Education: what is it for?

A recent BBC Radio 4 programme sought to explore whether secondary school children should have more choice over the content of their lessons. In The 21st Century Curriculum, the writer and editor Varaidzo asked whether changes to the curriculum might help children to become more engaged during the years of the “educational dip” – which pretty much corresponds with Key Stage 3.

At the same time, this academic year sees the introduction of a new Ofsted inspection framework, in which the quality of education is judged on the basis of the intent, implementation and impact of a curriculum which is “ambitious and designed to give all learners … the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life” (Paragraph 26).

The Radio 4 programme began with the assertion that a third of 14 year-olds report being bored at school, and suggested that one of the reasons for this (aside from the physiological development of the teenage brain) is a dull National Curriculum. The solution proposed was to allow children to construct their own curriculum, on the basis of what they would find engaging or relevant. The class involved in the programme decided on 10 adult life skills, beginning with financial advice. This fits neatly with Emile Durkheim’s functionalist model of education, that suggests it prepares learners for “adult economic roles”.

While such pragmatic lessons might on the surface give learners some of the knowledge they need to succeed in life, it’s not clear that they would meet Ofsted’s desire for ambition in curriculum design. One might argue that the curriculum shouldn’t be designed to meet the expectations of an inspection team, but I’d want to go much further than that: to me a curriculum designed around the mundanity of adult life sells children short, and amounts to a poor model of education.

Which then raises the question of who designs the curriculum? Ofsted expect school leaders to do this, but what gives them their steer and guidance?

One immediate answer that seems very clear to me, despite the well-meaning intentions of Varaidzo, is it’s not the children. Apart from anything else, how would children know what they need (or even want) to learn? By definition, pupils don’t yet know what they have not yet learned, so they are not in a position to make an informed decision about curriculum content. This can only be done by adults with some interest, vested or otherwise, in their education.

A fundamental question which those adults will need to address, is what is education for? This question is constantly raised at all levels in our educational system: pupils will ask “why do we have to do Pythagoras?”; parents question why science is compulsory; ministers are probed on whether history should be taught chronologically—and the list goes on. In the midst of this, teachers and school leaders do their level best to design a creative and imaginative curriculum for the children in their care.

As a secondary school headteacher appointing new teachers, one of my favourite interview questions asked candidates to justify their subject (or a part of it) in the school curriculum: why should we teach x, y or z? Answers were many and varied, but they tended to fall into 3 broad categories.

Firstly, and most disappointingly, is the prescription argument: we teach the things that we are told to teach. The content of lessons is prescribed by the National Curriculum, or it’s in the exam board’s specification (syllabus), or, worst of all, it might crop up in the exam. While it’s easy to pour scorn on a crass teach-to-the-test approach, we can’t deny that in a system where exam results are the prime accountability measure, schools and their employees will inevitably have at least half an eye on league tables as they design their curriculum. Indeed, for all the neo-liberal ideas of freedom that are ostensibly embodied in academies, which don’t need to teach the National Curriculum, those schools are measured according to their performance in exams which are based it. For me, simply following orders is a poor reason for teaching something.

The second group of answers are related to purpose. Like the students in the radio programme, as well as Ofsted in their framework, some people see the main reason for learning is to provide the knowledge and skills that will be needed for adulthood. Much as I dislike pouring cold water on this utilitarian argument, I can’t help feeling that I’ve never used the vast majority of what I learnt at school in my adult life. I’ve never needed to hold a hockey stick properly, I haven’t had to recall the details of the peasants’ revolt, nor understand Lady Macbeth’s motives. Plate tectonics have yet to move me, I’ve not had occasion to draw a leaf’s cross-section, nor have I noticed the neutrinos passing through my body. However, I do think I could argue strongly for all of these to be part of our curriculum.

A particular aspect of maths deserves a special mention here: simultaneous equations. I’ve lost count of the number of people who have told me that “if you were to go into a shop and buy 2 apples and 3 bananas for 85p, and 1 apple and 4 bananas for 80p, you’d be able to work out how much each fruit costs”. All well and good, but I strongly suspect that this is not a problem that has ever been faced by shoppers since the first apple was traded for pre-fall purity. This exemplifies the lie that trying to make things “relevant” automatically increases student engagement.

So to the final group of answers, which are characterised by passion. Some of our finest teachers are just so excited by what they know that they are bursting to share it with anyone who will listen. And some of our learners are equally keen to know more.

It seems to me that the answer to the “why do we have to learn this?” question is actually embodied in the asking of the question. Human beings are by nature curious and inquisitive—if you’re not convinced by this just spend some time with a 7 year old and count how many times they ask questions: how does this work, what’s that for, who is she, why does that happen…? As a species we want to find out more about the world around us, to understand interactions between people, to be moved by creative arts. It is our duty as teachers and leaders in education to respond by answering some of those questions and providing appropriate experiences, and to construct a curriculum that not only gives answers but also raises more questions.

The difficulty of course is that each individual finds different aspects of the world around them more or less interesting. So we have developed a system in which our society has agreed (tacitly perhaps) a central canon of knowledge and skills which we expect schools to teach. There is a debate to be had over who controls and defines this canon, but skilled leaders will include it within a creative and ambitious curriculum. Talented teachers will weave their lessons around this content but won’t be restricted to it.

As educators we have to accept that not all pupils will be thrilled by everything they are taught—but unless they are exposed to the wonders of science, history, art, music and so on, they will never experience their own particular moments of wonder. It’s our job to do this, and, because of our enthusiasm for our subjects, and the joy of being involved in the learning process, to make it as thrilling as possible. If we’re facing a class of glassy-eyed 14 year-olds the root cause may be in what they are looking at rather than the curriculum they are forced to study. After all, as a colleague of mine is fond of saying: you can make anything boring.

Chris Rolph

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