Colleagues at the UCL Institute of Education were very excited a few weeks ago to see that the Department for Education had announced funding for a number of school-centred Curriculum Programme pilots worth £2.2 million. These grants aim to support teachers in developing curriculum programmes in science, history and geography. We always like to see practitioner research encouraged, and thinking through curriculum issues is a good way of building a strong basis for professional practice. We were disappointed to see, however, that the DfE in this instance didn’t seem to have done its homework properly in drafting the specifications, which leaves them wanting from an educational point of view.
The main thing that seems to be lacking is a proper understanding of what teacher knowledge means. This is rather ironic given the claim that the project aims to build it. The proposal is designed to reduce teacher workload by developing road-tested materials and an associated pedagogy for teachers to adopt – the materials that the fund will generate must be “knowledge-rich, and have teacher-led instruction and whole-class teaching at their core”. The schools that apply to develop these materials must also subscribe to this orthodoxy. This confuses curriculum – what is to be taught – and pedagogy – how it is to be taught – suggesting that the Curriculum Fund’s custodians have a worryingly shaky grasp of, well, curriculum.
Where they have gone badly wrong is in bypassing the structural principles of the very subjects that they want to support. Their conceptual framing is indicative of a strictly binary, and potentially dangerous, mode of thinking to which ministers in the DfE and their supporters have been wedded for some time:
A key problem with this schema is precisely that it is schematic – much neater than messy educational realities which are conditioned by any number of complexities, including contextual variables, differences in curriculum subjects, and so on. And it’s here where we really feel the need to take them to task.
History is a case in point. Enquiry is key to the discipline of history. As Collingwood argued, historical knowledge-building depends on a logic of question and answer. More important here, however, is the way in which ‘enquiry’ has been used in English history education. Although enquiry (asking questions) involves ‘discovery’ (finding answers) it is not ‘discovery learning’ – in the open-ended and unstructured sense in which that term is often understood by critics of child-centred and constructivist instruction. Enquiry, as it is widely understood in English history education, is a tool for crafting and sequencing curriculum contentso as to give it rigorous disciplinary form and so as to facilitate pupil knowledge-building. Enquiry questions– such, for example, as the question Why was the Norman conquest successful?– are tools that teachers use to organise schemes of work and to plan and sequence content within key stages. Teachers use them to help build knowledge of the past, to develop children’s understanding of history as a subject discipline and, not least, to motivate and engage children to learn about the past.
Enquiry in history, then, is not what the DfE thinks it is. The declaration that enquiry-based approaches in history are invalid in some way is just one example of the muddled thinking underpinning the tender, and highlights the risk that £2.2m is about to frittered on a politically-driven exercise in redesigning the wheel. Let’s hope the independent evaluation the DfE is promising steers the project towards a more fruitful course.