Alex Standish writes a letter to beginning teachers.
Dear Beginning Teachers,
The school curriculum is about what knowledge to teach the next generation. There is no more important question in education. It is the main reason why children go to school – to learn interesting and valuable knowledge about the world, its natural systems, its human systems, cultures, arts, languages and how the world has changed. This way they can be a part of conversations about its future.
The reason you as a teacher stand in an authoritative relationship to pupils is that you have some knowledge to teach them and you are learning how to communicate ideas and skills with pupils. This is not to dismiss the significance of pedagogy, how children learn and the personal knowledge and experiences they bring to the classroom. Rather, to become a successful teacher depends upon understanding the respective roles of each. And, the curriculum – what to teach – is logically prior to how to teach it.
So, how do we know what goes into a curriculum? How do we know what knowledge is important for children to learn? What counts as knowledge? Where does it come from? What are knowledge and skills for? How is knowledge different in the sciences, arts and humanities, and what does it mean to make progress in each? These are questions you need to examine as a student teacher.
The content of the curriculum is not a matter of science and hence there is no evidence we can point to that gives us the answer. Rather, as Michael Young said, decisions about what we think is important for children to learn are ‘philosophical questions about who we are and what we value’. The reason schools teach geography, history, biology, music and literature is because we/society believe they are of value to children – they enable pupils to explore and to understand different aspects of the world and our humanity.
The curriculum should provide opportunities to take the child into new and exciting worlds where they can explore what is true, what is right and what is beautiful. In order to address such questions, teachers must make judgements about what we think is better knowledge – that which will enable pupils to move from a low level of understanding to a place of proficiency or even mastery. We want children to study Shakespeare, Picasso, Newton, Darwin, and Pascal as well more contemporary scholars because of their contribution to our understanding of a realm of knowledge and human experience. The criteria for judging what better knowledge is comes from disciplinary-specific methods, procedures and practices.
Most school subjects derive from or have a connection with disciplinary knowledge (for example, physical education draws upon knowledge of biology and psychology). The disciplinary knowledge that informs the curriculum comes from our universities and broader culture. It is not static and neither should this be the case with the school curriculum. Teachers and schools need to work at their subject knowledge and continually augment the curriculum. They are in an intellectual profession and should be communities where everybody is engaging in exploring what is true, what is right and what is beautiful.
However, as I am sure you are aware, many schools today have been distracted from focusing on the curriculum. They are driven by narratives of results, meeting targets, social mobility, employability, classroom management, sex and relationships education and other social goals like safeguarding and healthy living. While St. Olave’s grammar school has been in the news for kicking out students half way through their A Levels, similar results-driven practices are widespread. A culture of completing targets, demonstrating learning objectives, giving the answer required by the mark scheme and passing tests gives rise to conformism and may well turn children off education.
While we can recognise that education has a broad range of aims, the curriculum should not be used as an instrument for fixing social problems or meeting targets. What is being lost is a love of learning for its own sake. As a teacher it is your job to inspire pupils with curiosity and interest such that they want to explore the different dimensions of our world. Through the acquisition of subject-specific concepts and by opening their minds to other places, cultures and historical periods, pupils will come to see their own social and physical worlds in different ways – an experience that transforms their understanding and suggests new possibilities and ways of interacting. This is the humanising quality of education. As Michael Oakeshott surmised, ‘man [sic] is what he learns to become….this is the human condition’, which includes experiences outside of school.
In our new book, What Should Schools Teach? Disciplines, Subjects and the Pursuit of Truth, Alka Sehgal Cuthbert and I invite you and other teachers to partake in a serious conversation about the intrinsic value of disciplinary knowledge and its place in the school curriculum. Each chapter explores one dimension of knowledge*: its evolution over time, its purpose, its methods, its object of study, what insight it provides into human experience and/or the physical world, how this can be reflected in the curriculum and its value to children. As a beginning teacher, having a clear sense of the scope and purpose of your subject is invaluable. With a sound understanding of the respective roles and relationships between curriculum, pedagogy and assessment you will gain clarity of purpose, confidence and develop positive, trusting relationships with pupils and their parents.
The cost of not prioritising the curriculum in education is that pupils will become turned off education, their minds closed, their life chances diminished and they will not be inspired. You have an important job to do. Now, go teach something worth learning!
Yours in good faith,
Alex Standish, Senior Lecturer in Geography Education, Institute of Education, University College London. Co-editor of What Should Schools Teach? Disciplines, Subjects and the Pursuit of Truth.
*subject-specific chapters: mathematics, foreign languages, physics, biology, history, geography, English literature and art.
What Should Schools Teach? Disciplines, Subjects and the Pursuit of Truth is published by UCL IOE Press on the 18 September 2017. Alex Standish will be speaking to PGCE students at the IOE on Wednesday 20 September.