Knowledge-rich curricula and teacher ethics

Seneca on good and bad teachers (Letter LXXXVIII):

“If you really want to know how far these personas are from the position of being moral teachers, observe the absence of connection between all the things they study… are you more concerned to find out where Ulysses’ wanderings took him than to find a way of putting an end to our own perpetual wanderings?”

The whole letter, in fact, is a powerful indictment against the teaching of academic knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Now, his view of education is pretty outdated in many, many, many respects, but it is helpful in encouraging us to step back and think: what are we teaching and what are we teaching it for? If we accept that we didn’t go into the job to get students a 5 in our chosen subject (and we might not), we probably need to work out what exactly we do want. If we are going to use that to plan a curriculum, we need to do that it quite a lot of specific detail. It feels almost overwhelming.

It is pretty clear what Seneca thinks we shouldn’t be teaching, but what should we be teaching? Funnily enough, according him, to “keep [ourselves] on course for those ideals even after shipwreck.” He talks of the music teacher imparting not simply chords but “harmony of mind” and the maths teacher not simply the size and value of land but “how to work out how much a man needs in order to have enough.” Sounds good. Mindfulness might need to makes its way up the list of priorities.

It is worth pointing out that Seneca doesn’t completely reject the power of knowledge: he notes it prepares the way for minds to acquire moral values and other goods. This point, I think, should help us to reflect upon the failure of so many ‘knowledge-rich’ curricula now in force across the country. When combined with a two year KS3, students are taught knowledge with little to no access to the critical connections that occur later on. If you accept that knowledge is a means to an end (what else is it?) and you aren’t going to follow through to that given end, then you have to question the whole underpinnings of your curriculum. This is why the new Ofsted framework’s focus on the link between intent and implementation in regard to curriculum reform is very welcome, if long overdue.

The initial analysis behind getting more knowledge in the curriculum was bang on: students that can’t remember the plot of a play can’t analyse its structure. However, this basic insight has become distorted in a policy space that valorises order over discourse- good behaviour is silence- and places compliance as a top order priority. Knowledge-rich curricula in an era where no excuses behaviour management cultures have recast ‘questions’ as ‘defiance’; as unhelpful interruptions’ to teacher-directed learning, do not empower students to develop critical thinking in diverse academic fields. So too has the power of knowledge become sadly limited in schools with the death of cross curricular efforts- we no longer here about exciting English and History collaborations on teaching the First World War in Ofsted best practice reports. Knowledge is at is (cognitively) most powerful when it is used to forge meaningful links between aspects of knowledge but the rise of a very limited application of cognitive science in schools- the almost universal and uncritical acceptance of behaviorist theories of cognition- has led to an obsession with domain-specific knowledge.

To this I have one simple response: the brain is probably the least understood organ in the human body; to accept and ruthlessly apply the precepts of one school of cognitive theory and neuroscience in schools, popularised in some commercially successful popscience books, is utter madness.

Here’s the problem that this approach poses for schools and policy makers: if we abandon the fallacy that knowledge can be the sole intent behind a curriculum we have to face the harsher truth that whilst a curriculum can be judged against its own standards (intent vs implementation), ultimately, it is a complex question of ethics- and teacher ethics- which schools are rarely on a place to think deeply about. Vague statements of visions and values, or lazy decisions with little deep consideration of the political implications of, say, placing ‘independence’ over ’empathy’ at the heart of a school have left some schools without the confidence to question the most recent educational zeitgeists. They are now being asked to make coherence out of the links between their whole school visions (mainly created at Senior Leadership level) and bottom up, department-led planning processes that largely sprung out of the need to prepare children for the reformed GCSEs.

Whilst I admired Ofsted’s call to action here, it needs to ask what tools schools have to make this happen because, without them, we are looking at a nice document made by a member of SLT for the inspection but little by way of thought process across the system as a whole.

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