The Listing Curriculum

The curriculum is listing again. KS2 history lessons are set to include 200 key figures and events, with 50 more added for KS3. The English curriculum is set to comprise of a catalog of what pupils should read and know, and the national curriculum generally will be an inventory of the knowledge that all children should acquire. The rationale for this latest turn of events rests on the view that the current curriculum places too much emphasis on skills without sufficient regard for the knowledge needed to use them, and that it is too politically correct. In order to ensure political incorrectness, the citizenship curriculum has been reduced from 29 pages to less than one and is restricted to a discussion of the British monarchy and parliamentary democracy.

It is true that the previous national curriculum had, over the years, moved increasingly from an emphasis on knowledge to an emphasis on skills and processes. In its last iteration areas of knowledge were signposted and thematically linked to the development of higher order thinking skills such as analysing and evaluating, and processes such as collaboration and enquiry.

Amongst all the arguments about, and reactions to, these swings in curriculum emphasis, there has been a great deal of discussion about skills and knowledge that is mixed up with ideological values and beliefs about the relative merits of each. Knowledge is essentially linked to ideas of academia and scholarship, whilst skills are generally linked to ideas of apprenticeship and doing. Some clarity in thinking about knowledge and some attention to ideological positions could serve to move policy decisions about curriculum more radically forwards than the mere tinkering that has gone on since the mandatory national curriculum was introduced in the 1980s.

Firstly, simply labeling different ways of knowing as skills and knowledge is unhelpfully crude. It is more helpful to think of the propositional knowledge of a subject and the procedural knowledge of a subject. Propositional knowledge concerns substantive structures such as facts and concepts, and syntactic structures such as the way concepts are organized into frameworks. Procedural knowledge concerns skills and processes. Procedural knowledge may entail propositional knowledge, for example, knowing how to remove an appendix or re-wire a house. Propositional knowledge does not entail procedural knowledge, for example, a knowledge of anatomy or a knowledge of circuits and fields.  What is important is that in order to acquire procedural knowledge, propositional knowledge needs to be taught in a certain way. Propositional knowledge on its own is of very little use in terms of our lives and the sustainability of our planet. If we don’t teach it in a certain way, then there will be no procedural knowledge. If procedural knowledge is the only emphasis, then it will be poorly informed and of no use either: in the case of the appendix we will be back to quackery and in the case of re-wiring, cowboys. There needs to be a lot less listing of the curriculum between poorly conceived concepts of knowledge and skills, and a more rounded holistic engagement with what knowledge is and how it is taught and learned.

What determines how propositional and procedural knowledge are taught and learned is the ideological position from which the curriculum is conceived. The dominant ideological perspective, prevalent since the 1980s, views both curriculum and learning as a product. This is attractive because curriculum as product involves a detailed attention to what people need to know in order to provide a skilled workforce. It is systematic and has considerable organising power through the focus on objectives, learning outcomes and the evaluation of results; it suits the marketisation of education. Learning, in this view, is seen as little more than a quantitative increase in knowledge (and/or skills). Changes to the curriculum by different administrations from 1980 onwards have not changed the ideological view of curriculum.  The initial focus on knowledge by a conservative government was merely tinkered with by the following labour governments through the addition of things like a citizenship and sustainability curriculum and an increasing focus on skills and processes. Essentially, the same model of curriculum as product, with prescribed inputs and measurable outputs has remained solidly in place beneath the frippery attached to it.

The more recent move from marketisation to privatisation has brought a renewed vigour to the concept of curriculum as product, hence the return to a knowledge focus, and the extreme reductionism of this to catalogs and inventories of knowledge. Knowledge exchange is now a major part of our economy and knowledge a significant commodity of UK Plc. It therefore needs to be thus conceived.  The consequences of this ideological position for learning and teaching are a cause for great concern. The ideological view of curriculum as product militates against learning theories such as social constructivism, and recent understanding of cognition and learning from neuroscience. What counts as good teaching in the curriculum as product accountability framework does not entirely equate with what we know facilitates and engenders best learning. The ideological values underpinning curriculum policy making deny recognition and accommodation of what is accepted and counts as knowledge about learning and teaching as we understand it to date. Furthermore, there is an obstinate intransigence from the current administration and a complete denial of strongly evidenced knowledge about curriculum, learning and teaching (maybe they lack the skills and processes to deal with what is propositionally known.)  This can be evidenced in a collection of correspondence between some of the members of an expert panel set up to review the curriculum in 2011 (Prof Andrew Pollard and Prof  Mary James) and the secretary of state for education, Michael Gove. We all need to join the campaign to re-think the curriculum, but not just in terms of tinkering and fiddling around the edges of the curriculum as product model.

 Useful links

Robin Alexander’s critique of the National Curriculum proposals 

Learning theory – a good brief guide to models, products and processes. 

2 thoughts on “The Listing Curriculum

  1. Interesting. Would you say more about the clash between, “What counts as good teaching in the curriculum as product accountability framework does not entirely equate with what we know facilitates and engenders best learning” please?

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