The scandal currently hitting the meat-supply industry and the proposed draft National Curriculum released last week appear very far apart and unrelated events. However, unregulated and unscrupulous individuals narrowly defining their ‘product’ as they become more and more obsessed with measuring and increasing their short-term profit margins and chase ‘targets’ is a pattern we have seen across industry, business and public services. Short-term and narrowly defined targets can lead to a reduction in the quality of the ‘product’ as more costly ingredients are replaced by cheaper and easily sourced substitutes. So are we being peddled a horse-burger-of-a curriculum in which a narrow conception of knowledge may be more easily packaged and measured, but will ultimately lead to an educational feast of poor nutritional value?
Following the tweets and various blogs of teachers, academics and subject associations, a common thread is concern over the narrow and reductionist view of knowledge that appears to run throughout the proposed draft curriculum. Gove seems to have taken E D Hirsch literally in creating a knowledge-rich curriculum but could his interpretation of Hirsch lead to an understanding-light generation of school-leavers lacking in the capability to use and apply their knowledge? Indeed it is the using and applying element of many of the subjects that appears to have been reduced to make room for more factual content. Chris Husbands, for example, on the London Institute of Education’s blog highlights how the history programme of study at KS2 ‘emphasises story at the expense of historical inquiry’
. Husbands claims Hirsch’s model is ‘incurious’ about the relationship between knowledge and understanding.
Hirsch’s arguments appear particularly attractive to those needing to justify a deficit model of education. But not even Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum is completely divorced from understanding, being designed to act as a tool to ‘construct further knowledge, develop cultural literacy and deepen critical thinking.’ There seems to be a myth afoot that the cause of under achievement by some in our education system is an approach to curriculum that is anti-knowledge and content light. As an ex primary school teacher of sixteen years and an academic working closely with teachers for the last ten, I do not recognise this. Indeed I still remember as a mathematics co-ordinator, entering data into a spreadsheet every year of how each child had performed in each area of mathematics in their summative assessments so that we could critically evaluate our mathematics teaching throughout the whole school. There was nothing anti-knowledge or content-light about this exercise. Every content area of mathematics was subjected to rigorous analysis in order to identify areas for pedagogical development.
Indeed, if Hirsch’s core knowledge curriculum is designed to promote cultural literacy and critical thinking then a narrow view of knowledge alone is not enough. Early in my career I spent some time working as a VSO volunteer in Nepal on a primary education project. I would often be taken aside by proud teachers wanting to impress me with their children’s mathematical abilities as I toured various village schools. I watched children as young as seven ‘perform’ complex mathematical processes such as long division and multiplication, which they had learnt through endless repetition and mimicking. However, when the children were given a problem to solve that was grounded in the kinds of mathematical knowledge they might need to apply in the local market they often struggled. Mathematical processes were often taught as abstract and isolated routines and not as part of a wider repertoire of mental and written calculation methods to be applied according to their aptness and efficacy in different cultural contexts.
Knowledge and understanding are a symbiotic whole in education and I was pleased to see a renewed emphasis on computer programming in the draft curriculum. However it is concerning that all reference to digital literacy has been removed from the consultation document developed by the Royal Society for Engineering and the British Computer Society. For a detailed analysis of this see Peter Twining’s blog entry ‘Digital literacy does not compute’
. Gove obviously decided he knew better, gravitating towards a conception of the subject based around a body of core knowledge in computer science, abstracted from the understanding needed to use and apply it effectively. I was recently reminded of the limitations of such a narrow view of computing by a friend who has her own successful games and software company. When I asked her if she was looking forward to a new generation of computer programmers coming through the education system she lamented that finding programmers was not the problem. Finding programmers who had the vision and creativity to design and build digital games and artefacts that people wanted or needed to use was the issue. To address this she tended to look for employees with a background in art and design first and programming second.
Knowledge is indeed core to education but without the understanding that is developed through using and applying knowledge, it becomes ossified in our memory rather than rendered as a tool for further thinking, understanding and creativity. In neglecting understanding we move further down the road towards valuing what is easy to assess rather than assessing what is of real value in education?