Culture before curriculum: a learner’s reality

A twelve-minute TED talk to a thousand people can focus the mind. I was fortunate enough to deliver one yesterday at the annual TEDx event in Royal Tunbridge Wells.

Distilling twenty years of teaching, authoring and training into a short talk was a challenging but worthwhile experience. I can talk for a year and a day on what I think matters most in education, as can anyone who works in schools. But as headteacher of a large community primary school, time is at a premium and brevity is good.

Précising some three thousand spoken words into a short article now is equally challenging, but as I often say to the children in my school, challenges are good. So here goes.

My talk was entitled ‘Culture before curriculum: a learner’s reality.’

Much of the learning that actually takes place in a primary school happens at a sub-conscious level, beneath the surface of the visible curriculum; it is empirical knowledge, inextricably linked to how children feel, what they think and what their senses are telling them. The social encounters they have, good or bad, the things they hear, see and feel around them are programming their sub-conscious, shaping their character and forging their model of the world. In this emerging learner’s reality, they are forming preferences and inclinations, finding what makes them comfortable, fearful, ambitious, nervous, happy or motivated, and all this takes root in their mind and programmes how they will react for the rest of their school career and on into adulthood.

Primary schools are the engine rooms of education. They are the crucibles in which characters are forged. My own character was formed by the time I was seven. My inclinations, hopes and fears, dreams and ambitions, things I thought I was good at, things I thought I’d never be good at, have all remained the same, forty years later. How I conceptualise ‘Andrew Hammond’, who he is and what he can and cannot do, has not altered. I’ve just grown older.

Those who set the national curriculum for primary schools have missed how young children actually learn. The national curriculum is compartmentalised into subjects, each one delivering propositional knowledge which must be consciously read, remembered and regurgitated (the 3Rs) and skills and proficiencies that must be consciously acquired, perfected and performed. There is no question that this type of conscious learning is important and needs to be valued in schools. I needn’t worry; conscious learning yields a convenient measure of attainment and progress, which leads to sorting and ranking, so it proliferates in every school and enjoys a high value.

Sub-conscious learning on the other hand – of the type which takes root and shapes a child’s character and view of themselves and the world – is experiential, influenced by their senses, emotions and untrammelled imagination. This is the learner’s reality. It is dynamic, multidisciplinary and multisensory; harder to plan for and much harder to assess. But it is sub-conscious learning that leads to real growth. And childhood is fundamentally about growing.

These two types of learning could happily co-exist in school if it wasn’t for one factor: nothing stunts growth more than sorting and ranking.

The more we teach, test and measure in schools, the more we stifle growth. This allows a myth to take hold and become a self-fulfilling prophecy for many students: that what a child shows he knows in an exam is an accurate measure of his ability as a learner. It is not. A child may leave school with the misbelief that they are nothing more than the sum of their grades, but they are more than this. So much more. Conscious learning has eclipsed their sub-conscious growth, or even worse, shrivelled it.

So what can be done about it? In continuing to promote conscious learning should we just hope that sub-conscious learning for growth will follow on? We have no choice about teaching the national curriculum and I believe passionately that every child has a right to access a core curriculum of academic knowledge and skills, like literacy and numeracy. But not to the detriment of their own growth. We need to achieve both.

The answer lies beneath the surface, beyond the league tables and it’s called school culture: how we do things around here. It is the culture of a school, its ethos and core values, that help to shape and form a child’s view of themselves and others. The life-long lessons children teach themselves sub-consciously through primary school are impacted positively by the social norms and customs we build around them – the tone of our discourse, the nature of our relationships and the shared values we hold. Teachers are cultural architects in their classrooms.

Life is long but childhood is short and we need to stop calibrating it. For as long as measuring and testing continue to dominate education, it is to school culture that we must turn to preserve children’s natural growth. Culture is the compost in which character is grown and potential takes root. How we do things in my school is as important to me as the measurable outcomes we produce.



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