The trouble with schools is that they are not given the space, time, or (dare I say) the permission to deliver a curriculum that really is in the best interests of young people either collectively, or as individuals.
I want to begin a series of blogs on curriculum content, which will explore areas I believe are lacking in the curriculum offer across the UK and I suspect also, the US and much of Europe. As a precursor to this I wrote a blog in April 22 in which I voiced some of my frustrations with the current with the current curriculum. I also wrote another blog in June 22 in which I described the constant trickle of young people either not entering state (or formal private) education or else leaving it part way through, either to be home educated or becoming one of the growing number of ‘missing children’. There is obviously a deep dissatisfaction with the system that must be explored and debated openly, the reasons, the impact and possible solutions.
I ought to cover pedagogy (examine how we enable young people to learn effectively) and the assessment and accountability systems which underpin the curriculum, however I have discussed these in previous blogs and so won’t initially focus on these two areas. It’s worth mentioning though, that although we have improved upon our delivery over the years it is nonetheless still geared towards achieving success in a national assessment system concentrating on a relatively small field of knowledge with little emphasis on assessing skills, competencies, and approaches to learning.
Over the past 20 years, I’ve researched extensively, discussed with many, and tried to implement much of the pedagogy I think would make a difference (I discuss it HERE & HERE). I’ll admit it has been an obsession during my time in school leadership positions. At times, I have come close to achieving my vision, but often, I have tried to implement the changes required far too quickly. Over time I have come to learn that although there may be seemingly obvious, philosophically sound ideas waiting to be implemented, there is a reason someone else has not already attempted to develop these. The idea can be complex, cumbersome and costly and the practicalities of implementation and change daunting. The changes may also require a paradigm shift that necessitates a great deal of patience and skill that will gradually enable people to adapt to the change. As a result, the way we teach and assess progress in our curriculum has in my opinion, been grounded in excessive compromise and pragmatism. It has therefore has not been flexible in addressing the changing nature of society and consequently, does not meet the needs of young people preparing for life in the 21st Century. A similar situation exists when we consider the content of our curriculum.
I will return again to pedagogy and to our assessment systems in future blogs (they are inextricably tied in with curriculum content and so it would be remiss of me not to discuss these along the way in this series), however initially, I would like to focus on curriculum content.
A lack of change in our curriculum
Way back towards the end of the last century the mood in education was one of preparing for rapid change in society. The millennium was fast approaching and with it came the constant message – ‘We need to prepare young people for jobs that don’t yet exist, in a world that may be radically different to the one we are living in now (my own paraphrasing)’. Those of you who were working in education at the time will remember the messages well. 25 years on the same messages still appear (although not as often. Have a look at this video – Shift Happens – updated from 2008. The changes in this video from the original are amazing), but as mentioned, very little has changed in terms of our delivery, content and assessment of the curriculum.
Digital technologies add a new dimension, but from my own experiences and observations, while there are many advantages (E.g. I could barely put a written sentence together without making mistakes, before I was introduced to word-processing), these technologies in the main, are used to deliver the same content. We also have a better understanding of adolescence and brain development which good teachers make the most of to enhance learning and which ought to improve the way we deliver and personalise the curriculum, but it has little effect on content. And that’s about it – can anyone tell me what else has changed in education? It is clear, we still have a long way to go when it comes to pulling our curriculum (it’s content, delivery and assessment), towards meeting the needs of young people as they travel through the 21st Century.
I frequently ask myself why there has been such little change, and it’s easy to go down a rabbit hole of theories mostly relating to state control, but I think the answer is very simple. The changes as mentioned above, necessitate monumental seismic shifts in the nature of our schools, a total paradigm shift. The changes would affect the way we teach, the hours we teach, when we teach, even the use of the word ‘teach’. We need to reconsider how our schools are built, the nature of our relationships with the communities we serve and the support services we use. And at the centre of this is how we enable and equip young people to go on after leaving school to flourish in life (Those of you who have read my blogs regularly, will have grown used to this phrase: flourish in life. It has to be the central core purpose of schooling). But none of this is easy.
The rationale for changing the content
And what of the world we now live in? Why this urgency for change? To answer these questions and before going on to explore possible curriculum context in future blogs we ought to put our world into context. To do that, I feel the need to describe the world from my own simplistic perspective and although it may appear to make no sense, this will firstly involve going back around 10 thousand years.
A quick history of the world
Yuval Noah Harari describes this period in far more detail (It is well worth reading his book). He highlights the period when our ancestors roamed the countryside gathering fruits & berries and hunting animals to survive. He argues that the quality of life was possibly better than it is today in many respects. For example, the balance between leisure and work was better and the quality of our diet was good. When food was scarce in an area, you’d move on. Occasionally, you may have met another tribe, and potential conflict could break out while vying for the food in an area, but generally there was enough room for everyone. Small groups of people living together also meant that disease was not as rife as you might imagine.
However, around 10,000 years ago, humans began to cultivate plants and keep animals. Harari reflects on the moment the first seed was planted by a human. Would we go back to that point in time and prevent it from happening? Was it a case of: “Oh my God, what have we done?” From that moment on, people who planted crops or corralled animals, would have had to hire (or enslave) people to look after/tend the crops and animals. This meant bigger tribes, requiring laws, hierarchies and in time armies. There was more food, but also more people around, requiring more food. If the crop failed people died; they had lost the hunter gatherer practices and so could not move easily. The elites who owned the crops and animals (and as time went on, the villages, towns, cities, regions, countries) were relatively safe in times of hardship, they had the wealth to overcome lean times and the power to protect themselves (apart from disease, which was a comparatively new phenomenon due to increasing populations living in the same area in this agricultural age).
It’s easy to see what was happening. From this moment on, two things emerged from this era, caused by greater socialisation and higher levels of mortality: a desire for power, and a desire to own things (greed). These two attributes of humanity set the template, underpinning most of the change which followed, eventually forming much of what we see and feel around us in the world today. You could also include organised religion (as distinct from spirituality which we have probably always carried with us), but this arrived later and where it has led to bloodshed and vast wealth for some, I would argue the initial faith, belief and/or good intentions were swallowed up by the desire for power by those who followed on.
Enhanced status gave greater protection and provided sustenance through difficult times. This was consolidated during the industrial revolution when large companies began to form, bringing a new form of power. These companies produced more and in turn made more available to the public; consumerism (a new manifestation of greed where wants become needs) really began to take hold. Meanwhile, countries and their peoples were exploited and/or enslaved along the way to make the system work more effectively, increasing profits, wealth and power to the few.
Jump forward a couple of hundred years or so. Computers came along, bringing with it fantastic labour-saving opportunities at relatively little cost. Rather than keep the 100 people employed in the typing pool and giving them more leisure time on the same pay (Something that would have maintained the same level of profit, even increase it), the typing pool was shrunk to ten people working the same hours, but producing what a 100 people used to do, resulting in ten times the profit.
Consumerism really took hold in ‘50s USA when the post war boom made TV affordable, and marketing strategies became highly sophisticated. People craved/had to have the amazing gadgets they saw in the adverts. I remember as a teenager reading a “Wonder Warthog” comic book. In it is a scene where Wonder Warthog has been trying to stop World War 3. Unfortunately, he fails and goes to Moscow to watch the first atomic bombs falling (he’s invulnerable so it was going to be a bit of a firework show for him). The first aeroplanes and rockets fly over and instead of bombs he sees thousands of objects falling on the end of parachutes. The objects turn out to be shiny goods: all the consumables you can imagine. While this goes on, In the background you see crowds tearing each other apart trying to gain possession of the objects. This was written before the Wall came down, but it highlighted for me the power of consumerism.
The context today
And now we also have social media. The marketplace has become global with the pressure to consume irresistible, along with the need to be heard. Governments are afraid to act for fear of future litigation and are guided by those who control them. If I heard a statement like that a few years back it would have raised a ‘conspiracy theory’ flag for me, but only recently it finally dawned on me that these shady people and groups that control governments are hidden in plain sight. They are the lobbyists and funders. Hence the reason arms dealers, pharmaceutical giants, the big tech companies, and the huge conglomerates we hardly know about, – such as Black Rock with reported assets worth $10trillion, – are allowed to do practically whatever they wish. All resulting in a world controlled by a few companies, making unimaginable profits.
With social media the town square has also become global. Not only are governments in fear of being brought in front of the baying mob, anyone who publishes anything is in fear of being ‘cancelled’ and/or ridiculed if it doesn’t conform to the dominant discourse. What is this doing to our mental health and independence of mind especially to the young? The political world we knew (for all its faults), I’d argue has been killed off through social media, with the concepts of left and right wing becoming distorted beyond recognition. Populist leaders have emerged – which some may say is not a bad thing if there were such a thing as a benevolent dictator (there isn’t!) – looking to replace one corrupt government with another. For two examples of what these leaders can do, look at the reports on the effects of coal mining (Here’s one) in the Appalachian mountains or the increased rate of destruction of the Amazon Rain forest (Here’s another) in recent years.
We all wonder the extent to which we have been and continue to be manipulated by social media, for example, to what extent was the Brexit referendum and Trump coming to power a result of the work carried out by Cambridge Analytica?
As a result of all this, I’m sure you will all agree that we all now live in a very polarised world. We see it globally with the world gradually being carved up into a few enormous blocks with different values similar to the three continental states in George Orwell’s 1984. We see it within countries in our political, cultural, social or moral views and saddest of all we see it within our own families, e.g. there has always – certainly since teen culture fist emerged – a generational divide, but is it me simply getting older or has this deteriorated?
Technology is bringing in social control experiments which in my eyes are straight from Charlie Brooker’s TV series “Black Mirror”. For example, the Chinese Social Credit System running in China is a frightening example of social control, or government controlled digital currency which is now being considered by many countries and which could remove control of our own money.
Back in 1995 when I was teaching careers lessons, I would discuss with pupils the amount of career changes they were likely to have and how the jobs they would be applying for were not yet in place. How right this was. At that time, however, I couldn’t even begin to imagine the scale of change, and this was before I even began to read about artificial intelligence (AI). Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator world, isn’t that far off now, with many scientists are now predicting the Year of Singularity (when our minds can be uploaded into a computer or robot) to be as close as 2045.
If this isn’t enough, we have the environmental health of our only planet to contend with and there is even polarisation here. Regardless of whether you believe in climate change or disagree on the causes of climate change, the damage to our planet has been immense and continues to happen. The ‘Green Agenda’ which most western governments promote at the moment, has a focus on our carbon footprint. While we argue whether carbon dioxide is causing climate change, meanwhile all the other environmental horror stories continue unabated, e.g. the pollution of our rivers by industry and mismanaged sewage, the rapid decline of insects and the devastating effect of plastic in our oceans and ground water, are pushed to the side-line. Acid rain and ozone depletion although improved (which should be celebrated), still exists. Soil erosion and a drop in the water-table is making some previously farmed areas in the world uninhabitable. I’m curious to know what extent to which are scientists forced to pursue the popular, funded areas of study? And to what extent is this funding profit driven?
If the delicate balance of our global ecosystem is being disrupted as it certainly appears to be, how do we adjust to this? Not just the possible rise in temperatures which is all the media seem to discuss now in relation to the environment, but with all the other potential disasters waiting to happen as mentioned above. How do we manage the displacement of millions, possibly over a billion people across the world (it has already started). How do we manage to be humane and compassionate when for some, immigration is such a bone of contention, and our governments are fixated on selling/supplying arms to other countries rather than explore less destructive ways to make balance the books. For example, the war in the Yemen had killed 377,000 people by the end of 2021, much of this, thanks to UK and US arms industries. Finally how do we reduce the damage we are doing to our planet if we continue (primarily in developed countries) to consume far more than we need, e.g. have a look at these articles on consumerism here and here.
I’ve only scratched the surface of the changes we have faced and unwittingly highlighted the negative ones, but I make no apology for this, as they cover some of aspects of humanity that young people need to be aware of and prepared for; especially if our hope is that they go out and change our world for the better. It’s not all negative, there are positives, e.g. health, law, stability, creativity, leisure and there are positive environmental stories, but many aspects of these can be double edged swords and young people must understand the nature of these also; something we’ll explore in further articles in this series.
To sum up, the lust for power, money and ownership which has grown for the past 10,000 years, but accelerated in the past few hundred years, along with the monumental changes in technology over the last 20 years, have radically affected and changed almost every aspect of our lives. What, therefore, gives us the audacity to believe our curriculum is still relevant?
There is a conceit here that can’t be ignored and therefore imperative that we begin to explore ways to address this if we believe schooling serves a meaningful purpose for our children and for the world, they will inherit one day.
I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I would hope future blogs in this series will spark some discussion around the nature of our curriculum and try to answer questions such as:
- What do learners need to flourish in the 21st Century?
- What values and principles underpin this?
- To what extent are current subjects studied, still relevant?
- What is missing from the current curriculum offer and is there space for anything else?
- How do we find this space?
- Should the concept of ‘subject’ still drive curriculum design?
- What is the alternative?
- How can we overcome the barriers to curriculum reform?
- To what extent are our current national assessment mechanisms fit for purpose?
- (I know I have discussed this previously, but . . .) In what ways will our delivery methods (pedagogy) necessitate change to compliment curriculum change?
- To what extent is the current school day and year still relevant and useful?
- How do we introduce some of the issues I have touched on above, ensuring they are age appropriate, and which also avoid depressing our learners, resulting in them giving up before they start?!
As I said, none of this is easy, but it would be wrong to ignore these questions. I’d welcome comments and discussion and hopefully you’ll join me next time.
 Y N Harari (2015), “Sapiens” Published by Vintage