Three Wheels on my Wagon
‘Hello Children, everywhere’. So began Junior Choice, formerly Children’s Favourites, a radio programme that ran on the BBC between 1954 and 1982. Among the many tunes etched on my memory from these times is the song ‘Three Wheels on my Wagon’, a hit for the New Christy Minstrels.
The lyric tells of a group of western pioneers being pursued by native American Cherokees. As they flee, the wheelsfall off their wagon one by one, until it finally stops rolling along. The pioneers, we presume, reach an untimely end.
I don’t know why, but the tune popped into my head last week when I read about the controversial new National Curriculum proposals for primary schools.
During the week, three of the four expert advisors, appointed by Mr Gove, publicly disassociated themselves from the new proposals. Professors Andrew Pollard, Mary James and Dylan Wiliam all expressed serious reservations about the ‘crude’ and ‘fatally flawed’ approach taken by the fourth advisor, Tim Oates and his team of civil servants. Mr Oates, the only member of the panel never to have taught in a primary or secondary school, was left alone to defend the work. With three of the four wheels off the Gove curriculum bandwagon perhaps it is only a matter of time before this poorly conceived curriculum model reaches a sticky end.
So why have three of the four experts spoken out? Firstly, Dylan Wiliam was concerned about the selective use of international evidence, supposedly the cornerstone of the review. He is reported as saying the principle of learning from the best education systems in the world has been ‘lost’ during the creation of the proposed programmes of study for English, Maths and Science. Pollard and James say in their letter of resignation ‘…we are concerned with the directions which the Department (foe Education) now appears to be taking. Some of these directions fly in the face of evidence from the UK and internationally and, in our judgment cannot be justified educationally.”
Here at the Curriculum Foundation we agree. We know, for example, that the review team spent months mechanistically poring over the curricula of high performing jurisdictions to establish the age when things such as the addition of fractions are usually taught, as though this was the great challenge of curriculum reform.
At the same time it appears that they failed to take account of important initiatives such as ‘Teach Less, Learn More’ from Singapore (link http://www3.moe.edu.sg/bluesky/tllm.htm ).This is an initiative that “is about shifting the focus from quantity to quality in education. More quality in terms of classroom interaction, opportunities for expression, the learning of life-long skills and the building of character through innovative and effective teaching approaches and strategies. Less quantity in terms of rote-learning, repetitive tests, and following prescribed answers and set formulae.” This seems to have had little influence on thinking in the DfE.
For many educationalists, alarms bell started to ring when, at the outset of the review, the letter inviting us to participate stated that:
‘This Government believes that recent changes to the National Curriculum, such as the inclusion of skills development and the promotion of generic dispositions, have distorted the core function of the national curriculum and diluted the importance of subject knowledge.’
Such a statement sits uneasily with the research evidence. Good teachers know that high quality learning is not a battle between competing aspects of the curriculum but a skilful orchestration of many.
At the Curriculum Foundation we are invited to work with Ministries and organisations around the world. When we work in Korea, China, Morocco, Pakistan, the Middle East, Spain or Lithuania we are working alongside education systems and personnel seeking to go beyond the constraints of textbooks to allow imaginative teachers to design rich, authentic learning experiences that will inspire and motivate children, as well as equip them with knowledge, (yes knowledge!), skills and attitudes to allow them to flourish in the future.
Unesco’s International Bureau of Education captures things succinctly when it says:
“In the past, the curriculum was designed merely from the perspective of its cultural transmission functions, with its structure consequently reflecting discrete areas of knowledge. Given the complexity of today’s ever-changing world, contemporary approaches to curriculum development far exceed the traditional understanding of curricula as merely plans of study or lists of prescribed content.”
Lists of prescribed content, lists of spellings… now turn to page 37 and do exercise 2b.
Like nostalgic memories from a bygone era or a half-remembered song on the wireless, Mr Oates’s curriculum (which reads more like a national textbook than a curriculum) is radically out of step with international trends in curriculum design.
Hello Children, everywhere. You deserve better.