A curriculum in tension

Embed from Getty Images

I have been clear that the choice of teaching methods should not be a political one. The ideologies underpinning different approaches do not line up easily with the political left and the political right. In fact, we should be choosing the objectives we want to reach and simply asking ‘what’s the most reliable way to get there?’.

Similarly, I do not see the choice between a knowledge-lite, skills-based curriculum and a knowledge-rich curriculum as a political issue. The choice arises from the same sets of ideologies as the choice about teaching methods and broadly the same set of arguments apply. If we can agree, for instance, that we want to educate students who are able to economically and critically engage in the life of a democracy, then we can evaluate these two types of curriculum on that basis; which one best delivers the goods? From my reading of cognitive science, abilities such as critical thinking are not general skills but instead largely emerge from possessing relevant knowledge. Even if there is an additional, perhaps dispositional, layer to critical thinking, this can only be developed once the knowledge is there. You cannot think critically about something you don’t know much about or, at least, your critical thinking will be superficial.

Yet, once we agree with the need to pursue a knowledge-rich curriculum, we do enter political territory.

We may, for instance, address one of E. D. Hirsch’s questions and ask, ‘what knowledge is needed to understand The New York Times?’. The logic is clear: In order to critically engage in the life of a democracy such as that of the United States, you need to be able to understand such sources. This does not mean instinctively agreeing with those sources, but it does mean that you can engage with the information and arguments that they present. If you decide to challenge and dissent then you can do so from an informed perspective and with a greater prospect of your view being heard, respected and acted upon. This is perhaps even more important in an age of fake news and social media bubbles and represents a renewed mission for educators.

However, for historical reasons, the answer to the question, ‘what knowledge is need to understand The New York Times?’ Is likely to be, ‘Lots of stuff that was done, discovered and written by dead European males’.

To some extent, this is not a problem. There is a distinction between learning about and being indoctrinated into the values of people, their work and their times. An obvious example is the large amount of curriculum time that British schools spend studying the rise of the Nazis and the holocaust. Nobody would suggest that this is about turning children into Nazis – the function is clearly a warning from history. Perhaps less obviously, learning more about important historical figures such as Churchill even acts to distance us from him. The uninformed know only of Churchill the war-hero; a Hollywood Hagiography. The informed know about his role in Gallipoli, the black-and-tans militia in Ireland and his racist views.

Nevertheless, we should often sacrifice the principle of teaching the most widely applicable knowledge in order to make room in the curriculum for other priorities and voices. These include the voices of women and historically marginalised people. The Australian curriculum should include the story of Eddie Koiki Mabo. Not only is it important to an understanding of modern Australia, the inclusion of a diversity of voices signals that this is everyone’s curriculum. By contrast, the progressivist idea of allowing students choice over their own learning and pursuing themes only if they are of personal relevance to the students, could see Mabo’s story overlooked in large parts of Australia.

We are now at a turning point. The case for a knowledge-rich curriculum is strong. Despite setbacks such as the recent Gonski 2.0 review in Australia, with its apparent preference for decontextualised ‘learning progressions’, as more schools across the world demonstrate the effectiveness of prioritising knowledge, the momentum will become irresistible and Australian schools will start to seriously examine such a model. If left alone, this will lead to just one more axis on which schools will vary; another basis for the exercise of parental choice. A number of supplemented Australian Curriculums will develop, reflecting the idiosyncrasies and priorities of their designers; a market, if you will.

Alternatively, we could embark upon this project together, reforming the existing Australian Curriculum and ensuring it reflects our values as a nation. This would rightly be debated as we throw around what should and should not be included. It would be a political discussion, drawing on voices from left and right. That is why I have suggested a national panel that would take submissions and undertake five-yearly reviews.

No group or set of interests should win the curriculum. It should always be in tension.


6 thoughts on “A curriculum in tension

  1. Tom Burkard says:

    As much as I admire Hirsch, I can’t accept the notion of a state-imposed curriculum. Schools should reflect the values of the people they serve, and not those of the Guardian or the BBC. Over 25 years ago I decided to homeschool my son because all of the stories he was reading made out boys to be wimps and girls to be brave and wise. That and he was expected to write an account of what his mother did all day. The school never even acknowledged my letter saying that this was the sort of things the Soviets did.

    If we were to have a debate about what kind of curriculum we should have, I don’t think there would be the slightest doubt as to which views would prevail. Our freedoms are already severely curtailed now that it’s a crime to say something that might hurt the feelings of anyone belonging to an ‘oppressed’ minority. Pick up any issue of the Graun and you’ll find that you can write or say as much bile as you wish about white males. Or even about ‘terfs’, heaven help us!

    • Tom,
      Today I think you are wrong on a few fronts. One, with social media it is not possible to take an issue so far without pushback. In Ontario the math and sex ed curricula have become an issue in the current election. Secondly most people can’t afford to home school their kids so even those that do should care about what goes on in the school system.

  2. Tom Burkard says:

    I’m not sure why you thought that I didn’t care what goes into the school system–the fact that I withdrew my son from school shows that I care a lot. In fact I even taught remdial literacy skills for two days per week in a local comp for three years–leaving my son at home amidst a massive pile of books. My only other income was from private tutoring.

    I don’t know a lot about Canada and I don’t even know that much about social media, but I do know that massive twitter-storms descend upon anyone foolish enough to step out of line in the UK. Ironically, one of our few uncompromising bastions of intellectual freedom is Spiked Online–whose origins can be traced back to the Revolutionary Communist Party. The possibility of a Corbynite government is enough to convince me that the less power government has over the curriculum, the better.

    • I guess I wasn’t careful enough I shouldn’t have said you don’t care. But the schools will have a state mandated curriculum so we can’t just hope it away. I think what has happened here in Canada is a vocal group of uni academics, former teachers and parents has connected over social media and found a loud enough voice to make something as generally uninteresting as a math curriculum a political issue. I think that is a good thing. You can see the other side too as on the sex ed curriculum there is a politically scaremongering which includes misinformation. But I think either way it ensures government has to defend what they are doing which is a good thing.

  3. Pingback: Whose democracy should we teach in the classroom? – Filling the pail

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.