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  • The curriculum in education: master or servant?

    Thursday 5 Nov 2020

    Peter Derby-Crooke, director of education at Dipont Education, argues that it’s time for a radical rethink of what a curriculum means to schools and its influence on education.

    The word curriculum comes from Latin, meaning a race or to proceed along the course of a race. There is no doubt that at times, the pace and challenge of our schools make education still feel like a race!

    The first known use of the term curriculum in an educational context is in the Professio Regia, a work by University of Paris professor Petrus Ramus, published posthumously in 1576. You would think by now that we would have sorted out what exactly it is! But, after all these years, we still don’t have a clear, complete and relevant definition of this important word, which has been part of our education systems for so many years.

    Children stand next to the words start and finish written on the ground in chalk

    You could be forgiven for thinking that ‘the curriculum’ is the heart of a school, the center of all learning, the driver, the guide that sets standards and expectations that is to be revered, respected and never criticized. My opinion is that we should make it work for us rather than us working for it.

    Leading us in the wrong direction?

    As educators we tend to use the word ‘curriculum’ in the narrowest terms, missing a great opportunity to bring about real change and development in our centers of education and our children’s lives.

    For decades we have blindly followed and revered the curriculum of our schools. If we stop for just a moment and consider the bigger picture of learning, we might find that this is not only taking us in the wrong direction but that it is also, in many cases, causing irreparable damage to learning and growing.

    Even as I share this criticism with you, I feel uncomfortable questioning and challenging this word, such is the status of this ‘pillar’ of education. But it is surely foolish to blindly continue to do something that you know is flawed because you haven’t been brave enough to question or challenge.

    For decades we have blindly followed and revered the curriculum of our schools…but we might find that this is causing irreparable damage to learning and growing.

    Education determines the capabilities, aptitudes and skills our citizens will call upon in shaping their lives and that of their world. There is nothing more important to a country than the education of its people. Our very survival as a species depends on the choices and actions made by the adults of the future. Therefore, the curriculum that guides them through their growing and learning is of immense importance.

    Dictating what happens in schools

    So, where to begin when considering a curriculum for the future? It might be easier to start with what a curriculum shouldn’t be rather than what it should be…the school curriculum of the future should not be:

    • molded by previous decades and centuries (this is not a reference to the study of history or previous/present cultures – these are extremely important. Rather, this refers to the structure and focus of a narrow curriculum that has not changed for many years)
    • organized and delivered in subjects, purely academic
    • ignorant of the importance of Emotional Quotient (EQ)
    • focused only on the present needs of students
    • narrow and restrictive in choice and creativity
    • detached from reality
    • used as a measure of what learners can’t do and consequently their ‘intelligence’
    • so demanding that it makes childhood and adolescence a miserable experience
    • created or greatly influenced by universities so that their selection of students is easier
    • stale and boring!

    Does any of that sound familiar from the curricula you’ve worked with? I’m not surprised, because it’s exactly what we have across schools in many countries. The curriculum has established itself as the master of what happens in schools instead of being the servant of it. This must change! We are failing to effectively prepare students to have a deep and relevant experience of life.

    This begs the follow-up question…what should the curriculum and, ultimately, education do for our children and students of all ages (because let’s not forget that learning is a life-long process)?

    Time for a rethink

    The educationalist Ken Robinson gave us a clue about what schools could do to rethink the curriculum: “School systems should base their curriculum not on the idea of separate subjects, but on the much more fertile idea of disciplines…which makes possible a fluid and dynamic curriculum that is interdisciplinary.”

    I believe the curriculum should be far more than a document that maps the content studied and examinations taken as students proceed through school. Schools, along with parents and society, influence and mold far more than a student’s academic ability. More and more educationalists are acknowledging that EQ is as important, if not more important, than IQ (Intelligence Quotient). There is no point in having a wonderful set of life tools if you don’t have the skills and aptitudes to make the best use of them.

    Of course, knowledge has its place, it’s just in the wrong place in most schools and curricula. As dramatist George Bernard Shaw said: “What we want is to see the child in pursuit of knowledge and not knowledge in pursuit of the child.”

    To some extent, of course, I have been complicit in the reluctance to reform the curriculum. However, I haven’t completely stood back and watched my schools’ curricula strangle learning and growth. Following many years of observing a proportion of students struggle with the basic curriculum, I reached the point in my role as leader of a school in Singapore where I believed that the main role of our school was to support the wellbeing of not only students but also that of staff (teaching and non-teaching) and our families.

    To some extent I have been complicit in the reluctance to reform the curriculum. However, I haven’t completely stood back and watched my schools’ curricula strangle learning and growth.

    The vision we devised at the school, which everyone could memorize was: ‘To be the best school in the world, with a dynamic learning community which nurtures and inspires everyone to be the best they can be.’

    When I spoke to families thinking of joining the school, I would say: “Today is an important day in your child’s life, he/she should feel safe and secure, be challenged in an interesting and relevant way, and be fulfilled and happy. As far as possible, this is how every day should be.” This underpinned the ethos and culture of our school and, as far as was possible, its ‘curriculum’.

    It’s one thing to share this ‘elevator pitch’ in a presentation to parents or to emblaze it on a wall in the school entrance. But, if the curriculum in place interferes with or prevents delivery of your vision, then it becomes mere words and a waste of time and space. The curriculum must be one of the key facilitators of a school’s vision, aims and objectives. It must be far more than an academic pathway with examinations included.

    Business writer Tom Peters provides an interesting perspective for such a curriculum: “I imagine a school system that recognizes learning is natural, that a love of learning is normal, and that real learning is passionate learning. A school curriculum that values questions above answers…creativity above fact regurgitation… individuality above conformity… and excellence above standardized performance…We must reject all notions of curriculum ‘reform’ that serve up more of the same: more testing, more standards, more uniformity, more conformity and more bureaucracy.”

    A future where we flourish

    While I have focused this piece on the curriculum itself, in an ideal world we would transform the concept of both the school and the curriculum together – it’s almost impossible to separate the two. Essentially, though, the curriculum should describe the essence of what happens in a school and how it happens.

    I started with ideas of what a future curriculum shouldn’t be. I hope by now you have an idea of what I believe it should be. The curriculum:

    • should facilitate and encourage everyone in a school community to learn and grow in all life’s intrigue and beauty
    • should support the development of open minds with clear, determined and creative thinking
    • must provide the circumstances for people to learn and grow in a positive and supportive culture that supports, in equal measure, both success and failure.

    In short, it should help us all to flourish both now and in the future!

    As I come from Stratford-Upon-Avon in the UK (which was playwright William Shakespeare’s birthplace), I must leave the last word to him: “My love is thine to teach. Teach it but how, and thou shalt see how apt it is to learn. Any hard lesson that may do thee good.”