Thursday, 17 May 2007

Dennis Hayes on a new book from the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL)

This book from Johnson et al puts forward one simple idea. Let’s get rid of curriculum subjects! Not merely develop cross-curriculum themes and such like, but replace them entirely with skills. Why be stuck in a ‘subject-based mould which was outdated in the nineteenth, never mind the twenty-first century’ (p8). Why support an intellectual education that was the property of the privileged? Why support a dreadful situation in which education was set out ‘in the form of subjects [and]…Although each subject had its own methods and skills, it was described predominately in terms of its knowledge. [and] Facts were considered non-problematic’ (pp24-25). How dreadful! An intellectual curriculum described predominately in terms of knowledge!

What do they want to put it its place of the ‘knowledge model’? It’s not just academic or work skills but something based on ‘an analysis of what school leavers in the twenty-first century need’ (p71). They admit they aren’t producing a ‘definitive list of skills’ (p96). But they do look at lots of lists that contain things like:

"basic skills, effective communication, thinking skills, team work, information literacy, learning habits, social skills, interpersonal (listening; body language; empathy) and intrapersonal skills (self-esteem; self management), competency in using and working with the physical world, and skills of creativity…"

There is even a chapter on a ‘do-it-yourself’ local curriculum, full of skills oddly described, given the themes of the book, in terms of local ‘knowledge’. All this is claimed to be so much more modern than the old universal curriculum subjects that developed over two thousand years; science, mathematics, history, literature and philosophy!

This ‘radical’ approach is claimed to be a way of motivating pupils and teachers trapped in the over assessed and regulated ‘subjects’ of the national curriculum. In a final moment of bathos, Johnson et al say that their book may be seen as ‘wishy-washy’ or ‘heralding the end of civilisation’ (p148).

The best thing about their book is that they push to the limit the arguments of the government and many educationalists about the importance of skills in a changing world. It is good to have a book that draws out the logic behind initiatives such as citizenship ‘education’, ICT training and the ubiquitous ‘outcomes’ of Every Child Matters.

But Johnson et al have really gone ‘skill crazy’. It is not skills based on what a child ‘needs’ that are modern, but subjects. Of course some school ‘subjects’ are not subjects, ‘citizenship’ being the obvious example. But the broad division of human knowledge in subjects is a way of initiating children into their very humanity. It is the intellectual that makes us human. At a time when scientific knowledge is expanding, and Bacon’s vision of knowing the ‘causes and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible’ is becoming real, Johnson et al want to deny future generations access to this knowledge.

There is a diminished idea of children and young people operating behind this ‘radical’ proposal. The authors give it away when they say: ‘We need a bit of honesty in this analysis. Most people are not intellectuals. Most people do not lead their lives predominately in the abstract. It is not clear that it would be preferable to do otherwise: the world cannot survive only through thought’ (p72). The message here is that ordinary people are basically only fit for training not education.

This is a profoundly anti-intellectual position which, by dressing itself up in criticism of ‘social elites’, masks the fact that this proposal actually takes away education from ordinary children. It is depressing but typical of our times. Politicians and policy wonks, often with Oxbridge backgrounds, have no faith in education for the masses.

How different it was ninety years ago, when policy makers saw that ‘elite’ education was should be for all children. H.A.L Fisher put it well in 1917 when introducing his Education Bill: ‘education is one of the good things in life’ he declared, and that the ‘principles upon which well-to-to parents proceed in the education of their families are valid; also mutatis mutandis for the families of the poor’.

The response to this radical book should be as bold and simple as its underlying thesis but should clearly state the counter thesis: stick to the subjects.

Subject to Change: New Thinking on the Curriculum was launched 9 May 2007. By Martin Johnson, with Nansi Ellis, Alan Gotch, Alison Ryan, Chris Foster, Julie Gillespie and Monique Lowe. ATL: London. £9.99.