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The aims of the curriculum should be the fount from which everything else in school life should flow

Blog Editor, IOE Digital22 April 2022

John White.

What are England’s schools for? Many parents and other citizens may well assume the authorities have a good answer to this. But have they?

Well-known philosophers from both sides of the Atlantic interested in education – from Harvard, Columbia, Chicago and Illinois as well as from UCL IOE – are broadly agreed that a worthwhile education has three or four key aims: self-maintenance through work, personal fulfilment, citizenship and moral concern. Their discussions of each aim differ in detail but there is consensus both that there are complex interconnections among the aims and that expounding what each involves painstaking elucidation. Philip Kitcher, for instance, an eminent philosopher from Columbia University in New York, devotes just over half his new book The Main Enterprise of the World: Rethinking Education (2022 ) to what its aims should be.
These 201 pages are mainly about the four mentioned above.

Compare this to the 41 words on the aims of the English National Curriculum: (more…)

The phrase ‘online learning’ is alluring and misleading: the site of learning is the mind

Blog Editor, IOE Digital14 May 2020

Farid Panjwani

 

A plethora of packages, platforms and information sources have flooded the Internet to help locked-down children learn from home and advise parents on how to help them. There is no going back on this trend.

 

With screens increasingly competing with face to face learning (and currently taking over from it), we can be sure that in the coming years students will be exposed to even larger swaths of information. Is this a good thing? Not necessarily. Without knowing how to swim, jumping into a bigger pool of water may bring more harm than good.  Unless we recognise that learning requires much more than the provision of hardware and software, resources and technical know-how, we are in the danger of confusing ‘process and substance’, as was noted by Ivan Illich. In this sense, the phrase ‘online learning’ is alluring but misleading. The site of learning is the mind. 

The freer pathway between students and information will mean that the triad of teacher-student-content will become heavily loaded on the axis of student and content. This will significantly transform relationships between teachers and students. The idea of teacher as (more…)

Ofsted has turned our attention back to what makes a good curriculum. We now need better answers

Blog Editor, IOE Digital23 January 2019

 John White.
Ofsted has begun consulting on a revised draft inspection framework.
The inspectorate wants to move away from an over-reliance on results and to focus on how these have been achieved – ‘whether they are the result of broad and rich learning, or gaming and cramming. ’The aim is to ‘‘rebalance inspection to make sure that young people are being taught the best of what has been thought and said’.
Ofsted’s focus on whether a school has a good curriculum is welcome. If taken seriously, it should lead us into deep and complex issues about what education should be about. But, bound as it is by current legislation, Ofsted has a very specific interpretation of this. Its references to knowledge and skills and nod to Matthew Arnold’s well-known dictum show its reliance on the current National Curriculum aims, introduced by then Education Secretary (more…)

The National Curriculum: what’s the point of it all?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital15 February 2013

 Michael J Reiss and John White
After Michael Gove’s announcement last week that English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBCs) have been abandoned and that GCSEs will carry on, some might assume that the debate about the school curriculum has, temporarily at least, gone away. This is not the case. On the same day that the Secretary of State announced his “climb down”, the DFE published its draft National Curriculum.
There is much one could say about these documents. Here, though, we focus on just one issue – the dismal lack of attention paid to the aims of the National Curriculum. In the 221 page document on the draft programmes of study for KS1-3 (PDF), each subject has its own specific aims but here is all that is said about the overarching aims of the National Curriculum:

3.1 The National Curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the core knowledge that they need to be educated citizens. It introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said; and helps engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.

3.2 The National Curriculum is just one element in the education of every child. There is time and space in the school day and in each week, term and year to range beyond the National Curriculum specifications. The National Curriculum provides an outline of core knowledge around which teachers can develop exciting and stimulating lessons.

“The best that has been thought and said” is a phrase from Matthew Arnold’s 1869 book Culture and Anarchy and Arnold would have recognised much that is in the new draft curriculum. The division into a litany of separate subjects – most of which were familiar to Arnold – shows how subjects remain the starting point for curriculum development, with the overarching aims tagged on as an afterthought.
But there is another way. After all, why should one start with subjects? Isn’t it not only more logical but also more sensible to start with the aims of schooling and from them derive a curriculum?
This is the approach the two of us have taken with our new book An Aims-based Curriculum – The Significance of Human Flourishing for Schools, published this week. We begin with overarching aims that will equip each learner to lead a personally fulfilling life and help others do so too. From these, we derive more specific aims covering the personal qualities, skills and understanding needed for a life of personal, civic and vocational well-being. The second half of the book, on political realities of implementation, takes this process of deriving aims further. Some of its detailed aims, but by no means all, overlap with conventional curriculum objectives. We also look at the role of the state in curriculum decisions, as well as the implications of the book’s central argument that aims should be the starting point for student choice, school ethos, assessment, inspection and teacher education.
Some might think that there is no need to bother with such considerations. Teachers can just get on and teach their subjects. In our view this is a deeply mistaken view. Thankfully, many 5-16 year-olds enjoy their schooling and learn well. But many don’t – not least because much of what they are presented with seems pointless; it doesn’t connect with them as they trudge from one subject class to another. We argue that by starting with aims, schools can have a curriculum that will inspire learning and provide a stronger basis for future life than is typically provided by a subject-based curriculum.
An Aims-based Curriculum – The Significance of Human Flourishing for Schools, is published by IOE Press on 15 February 2013. If you would like an invitation to a seminar at the IOE on 30 April at which the book’s argument will be debated, please e-mail abc@ioe.ac.uk.