This blog is part of a series in the spirit of ‘Cranleigh Thinking’, intended to provoke thought and debate and raise questions. The arguments are born out of observation and experience and I make no apology for holes and gaps for readers to fill and question.
This particular series raises questions about the nature of curriculum, national policy and why Cranleigh has chosen the ‘Cranleigh Thinking ‘approach.
Looking back to the blog, ‘The Curriculum Beast‘, it is important to retain a distinction between curriculum, qualification and education. They are linked but they are not interchangeable. The focus of this blog is curriculum, though this is a lense through which to question the nature and purpose of each.
One challenge for anyone developing a national curriculum lies in that word ‘national’. This suggests something particular to a nation, its culture, heritage, language, aspirations and economy, which implies that some aspects need to be backward looking and self-serving with some fixed points. On the other hand, we know that no nation stands in isolation and that economies are intertwined and do not stand still, so it must be adaptable and forward looking and not too self-serving.
A nation of course is the sum of its parts so a national curriculum must provide for society generally; but for a Western democracy, one of the fixed point obligations is also a moral commitment to the needs of individuals and minorities so there must be flexibility. Put simply, because people are different, there can be no such thing as a one-size-fits all model even if it is the most practical to tailor. For we all know the problems which arise from a wardrobe of uncomfortable clothes : we constantly look with envy and a sense of unfairness at the supermodels.
I would suggest that the purpose of a curriculum is to provide a programme of learning and activities which promotes individual and societal flourishing. The two are obviously interconnected since society flourishes when its citizens do and individual citizens need to learn that they flourish when they understand they live in relationship with others. It carries with it an assumption of context since individuals and societies cannot flourish if they are not in tune with or able to challenge or adapt to their circumstances.
Note that there are strong similarities in purpose to the International Baccalaureate, “an international education to develop the intellectual, personal, emotional and social skills needed to live, learn and work in a globalising world” it differs in two important ways:
Firstly, it goes deeper in that there is a moral commitment that goes beyond ‘skills’ to state the primary importance of individual fulfilment, growth and identity. In short it is a commitment to wellbeing.Who am I? Where do I come from? What is my purpose? These are essential questions for every child to ask and find answers to so they can apply them to their learning and question their culture, their history, their present and future. How else will we encourage reflective, tolerant, respectful, engaged citizens? It is a commitment that also ensures that facets of mind and character that have expressed themselves since the dawn of time such as narrative, art, music, drama, philosophy, religion are not confined to the scrap heap because they are deemed too difficult to measure or cannot be ranked in a PISA table. For it is in these very questions and the expressions of our imaginings that humanity has made its leaps – and its falls.
Significantly, such a premise of flourishing would accept a difference in aptitude and would try to reduce the number of ‘losers’ in the curriculum race, by offering more varied approaches – in a world where the majority of new companies are start-ups with fewer employees, a one-race model is surely mistaken. Why make a traditionally academic focus the major driver for shaping our curriculum and therefore a major means by which success is measured and failure felt when the commercial world is heading in a different direction?
Secondly, as a ‘national’ curriculum, it will necessarily embrace the cultural heritage and identity of that nation and therefore it will not necessarily be the same as another nation. There is a place for a nation’s history and literature and language in a curriculum. However, in no way am I stating a Trumpian-Country-First mentality, which to my mind ignores not only our international context but the interconnectedness of our shared humanity. Nor would a good curriculum encourage an uncritical acceptance of national institutions and morality that crystallise rather than advance them. What I am suggesting is that just as we wish to accept individual difference as a strength, we need do the same for national differences, or we begin to undermine identities.
Headley Beare (2001), in his book ‘Creating the Future School’ looks at the trends towards globalisation and how we will need to teach children to be citizens of the world, but he also comments on how this will cause a tension between traditional values and consumerism, ‘the whole world could become captive to one gigantic hegemony’ (p20). I question whether the rise of more assertive forms of nationalism is a reaction against such a hegemony.
It is good learning practice to see what works and try to replicate it but sometimes it is folly to make it a panacea without accepting cultural differences. We may look to Singapore and the Far East for lessons in Mathematics to import wholesale into our curriculum but that ignores the fact that British citizens do not have same cultural milieu tending to question rather than accept direct instruction, or to exercise as Matthew Arnold bemoaned, ‘an Englishman’s right to do what he likes.’
Of course a country needs to look at areas for improvement , and literacy and numeracy remain essential skills. Yet at the very time when technology is learning to read, count and store information faster than humans, the British government is ignoring some of the demonstrable strengths of the British cultural psyche, which have led to so many of its defining successes: creativity, invention and design. We cannot ignore the things that make us human.
We are back to those questions at the root of learning again, except on a national scale. Who are we? Where do we come from? What is our purpose? If we fail to ask them, we will be failing our children; just as we fail them if we do not allow them to ask them for themselves.