Running the curriculum

The word curriculum, meaning a running course, comes from the Latin word, currere: to run.  The first borrowing of the Latin word into English was curricle, meaning a two-wheeled, twin-horsed carriage. Curricular meant pertaining to, or driving, carriages. In English, curriculum was not used in an educational context until much later, first in Scottish universities and then in schools and colleges across Britain and beyond. Until then, a curriculum was a course that you ran or traversed in some way.

Curriculum no longer refers to movement, at least not in schools; the word is now more likely to be associated with a large, heavy ring-binder of objectives. There is little movement involved and the only curricle you can use to traverse it is your brain.

How comprehensively the course of life was codified and compartmentalised into a curriculum for students to traverse is a subject of great debate, political and societal. Were we to peg out such a course now, with its lanes and hurdles, bends and dips, it is unlikely we would create a similar track to the one we have. A curriculum for the 21stcentury would look different, surely?

Like everything in education, we have tampered with the track over the years, bolting on units and adding more and more hurdles and time trials without ever adjusting its direction. The track still remains circular, and after the final lap you are back to where you started, more knowledgeable and ready for a life of school, just when you exit it.

There is no handbook for the course of one’s career (from the Latin word carrus, meaning wagon). You gallop along on a path that barely resembles the running track of school. The curriculum we know as students is pegged out in academic subjects. Assimilating and recalling core knowledge drawn from those subjects is a requirement for passing school examinations. To what purpose you put that knowledge once you have embarked on your curriculum vitae, your life’s course, is anyone’s guess. But our consolation is that the proficiencies and disciplines developed whilst traversing the school curriculum are, in themselves, of great worth. That is to say, the computer engineers who built my ZX81, almost forty years ago, would have amassed critical skills that outlived the use and relevance of the product they were actually building. Coincidentally, the National Curriculum was forged in the same decade, but unlike the ZX81, it hasn’t been replaced.

And so we take comfort from the fact that no matter what you think of the curriculum still delivered in schools today, the learning skills and attitudes acquired by students while studying it may still be of use in their future careers. This is the fortuitous by-product which educators like me champion.

This would be consolation enough if the curriculum were inert – a harmless collection of study topics and themes designed to increase your academic knowledge – but it’s not. There is an insidious side to the curriculum, and it’s this: the ease or difficulty with which a student assimilates the curriculum’s content is held as a measure of their ability as a learner, and more than this, the score they achieve when this curriculum knowledge is then tested impacts significantly on their life chances. This is because we have built a whole career structure and hierarchy around the gaining, or not gaining, of academic qualifications in school. If you don’t learn the curriculum content well enough, you fail exams; if you fail exams you do not get into university (which, apparently all students are supposed to attend if they want a successful career?). Consequently, the large, heavy ring-binder of knowledge, to be consumed by the runners in the race, sifts the readers and writers from the non-readers and non-writers. The former go on to successful jobs and the latter don’t, apparently. Yet all the wealthy and contented entrepreneurs I know (granted, I only know a handful) proudly say they flunked school and did not go to university.

How did we reach this point? Metaphorically, we drop a heavy curriculum on a young child’s lap, ask them to learn it, and imply that if they don’t learn it, their future life chances will shrink. This is a myth. Our youngest riders bolt out of the blocks only to be diverted on their course at the first bend and told how to ride, where to ride and that the race was being timed from the outset, with their lap scores being written down and used as predictions for their future position at the end of the race.

Forgive the rant. As a primary headteacher waiting for SATs results, and a father of teenagers currently immersed in GCSEs and A Levels, I may be feeling a little tired of the system. I have cried from the rooftops that my children, and all children, are more than the sum of their grades. I have reassured them that no matter what they achieve in their school tests, the course of life that stretches beyond them does not balance on the pinhead of exam scores; I have told them that who, where and what they will be when they are older will not be determined now, so they shouldn’t worry. They have plenty of time to write their life stories.

What I cannot tell them, for fear of tramping over what little motivation they have left, is that the exams they are sitting are based on a thirty-year old curriculum that is no longer reflective of real life and real careers (not that it ever was). I don’t want them to feel their efforts have been in vain, they haven’t, and I’m enormously proud of how hard they have worked. The learning skills and disciplines they have amassed, and the positive mindsets they have just about managed to keep intact, despite the attrition of revising and testing, will stand them in very good stead when they are older. They will be successful and contented adults not because of the curriculum they have learned, but because they have survived it, and because of the motivational teaching they have received from rebellious teachers who have found creative ways of delivering it. Imagine working as a sales assistant in a computer shop, charged with selling the ZX81 to a 21stcentury teenager. This is what teachers have been doing for years.

It is time to start again, time to build a new curriculum, a course for life, that requires an active rather than passive stance and a honing of attitudes, behaviours and capacities that will have proper use and relevance in today’s world. The ring-binder of words will still have knowledge running through its spine – no one is suggesting we depart from knowledge, such cries are hackneyed and only lead to polarising and pointless debates between trad’s and romantics – but it can include knowledge of self, of others, of human endeavour. An ‘i-curriculum’ version 2.0 could include knowledge about intuition, instinct, initiative, intelligence and imagination. These aren’t ethereal concepts for the fairies, they are real human facets much in demand outside school.

Until then, students will continue to strive for an A* in maths without ever really knowing why.

There are life lessons learned in school that stretch far, far beyond the visible curriculum. The ring-binder may be filled with words, but there are non-verbal lessons being learned all the time too, and these need better recognition in school. If the direction of the running course in school doesn’t lead us to where we need to be, then the skills and attitudes we honed whilst participating in the race certainly will. That’s why I continue to make such a noise about the hidden curriculum. It is the most relevant and valuable course of study and it does not end at 16; its linear track stretches on through life.



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