2: Matters of fact
In the first part of this essay I focused primarily on the misguided aims of our current system. I want to look now at the way curriculum design reflects those misguided aims and ignores the skills that students will increasingly need for their futures.
The curriculum is vastly overspecified and overcrowded. I don’t know of any teacher who doesn’t struggle with the daily pressure of trying to cram things in. This pressure isn’t conducive to imaginative and inspiring teaching and it’s also easing out so-called soft subjects like music and art, which in the circumstances is little short of catastrophic.
Why do children need to be forced a diet of “facts” about how the world is or has been? Unless some disaster overtakes the internet, in the future those facts will always be at our fingertips.
To take just one example, what is the point of teaching children laborious techniques for long division or multiplication, when for the rest of their lives they will have a calculator at hand? I’m not a mathematician, but as far as I can tell learning these old techniques doesn’t teach us anything fundamental about numbers. Certainly when they were inculcated in me they were just steps you had to go through mechanically in order to get to an answer. I can see now they involved some underlying principles around working in base 10, but these were not explained, presumably because it was thought (rightly) that they would just confuse us. So in terms of what we learnt it was just a process, a process which can be done far more efficiently and reliably with your mobile phone.
There are many basic mathematical and arithmetical concepts that still need to be taught, and there are still some unpalatable things like the rote learning of multiplication tables which might be valuable for a few reasons. But let’s distinguish these concepts from things which really have no value, and in doing so free some time to look at things that matter.
IT has changed the rules about what information we need to retain, and in doing so has highlighted a useful difference between information and knowledge. Knowledge you might say is what you get when you combine information with experience, and in a world where information is always going to be easily available, the focus of education needs to shift to enriching experience.
Specifically this means equipping students with the intellectual and experiential frameworks not only to find the information they need, when they need it, but also to make useful sense of it. This has always been true, but the task must look very different now from the way it did fifty years ago (even if Michael Gove and his cronies seem to have their heads firmly lodged in a fifty year old model).
Most work now in one way or another is “knowledge work”, which is why employers have started putting a premium on the abstractions of creativity or “thinking out of the box”. If employees are to bring these qualities to work then the enriched experience delivered by education needs to one which stimulates curiosity, imagination and a continuing hunger for learning. We have moved beyond a condition where the information acquired at school or college can sustain us through a working lifetime. Nurturing flexibility, adaptability, and an embrace of lifelong learning has become far more important than remembering exactly what Metternich was up to at the Congress of Vienna (these things aren’t mutually exclusive, but actually the latter is a means to an end, while the former is the proper object of a modern education).
These qualities of flexibility and self-directed learning have to some extent been more visible in a good higher education, which has tended to give students more choice in what they studied, and how they studied it (combining lectures, reading, small group tuition and larger group seminars). It would seem sensible to extend the best of these methods (though not the narrow academic goals) to secondary education (and transform higher education in the process, but that’s for another piece).
You might say that few students in secondary education have the maturity to shape their own learning like this. I’m not suggesting they do it without support and structure, and I would only observe that our current practice of forcing students to sit in classes while throwing information at them has proved itself totally ineffective for nearly half of our young people. It is literally a waste of time and money.
We need to do things differently, though ironically through something educationalists have been pushing for for years, namely personalised learning. And really what I want to say here is that the current structure of secondary education has itself become an unnecessary barrier to personalised learning, and that’s why we need to get rid of it.
So here are a few suggestions.
Don’t force children into primary school at four or five, or more specifically, don’t start the curriculum at that age (in any case I am going to be arguing shortly for a much looser or broader notion of a curriculum). Ideally there should be universal nursery provision from three to seven. Children could still be introduced to concepts of number and reading in this phase, as well as other ideas that might excite their natural curiosity, but that’s the point. Nursery provision should be about socialisation and stimulation, stimulating imagination and the free play of ideas.
From seven to 12, primary schools should continue with this stimulation and openness, but with a clear agenda to impart good functional skills in reading, writing and arithmetic. I don’t apologise for this traditional emphasis. Too many children are still emerging from school (primary and secondary) without those functional skills, and without those skills they are cut off from their proper heritage.
There is no short cut here: improving performance depends fundamentally on individual attention to the learner, so class sizes will need to be halved (at least). Some of the cost could be offset by the fact that the primary stage is starting later (the nursery stage, while important, will not require the same number of fully trained teachers, freeing those teaching skills for the primary stage). We also need to see the bigger picture when it comes to cost. A substantial proportion of the prison population is functionally illiterate. The causal chain is no doubt complex, but equally there can be little doubt that a substantial investment in primary education could radically reduce other (high) social and economic costs.
The literacy and numeracy goals should be clearly defined, but in every other respect we need to trust our teachers to work out the most stimulating ways to help children develop these skills. It’s unlikely to be through rote teaching of dry techniques and facts, but through project work which might happen to include (for instance) arithmetical elements. There could be a general requirement through these projects to introduce basic ideas about history, science, and other languages, but I can see no value at all in insisting that all children should be taught a uniform group of government-defined “facts”. Teachers need to be free to teach via their own passions and enthusiasms, because that enthusiasm is usually the most infectious element, and the most important thing a child can retain (the facts are always out there to search and find quickly).
All of this will lay the foundations for the radical change at the age of 12, the subject of part three.