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The Nature of Curriculum

Chris Yapp

Year of posting: 2011


What does it mean to be an educated person in 2011?

In my experience, the more you look at that question, the harder it gets to answer. Imagine that in front of you there were a group of people say aged 20. Another group would be aged 30, then 40, 50, 60 and 70 and so on. If I asked you to identify the "best educated" people in each group, what would you look for and how would it change as you moved through the groups?


The Nature of Curriculum

Chris Yapp

Print version of this article (PDF).

What does it mean to be an educated person in 2011?

In my experience, the more you look at that question, the harder it gets to answer. Imagine that in front of you there were a group of people say aged 20. Another group would be aged 30, then 40, 50, 60 and 70 and so on. If I asked you to identify the "best educated" people in each group, what would you look for and how would it change as you moved through the groups?

Now when we define a school curriculum for today's 4-18 year olds we have implicitly, if not explicitly, laid out a view of what we think those children will need to be considered educated in 2021, 2031 up to 2111 given increasing human longevity.

Every few years  a new review of curriculum will be held and there will be tension between those who make claims like  "it's a tragedy that 50% of children leave school not knowing who Miss Haversham is" and those who argue that children do not have the skills and competences for the workforce. High hopes and aspiration are regularly undermined by narrow curriculum orders and assessments.

We find then a strong decline in modern foreign languages in a world which is globalising.

Another aspect of the revision is the challenge between process and content.

In history, many today complain that children have no sense of the sweep of history and the school curriculum has become the 3Hs (Hastings, Henry VIII and Hitler). Yet in this "narrowed" curriculum, many children will access original documents and look at a sweep of history such as "the history of medicine". There is a tension between two goals: Do we want children to know what a historian knows or think like a historian thinks?

With advances in sciences the boundaries between disciplines shift creating new disciplines like synthetic biology or computational biology. Arguments about whether to teach Biology, Physics and Chemistry as separate disciplines or in a single science are conducted away from the changing context of the building blocks of science in the adult world.

Now add the digital world of the internet: Wikipedia, Google and social media - and the complexity of creating a valid school curriculum becomes apparent. It's easy to make snide remarks about the ministers, the ministry or any other educational apparatus, but the problem is conceptually immense. The occasional tinkering leaves many bruised and feeling that opportunity has been wasted, and that vested interests have stifled innovation.

For my O level in English literature we read Dickens, "A Tale of Two Cities". It is a wonderful book and has the most amazing opening and closing lines in the same book that I know. After a year of studying it my boredom threshold was such that I have never read another Dickens, other than a Christmas Carol to my children. I have down loaded them all recently onto my e-reader so maybe I'll remove that gap in my education over the next few years.

So, if our goal is that children should read and enjoy reading, does it matter what they read? If we adults put them off reading because we choose what they ought to read is the problem us, the teachers or the teenagers?

My experience going back to the initial question is that there is cause for hope. What I find is that what is common across ages and backgrounds are human qualities. An educated person has a wide knowledge base as well as some specialist areas. They are reflective, inquisitive, and passionate about understanding. They are resilient and determined faced with challenges. They are highly creative. They will learn from peers and help peers with their learning.

Some years ago Alec Reed, the serial entrepreneur, and a wonderfully inspiring learner made a very insightful observation. Comparing school leaving with the driving test, he defined the era of lifelong learning as follows: 'When a child leaves school, they will put on their L-plates to say 'I am a Learner' not take them off and say 'I've passed' '.

This fits with the well-known line of Einstein, 'Education is what is left after you've forgotten everything you've learned'.

Education can be thought of in terms of knowledge, skills and attitudes. The child who started school this month will be an adult in a world different from today. Many will work in jobs, companies and industries that do not exist today. In the aftermath of the riots there will be a focus on attitudes for a while, but the knowledge and skills agenda will soon return to the top of the pile.

I'm not arguing against the "body of knowledge" in favour of "learning to learn" for its own sake. On the contrary, engagement in a body of knowledge is a precursor to forgetting it, as Einstein observed. The Futurelab ran a project with KS3 called "enquiring minds", in which I was involved. The purpose of the project was to develop children as researchers. It reaffirmed my prejudice that learning is most effective when authentic.

I want to argue that curriculum should be designed from first principles around the human qualities we aspire to in our learners, ahead of the knowledge and skills. The knowledge and skills are important to the process of educating, but only when forgotten are we truly educated.

Some years ago I remember talking to a boy who had developed a website on the history of boxing. He was passionate about his subject. He answered questions with thought and humour. His knowledge was encyclopaedic. He had taught himself the web skills by working with his friends, more than his teachers. He organised his sources: text, photos, paintings, video to tell a narrative that showed a grasp of English beyond his years. He was early to school every day and co-operative.

Yet six months before and six months later he was a problem case. He found school boring, was considered 'special needs' and was uncommunicative to peers and adults.

For schools to produce educated people we need to create frameworks for curricula that enable each child to find their interests and talents. At the same time the curriculum needs to be broad enough to develop life skills. If you believe that we need more children to study maths and science (as I do), we need to excite them to want to learn science and want to be part of its future.

But what say of economics? Most of what is taught is decidedly open to debate. We need new theories of economics as much as we do new stem cells. What are the facts of economics which they should know? Indeed are there any at the start of the 21st century?

I often hear that children go to Wikipedia and print out the answer, without even reading it and then hand it in as homework. I'm sorry but if they can do that, it's the homework, not the child that is at fault. If the curriculum allows it to be done without engaging the brain then it's the curriculum we should worry about.

So, try this on yourself and then with a child.

How many countries will there be in the world in 2050?

There is of course no correct answer (yet).

The second level question is where the learning gets to be interesting.

Show me why you think there will be x?

Of course, there are facts, such as the number of countries in the world today. Even that is disputable, ask the Palestinians!

If you are faced with an ethnically diverse group of students they will be able to share stories of what happened when their countries split up, renamed and so on. The learning can be very rich, personal and engaging, that is to say authentic.

My answer is around 350, over a hundred more than today.

I have posed more questions here than I have given answers here, for a reason.

 The next time we revise the curriculum, let us define the curriculum by the questions we want children to engage with. Let them pick up the knowledge as a by-product of answering those questions. Let us assess them by their ability to explain and engage, by their creativity.

When I look at the nature of school curriculum, it still feels to me that what it thinks it's trying to do is produce people who can go on quiz shows and give answers quickly under pressure. That's memory, not education, as far as I am concerned.

For me, to be educated in 2011 is about the questions you can ask as much, if not more, as the answers you know. When you don't know it's the resourcefulness in finding out. If you've got this far and you agree with me, what have I got wrong? I want to know. I am a learner.

Chris Yapp is a NET Leading Thinker

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