on p 7 here.

    Click to access GJA-Newsletter-8-Final.pdf