Category Archives: Curriculum Series

A Knowledge Based Liberal Arts and Sciences Curriculum. Curriculum Series Number Seven.


A liberal education is focused on teaching knowledge ‘for its own sake’.

The two words ‘liberal’ and ‘arts’ might stand somewhat awkwardly in our current landscape, the phrase implies freeing the human being through a study of a curriculum exposing pupils to a wide range of influences, arts, ideas, opinions and facts so that they can acquire an understanding of the human condition and reach their own conclusions and judgements. An education for freedom.

Many ‘knowledge-based’ curriculum programmes claim to embrace the ‘liberal arts’ but fail to understand the enormity of teaching knowledge ‘for its own sake’. It has been said that the aims of a liberal education are to have ‘no aims’. And, on occasions when aims are proscribed for the liberal arts they are often wooly enough to encompass all sorts of interpretations, for example  the aim for the liberal arts that Daniel Denicola suggests is: ‘the activity of living as a human being and one’s life as a whole’. Or, in one word, ‘flourishing’.

In the title I have added the word ‘sciences’ as the ‘arts’ in their original meaning covered areas that were to later become ‘science’. However, it is useful in our understanding of knowledge for its own sake to see why the addition of ‘sciences’ to the liberal arts can be problematic. In The Closing of the American Mind,  Allan Bloom writes of the destructive nature of ‘modern’ (enlightenment) science. He paraphrases Jonathan Swift and his idea that modern science has lost the human perspective, and that science should ‘understand man as a man, and not as a geometric figure with flesh on it.’ A liberal arts and sciences education would restore, as Bloom puts it: the ‘self consciousness’ about science that is connected to ‘poetry’. This is echoed by Michael Oakeshott who makes the rather disparaging comment that ‘chemistry has never outgrown its character as a sophisticated kind of cookery.’ He makes this distinction: science that is liberal is science that is taught as ‘one of the great intellectual pursuits of mankind,’ rather than in fulfilling a utilitarian need for more ‘first class surgeons, engineers, chemists, psychologists, social scientists etc…’

This is what sets apart a liberal arts and sciences education. It is resistant to utilitarian, managerial, instrumental, vocational and simple ‘utopian’ arguments as to why we educate. Knowledge for its own sake is anti-utility and training. It is against the idea of knowledge as cultural ‘capital’ or ‘literacy’. It resists the ideas of knowledge for social justice or mobility. This impacts on the choices made for what is ‘in’ the curriculum.

Raymond Williams drew a distinction between the ‘industrial trainers’ who want to train the working classes for jobs, the ‘public educators’ who want a common curriculum for all and the ‘classical humanists’ who want to preserve high culture through a liberal arts education for the elite. These distinctions are salient, we still hear their echoes. The training for jobs that don’t yet exist – soft skills – vocational qualifications; the need for all to have a common core curriculum; and the threat of having to dumb down an education based on the finer things in order to make them accessible for the children of the majority – even a struggle for Matthew Arnold who wished to transform as many people as possible by providing them with access to ‘the best that has been thought and said’.

The liberal arts approach is anti-training because it refuses to leave children with the impression that there is only one way to think, rather it wishes young people to realise they are free to think and reason. The pupil becomes free. As William Deresiewicz describes it:

Creating a self, inventing a life, developing an independent mind…

An independent mind is not developed if your school has trained you in certain skills for the jobs market. An independent person free to ‘invent’ their life cannot do so if their curriculum has reduced their thinking due to a narrow range of subjects. One can’t create a self if one is subject to a daunting regime that wishes to stifle your individuality.

RS Peters identified three different strands in liberal education:

  1. Knowledge for its own sake.
  2. Broad and balanced.
  3. Non-dogmatic – because authoritarianism restricts the reasoning power of the individual.

Any approach to the curriculum that wishes to prepare children for the world of work cannot be described as a ‘liberal arts’ approach. Neither can one that intends to drive children towards certain outcomes such as being socially mobile, or in competing with the outcomes from other countries. An education driven by technological imperative or a diet of knowledge that is to enable school leavers to become high earners cannot said to be liberating. Any outcome which is to improve the lot of the nation economically or socially is not liberal because this reduces the self to a ‘geometric figure with flesh on it’.

Education as commodity, with qualifications as capital to be exchanged for certain vocations is anathema to a true education for its own sake which is a cornerstone of a liberal arts and sciences approach to curriculum. All acronyms such as STEM or STEAM are anathema as they are endowed with economic justifications. Culture as capital leads to children muttering: ‘Why am I doing this, is it in the exam? Why am I doing this it’s not relevant to the job I’m going to get? Will this make me more likely to get a top job?’ In answer to the question: ‘why do this rather than that?’ RS Peters suggests:

It is… the attitude of passionate concern about truth that informed Socrates’ saying that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’.

The focus should be on the curriculum they are being taught, not some far off abstract aim. Pupils are learning to engage fruitfully with knowledge to examine their life, our life, and the expression of those lives.

This is why, in the liberal arts, there is an emphasis on the pursuit of truth. This truth is to be found in ‘great’ books, authentic experiences and a discursive ‘dialectical’ method of teaching. Children learn important knowledge, they have great experiences – cultural, physical, thoughtful. They learn to debate, write, make speeches, play sport and make art, they learn other languages for the joy of having their minds expanded by different ways of seeing and interpreting the world. And they learn sciences to explore the wonder of the world. Through the breadth of curriculum experiences or, as Arnold called it, ‘the whole circle of knowledge,’ they are expected to learn the importance of truth – and that there are different ways to truth – some more objective and logical, and some more subjective, spiritual and emotional.

The central problem for a liberal arts curriculum is the charge that it is only for the leisured elite. James Burke recently suggested on the Radio 4 PM programme that most jobs will be taken by Artificial Intelligence within thirty years – algorithms networked and learning by themselves for themselves. What will education for humans be for if we are all part of the leisured class? He added that it is ‘our open ended self awareness that makes us sentient and creative humans.’ It is this ‘humanist’ echo that reverberates throughout a liberal education.

But I digress.

The liberal arts curriculum has a moral imperative behind its construction. It is taught through direct instruction, through dialogue, debate and discussion and through pupils creating their own responses to drive the conversations forward. The essay form is central as are other means of subject specific communication. The whole curriculum being subject based means there is also a need for ideas to be brought together through, what Christine Counsell refers to as, ‘intelligent inter-disciplinarity’ rather than ‘crazy cross curricularity’.

A liberal arts education is an aesthetic education. As Keats put it:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

It is rooted in the realm of passing on beauty, on truth but not in a way that just admires the ruins of the past. It is a conversational education. What is included in the curriculum are not pieces of work – the ‘best’ as suggested by what might be talked about at a middle class dinner party or broadsheet newspaper – the best here is something that defines us, a pretence to the universal maybe – but it helps us work out who we are – what it is to be human. It is subjective in this sense but is given a moral imperative through its underlying pursuit of wisdom and truth.






Hirsch and Bruner: Two Knowledge-Based Curricula Models. Curriculum Series Number Six


Hirsch’s ‘Communal knowledge’ curriculum and aspects of Bruner’s ‘Spiral Curriculum’ are both predicated on the importance of teaching knowledge. Bruner’s might be a controversial choice as he is sometimes seen as quite a ‘progressive’ figure but, I argue here, there are important aspects of his work that warrant inclusion in the ‘knowledge-based’ category.

Hirsch’s work is currently to the fore in many educational discussions about curriculum in England and therefore I will begin with his work, what is often referred to as a ‘core knowledge’ curriculum. I have referred to it above as ‘communal knowledge’ as it is the term that Hirsch has begun to use himself to describe his approach to what knowledge to include. This term replaces his other description of this, that of ‘cultural literacy’.

Hirsch argues that it is the ‘shared knowledge’ that is essential for all to be able to communicate with each other successfully in a common culture. He sees that a decline in shared knowledge is closely related to a decline in literacy. He places an emphasis on the importance of national knowledge over that of local and that knowing people’s ‘unspoken systems of association’ greatly helps mutual understanding. It is these ‘internalised schemata’ that help one read, write, and by having enough information especially early on in one’s education the mind is not always struggling due to cognitive overload to work out what it is reading, hearing, seeing etc.

It is not problems of cognition that see pupils struggle it is problems of knowledge. A child might be struggling at school because they don’t know enough, and, crucially, though they might know a lot about certain things, it is their lack of access to the ‘shared’ knowledge that is keeping them back.

The breadth of the knowledge taught aids a pupil’s endeavours in acquiring cultural ‘literacy’. If one reads a national newspaper one needs a great deal of breadth in one’s knowledge to understand what is written within. Therefore it is not enough to teach a child to read and restrict their reading to functional books with a limited range of information, a child also needs a wide range of subjects and rich texts to be able to take their part in society. As explained in the Core Knowledge series of books from Civitas, (edited by Hirsch), in the context of teaching a child to read, they need: ‘the systematic teaching of the ‘nuts and bolts’ of written language: phonics and decoding skills… spelling, handwriting, punctuation, grammar… [and] a rich diet of poetry, fiction and non-fiction… and… that children be given frequent opportunities to use language in creative and expressive ways. A balance needs to be found between the nuts and bolts, and the ‘rich diet’ and ‘creative and expressive ways.’

Knowledge is ‘sequenced’ – new knowledge is built on what has already been learned. This sequence needs to be coherent. For example a teacher might teach about Ancient Rome after teaching about Ancient Greece, the sonnet form before looking at Shakespeare’s plays. The wide range of academic disciplines are covered from general knowledge to deeper knowledge.

The pupils need to acquire this carefully sequenced knowledge from a broad curriculum that is experienced right from the beginning of their schooling.


In his book ‘Why Knowledge Matters’ Hirsch refers to Jerome Bruner as the ’eminent research psychologist’ suggesting, based on his work, that teachers might abandon the phrase ‘developmentally inappropriate’ when it comes to deciding what to teach and when.

Bruner argued that:

any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.

The idea that no content is inappropriate due to the age of the child might be considered controversial yet, as Daniel Willingham says of Bruner’s work:

If we accept that students’ failure to understand is not a matter of content, but either of presentation or a lack of back- ground knowledge, then the natural extension is that no content should be off limits for school-age children… Bruner goes on to suggest that children can get an intuitive grasp of a complex concept before they have the background and maturity to deal with the same topic in a formal manner… Without trivialising them, complex ideas can be introduced by making them concrete and through reference to children’s experience.

In his 1996 work ‘the Culture of Education,’ Bruner wrote:

culture shapes the mind… it provides us with the toolkit by which we construct not only our worlds but our very conception of our selves and our powers

This seems to agree with Hirsch’s ideas around cultural literacy. Culture is central to the educative process; it should, therefore, be essential to educate children about the cultural heritage in which they are born. But how to ensure children ‘learn’ this communal knowledge?

For Bruner it isn’t simply about the learning of knowledge in a logical sequence, he goes a step further:

The teaching and learning of structure, rather than simply the mastery of facts and techniques, is at the centre of the classic problem of transfer… If earlier learning is to render later learning easier, it must do so by providing a general picture in terms of which the relations between things encountered earlier and later are made as clear as possible

Bruner proposed a ‘spiral curriculum’. This curriculum focuses on the structure of knowledge, on key ideas and concepts, and the method of adding to that knowledge within the discipline. He proposed that children should first come across a concept or idea in a simple, concrete way and then later return and continue to revisit the concepts in ever more complex ways. He introduced the idea of ‘scaffolding’ to help children to understand the underlying principles and helping them to take the next steps. Sceptical of the mechanistic approach to cognitive psychology as a humanist he wanted to take into account how context matters and also how we can make ourselves. Bruner said:

I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the powers of mind reach their fullness not simply in accumulation – in what we come to know – but rather in what we can do with what we know, how we are enabled to frame possibilities beyond the conventions of the present, to forge possible worlds

Going back over the same concepts and methods in each subject area has knowledge build on knowledge. This knowledge is focused on concepts, ideas and skills, for Hirsch, it could be argued, that knowledge is more content and product based rather than looking at the underlying structure of that knowledge.

For Bruner one cannot just focus on product, process is vital. In this he moves into areas that for many on the ‘knowledge’ side of curriculum design might be controversial. For him children experiencing the ‘structure of disciplines’ was important. How knowledge is learnt is as important as what is learned. Here he ventures into the realm of doing – thinking and working like a mathematician, a historian, an actor etc. he suggested helps one absorb and learn the underlying concepts that go together to make up that discipline. Know how as well as know what.

Knowledge based curricula are not just of one ‘type’. In fact there are many discussions going on as to what a ‘knowledge-based’ education might look like and consist of that make it as fascinating an area to look at in itself. If a school has decided to focus on a knowledge based approach to curriculum design there is still much research to be done.

In my next post I will look at further knowledge based approaches, those ideas that are based firmly in the ‘liberal arts’ category.



What is a Knowledge-Based Curriculum? Curriculum Series Number Five.


In the fourth post of this series I suggested that all curricula teach knowledge and therefore some people think the idea of a ‘knowledge-based’ curriculum is no different as all curricula ‘teach knowledge’. But the term ‘knowledge-based’ does not mean merely the teaching of knowledge, there is much more to it than that.

The first thing to realise is that ‘what’ knowledge is extremely important. Not just ‘any’ knowledge will do. This is what leads people to attack this type of curriculum as elitist or obsessed with the works of ‘dead, male and pale’ people. This is a ‘canonical’ approach which favours some ‘great books’, ideas and artefacts over others, ‘the best that has been thought and said and done’ to paraphrase Arnold. The sequencing of this knowledge is vital – it is about building up an understanding of how different disciplines work. Domains are extremely important in a knowledge-based curriculum. The idea is to introduce children to the culture(s) to which they ostensibly ‘belong’ – locally, nationally and internationally. That these cultures don’t rub along seamlessly is part of what is taught. This is enculturation warts and all. A great history curriculum, for example, is not about brainwashing a child into thinking they belong to a master-race or class.

This approach requires the teacher to be an expert in their field. They are the sage on the stage and they stand on the shoulders of giants who have, over time, made each domain what it is today. It is also central to the knowledge based ideal that the subjects are academic. This can be controversial. In England this controversy is seen most starkly in the subjects that are deemed worthy enough to feature in the ‘EBacc’. Vocational subjects, Design and Technology, and Arts subjects are notable by their absence, as are more controversial ‘academic’ subjects like Film Studies and Sociology.

For me the Arts are central to any education worth its salt and a good liberal arts knowledge-based curriculum offer should recognise this. This is why I understand that the argument about ‘what knowledge?’ can be keenly felt.

‘What knowledge’ to teach is informed by the traditions, arguments and conversations in each domain. That this might be due to the arbitrary practices of time doesn’t matter but a good knowledge based curriculum will recognise these controversies at its heart. For example an economics curriculum ought to include both Adam Smith and Karl Marx, if it didn’t it wouldn’t be introducing students to the great controversies of the subject being studied and thus would disable their ability to take part in the conversations around that domain.

Yet it is the sheer need to leave out far more than to include that leads to problems. A progressive curriculum offer could easily follow the child’s interests even though that could end up with the child having a distorted and prejudiced view as to what is really important – even so, the logic remains. A knowledge-based approach has to make difficult choices… e.g. ‘Dante’s Inferno is one of the best books ever written, but we have no room for it in our curriculum’.

In some areas the knowledge that is to be taught is less contested than in others. Arguably it is easier to put together a knowledge based subject curriculum in Maths and Science than it is in History and Literature. The recent efforts of English Literature professors at Cambridge University to ‘decolonise’ the curriculum is an example of the difficulties for institutions to justify curricula based on the ‘great tradition’ The question ‘why is my curriculum white?’ is so difficult to answer.

Another problem with a knowledge based curriculum is that human beings keep adding knowledge that could become part of any decent canon. Writers keep writing, painters keep painting and composers keep composing. At least with science new discoveries sometimes, obviously, wipe out older ideas; science tends towards a contemporary feel. (History of science would offer other challenges.) And though discoveries of the past still merit inclusion – think the works of Darwin and Newton as examples, it tends to be the latest iterations that matter. Though history can be revised, it still requires an understanding of the past – whose history? Kings and Queens or the common man? Or woman? In literature books can drop out of the canon but with all these things the perennial question must be ‘what have we lost?’

Along with a desire to create workers for an ever-evolving jobs market and the idea that not all pupils can muster an interest in the intricacies of Algebra, Newton and Beethoven some people think that a knowledge based curriculum belongs in the dustbin of history. For a teacher wedded to a knowledge based approach this is an anathema – this important knowledge is for all, because it is about ensuring all have a stake in their society. People who argue for this approach are passionate advocates for the rights of the child to know, to understand and to be able to make a difference to themselves, their families and their society.

For all the difficulties about what knowledge to include and why, there are noble aims at the heart of this curriculum approach. The desire is to enable a child to grow into a ‘well-educated’ person. To experience the breadth of knowledge that our culture deems to be worthy and uplifting. As RH Tawney put it to ‘imagine the rivers of learning and purity in the world and bathe yourself in their living waters’.

Maybe it is the image of the Goethe reading, Wagner appreciating, SS officer that did so much damage to the idea that education in the finer things, Matthew Arnold’s pursuit of perfection and ‘sweetness and light’, can make a human being a better person. A well educated person is not necessarily a better one.

Is a person more attuned to the works of Beethoven better educated than one who knows nothing of the composer of the Eroica but is well versed in the collected works of One Direction? Is someone who knows the plays of Shakespeare intimately better educated than one who knows nothing of the Bard and has spent a good deal of their lifetime watching Eastenders? Is someone who understands what the Hadron Collider is doing better educated than someone who knows nothing about the proton-smasher yet plays darts to a good level at their local pub every Saturday night?

Those who believe in a knowledge based approach will tend to say yes in answer to these questions and though this knowledge is accessible in much of society it is introducing children to, this often, more ‘difficult’ knowledge and, for some, much less accessible knowledge that is at the very heart of what a school must do.

In my next post I will be looking at some of the different types of knowledge based curricula.






The Progressive Curriculum. Curriculum Series Number Four.


All curricula involve the teaching of knowledge which is why some people baulk at the idea of a ‘knowledge-based curriculum’. ‘We all teach knowledge’ they point out, as if there is no difference between anyone teaching a progressive curriculum and those teaching a more traditional academic one.

As soon as one gets into the argument it is easy to find that there are important, ideological differences. “Whose knowledge?” might be the refrain or comments about the teacher as an authoritarian figure, these arguments get to the nub as to the differences offered by a more progressive curriculum.

In answer to the question ‘whose knowledge?’ a progressive curriculum might answer, the knowledge a pupil most wants to learn; a progressive curriculum will tend to be more child-centred than knowledge centred. I will explore this distinction in more detail in later posts, neither is ‘bad’, and though they are very different ideologically and practically both involve some overlap with the other. But a progressive curriculum is concerned with the child’s development, and the motivation of the child to learn, their needs and, importantly, their interests. If a child is not interested in learning something that is felt to be good for them then it must be made accessible to them in order to encourage them to learn it.

Like a knowledge based ‘liberal arts’ curriculum, progressive minded educators may wish to ‘free the person’ and this is often through the idea of something akin to self-actualisation. Maslow argued that:

[this] refers to the person’s desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially.

The specific form that these needs will take will of course vary greatly from person to person. In one individual it may take the form of the desire to be an ideal mother, in another it may be expressed athletically, and in still another it may be expressed in painting pictures or in inventions’ (Maslow, 1943, p. 382–383)

It is the variance in what we will become that entails a more individualistic approach to how we begin. Interestingly a more ‘knowledge centred’ curriculum theorist ED Hirsch believes that self-actualisation is an important goal for schooling though this would be the job of secondary rather than primary education, where, he argues, a significant absorption of culturally relevant and important knowledge is essential for social justice.

An enthusiast for progressive education once described it to me as letting a child free in a sweet shop. The curriculum is enticing the child in various directions encouraging them to try things out, to develop their taste in certain directions, and to be motivated to do so by the exciting discoveries on offer. The analogy soon fell apart when we explored the health benefits for later life. Maybe Howard Gardner’s description of his ideal curriculum being like a good interactive museum of life in which a child can make their own way is better, appealing to aspects of their intelligences and in which one that a teacher can encourage children towards intelligences that they might struggle with and use their skills to motivate them to do better in those areas. To have a growth mindset, if they find the going too tough.

There is not ‘one’ type of progressive curriculum offer, just as there is not one type of ‘knowledge-based’ approach either. So it is difficult to suggest an over-arching tick-list for a progressive offer, but there are some aspects that a progressive education leans towards.

The teacher is less of an authority figure and is seen not as an expert ‘sage on the stage’ but more of a ‘guide on the side’. The teacher listens to children encouraging them to take up the mantle of teacher, whilst the teacher becomes the pupil, eager to learn what the child wishes to share. The teacher creates the learning experiences and environment and, maybe like a child-friendly museum, children can explore and develop outlets for their curiosity. In the book ‘Nudge’ (not an education book) Thaler wrote that: “A choice architect has the responsibility for organizing the context in which people make decisions.” This echoes what Dewey wrote years before: ” The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these influences.” The teacher is a ‘choice-architect’ encouraging children to make the right choices, not through coercion, but through soft persuasion ‘assisting’ the child in making the right choices.

This then is our narrative. Instead of a teacher teaching knowledge they might first cultivate an interest in a topic and then encourage exploration of that topic through means such as projects or motivating tasks based around performances, products, posters and presentations. Cross-curricular approaches are encouraged, the demarcation between subject areas can be quite fluid. Children are also encouraged to work in groups and, the argument is often made, that this is most like the real world and it is beneficial for children to collaborate creatively. Children are encouraged to discover new areas of learning for themselves and to construct their own models of understanding. They continually progress and it is their skills that are to the fore.

Children have fun in this environment, they are motivated to learn, and they learn skills and knowledge. They are free to learn what they want to, and though the teacher will be guiding their learning in certain directions, this is not done in an authoritarian manner. The knowledge content is secondary to the skills that a pupil is learning. By being encouraged to be lifelong learners, children taught a progressive curriculum will be used to being able to learn what they want to learn and when they want to learn it. They will be adept at using Google and other methods of research to find out what they need to know. They will be used to a more egalitarian classroom, be less respectful of authority and be likely to criticise those who try to take more authoritarian positions in the future. That is the hope.

Although some progressive classrooms veer more to the creating a better society narrative and some towards a more individualised or ‘personalised’ approach the progressive curriculum is very different to the more traditional one. It is also an approach that is being made more accessible through the advent of the internet and the proliferation of information at your fingertips.

The progressive curriculum is less likely to value a linear narrative in terms of knowledge, it is more unstructured, and can be unpredictable. The teacher needs to be highly responsive and foster deep, professional relationships with their pupils, being hyper aware of their needs and helping them to realise their potential. As Ken Robinson says:

The key… is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.

Ken Robinson: “The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything”

Some schools mix the traditional and progressive approaches together. This might be due to various examination demands that tend to recognise domain based knowledge as essential. A primary school that does ‘project work and topic’ in the afternoon and more maths and english in the morning might be one; a secondary that has a freer ‘creative’ key stage three with cross curricular approaches and then a more rigid, subject based key stage four, might be another.


What is a Curriculum? Curriculum Series Number Three.


What is meant by the word curriculum?

The online OED definition is quite narrow:

The subjects comprising a course of study in a school or college.

Decide your course, list the subjects that are to be covered and off you go.

The word comes from the Latin ‘curriculum’ which meant a running, course, career, from ‘currere’ meaning ‘to run’. It is first associated with a school ‘curriculum’ in about 1909.

In the jargon heavy, agreement light world of education there is no absolute agreement as to what is meant by the word curriculum, definitions range from the narrow to the broad.

Geneva Gay thinks of the curriculum embracing the ‘entire culture of the school – not just the subject matter content’ (1990) this is a view I have much sympathy for but if everything is the curriculum then it ceases to have much currency as a term. From the narrow list of subjects to the all-embracing ‘entire-culture’ view whatever is meant by the word curriculum in your institution will obviously have very different ramifications when it comes to curriculum design.

Tim Oates talks of four different types of curriculum they are: the planned, the enacted, the assessed, and the learned. It is what is left in the pupil’s ‘reservoir of knowledge, understanding and experience – in the long term’ that forms, for Oates, the ‘learned curriculum’ and it is this that we ought to care about. What is planned, written down in curriculum documents is as nothing to what is actually taught, narrowly assessed and then remembered.

It is for this reason that I am drawn to a wider view of what the curriculum is rather than the narrow ‘subjects comprising a course of study’. For me curriculum is a narrative, it is the story a school tells of itself and what it thinks is valuable. This narrative, though comprised of lots of different stories, has to have an overarching principle that pulls the whole together. A school that leaves each department to do its own thing curriculum wise will lack this overall view, and though it’s a perfectly reasonable position to take, the unifying narrative of a school’s curriculum, and the rituals involved will shape what is remembered by pupils long after they have left the school.

It is the overarching idea of curriculum that has lead people to give names to different types of ‘curricula’, in order to differentiate them in a way that they hope will lead to making a lasting impression on their pupils. Diane Ravitch wrote about the knowledge-centred or academic curriculum thus:

…the term ‘academic curriculum’ does not refer to the formalistic methods, role recitations, and student passivity about which all reasonable educators and parents have justly complained. Nor does it refer only to teaching skills. It refers instead to the systematic study of language and literature, science and mathematics, history, the arts, and foreign languages; these studies, commonly described today as a ‘liberal education,’ convey important knowledge and skills, cultivate aesthetic imagination, and teach students to think critically and reflectively about the world in which they live.

Others talk of a skills based or competency based curriculum, for example, the RSA talk of their:

…Opening Minds curriculum [which] features five categories of competences: learning, citizenship, relating to people, managing situations and managing information. Focusing on competences means that Opening Minds teaching emphasises the ability to understand and to do, rather than just the transmission of knowledge.

These competences are broad areas of capability, developed in classrooms through a mixture of instruction and practical experience: children plan their work, organise their own time and explore their own ways of learning.

Both these approaches have a very different over-arching narrative. A unity of purpose is fostered by each narrative meaning that the curriculum in school will have certain ideas underpinning the entire approach that the school takes. A knowledge based approach is very different to a skill based approach. Whichever is more akin to your approach, you will notice the claims made by the other approach does not entirely debunk the approach you might wish to take. The RSA talk of ‘transmission of knowledge’ though suggest that they do not ‘just’ do that (implying that some do). Whereas Ravitch suggests the academic curriculum teaches skills, cultivates aesthetic imagination, and teaches students to think critically and reflectively. This could make one think that the differences between the two approaches are not very wide at all but if we go back to what Oates suggests is ‘remembered’ I expect the differences might be starker.

The curriculum is what is taught. Formally and informally but, importantly, explicitly. It is what we intentionally teach for pupils to learn something beyond the management of the institution. It comprises academic and other forms of learning. I hate the term ‘extra-curricular’, preferring the idea of co-curricular or ‘non-examined curriculum’, if one has to make any distinction at all. It is not the ‘entire-culture’ of a school but is certainly a large and important part of that culture. Whether one believes in a knowledge based or a child centred curriculum, or another approach altogether, the unity of purpose an institution gives to its curriculum ought to shape what is remembered by pupils for years to come.


Curriculum Series Number Two: Curriculum Aims, ‘The Why’…


The why of curriculum design is a hugely contested area, it is tied in to the ‘why’ of school itself and is driven by politics, values, ideology and what one feels is ‘right’. This is where there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ about the design of curriculum one chooses, however there are right and wrong ways of designing the curriculum once you have decided on what the values are behind it. For those looking for a ‘science’ of curriculum design you might be disappointed but I see it as more of an art. I suppose if everyone decided on a list of measurable outcomes, saw these things as a sufficient measure for all the approaches and tried various curricula out over years and in different contexts and saw how the measurable outcomes varied it might be possible to decide which one is best…

It’s just that I don’t think we ever will be able to do this and nor do I think that it would be right to try. This does not mean that any way is okay because that way ignorance and chaos lie. There needs to be a unity of purpose and delivery in your overall curriculum even if you believe that each subject area can design the curriculum that best delivers their subject area, because that implies a unity of purpose in itself. However, if your values mean chaos and that no values are a good thing then it is unlikely you would be involved in formal education at all except as some sort of fifth columnist. Throwing a spanner in the works of systems has a long and noble tradition of its own and, in itself, this anarchy might be an aim in itself.

Let us look at the sort of thing that might guide your curriculum:

  • Ensuring excellent academic achievement
  • Making children ready to enter the job market
  • Creating good citizens
  • Creating ‘happy’ people
  • Creating a better society for all
  • Ensuring a successful meritocracy
  • Creating an equal society
  • Ensuring people believe in a nation’s ideals and values
  • Making people more creative
  • Making people more critical, especially of those in authority
  • Ensuring people know the knowledge that is deemed important for them to know
  • Learning a range of important subject disciplines
  • Ensuring people are equipped to be life-long learners
  • Ensuring people know how to behave well
  • Helping people make the right choices for their own well-being and the well-being of others

I’m sure there are many more so, it might be helpful, if you wish, to add some others in the comments section below.

What order would you put the above in? What would you emphasise, what would you leave out? Do some aims contradict other aims? Are all these aims curriculum focused?I will return to these questions in the next post: ‘What do we mean by ‘Curriculum’?’

For me it is only once you have decided what your curriculum is for and the order of importance of the aims you have that you can then start to take a suitable approach to curriculum design. This is where science might help you in some of your choices but so will intuition and reason – learning and thinking about the arguments around curriculum design and what is/are the right choice/s for your school?



Curriculum Series Number One: Curriculum Chaos

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A striking conclusion that we have drawn from the findings is that, despite the fact that the curriculum is what is taught, there is little debate or reflection about it… there is a lack of clarity around the language of the curriculum.

It is certainly possible that this ambiguity and lack of shared understanding expose competing notions of what curriculum means across the sector. However, the most likely explanation is that this arises from a weak theoretical understanding of curriculum. This was confirmed by school leaders, who said that there was a time (long ago) when teachers were taught the theory that underpins curriculum planning. Over time, this competence across the sector ebbed away.

Amanda Spielman HMCI’s Commentary 11 Oct 2017

If what Spielman suggests is true then English children are likely to be experiencing something approaching a chaotic curriculum. In this short series of posts I hope to go some way to help achieve a shared understanding as to what different approaches to curriculum might mean, the theoretical underpinning of these approaches, an understanding of the language involved and recommend certain approaches to curriculum planning that might add to the material that is helping curriculum design to once again become centre stage in education debates.

I believe that one of the signs of chaos around approaches to curriculum design is the idea that anything can work, that each teacher can take any approach that they believe matters and that as they know their learners better than anyone else that will suffice.

Curriculum design cannot countenance such a chaotic approach because in the first instance curriculum design and delivery is a ‘team game’. The design and delivery is inextricably linked and the teachers teaching must know why, what, how, when, where and to whom they are delivering the curriculum.

And I use the term ‘delivery’ advisedly because it is a word that might be contested by some who feel that a curriculum should not be delivered to a child but must, instead, be centred on what a child wishes to find out. Hence the possibility of chaos if we leave it up to individual teachers to do what they feel is best, because the experience the learner has is likely to be so inconsistent that the curriculum they experience seems to be undoing the work that they have previously experienced and not working towards what they might experience next.

The first concept I wish to agree on is therefore the ‘Joined-Up Curriculum‘ – this is self explanatory but it is a curriculum model in which every teacher knows the who, what, when, where, why and how of what they are teaching and that it is in harmony with the who, what, when, where, why and how of all the teachers teaching their subject/s in their school. They receive the baton and, later, they pass it on. They know what happens before, what happens next, how they fit in to this ‘relay’ – the common pursuit and purpose of the ‘way we do things here’.

Therefore these short pieces will accept the importance of the curriculum being ‘joined up’ and see the ‘chaotic curriculum’ as a common enemy to good curriculum design. However, I am conscious of the fact that people have a wide range of different approaches and values which can inform a range of different approaches to curriculum design and in order to help add to the ‘clarity around the language of the curriculum’ I will try to do justice to a number of these different ideas and methods.

This will involve me looking at the current debate at what might constitute a ‘knowledge-based’ curriculum, what might be a ‘competency-based’ one, as well as a look at whether ‘progressive’ and ‘traditional’ are helpful when describing different values behind curriculum design.

Much fun to be had then!