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  • Writer's pictureRuth Ashbee

Civics and Self: Powerful Knowledge Curriculum in PSHE and Citizenship

There is a frustration at the heart of most PSHE and citizenship curricula. These subjects so often seem to lack... something. What is it? Most agree that these subjects are important. They can’t be said to be boring - it’s not quite sex, drugs and rock n roll but it’s kind of two out of the three. But however much we want to respect these subjects, they do often feel flimsy and shallow compared to English, mathematics, art or history. They don’t feel noble or worthy of reverence, and that troubles me.

I believe that the key to identifying the sources of this frustration, and developing an ambitious, knowledge-rich approach to these subjects lies in five concepts from curriculum theory: Semantic density, semantic gravity, recontextualisation, disciplinary tradition and knower relations. In my forthcoming book Curriculum I have explored these strands; I have not, however, addressed PSHE or citizenship in that volume, aware as I am that my ideas here are suggestions rather than analyses, and therefore more suited to a blog where they may, I hope, contribute to a developing conversation around these subjects.

In this post then, I shall lay out what I believe to be the issues at the heart of PSHE and Citizenship, that cause them to have this typically unsatisfying sense, insubstantial texture, and surface-level experience. The insights that we can gain here from curriculum theory can point us towards, I believe, a model that could bring us closer to ambitious knowledge-rich curriculum in these fields, retaining all of their intrinsic value and making them significantly more rewarding, placing them in a much wider, more meaningful and more powerful context, and opening up more worlds and more ways of seeing for our students.

Issue 1: Recontextualisation

In order to understand school subjects, we must recognise both which disciplines, in academia or other spheres (the field of production), are linked to each school subject (the field of reproduction), and we must understand what differences there are: school subjects are typically not just smaller versions of their disciplinary equivalents in the universities. Crucially, while some school subjects such as history, mathematics, and art are clear pairings with single disciplines from the field of production, others, such as design and technology and religious studies, are compound subjects, recontextualisations of several disciplines, such as theology, history and social sciences in the case of religious studies.

Once we recognise that both PSHE and citizenship are compound recontextualisations of several disciplines, as well as other areas of knowledge we would probably not class as disciplines although we would maintain they are crucially important, we can begin an authentic intellectual interaction with the subjects. Below are my suggestions:

It should be clear from this that there is an abundance of intellectual thought from which these subjects derive - so why are we not more explicit about this intellectual content in our curriculum planning?

Issue 2: Semantic Density

From LCT we have the concept of semantic density: the extent to which parts of a body of knowledge are linked to each other. The knowledge in PSHE and citizenship does not have a weak semantic density: there are many links, but these are often not made explicit in curriculum. For example, the links between finance and economics, friendship and values, health and habits are all rich in meaning and will strengthen students' abilities to make good choices - but how clear are our students on these links?

We can easily map the knowledge in PSHE and citizenship and draw the links between areas, and teach these links as part of the curriculum. This is advantageous because 1) it makes the implicit explicit and 2) it gives a shape, an organisation, to students’ schemata, facilitating memory and navigation of the remembered knowledge.

I believe that we can go one step further, by combining the citizenship and PSHE curricula into one compound subject. I have several arguments for this. Firstly, each is already a compound subject, so combining them does not bring the same issues that combining pure subjects does. It’s not like we’re mixing maths with drama. Secondly, there are very important links between them. Together, PSHE and citizenship echo an age-old pairing: the individual and the group; the self and society, the personal and the public. Our choices as individuals affect society; as individuals we exist in the context of our society. In fact, if we look at the components from the field of production, there are evident crossovers, with philosophy being common to both.

Finally, or perhaps as a corollary of the last point, the links between individual and civic society furnish some missing structure that can strengthen the semantic density of each, providing meaning and routes through the knowledge, so that the knower gains the cognitive strength from seeing parts in relations to wholes, and vice versa. The student of personal finance who understands interest rates in the context of macro-economics has more powerful knowledge than if she studied them in isolation.

Below I have laid out the key areas that I think could represent a powerful knowledge curriculum encompassing the two subjects of PSHE and citizenship, and some of the key links between them. These key areas reflect the insights we have gained from the analysis of recontextualisation in these subjects, and the links show the significant semantic density present in the ontology of the proposed areas.

*I have included religion as a category here, as I think the links are important and I’m aware that it is not taught discretely at KS4 in many schools.

My suggestion is that students would derive a great deal more meaning from a curriculum that was built with these links in mind, and that made them explicit to students. Thinking about careers in the context of supply and demand, macroeconomics, and political mechanisms of state – that is what educated adults do – why not open it up to our students? Relating values, teachings from philosophy and friendship and community – these questions have occupied great minds for thousands of years – let us bring our students into those great conversations. This knowledge is sophisticated and highly developed – if we would only make these things explicit in our curriculum.

Issue 3: Semantic Gravity

In Legitimation Code Theory, semantic gravity is the name given to the level of context-dependency of the knowledge in a domain. Knowledge with low semantic gravity is not tied to context: it is applicable to many contexts and brings a certain unifying power, allowing knowers to identify meaning beneath surface features, to bring order and understanding to new and unseen areas.

It is not the case that the lower semantic gravity the better, since in some disciplines it is absolutely the detail of instances that brings a large part of the meaning, as in history, geography and design and technology. These subjects would be less if they were reduced to fundamental principles. However, it is the case that very high semantic gravity is typically limiting and intellectually disappointing. If a domain can only speak about details of context, it can never have that powerful property of being able to grow knowledge. This property is furnished by concepts. A historian can weave an interpretation of a new set of data because she can draw upon concepts such as power, religion, economics and so on. She can make new meaning by bringing ideas down out of the low gravity to make sense of concrete details. For a domain which deals only in concrete details, with no low-semantic-gravity concepts at all, such as a telephone directory or Argos catalogue, no power is given to us when we imbibe this domain. We aren’t brought to a level where we can go and do something else with a new set of inputs in the domain. PSHE and citizenship can often feel like this, because we do not include concepts in the curriculum: they are typically heavy in concrete details and light in abstract concepts, themes and ideas. But look at those fields of production! There is nothing catalogue-like in philosophy, economics or psychology. There is a wealth of powerful concepts we could use in these curricula, that are both valuable in their own right and would lift students’ understanding of the concrete details so important to what they gain from their studies. Things like capital, interest, responsibility, altruism, liberty, prudence, tradition, authority, rebellion… we could go on and on. These concepts have occupied great thinkers since the ancients, and they are palpably linked to finance, state systems, family, relationships, careers, to name just a few of the areas key to PSHE and citizenship.

Issue 4: Disciplinary Traditions

One of the glorious things about studying a subject is the experience of reaching back through hundreds or even thousands of years, joining a conversation that great thinkers have been having through the ages. This is in itself exhilarating and humbling, but it also means that you’ve got a large area of excellence to draw on. You aren’t limited to what Matty at the exam board decided to include in the revision guide – you’ve got the greats, as far back as your discipline goes. In art we can learn from Piero della Francesa and Picasso. In science we have Newton and Le Chatelier. And so on. How many times have we consulted the greats in PSHE and Citizenship? Aristotle on friendship? Rousseau on the Social Contract? Hayek? Burke? Mill? These works are not beyond the wit of a secondary school student. They study equivalent material in their other subjects. Why are we not including them in PSHE and Citizenship?

Observant readers will have spotted that not all of the curriculum in PSHE and citizenship has links with the greats in philosophy, economic and political thinking. Areas such as mental health, resilience, relationships and careers are in many ways more modern areas of interest, and do not have a long pedigree of thinkers. But it is not the case that there is not a great deal of excellent thinking already in the field. Texts such as The Chimp Paradox, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, and Atomic Habits are a treasure trove of wisdom that can provide much-needed substance and sophistication to these areas, and should, I believe, be considered part of the disciplinary tradition in this field.

My final suggestion for the identification of wisdom for these curricula is poetry. I have often reflected on how English seems to be the only school subject that really explores the self, the human condition. Poets have written about so many of the things we wish to explore through PSHE and citizenship: relationships, loss, determination, family, and so on. Some things are very difficult to express – when a poet does it for us, we are at once liberated and enlightened. We see our own experiences more clearly, and we are unburdened of carrying a feeling that we could not name. Let us bring these into our classroom for expression and discussion.

Issue 5: Knower Relations

My final point of analysis for these curricula is the contention that we have typically not been explicit enough in the past about the relations of individuals to the claims we make in PSHE and citizenship. On the one hand, we want students to develop their own identity. On the other, we want to encourage certain outlooks such as diversity, kindness, and responsibility. We are clear that values are personal, yet group values are also critical, and a successful school culture is founded upon the explicit teaching of shared values. How can we navigate these apparent contradictions?

In addition, there are of course tensions between even values that are typically championed. Liberty and equality. Safety and freedom. These are debates that are ongoing and as such we cannot hope to present a solved version in our curriculum – so how should we proceed?

I propose that we should be explicit about these tensions and structure our curriculum accordingly. A strong curriculum, I suggest, could have explicit school values that are explained, taught, modelled and explored. We can be explicit about “this is what we do here”. We can also teach fairly neutrally about a perhaps wider list of values, including those that are typically in tension with one another, such as liberty, equality, individualism and communitarianism. And we can give time and discussion for students to begin to articulate the values they prize most highly, and why, and how they can live their life in realisation of these values.

Next steps

This seems to me to be a promising starting point for an ambitious, knowledge-rich approach to curricula in these subjects. The next steps will be assigning each National Curriculum point to the areas, mapping out a sequence, and then of course… booklets! Get in touch if you’d like to join this project.

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