I know I’m not the only person working in education who has felt that for the past decade they have been swimming against the tide. Bombarded with ‘SLANT’, ‘powerful knowledge’, ‘teach like a champ’ and a whole host of highly selective cognitive science, those of us who have said “where is community?” “where is enjoyment and purpose?” have been roundly ridiculed. And yet, I know from my bursting diary that I’ve not been alone in arguing that we should have both a ‘knowledge and humanity rich curriculum’ and that there is so much more to learning and understanding than progression statements. I even wrote a book on it. Still, it’s been a dark time. We’ve seen a system that once valued wisdom and experience being taken over by ideological lap dogs who have been paid handsomely for their loyalty to the ideology rather than for their services to teachers and children. And this time is not over. Not yet. But it is changing.
I was heartened today (if a little frustrated) to read Michael Young in both the Impact journal of the Chartered College of Teaching and in the TES, admitting that his push for powerful knowledge has fallen way short of what was needed. Paraphrasing the much maligned Vygostsky, he (finally) says: –
“Acquiring knowledge in school has to be the voluntary act of a learner. You can’t actually teach anybody anything; they have to learn it. You can help them, but they’ve got to have that desire to know.”
And goes further to assert that “the curriculum is not just a body of knowledge; it’s a group of communities we must encourage our students to join. That’s how we have to look at it.”
Yet we only have to look back a couple of years to see educationalists quoting his work on powerful knowledge while deriding the notion of ‘engagement’ in learning. Don’t believe me? Go on twitter and search for “Engagement is a poor proxy for learning”. It may indeed be a poor proxy for learning (too often confused with compliance or entertainment), but without it, there is no learning. Engagement is not THE learning (in the same way as the gears are not the car or indeed the journey) but without it, you get nowhere. Dorothy Heathcote argued that engagement sat on a continuum of motivation for learning and was a necessary step towards something much more powerful – investment – a state of being in which the learner is concerned, engaged and active in the process of their own learning. Hywel Roberts calls this state ‘Botheredness’ – a lovely word that perhaps we can all get behind.
In my own work (Curriculum of Hope), I argue that our understanding of curriculum should encompass way more than knowledge and that we are not having to choose between that and something more intangible. We can have it all. We just need to think differently. I outline five key planning principles – or plaits – that should and could infuse our thinking around curriculum and unit planning: –
- Content/Credibility – the knowledge – what is it we want them to know?
- Coherence – the understanding – how does it all connect – what are the linking concepts, the big ideas, the “A-ha!” potential?
- Creativity – layer of application – are we capable of taking the knowledge and applying it to new and unfamiliar contexts?
- Compassion – layer of application – what is the knowledge for if we don’t use it to make things better? How are young people actively demonstrating their compassion and is the curriculum itself acting compassionately towards young people?
- Community – layer of application – what opportunities are young people getting to connect with their communities to both acquire new knowledge/understanding and to be of service to this communities? How do we connect?
It has felt like the past decade has focused only on the first two of these elements, but without the application (and I don’t mean a summative test), how are young people expected to see purpose in what they do and what they are being asked to learn?
Last Saturday I was fortunate enough to be at the Rethinking Education conference and to listen to educational psychologist Naomi Fisher discuss her alarm at the number of young people who are stating that school is damaging them. She spoke of schools operating a system of ‘motivation through anxiety’ – here are some of the things young people have told her: –
- They lie awake worrying that they won’t get rewards/dojos/golden time.
- They fret about statements from teachers about their futures (one was told they’d “end up under a bridge” if they didn’t concentrate in class.
- They feel the future is hopeless – that anything less than excellent grades are a disaster.
As a result we’re seeing a mental health crisis (school is obviously not the single factor here – but surely school should be a sanctuary from those other pressures?). We have a rapid rise in school refusals – children disappearing out of the system. A rapid rise in SEND diagnoses (she asks whether we would have fewer if school suited more children). We have highly distressed and stressed young people even among the groups who stay and do their best. What are we doing? She went on to note that the conditions needed for young people (indeed all human beings) to thrive were: –
- Autonomy and agency.
- A sense of purpose.
- Having a voice – feeling ‘heard’.
It seems to me that it’s perfectly possible, even within our current system to offer young people these opportunities within their school experience. I know it is, because I see schools doing it every day. The Ignite project in partnership with Chester Zoo where 23,000 young people have gone out into the world as active conservationists. Schools in the Whole Education network who are working hard on agency and purpose with their young people as part of a big picture view of the world. The seeming outliers of School 21 and XP where projects, community engagement and real life learning are an inherent right of the child. There is no need for these to be outliers – these kinds of experiences can be had by every child.
I’m minded of a moment I had at Barrowford Junior School a few months ago. I’m crossing the hall to pop to the loo and a Year 3 child barrels into me on her way to a bookshelf. After laughter and apologies she says: –
“Are there any books here on vultures?”
We look, but there aren’t.
“Why vultures?” I ask
“People think they’re ugly and useless, but we need them and they’re dying. I wanted to read about them.”
“There’s one here on crabs” I offer, a bit helplessly. She looks at it dismissively, then looks again.
“Hmm. That’s quite ugly. Are they useful?”
“I expect so – maybe the book can tell you.”
“Maybe. I think ugly things that are useful are beautiful you know.”
And she’s away, barreling into someone else on her way to class.
What is beauty? That’s their inquiry question. Their teacher, of Pakistani heritage, brought the idea of vultures to class after a conversation with his grandfather in Pakistan who had noticed a decline in their numbers in his village. And so began a journey of discovery for the teacher and for his class and it’s beautiful in itself. They can ‘cover’ all kinds of curriculum objectives around classifications of animals, location knowledge, food chains and habitats, but they’re doing so much more. Their work will lead them to look at the ‘ugly but useful’ creatures we can find in our own environment; look at the interdependence of these systems and (hopefully) redefine their view of what constitutes ugliness and beauty. They can (and will) connect this to human concepts of beauty and hopefully use this to consider what beauty lies within their own actions, purpose, usefulness. We have these choices. We always have had these choices. But we need the imagination and agility to put them into action – to be Pedagogical Activists.
So while the tide may be turning, and while we wait, let’s find those moments of wonder, of possibility, of hope. They are there. We just need to seize them.