It is now almost exactly a decade since Scotland’s National Debate on the curriculum, the consultation which led to what is still universally referred to as ‘Curriculum for Excellence‘, but which should by now simply be called ‘the Scottish curriculum’ (see my previous post on the significance of the title here). It is perhaps a good time, therefore, to reflect on the general purpose of that review, especially for anyone coming into our education system for the first time, and that is exactly what this creative animation from the community learning group North Alliance invites us to do. The first half of the film reminds us of the need for change, and sets out the challenges for education in Scotland, which of course are no different from those in any other modern economy. However, there are some big questions which remain unanswered, and which need to be addressed by Education Scotland and the wider education community if the aspirations so well articulated in this short presentation are to be realised. I would like to consider just a few of them.
“Curriculum for Excellence is, firstly, a mission statement. It sets out a vision, and it gives Scottish Education a long-term sense of direction. It will not be implemented over the next few years.”
This is a very welcome statement; had it been made clear from the beginning that this was a long-term vision, much anxiety could have been avoided. I’m sure I didn’t just imagine the very clear timetable for ‘implementation’ from August 2010, which caused no little consternation in local authorities and with the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, but which is no longer to be found (at least by me) on the Education Scotland website. As a mission statement, CfE is a highly commendable piece of work, but as the commentary acknowledges, it is not a ‘national curriculum’ in the traditional sense. The principle is established that it is not the role of governments to determine the detail of curriculum content, but rather to provide broad general purposes and themes within which the outcomes of the curriculum can be met. I happen to believe that this is right and proper, but it does have some serious implications.
Key Question. Who does have responsibility for determining the content of curriculum areas, and what criteria should they use in doing so?
“In the modern world, knowledge remains vital, but it is not enough. Success depends on deep understanding, and on having the skills to turn knowledge to useful effect.”
It is difficult to disagree with this contention, but the reality is that the secondary school curriculum is currently built around subjects and subject knowledge, the primary purpose of which is to prepare students for National Qualifications at age 17, most of which are awarded on the basis of written examinations. Little evidence is required that this subject knowledge is ‘turned to useful effect’, only that it can be explained in theory. I wonder how different it could be if the curriculum was instead organised around the development of the key cognitive skills identified in the film – particularly problem-solving and critical thinking skills – rather than the traditional curriculum areas which have hardly changed in the past 50 years, and which were not, bizarrely, subject to review during the National Debate. I frequently meet and talk to teachers who are creative, and want to be more creative (that’s why they became teachers) but they are ground down by a regime of constant testing and target-setting by their ‘managers’.
Key Question. Is it possible to have a problem-solving or project-based curriculum while at the same time providing students with a core subject knowledge?
“Subjects are still important. Indeed, the structure of knowledge is perhaps more important than ever, but at the same time we have to remember that knowledge is joined up. The problems of life are seldom solved by using expertise from a single subject area alone. Being able to draw on different areas of learning and apply them together in the real world contexts is a vital skill.”
I have to confess that I have no idea what ‘the structure of knowledge’ means, but this point more or less acknowledges that real learning does not take place in subject compartments. It also seems to imply that the the connection of the disparate parts of this complex jigsaw will somehow be put together by the learner at some point in the process, without the need for structural change. All the previous evidence from school inspections suggest that this does not happen, and that in fact young people find it extremely difficult to make connections in learning across curriculum areas.
Key Question. Is it possible to make radical changes to an education system while operating within the same subject structures which have changed little in the past 50 years?
“A surprise benefit of CfE development has been a new emphasis on learner engagement, the idea that the learner has to take responsibility for his or her own progress, and needs to be involved in all of the key decisions. This kind of active involvement in the learning process wasn’t a significant part of the original plan, but it has been enthusiastically taken on board by schools.”
I’m not quite sure why this should come as such a surprise, or in what way it wasn’t ‘part of the original plan’. The curriculum is described in terms of ‘I can….’ and ‘I have……’ statements, or to put that another way, in outcomes and experiences written from the point of view of the learner. If that doesn’t imply that the learner has primary responsibility for his or her learning then I have seriously misunderstood it. In fact, it was in this respect that I though the curriculum review was innovative and radical. In reality however, ten years later many young people are still unaware of what these outcomes are, despite the fact that they are freely available online. It may have been enthusiastically taken on board by some schools, but many others need significant support in making that transition.
Key Question. Is it possible to transfer the responsibility for learning to the learner (where it rightly belongs) while holding teachers to account for their students’ examination results?
“Nobody has yet made the breakthrough to genuine 21st Century practice. That is the task that faces us.”
Indeed. Is that because there are barriers to progress which only those in positions of authority can remove, or is it because, as a profession and as a nation, we are instinctively conservative?
Related: For an excellent analysis of the review of the curriculum in England see Is Character the Essential Student Outcome?