The searing memories of the curriculum era

For the last 18 months, I have been co-authoring a book with Becky Allen and Ben White. It is called The Next Big Thing in School Improvement. The book is about the perpetual novelty that we experience in education. In the run up to publication, we will be publishing a series of blog posts which draw out some themes from the book.


In the far flung reaches of the school in which I work, in the corner of a small classroom that is rarely used, there is a big, red button on the wall. It is the sort of button that screams for you to push it. It protrudes provocatively from a bright yellow base, promising something… something significant! But it is unclear exactly what would happen if you push it. There is no label or warning sign, but it exudes power.

For those who see the big, red button (and it is hard to miss), the temptation can be overwhelming. Many students, and I dare say a few teachers, have given in and pressed it. If you saw it, you might too.

The thing about humans is that if there is a mechanism, our instinct is to trigger it. This is particularly true when we are intrigued as to what it might do.

I’ve spent some time recently thinking about why we are particularly prone to pushing metaphorical buttons in education. Why we find it hard to resist triggering mechanisms, either wondering what might happen, or having an effect in mind that we hope for.

My observation is that school leaders in particular are on the lookout for a button they haven’t pushed before. And is this any surprise? We expect those in positions of responsibility to do something – to have an effect. Whether it is a button, a lever, a trigger, or a tool, let’s see what it does! School leaders long to find simple and powerful mechanisms. Believing you have found one provides a temporary relief from the eternal search for ‘what works’.

The tendency to instrumentalise the latest Big Idea – to make it a Big Thing – is unfortunate. It speaks to our need to simplify. It turns our optimism against us.

What is it about the process of instrumentalising ideas that corrupts?

First, ideas are pure and often ruined by their encounter with reality. To be an effective mechanism they must be operationalised – turned into a rule, procedure, or instruction. Something is lost in translation when supposition becomes proposition.

Second, ideas are bent to serve our needs. We repurpose instruments to help us deliver the outcomes we seek, even if they were originally created with other jobs in mind.

Third, the idea suggests a problem, often one we didn’t know we had, like the adverts that persuade us to ‘shake and vac’ our carpets. What was the freshness we should now ‘put back’? As Abraham Maslow observed, if you are given a hammer, you will look for a nail.

For examples of this phenomenon, consider the lethal mutations which have arisen from the curriculum frenzy which has gripped the school system. My ‘favourite’ of these involves a corruption of Michael Young’s concept of ‘powerful knowledge’ which I heard about recently, whereby a teacher was advised that the knowledge in their lesson needed to be ‘more powerful’. How do we reach such a point?

As an idea, powerful knowledge is not actually that ‘pure’; indeed some would argue that it is flawed, particularly when applied beyond certain parts of the curriculum. In essence (and I am simplifying here), it is the idea that schools should teach knowledge which children will not necessarily encounter in their everyday lives. It is an attractive idea. Let’s take this idea at face value without deconstructing it further.

Now, if you are given the concept of powerful knowledge, and accept it uncritically, it is understandable that you will begin to look for places in the curriculum where there isn’t enough of it. Is our curriculum constructed with powerful knowledge, we may wonder? Where should there be more of it? Perhaps we should stop teaching things that aren’t ‘powerful’?

And so, it begins. You would never have noticed this ‘deficiency’ if the idea had not entered your mind. You have started to view classroom activity from the perspective of this concept, perhaps at the expense of viewing it in another way. We have been given the hammer of powerful knowledge; now we are looking for nails to bash. Where once we may have pointed out to teachers that their lessons were not sufficiently ‘engaging’, we now have a new language of critique. Even better – its very name suggests impact!

Notice that the idea has been given a purpose, perhaps for the school leaders to evaluate the curriculum or give advice to teachers. It has become a tool that can be used across the curriculum, a generic language of improvement. It was never intended as such.

In a short time, we have weaponized an intriguing idea, corrupting it with our purpose and naivety. It is not that events must play out in such ways, just that they frequently do.

We cannot blame the idea or its creator. No one, least of all Michael Young, intended for the concept to be instrumentalised in this way. The idea is flawed, but then aren’t all ideas, at least when viewed in the fullness of time or from a different angle?

We are living through a ‘curriculum era’, as we lived through the ‘data era’ before it. Teachers will have searing memories of this era: scars born from the lethal mutation of ideas. They will eventually look back at a time when the curriculum was all people banged on about. They will remember how it felt to be subject to the Big Ideas that gripped the imaginations of those in power.

School leaders will have searing memories too. They will feel shame at publicly endorsing methodologies that have fallen from favour. They will be embarrassed to learn that they misunderstood some of the ideas that formed the core of their school improvement strategies. They will realise that the expected effect of pushing the curriculum button did not materialise. They will turn away from the curriculum towards something new and shiny.

What takes hold next will not be random. It will be something that soothes the searing memories of the curriculum era.

None of this is to say that good things aren’t happening somewhere under the banner of ‘curriculum’. The curriculum era serves its evolutionary purpose which is to soothe the searing memories of the last Big Thing. In doing so, it is both enriching some aspects of education and inflicting harm in others.

Where curriculum ideas enrich it is because they have fallen into the hands of those with a little restraint, a little perspective, and a little caution. These are people who realise that there is no Big Idea which will forever solve our problems, however superficially appealing it may be. These are the people who realise that we shouldn’t go around pressing buttons when we don’t know the mechanism sitting behind it. These are the people we should put in charge of our schools.

So, take a chair and watch the epoch pass. We might learn something from taking the position of impartial observer. For the Next Big Thing will surely come. When it does, the cycle starts again. What role will you play in making tomorrow’s memories less searing?

Will you hold back from pushing the next button?


The Next Big Thing in School Improvement is available to pre-order here and here. Come and see us at the ResearchED National Conference in September, or get in touch on Twitter.

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