Teachers, generally speaking, work incredibly hard. They work under highly controlled and high stakes conditions, and very publicly. So how do teachers feel about their work? Is teaching a confident profession?
I believe that the profession, at least in secondary schools, may have collectively lost the plot in terms of its core values and purposes. It is buffeted this way, then that way, and in trying to keep up it has lost its heart to the empty process of delivering performance indicators. I don’t blame the teachers themselves, but I do argue that teachers can and should take a more active role in curriculum leadership – a theme in a forthcoming special feature of the London Review of Education (16.3) which I have had the privilege of guest editing.
Recently, I had the great pleasure to spend the afternoon with some enormously impressive, mostly young, new teachers. I spent the entire time challenging their expectations, sometimes showing and explaining, often debating with them … as to what it means to teach geography well, and why this is so important. Possibly not the geography you remember from school. Maybe not even the geography they experienced as students. But worthwhile, engaging geography lessons exhibiting the highest quality engagement with knowledge. That is, geography that is appropriate for young people in this day and age.
Those final sentences are very demanding. For what exactly is high quality geographical knowledge? And pursuing this question with these new teachers ignited a disarmingly natural and intense curiosity. It was clear that they could see my point. Clear was their readiness to accept the responsibility of teaching, expressed as their role as the source of the curriculum experience of their students.
I can compare this pre-service context with my recent experience leading whole school workshops exploring the idea of ‘powerful knowledge’ across all subjects. It is fascinating to see the alacrity with which experienced teachers address this question, resulting in truly illuminating discussions about teachers’ motivations and sense of moral purpose. Without exception, teachers said how much they valued (a) thinking about what they were teaching and why and (b) listening to other subject specialists thinking out loud about their subjects.
This is reassuring, for the plaintive question teased out of the new teachers near the end of my afternoon’s work with them was heart-breaking. “This is fantastic, and refreshing,” they said, “but it is hard to see how we can apply this thinking to the PowerPoint slides and the lesson plans we are asked to deliver.” They told me that the ‘source of the curriculum’ was not them at all, but the materials and instructions on the school’s internal drive. In the same breath they made it clear that they knew this was intolerable – at least in the context of the professional responsibilities we were discussing.
How has the teaching profession managed to lose sight of its moral purpose in this way? I contend that one reason is that curriculum thinking, by which I mean the ‘why’ and the ‘what’ of teaching, has almost been forgotten. Many of us grew up so to speak with the post-modern turn, which overturned traditional ways of seeing. Its impact was to undermine rigid grand design – such as objectives-led, rational curriculum planning. Whilst not a bad thing in itself, however, teachers’ curriculum thinking has been a casualty. It is no longer encouraged.
But it seems that Ofsted has recognised this in their new concern for the ‘quality of education’. Perhaps the government’s much-vaunted ‘knowledge-led’ school policy is also a post, post-modern response. It will be interesting indeed to follow the extent to which Ofsted’s widely publicised rebalancing will result in their making distinctions between high and low quality knowledge-led curricula in schools. And it will be interesting to see where exactly they see the responsibility lying for making high-quality curriculum experiences for students.
Some of these issues are opened up in the London Review of Education (16.3). The seven articles that make up the special feature arise in part from the Subject Specialism Research Group recently set up in the UCL Institute of Education’s Department of Curriculum, Pedagogy and Assessment. We hope there will be further articles a debate on the rescue of curriculum thought and its significance on the quality of education.