what picture comes to mind?
Serried rows of desks, with a lecturer style of teacher leading
from the front or groups of children exploring ideas, being led, supported,
challenged and guided by an interested adult?
Perhaps some compromise?
Sometimes sitting and listening,
otherwise engaged on purposeful tasks?
The past sixty years have seen a number
of substantial reviews of the Primary Curriculum,
with Lady Plowden in 1967 placing the development of each child
firmly at the centre of educational thinking.
The Cambridge Primary Review (CPR) reported in 2011, just after the Rose Review.
The new Government, in the shape of Michael Gove, ordered yet another review.
It is at least gratifying that two members of the CPR were among the new review group.
Works of the magnitude of Plowden, Rose and Cambridge and in between, the National
Curriculum groupings, Dearing and others deserve to be reviewed themselves, to
distil the essence of Primary education.
The system seems to be hooked on simplicities, often polarised,
rather than seeking to explore as fully as possible the realities.
Learning is often a messy business,
as ideas bounce around the mind confronting long held thoughts,
requiring readjustment of conceptualisation,
as the learner sees the
world in a different way.
This is probably as true of early learners as older people.
One thing that is also probably a truism, is that we each learn from experience.
Life puts experiences in our way, sometimes randomly.
In a school setting these will be more often sequential, bite-size pieces,
which a teacher has decided are appropriate.
In both cases, the receiver has to consider the new information,
in the light of what is already known,
inducing a state of reflection before a new state emerges.
In other words, learning causes a change
and change can be uncomfortable.
The Primary curriculum in itself is often polarised,
between the “basics” and the rest,
with whatever is decided as the basics taking centre stage,
relegating the rest to bit players, if at all in some cases.
It would be hard to argue against there being some basic skills
which are essential to a functional life.
These have been historically described as the “three R’s”.
If, however, we look at the realities,
the essence of English is the ability to speak and listen, from which writing and reading can flow.
Therefore it is important that there should be something of worth to be discussed.
At this point the broader curriculum is likely to provide the vehicle for discussion,
based on solid artefacts, picture stimuli, direct observations
or other sensory experiences, such as music.
The conversation is strengthened by the opportunities
for it to be as broad as the capacity of the participants.
The skills of recording can arise out of the need to capture the conversation,
in key ideas, words or phrases,
which can contribute to the support of both the written and read curriculum.
Problems arise from current practice in many environments
as a result of them being presented in a more sterile way,
less as something to be discussed, shared and finally “owned” by the student,
more as a teacher having to ensure that an element has been covered.
I would put this down to the efforts of the past several years to describe,
in ever-finer detail, what constitutes progress in learning.
The National Curriculum started off with a set of level descriptors,
which schools interpreted to support their judgements of student progress.
Then we were asked to consider sub-levels,
with level 1 becoming 1c, 1b, 1a through the allocation of some formulaic means
of looking at the level descriptors and seeking to capture a true point.
This was supported by Assessment for Learning approaches
and, more recently, Assessing Pupil Progress (APP).
While I would agree that the assessment of learning is an essential tool
to support a teacher in making important decisions
the search for ever finer judgement has, to my mind,
allowed the learning dynamic to be slowed significantly,
with a consequential need for the teacher to spend disproportionate time
on distracting activity.
In other words, they have been forced to stop looking at the big picture.
The big picture issue, or lack of, is also one which has dogged education.
Curriculum reviews can often leave teachers
feeling as if they are creating a jigsaw without a picture on the box.
In this case the puzzle is multi dimensional, with linear time dictating
the way in which learning will be presented to a mixed ability group of perhaps thirty children,
as even children in sets are mixed ability.
Any piece of learning will be accessed in thirty different ways,
ranging in depth, speed, memorisation and
application, dependent on a wide range of factors,
not least of which is the starting point of each child.
However, if teachers and children share a common understanding of the whole,
the slotting of parts becomes easier.
Learning journeys are like a shared map, everyone knows where they are
The tasks given to children are significant, as they interpret
the teacher expectation of the child into activity. The current availability of
on-line resources and of the photocopier often leads to activity which is less
demanding, a return to the loneliness of the long-distance worksheet. These are
often a consequence of teachers feeling the need to ensure that there is
evidence in books of progress being made, rather than an accurately defined need
for the child’s learning. More open, problem-solving tasks, with children as the
drivers of their progress are less common, as they take time, make noise,
require independence and occasionally are less easy to quantify. But they do
allow children to collaborate, cooperate and come up with an understanding of
their own learning needs. In other words, they can see the point.
So when the next review reports, although the remit is to
consider the core first, it is to be hoped that consideration of the whole will
have contributed to decisions at that stage, otherwise the chances are that we
will get a curriculum that over the course of two years becomes over-heavy
again. I would suggest that after any review, many schools will have few, if
any, changes to make to the core elements of maths and English, as these have
been extensively described over many years and have many schemes supporting
them. The major difficulty has been in describing the more thematic elements
which allow the broader skills of description, articulation, questioning,
hypothesising, problem solving, application and practice of skills across all
areas, experience and engagement, collaboration, leading to visualisation and
conceptualisation. Essentially we are back to needing to make
pictures. Can you see what it is yet?
So, very early, can we have the beginnings of the map that will
guide us over the next ten years before there’s a need for another review,
together with the flexibilities that are being considered. Then we’ll all be a
part of the Big Conversation, know where we are all heading and can learn to
read the maps for ourselves, and maybe travel