From the artist smock to the straitjacket approach; tailoring your curriculum so that is accurately fits your children, in a made-to-measure fashion.
I grew up as a young child, in Wales in the early 1980’s prior to the national curriculum’s introduction. In fact my early experiences of school were quite unusual. My mother was, a supply teacher in such demand that I actually began to attend my primary school a whole year early, on the premise that my mother agreed to take a long term supply contract, and play the piano in school assemblies. In return I was allowed to attend the reception class, as a form of alternative childcare. This kind of freedom was allowed to head teachers, or certainly to Mrs. Davies, the then headteacher. I am sure this would now be considered a major flaunting of headteacher power.
In many ways the curriculum was just as relaxed, at that time teachers we encouraged to plan their curriculum via the trusty ‘Topic Web’. For you who were young enough not to know, this is what Tony Buzan might refer to as a mind-map. A-spider-like diagram that linked subjects together via a theme. So if you were teaching the Romans, for example, in mathematics you may look at decimalization, and place value; whilst in design and technology you might consider constructing roads; Religious Education might focus around the Roman’s understanding of gods, and so on.
I would liken this type of approach to the curriculum as almost like the artists smock approach; creative, innovative, messy and free. Whilst in many instances this allowed for fantastic topic work, it was not always conducive to effective learning. Why? For a three main reasons:
In many cases schools gave too much autonomy to the class teacher. As a result there often wasn’t long term planning in place, and teachers might repeat topics, year on year. Whilst it allowed for fascinating independent projects on the History of the local area, it also meant I was taught ‘autumn’ as a topic every year through my primary age phase. Encouraged to collect leaves and draw stoats. This was of course prior to the introduction of formal school inspection agencies such as Estyn and Ofsted.
Such autonomy allowed teachers to exercise their creative talent, and as they got to choose their topics, they inevitably engaged the children. In a strange way it also allowed us as pupils to really understand the personality of our teachers. ‘Mrs. Ruggles’ was a high point in your school career, as she enjoyed teaching cooking and sewing; whilst ‘Mr. Edwards’ a passionate Welshman from deepest darkest West Wales, would delight in teaching us welsh and regaling stories of famous welsh people, like Mari Jones and Dic Pendyrn. However this freedom also meant that very often skills were not adequately covered in each of the subject areas, and in many lessons the activity became the focus rather than the learning. Words like ‘progress’, ‘achievement’ and ‘attainment’ were unknown in the teaching lexicon.
While creativity may have flourished, inconsistency was king. Variance in a single school could be considerable, but when you considered this at a national level, what children learned must have been to say the least changeable. The only consistency was provided by national events such as St David’s day and schemes of works, which the schools bought in. I can still fondly remember completing Scottish Maths' workbooks, and the excitement when we were doing shape and space in the practical area.
And so the national curriculum was introduced in a bid to ensure that schools nationally were building skills of pupils, adequately covering the curriculum content. From this new national curriculum two new phenomenon’s emerged; QCA units of work, and the Numeracy and Literacy Strategies and the creation of Inspection agencies. Let’s take some of these entities separately for their merits and failings:
The Literacy and Numeracy strategies:
As a newly qualified teacher I began to teach from these strategies, pouring over them, learning the skills the night before to teach my class the next day. Whilst these documents did provide rigor and structure, and a national approach to teaching numeracy and literacy, as well as a wealth of good quality resources that we springing up on the newly available World Wide Web. It had an unexpected negative effect. Teachers no longer taught children to their age and ability. Instead they taught to the strategies. Fearful that Ofsted/ Estyn, might catch them out teaching the wrong part of this document at the wrong time. Children were no longer learners, who were allowed to discover and question. They became vessels that had to be filled, with the correct knowledge at the right time. All across the land in year three, week two, every teacher was delivering place value, even to those pupils that couldn’t work at that level. And so was born the age of the educational strait jacket. No longer did teachers, need to be creative with their planning, or give their personality to their learning.
The QCA units, whilst different to the strategies, had a similar impact.
These units where never statutory, but instead, were designed to be suggested units, almost like an ‘a la Carte menu’ that met the requirements of the national curriculum. How ever schools turned to the QCA units and imposed them, regardless of their appropriateness to the context of any given school.
As Professor Mick Waters, the head of QCA for many years, points out "My view was that it doesn't matter how good the curriculum is when it leaves London. If it doesn't work in schools, it's no good. The curriculum is packaged up when it leaves London in order to make sense of it. But it doesn't have to be taught in packages. It's like a salad" – Mick Waters is very fond of food and cookery analogies – "and you don't eat tomatoes and then cucumber and then onions, one after the other. It needs blending. A school shouldn't start with curriculum content. It should start with designing a learning experience and then check it has met national curriculum requirement”
But no school in the country actually did this, or if they did, they were the exception. Most schools took all of the QCA units and organised these into a long-term plan of some shape. In primary schools these tended to be either a 1 year, or 2 year rolling programme, which inevitably ended with making slippers at some point in year 6. Whilst, like the Numeracy and literacy strategies, this provided structure and good coverage of content it too had its flaws. As a young teacher working in deepest darkest Yorkshire, I found myself teaching the pupils about the Indus Valley, which bore no relevance for children in Barnsley.
This strait jacket of a curriculum was consistent and orderly, but it was also restrictive, prescriptive and in many cases removed from the context of the schools and the children. So from artists smock to a restrictive strait jacket, the question that should be considered is how do we find the happy medium?
As professor Mick waters suggests schools should not start with the curriculum. Instead they should start with the children. So in this sense the new curriculum should be more like a well-tailored suit, the sort one might get on Savile Row. Why? Because this new curriculum will offer the opportunity for teachers to design the curriculum around the pupils, and the schools context, in the same manner a skilled tailor what make a made to measure suit fit. So how do we do this?
The first and most important question should be. What do OURchildren need to have learnt by the time they have left us? In other words, what skills, and knowledge do our children need in their backpack to be successful learners? This is very much down to the individual context, and nature of the school.
Regardless of what is packaged up in the curriculum in Cardiff, if it doesn’t meet the needs of the learners where it is taught. The pupils in a rural school in Pembrokeshire will have very different needs to those in the multi cultural classrooms of inner city Cardiff or Newport.
Secondly what does the nature of OURschool context actually offer as learning experiences? Each and every school is unique and where it is placed offers something entirely different and unique. Inner-city schools, have excellent access to public transport, museums, shops and other community amenities. More rural schools often have better access to outdoor learning, or outward-bound activities. It is essential to adapt your schools curriculum to make the most of what learning is on offer.
Thirdly what topics are relevant to our children? If we take Merthyr Tydfil as an example it’s history is a roller coaster of wealth, greed, politics, social inequality and uprisings. Geographically its has just as much to offer, being on the tip of the Breacon Beacons national park, there are mountains and reservoirs to the north, and the beautiful Vale of Merthyr to the south. There is evidence glaciation, rivers, waterfalls, and enough precipitation to teach the water cycle every year! There is also a huge amount of outward-bound activities, mountain biking, climbing and the story arms outward-bound center. Why would you need to teach about the Indus valley? The challenge here for teachers is that they will, in many cases, need to research and learn all about the locality this alongside the children. When this is then blended with Wales and the wider community you have a recipe for a truly engaging and rich curriculum. This will however require a degree of imagination, and some conscious connections between areas of learning.
Co-construction is essential. This is a misused and on trend at the moment in education. But Like a skilled tailor constructing a suit, the most important part of the final product, is finding out what the client actually wants. This is done through various fittings and consultations where the tailor questions the client about the feel of the fit and the fabric. Like wise teachers need to understand in the new curriculum they will have to ask their clients (the pupils) what do they want to learn, and how do they want to learn it. So the teacher very much becomes the facilitator of the learning, rather than the sage who constructs the topics and planning.
Finally, its essential to consider how we map and track the pupils’ experiences? Approximately one in three pupils’ in the Central South Region live in poverty. This has a dramatic impact on their learning. These pupils and indeed many of their peers from the same community do not have access to essential life style experiences. Therefor it is the role of the schools and the new curriculum to be as experiential as possible. Where possible topics should be front loaded with experiences rather than simply going on ’trips’ every year. This emersion could be a trip , but likewise it could involve in collapsing the time table and having a topic day; using more role play in learning experiences in every day lessons; inviting people into the class or school; constructing learning opportunities with a purpose that links to real life such as presenting findings to parents or other school pupils.
When the new draft curriculum is published in April one thing is for shore , it is not going to be an off the shelf one size fits all. There won’t be the structure of the national frameworks, but there will be the freedom for schools to tailor make their long term plans to fit their pupils, and not the other way around.
If you would like help and support with how to tailor your curriculum the right learning company can help you for as little as £145 for a twilight session to start you on the right road.
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