• Ruth Ashbee

Curriculum is for ever – but not how you think

Thinking about curriculum as a priority is relatively new for most of us, having lived through the poundland pedagogy years, and so it’s easy to view it as an important job to be started and finished. But this is wrong. Curriculum isn’t a task or a project. It’s not like a house you build and then move into, no further work needed. Sure you can have, and many schools and departments need, a project of “curriculum reform”. But once it’s done, it’s not done. Once you have thought hard about your curriculum, sequenced it, and codified it through booklets or whatever- you are not finished. You have plugged the gap and made significant progress- but really, you are just beginning.

The strongest departments are those with not only a well-thought out and codified plan for curriculum, but a continuous culture of discussion, debate, disagreement and exploration in the field of their subject. The best teaching is borne out of departments where the conversation is ongoing. In discourse we nurture distinction.

Curiously, the codification of curriculum in booklets and so on is frustratingly difficult to transplant. The written work of a strong department cannot just be lifted and made to work as well in another department in another school – even in a department with strong teachers. Ladies and gentlemen, the curriculum will not be photocopied.

Why is this? What is it about curriculum that makes it so hard to transfer? A wonderful book can be written and left; it remains wonderful in all of its reprints and library issues. It can be picked up and read by another, and another, and lose none of its brilliance. Books are like statues, but curriculum is a garden. Curriculum is so much more than its codification, so much more than a book or booklet. It’s all the tacit and background understanding born of its architects’ knowledge, thinking, reading and discussion. This is all the stronger when it is shared by all teachers in a department, because discussion forces thought and articulation, and because children moving from one teacher to another are moving within shared understanding, not between fragmented islands.

A perfectly shared understanding, I am beginning to believe, is an illusory concept. Have you noticed how the more informed, educated, and intelligent people are, the longer they can argue with each other for? That tells us something important. We understand things in different ways, and trying to understand the ways of others, and arguing for our own, is bloody interesting. This isn’t Edinburgh-school irresponsibility – in fact it’s derived from empiricism. Clever people disagree about things – that’s the way of the world.

Even in empiricist subjects like science or black-and-white ones like maths, the priorities of the links or the orders of sequences make sense in different ways to different people. There is no grand arbiter of these disagreements – this is what discourse around curriculum is like when you have the best people joining the discourse. Interpretations matter, everywhere.

Total explicitness in a curriculum is never possible of course. The teachers who have read widely, discussed, and thrashed out arguments about the material in the curriculum, respond more fully and richly to questions, discussions and arguments in the classroom. You could try to codify the knowledge of widely-read and well-argued teachers, but you would just end up with a bookshelf instead of a booklet.

What if, impossibilities aside, you had a perfect department with a perfect shared understanding, and a perfectly explicit, sequenced and codified curriculum – would curriculum be static then? To be complete, this question needs to also ask, is knowledge static? The answer, of course, is no. New scholarship and research is added to the world all the time, and this should be reflected in a thinking department. This not to say that the science department should rush and write a new unit every time CERN throws up something new – indeed no department should ever rush and do anything once a minimum guarantee has been established. In subjects such as history and geography, where the recontextualised school subject is less far removed from the field of production, new scholarship can be often and immediately relevant to curricular thinking. But no department should ever feel itself beholden or subservient to the recontextualisers in their Whitehall offices (other recontextualisation spaces are available). It’s vitally important for teachers to think and feed back into that discourse, and keep its changeability fresh and alive. Knowledge changes and the discourse around knowledge must be changeable too.

What does all of this mean? It means that the department is the cultural unit of curriculum, and the conversations that are had within departments are the fires that power the furnaces of knowledge. It means that a department at the start of a journey in curriculum-centred-ness must set its eyes on the goal of, not a finished curriculum, but a complete-enough-curriculum that allows children to be taught well and teachers to be empowered to spend time talking about what they are teaching, why, and how. It means that for departments with strong curriculums in place, discussion, explication and questioning of that curriculum are indispensable, to keep it alive, healthy and strong. the discussion should be forever, not for the duration of a finite project. Perhaps it makes sense to think of curriculum as anti-fragile, something that grows in strength through being challenged. These challenges are fed and fertilised by reading and talking with people in the subject community outside of the department itself – not the protectionists with their PhDs in ivory decontstructuralism, not the gatekeepers, or the hegemonists, or the haters. The real subject community is all the clever people talking about these things in other schools, on Twitter and on blogs – that’s all, though it’s a significant all. This conversation is the lifeblood of curriculum, and it both generates and denotes the best thinking. The best departments, the best thinkers with the best curriculum work – they don’t stop talking about curriculum because they’ve finished some document or other. They’re the ones who never stop talking about it, because they never stop thinking.

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