‘Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum, and I shall move the world’
Archimedes, 3rd century BC
“The curriculum is the difference between failure and success in education”.
Siegfried Engelmann, 20th century AD
A great school curriculum coherently sequences the best ideas of our global civilisation.
Is this the last national curriculum? Last week, Labour proposed that academy freedoms over the curriculum should be extended to all schools. A majority of secondary schools are now academies, and can already opt out. Schools are already thinking hard about how to innovate with the school curriculum. Even before I started teaching, over the last decade a couple of things particularly sparked my thinking on the curriculum.
I was trekking in the Rift Valley, the cradle of civilisation, in Kenya in 2007 when electoral and ethnic violence erupted, killing almost 1,500 people, sparking such horrific events as the 300 unarmed Kikuyu civilians burned alive in a Church on New Year’s Day. Ethnic tensions between Luos and Kikuyus in the Rift Valley had exploded during previous Kenyan elections, such as 1992. When I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro on the Tanzanian and Kenyan border, I asked one of the guides why there’d never been electoral violence in neighbouring Tanzania. In one word, he said, ‘education’. Premier Julius Nyere went to great lengths to ensure that from 1960 a national curriculum forged a powerful sense of Tanzanian national identity rather than tribal or ethnic identification. By contrast, no such national curriculum existed in Kenya. Kenyan politics is now disturbingly divided long ethnic lines. Tanzanian politics is not. There are clearly myriad other factors, but one thing’s for sure: it made me realise how much the curriculum matters.
In another African parable, writing my Masters’ thesis on South African post-apartheid education in 2010, one story I found revealing was the story of Michael Young. Young published Knowledge and Control in 1971, arguing that knowledge was a social construction that could be manipulated by those in power. Apartheid and its segregated education system in South Africa was the classic example of oppressive ‘knowledge of the powerful’. Post-apartheid, Young influenced the South African government’s 1994 curriculum reform away from knowledge (which had been shown to be corruptible), towards skills- and outcome-based education. Evaluating its effects as standards fell and inequality deepened, Young had a shocking realisation: his assumptions were ‘deeply flawed’: ‘outcomes on their own are not an adequate basis for the curriculum; they are, at best, a resource for assessment not a resource for the curriculum or pedagogy’ (2009). Instead, ‘a common curriculum should be based on the most reliable ideas that we have in any field of knowledge. This knowledge – I call it powerful knowledge’ (2011) can create cohesion and challenge inequality.
Is there something of a zeitgeist in thinking through a knowledge curriculum, as Chris Waugh suggested for the August blogsync? The Greater London Authority has a set up a £24 million knowledge-led fund as the next pioneering London-led reform agenda. But advocates of knowledge have been tarred as being right-wing, even from the BBC.
Let me say clearly: there’s nothing inherently right-wing about knowledge. Apart from Michael Young, three great left-wing advocates of knowledge show this: Frank Furedi, Claire Fox and Diane Ravitch. Furedi was founder and Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, and writes:
‘Contemporary pedagogy has lost faith in the importance of knowledge. Studying a subject or a body of knowledge is rarely perceived to be a good thing in itself … but frequently condemned as elitist. Society needs to challenge the tendency to downsize the status of knowledge’.
Fox, also a Communist, and now Director of the Institute of Ideas, wrote recently on the TES in an article headlined – Face the facts: for without them we know nothing:
‘It is dispiriting that the traditional building blocks of understanding, whether reciting poetry or learning factual knowledge, are now the subject of educational disdain… That could only result in denying generations the rich legacy of past insights, and leave them befuddled, fact-poor and stuck in the present’.
Ravitch has impeccable left-wing credentials as the most prolific antagonist protesting against the charter school movement in the US. But she has also criticised the ‘contentless curriculum’, from which it is worth quoting at length:
‘The consensus that undergirds the contentless curriculum is built on certain assumptions: that we lack any common, shared culture worth speaking of, much less preserving; that there are no particular literary works that should be read by all students; that historical studies are problematic insofar as they require students to memorise and recall certain facts. They derided it for emphasizing a “canon” and for expecting students to master a “body of knowledge” (the notion of “mastery” was itself suspect)…
‘Can we sustain a healthy civic culture when so few students (or adults) understand the evolution of our political democracy? Can we preserve a common culture when many high-school and even college graduates know little or nothing about our nation’s history and its literary heritage? Can we, even as we recognise increasing numbers of women and people of colour among the ranks of great authors, simply abandon those earlier writers whose works inspired them?
‘The vacuum created by our failure is being filled not by cutting-edge critical theorists, but by the commercial entertainment industry. If we do not teach our children history, Walt Disney and Oliver Stone will do it for us. If we do not teach literature, the rising generation will be denied access to one of the smartest and most effective methods of forming critical and independent minds…
‘There is a price to be paid for the flight from content and from knowledge during the past generation, the numbing nihilism of the contentless curriculum. I do not believe that we should accept mediocrity as our fate. As scholars, as teachers, as parents, as citizens, we must reclaim our common culture — or risk seeing it disappear.
At Wellington Education Festival 2013 this weekend, at a debate on ‘what should our pupils know?’ Lindsay Johns from Peckham stole the show. ‘Language is power’ he said, and disadvantaged young people need to ‘learn to articulate their thoughts in the language of those who have power’; ‘we need proper grammar, not ghetto grammar… in this society, the people who know grammar have the power’… ‘Teaching inner-city kids hip hop Hamlet is offensive’:
Hamlet doesn’t need a hip-hop sound track for young people to enjoy or understand it. It’s been doing just fine for the past 400 years. It is both patronising, and frankly racist, to think that black and brown kids in the inner cities will only ‘get’ Shakespeare if it’s set to a hip-hop beat and presented to them in 3-minute MTV Base-style chunks’.
Instead, Johns’ organisation in Peckham takes the approach of raising academic achievement, expanding cultural horizons, and developing a moral compass. In the same talk, Anastassia de Waal, primary teacher and Deputy Director at Civitas, urged the audience of teachers to ‘win hearts and minds’: knowledge is an equaliser, not elitist.
Young, Ravitch, Fox, Furedi, Johns and de Waal are all egalitarian in their impulse, and they know that what students know is vital. The killer question for a great school curriculum is, what should all students know and understand by the time they leave school?
There is an emerging international consensus that a cohesive, challenging curriculum is a cornerstone of effective education systems, good schools and great teaching. As Michael Barber, former McKinsey and now Pearson head of education put it in his most recent paper: ‘The central challenge is to grasp a broader, wider and deeper curriculum.’ What should the breadth and depth of a world-class school curriculum consist of?
If I had one criterion for inclusion of content in the curriculum, it should be this: include our intercultural inheritance of the best ideas that have been thought over millennia, which should be understood by all pupils.
This includes the alphabet, reading and writing; the number system, calculation and more complex mathematics like algebra, geometry and statistics; the scientific discoveries of forces, particles and life systems amongst others in the disciplines of physics, chemistry and biology – all of these are inventions which have transformed our existence. The great stories, turning-points, problems and innovations of past and present civilisations in history; the interactions between people, places and their environments in geography; the grammatical core for communication in modern foreign languages and other cultures; the trailblazing idea and practice of liberal and parliamentary democracy pioneered on this continent; the greatest legacies of imagination ever created by humanity across the globe, great works of music, art and literature that have inspired and challenged people throughout the ages. This content has proved its cultural value and practical importance over the long sweep of history: it is the content that has proved again and again to be the best and most secure foundation for innovation, creativity and invention. In short, all pupils should understand our most valuable and enduring human achievements.
There is nothing inherently elitist about this. There is nothing that almost every single pupil cannot grasp by the end of their time at school. It is instead elitist to deny any child their global birthright, the inheritance of the centuries that have gone before them. To live without an understanding of the greatest ideas humanity has ever created, such as writing, is a travesty. The best education systems in the world ensure every pupil has a broad knowledge and deep understanding of them by the time they leave school.
There are three crucial but much-underestimated components of a great school curriculum: subjects, knowledge and sequencing.
1. The Importance of Subjects for Understanding
Subjects work, as this blog post explains. They are the most effective way of organising the curriculum to ensure pupils learn. All the best education systems in the world use subjects. An INCA enquiry examined international evidence on curriculum organisation and content. (Oates 55) It showed ‘a very strong pattern, with high-performing jurisdictions tending to promote a wide range of subjects though years of compulsory provision’ (Oates p.23); ‘in all high-performing systems, the fundamentals of subjects are strongly emphasised, have substantial time allocation, and are the focus of considerable attention in learning programmes’ (Rudduck G & Sainsbury M 2008; Stigler J & Stevenson H 2006). (Oates p.15) Cognitive science gives us the rationale for why subjects work. Thinking skills are subject-specific and depend on domain knowledge. Teaching through subjects ensures broad and deep coverage of different domains. Subject categorisations are an arbitrary but effective way to help us to introduce vital and difficult concepts as varied as the conservation of mass and poetic metaphors.
2. The Importance of Knowledge for Skills
Subject content has proved again and again to be the best and most secure foundation for innovation, creativity and invention. Critical thinking skills require background knowledge and cannot be separated from it. Devoid of factual content, analysis is impossible to teach. High-level problem solving requires sufficient background knowledge in the long-term memory to free the working memory for thinking.
3. The Importance of Sequence for Memory
Optimal order of content needs careful consideration within and across subjects. Judicious selection of the optimal amount of content for each year is vital so as not to overload students but ensure retention in the long-term memory. Content must be sequenced cumulatively, incrementally and ideally with interleaving so that it is consolidated and revisited, folding easier into harder material to test new applications of taught concepts. Only through a carefully considered sequence across the humanities, for example, will students emerge with a secure understanding of chronology in global literature, arts, music and history.
Clearly, the school curriculum is a necessary but not sufficient foundation for great teaching. It also depends on great assessment and great training. Nevertheless, sequencing the greatest ideas of our global civilisation is an excellent starting point for academic achievement, cultural capital and intercultural inheritance.
It’s better to explain by example than by assertion. So I want to briefly compare two concrete examples of a school curriculum in one subject and one age range, Key Stage 3 (aged 11-14), and evaluate them against the criteria of coherence and sequencing. One designed by David Didau, and one by me.
David’s curriculum is impressive for a couple of reasons. First, its distinctive and dedicated allocation to grammar allows the time for consolidation, and the sequence embeds revisiting within and across years. Second, the texts selected all broaden horizons rather than narrowing them: they don’t fall prey to the opportunity cost that comes with teaching texts that students should read for pleasure and in their own time, but do not need. The extended time given to Orwell’s and Dickens’ novels, undoubtedly challenging, provocative and mind-expanding texts, is exciting. My question would be: has the content and context been coherently sequenced so that students build a strong, enduring understanding of literature and language? Has the sequence been thoroughly thought-through, ideally dovetailing with the history curriculum, as we know powerful chronological and contextual knowledge deepens understanding accelerates students’ interpretations of texts? These are tough questions for any curriculum designer.
The English curriculum I’ve devised answers the question of coherent sequence by interweaving of grammar, vocabulary and spelling with the cultural texts it teaches, using the lessons we’ve learned from Siegfried Engelmann and Michel Thomas about interleaving and revisiting. With this in mind, I’ve drafted a very rough snapshot of the Key Stage 3 English curriculum that I’d ideally like to teach, that I’d envision my students studying, and that I’d hope my own kids might eventually learn:
This English curriculum spins the globe, from 20th century BC Eurasia to 20th century America. Its chronology is sequential, which will leave students will a memorable framework in their minds for understanding any the cultural achievements of the past they may come across. In the future, this ancient, medieval, renaissance and modern framework should help them peg new ideas to their prior conception of the eras. The curriculum also has a gender and ethnicity balance, from ancient and early modern heroines like Antigone, Boudicca and Anne Boleyn, to African, Indian and black American civil rights activists like Mandela, Gandhi and Malcolm X. Great stories, great characters and powerful words: this to me is what makes English the most exciting, enjoyable, accessible and inspiring subject.
Much depends on the detail of practical implementation. One snapshot cannot capture the complexity and thought that must go into sequencing and interleaving. This is early days in an embryonic experiment, one I am happy to hear criticism of and glad to take suggestions on; most of all, though, it is one that I am hugely excited about. If Hirsch, Willingham and Engelmann are right, such a curriculum could make a difference to our pupils’ futures.