The Learning Renaissance

Towards a New Curriculum… Challenging Hierarchies of Subject

A major misalignment between the curriculum on offer and the curriculum required to support the development of 21st-century learners is the assumed hierarchy of subjects.

Where the curriculum is expressed in terms of subjects as the basic building blocks, there is always the assumption that certain subjects are more important than others. I use the term ‘important’ here in a number of contexts. For example, language acquisition in the primary school and the ability to use the native language fluently in secondary school means that English, Spanish or any other native language always assumes primacy in schooling. From a child developmental standpoint, that seems perfectly sensible. However, if developmental issues are our starting point then it is equally relevant to promote physical dexterity and development as a core need if the child is to develop healthily.

Beyond literacy, the ability to use number assumes a key focus. At the risk of being branded a heretic, does the demand for numeracy, which explores the wilder shores of algebra, geometry and trigonometry and dominates the school curriculum really warrant so much lesson time?

Beyond numeracy, the supercluster of science technology, engineering and mathematics has come to dominate curriculum time. The rationale for this is less to do with what young people need of the curriculum, as what the economy wants of them – technological competence and dexterity in key concepts, which it is assumed are the engines of economic growth, by providing added value and profit to industrial endeavours. Such self- interested advocates are able to fund national and international projects which are at least exciting and move beyond the mere simulation into the doing and making sphere.

However, the claim of the STEM lobby to be the direct link to economic competitiveness is not the full picture when you consider that the creative industries, which tend to relate to the Arts in their broadest sense provide a greater percentage to the UK GDP than construction. Clearly, from a functional point of view, art teacher and former colleague David Close, was right to argue over thirty years ago that literacy and numeracy should be joined by a third key competence which he labelled illustracy – the ability to make sense of the world through images, diagrams and artwork.

Others would argue for the vital importance of the role of creativity in education. There’s is a difficult task, for as Sir Ken Robinson and others have argued, the processing of young people through the education system is very much geared, explicitly, or implicitly, to the strangling of creativity and the development of compliance. The child un-trammelled by the organisational requirements of the system and allowed to pursue their own creative instincts has always been seen as an indulgent model of learning and ridiculed as being the domain of ultra-liberals and anarchists. Summerhill, with its laissez-faire attitude to discipline – believing that the children would come to establish self-discipline when left unfettered by authority structures was characterised as the extreme end of this dangerous experimental approach.

In reality, any attempt to construct a curriculum on the building blocks of subject knowledge is a redundant task which is backwards-looking in inspiration. We need a fundamental realignment of thinking, or a disturbance of current practice, as provided by the Covid 19 disruption to schools, to build a new curriculum model.

At present we are tied to a fatal flaw in the way school-based learning is organised. As has often been said, it feeds the educational ambitions of the few, with the subject-based content of the twentieth century, based on an organisational industrial methodology of the nineteenth century, delivered around a calendar of engagement inherited from the medieval agrarian and ecclesiastical years.

It is time for a fundamental change which looks to maximise the potential of every learner through a quality assured model which delivers them all at the end of statutory education as functional, independent and autonomous lifelong learners. Such learners will be able to deploy the attitudes, behaviours and competencies required to thrive in the challenging environment of the 21st century.

The subject will be redundant in such a development, learning will be developed in project-based learning challenges in which pupils will collaborate, evaluate, synthesise, problem-solve, communicate and execute solutions to real-world problems.

The knowledge-based and subject organised curriculum is now as relevant as the phrenologist’s head models of the nineteenth century.


About educationalist04

I'm convinced we can, as a species, do much better than this if we set our minds to being much more positive and productive towards our fellow humans. The solution is learning - creating independent and autonomous learners who can problem solve, innovate and create a better more equitable and sustainable world. My books, Future Proof Your School and Re-Examining Success together with this blog, explore how better learning outcomes for all can be achieved.

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