If the answer is curriculum, what was the question?

It is a mistake to think you can solve any major problems just with potatoes.

Douglas Adams

In The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the supercomputer Deep Thought is built to find the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe and Everything. Over 7 million years later it generates the answer: 42.

However, it is pointed out that the answer is meaningless because it is not known what the question is to which 42 is the answer.

An even more powerful computer is built to find the Ultimate Question. This computer incorporates living beings and will run for 10 million years. It is named Earth. Unfortunately, 2 million years short of its goal The Earth is destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass. We are left as ignorant as before.

Douglas Adams’ playful and iconic fiction often comes to mind when I hear the latest solution proposed for schools which promises to finally deliver the answer to Learning, The School and Everything. If this is the answer, I think to myself, what is the question?

I have resisted writing much about the curriculum since its rise in status to become ‘the next big thing’ other than a chapter in my book where I make the case for why the curriculum is a really important thing to think about. I still believe it is. However, I have stepped back from further comment as there are many out there more knowledgeable and articulate on the subject than me. I am also mindful that I do not want to add to the noise around the curriculum – another screaming voice as the Beatles step out on stage. There is a good chance in the cacophony that we won’t be able to hear the music.

But I’ve been tempted in because I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about some of the persistent problems of schooling and the solutions which come and go, never really fulfilling their promise. These solutions seem to frequently be offered up as the answer to some problem, but it is not always clear exactly what problem they are intended to solve. Or perhaps worse, the problem may be definable, but everyone you ask has a different definition of it, or holds in mind completely different problems. Furthermore, even if you do pin down a definition of the problem to which this is the solution, it isn’t always entirely clear exactly how this solution will resolve the problem. It is all very confusing.

So this blog isn’t meant as a ‘take-down’ of those interested in curriculum, it is just that the current vogue’ish nature of the curriculum serves to illustrate quite nicely an interesting feature of the school system, which is that we often develop a significant degree of conviction in an answer without having much clarity about the question.

What is the problem for which the curriculum is the solution?

Curriculum as antidote

I have often heard teachers who have been around the block a few times (I know that includes me nowadays) comment on how everything comes back around, and, like the stopped clock, if you stand still long enough your beliefs and practices will become mainstream once again. I find the stopped-clock metaphor (or the pendulum’s swing if you prefer) rather simplistic and that it does not accurately describe what happens. What I do notice is that the ‘new idea’ or ‘latest thing’ quite often, rather too conveniently, provides an antidote to the features of the last solution which we have become particularly sick of.

In the case of the curriculum, a renewed interest in it comes off the back of a disenchantment with an overload of data, discredited attempts to measure progress, and the realisation that it feels like a waste of time teaching something if it is almost immediately forgotten. For those keen to cure these ills, the curriculum narrative is appealing. The ‘curriculum as the progression model’ has made a meteoric rise as a phrase not least because it justifies the dismantling of the old regime.

Curriculum as saviour

To those who see education as a solution to the problem of inequality, the curriculum solution is defined as the answer. This conceptualisation of the problem leads us to emphasise the empowering nature of knowledge: its ability to lift the child from their disadvantage. There are vested interests in schools buying into this definition of the problem, not least policymakers and politicians who are keen to cast schools as a powerful meritocratic force. Just as the closing of attainment gaps loses momentum, here is a shiny new solution which once again promises more than it can deliver.

Curriculum as bandwagon

There is so much great curriculum thinking which for decades has bubbled away, informing honest and productive professional inquiry. It makes me sad to think that this work may be overshadowed by the sudden and extensive interest in the curriculum by the likes of Ofsted and the DfE. But education needs a bandwagon: solutions around which we can coalesce. This is because there are intractable problems in schools which we will continuously fail to solve. As the promise of the last solution fades, we look towards the shiny, new vehicle for our hopes.

We could keep going with defining the problems that the curriculum may by the solution to, but the point I hope is made. There is no one problem, therefore the curriculum is not one solution: we expect it to deliver on every front, satisfy each of our needs. It is doomed to fail to meet our collective expectations.

Might we ask less of the curriculum? Perhaps if we were to choose one problem which the curriculum could address we might stand a better chance of success? But which one? And who gets to pick?

As is so often the case in school policy agendas, the spotlight on the curriculum is not something that has been asked for by teachers. That is not to say that teachers do not concern themselves with the curriculum. The question of what should be taught, when, and in what depth, is of interest to most teachers to some degree. They may approach these questions in many ways, for example by considering what pupils may find interesting, what they will need to study for the exam, what resources are available, what their own areas of expertise and interest are, or what topics are ‘important’ in their discipline and should be taught as foundational knowledge? However, the prevailing narrative around the curriculum is largely driven by what school leaders and policymakers ask of the curriculum and not by the classroom practitioner. It is the policy maker who asks for the curriculum to provide a solution to social inequality, not the teacher. The teacher’s concern will rightly be with doing the best by each child in their class, but not with an eye to wider social change. It is the school leader whose concern is for how they will know if all children are making progress, not the teacher. The teacher will do their best to ensure each pupil understands as much as possible in the time available, but not so that this can be monitored and codified.

This is not to say that the teacher’s concerns should be paramount. They are, after all, paid by the tax payer and accountable to society: it is not unreasonable to ask them to serve an agenda other than one of their own choosing. However, if our curricular innovations fail to align in any meaningful way with the concerns of teachers we will likely do more harm than good, for reasons I shall come to.

A dilemma which is often overlooked is that those who demand change of the system hold values which come from a different source to those asked to deliver that change. This is one of the problems with the notion of ‘values-based leadership’. Whose values? Who gets to define the problem? Who chooses the priorities? School leaders are rarely aligned in this respect with classroom teachers. The reason this is troublesome is that the ‘obvious’ solution falls out from the way the problem is conceived, therefore it only appears obvious to those privileged to define the problem. To others it may appear irrelevant at best, imbecilic at worst.

To illustrate this point, here is a possible definition of a problem for which a curriculum solution is proposed:

At the end of the period of compulsory education some children are far further ahead than others in their learning. This fact means that some are denied access to opportunities which are available to others. Unfortunately, it is those who are most economically disadvantaged who are most likely to fall behind and this is a pressing concern for society. Upon further scrutiny, these children are often not exposed to the same curriculum content as their peers, and where they are they are less likely to become secure in their knowledge before moving on. It is the school’s duty to address this problem by ensuring equality of access to a rigorous and ambitious curriculum and that instruction is of sufficient quality to enable every child to become knowledgeable.

The interests and perspective of the problem definition are clearly those of the policymaker, not the teacher. Whilst the teacher may have sympathy with social policy objectives, support there being a rigorous universal curriculum, and accept that they have a responsibility to teach well, the framing of the problem and curriculum solution is set out for them, and may in some way be counter to their values and daily concerns. The teacher is not so much concerned with national attainment gaps as they are with the individual child who arrives at school unwashed. The teacher would like to ensure that each child has cultural capital, but securing the grades to get them into college may be more pressing. The teacher likes the idea in theory that all children should learn a foreign language, but not if it means they achieve worse grades which results in them being held back a year, and feel a constant sense of failure. My point is not to say that the teacher or the policymaker has the ethical high ground or is more ‘right’ than the other, but to illustrate that they may perceive of the problems of schooling in very different ways, often as ideology is grounded by reality.

Why should this concern us?

  1. Teachers as the subject of change

If teachers are forever the subject of change and not the originators of it, they will tire quickly. The first step in overcoming this is to involve teachers in defining the problems and deciding which most urgently need addressing. Externally imposed or top-down solutions will fail to gain traction if there is no shared conception of what problem is to be solved. When the curriculum moved from being a discourse between subject teachers and became a matter for policymakers and leaders, did we remove the expert from the debate?

2. Consultation as courtesy

Teachers are often consulted due to the tact, style, ethics or morality of the leader. Consultation is something that leaders feel they should do and not as essential. We praise leaders for showing such courtesy when in fact we should be condemning them for not understanding that taking the time to understand how the teacher perceives the school is critical to any change effort. A sure sign of this deficiency in leadership is shallow consultation over pre-determined solutions on an assumption that the selection and definition of the problem is a given. If we find ourselves asking how we think teachers might use knowledge organisers rather than discussing with them why students aren’t always clear about what it is they are meant to learn, we have arrogantly assumed we know more than they.

3. The assumption of teacher deficiency

If the proposed solution is so worthy, why aren’t teachers already doing it? Many change efforts assume teacher naivety, selfishness or incompetence… else why are they not already aligned to this thinking? We should be cautious in signalling that teachers are not already acting in the best interests of their students. This is not the basis upon which we will win their co-operation for change. The vogue for curriculum sequencing risks falling into this trap. We boldly announce on INSET day that children may need to be taught one thing before they can understand another. Well duh! If teachers don’t pay as much attention to carefully sequenced curricular as we think they should, perhaps there is a more pressing problem that we are failing to see?

4. Ignoring the existing regularities

It is likely that the way things are at the moment serves a purpose. Before over-writing the existing regularities of practice might we question what the reason is that teachers are currently doing something different to our proposal? What is the value in the prevailing status quo that we have failed to understand? Without recognising teachers’ theory of action, no problem definition will gain traction and no carefully crafted solution will succeed. Teachers are not necessarily right in how they currently behave or what they choose to believe and prioritise, but we must account for their values, reasoning and intent in our understanding of the problem. How is the curriculum perceived, constructed and delivered by the teacher and what value is there in this regularity?

5. Denial of the impossibility of teachers’ jobs

What we may think of as imperfection is more likely evidence of a messy compromise which the teacher has reached in the face of an impossible task. To claim what is on offer is more than another imperfect solution is to display our ignorance of the complexity of the educational process. If our solution looks neat then it is probably conceived of in denial of reality.

Inevitably, what seems like a magical solution will fail to deliver in many respects and the next thing will promise to undo the damage that has been done. This needn’t stop us from proceeding but it should mean we do so with caution and humility. Curriculum feels so compelling and right to us now – so filled with promise – but in retrospect we will perceive ourselves to be naive and ignorant. As Douglas Adam’s said, it is a mistake to think we can solve major problems just with potatoes.

But if we insist on telling teachers that the curriculum is the solution, don’t be surprised when they ask “to who’s problem?

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