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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


Children, choice and the curriculum

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 5 June 2024

This is the second of four blog posts about primary education from the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Pedagogy (HHCP) at IOE. Each post addresses key points that are included in a new HHCP briefing paper written to inform debate about education in England as we approach the general election. The four posts are:

      1. In the hands of a new government: the future of primary education in England.
      2. Children, choice and the curriculum.
      3. Hands on learning: a progressive pedagogy.
      4. Assessment in primary schools: reducing the ‘Sats effect’.
Children raising their hands as a teacher leans over their desks. Credit: Cavan for Adobe via Adobe Stock.

Credit: Cavan for Adobe via Adobe Stock.

Yana Manyukhina

Curriculum is a fundamental aspect of schooling as it dictates what children learn. Behind each curriculum is a set of significant assumptions about what we intend for our children to achieve by the time they complete their schooling. These assumptions reflect our societal values and the kind of citizens we aspire to nurture.

England’s current national curriculum has remained unchanged for a decade. It is knowledge-based, emphasising the acquisition of subject-specific knowledge as the primary learning activity. This focus overshadows other curriculum components such as competencies, skills, values, and attitudes, which are emphasised more strongly in other national curricula.

England’s national curriculum also encompasses a relatively high level of prescription. Despite being intended as a foundational framework within the broader school curriculum, in practice it often becomes the sole curriculum. The pressure to cover statutory content leaves minimal room for incorporating children’s interests, particularly in subjects like English and mathematics. Consequently, as reflected by research with primary pupils, learning can feel more like a duty to fulfil rather than an enriching journey of exploration and growth.

Our research project, CHANT (Children’s Agency in the National Curriculum), focuses on understanding children’s perspectives on the curriculum and their learning, particularly examining the level of agency afforded to them within the confines of England’s national curriculum. Our findings reveal that the national curriculum demonstrates little regard for children’s agency. The curriculum text does not acknowledge children’s right to influence their education and provides minimal opportunities for them to actively shape their learning in practice.

The lack of choice in the curriculum negatively impacts our children in more ways than one. A meta-analysis of 41 studies found a direct link between choice and motivation. It is not surprising that depriving children of opportunities to explore their areas of interest results in a loss of intrinsic motivation to learn. Instead, extrinsic motivations such as test scores and outcomes crowd out the natural curiosity that might otherwise form the foundation of children’s educational experiences. Rather than a process of discovery filled with joy and fulfilment, learning becomes a means to an end, a mere pathway to achieving future success.

Depriving children of choice in the curriculum also contributes to a sense of powerlessness in relation to learning. Developing lifelong learners with a strong motivation for continuous growth is nowadays seen as a key goal – the ability to adapt using available resources regarded as a vital skill. This skill needs to be nurtured from an early age, and one of the most meaningful ways to do so is by giving children the opportunity to shape their own curriculum.

Some countries have explicitly recognised the importance of student agency in learning, as seen in Ireland’s Primary Curriculum Framework. Among its Principles of Learning, Teaching, and Assessment, it states:

Children are active and demonstrate agency as the capacity to act independently and to make choices about and in their learning. Curriculum experiences provide them with opportunities for decision-making, creativity, and collaboration.

Determining the ideal amount of choice and its practical feasibility at different ages are crucial questions that need to be carefully considered. However, initiating change begins with the written curriculum, which should explicitly include provisions for a dedicated amount of time during which teachers can explore children’s interests alongside or within the formal curriculum. In a recent podcast, we discuss some specific ways in which it is possible to provide children with opportunities to exercise meaningful choice in relation to what and how they learn.

It is important to recognise that while balancing structure and flexibility in the curriculum is essential, providing space for children’s agency ultimately empowers learners to take ownership of their educational journey and fosters a lifelong love for learning. This approach not only helps to enhance learning outcomes but also nurtures essential skills and attributes that are vital for success in the modern world.

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