England’s National Curriculum states, in an echo of Matthew Arnold’s words from his book Culture and Anarchy (Arnold, 1869), that teachers should provide ‘pupils with an introduction to the essential knowledge they need to be educated citizens. [And] introduce pupils to the best that has been thought and said, [engendering] an appreciation of human creativity and achievement’ (DfE, 2013); this seemingly innocuous aim is at odds with many approaches to curriculum design and might be impossible to achieve.
Some take the task of providing ‘the best’ in their stride, happily embracing canonical works without a second thought, without even thinking of whether they are the best or not, as they just know what the best is. Many others are left asking the questions, ‘Whose knowledge?’, ‘Who says what the best is?’ and ‘What is “essential” knowledge?’ before deciding to teach critical thinking, creativity and collaboration, saying that arguments about what the best might be are all about opinion. This results in potentially more challenging or highbrow work not being considered, as it might involve a teacher having to justify their choice beyond arguments around accessibility.
Added to this, some people believe that all the problems and ills of society can be cured if only we add ever more content into our curricula. For them, ‘the best’ might take a different hue. Problem with knives? Have lessons on knife crime. Problem with drugs? Have lessons on the harm that drugs cause. Not enough people coming out of school and going into the sciences? STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Businesses crying out for creative individuals? STEAM. These approaches are utilitarian and/or utopian. Utilitarian approaches seek to shape people into workforce drones for the perceived needs of the economy, and utopian approaches want to make the world a better place.
No matter how well intentioned we are with our curriculum design, no matter how accurately it is enacted and how broadly and deeply it is assessed, the curriculum as learned by young people is imbued with the sense of meaning that they bring to it. We might want to teach them ‘the best’ but they think it’s rubbish. We might therefore teach them something that will ‘engage’ them but they laugh at our attempts to be ‘cool’. We might educate them for the jobs that don’t yet exist or the ones that do, only to find they follow a completely different path.
These difficulties with curriculum approaches have led some to argue for personalised curricula, which is intended to follow a child’s interests. As Ken Robinson wrote in The Element (Robinson, 2009):
“The key… is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.”
Matthew Arnold would be horrified at personalised approaches to curriculum design. His idea of the pursuit of perfection through learning about ‘the best’ was to serve the common good. Individualisation, utility and utopian ideas of ‘progress’ were likely to result in chaos, for where are the values that bind us if everyone is pursuing their individual agendas?
The major problem with the personalised approach is that individual talents are not waiting to be discovered inside of each of us. We find out who we are and what our passions might be in dialogue with the wider society in which we find ourselves. We cannot know that romantic poetry soothes us, logic helps us to think and football exhilarates us without being introduced to these phenomena. Our cultural and social selves help to form our thinking; our minds are partly formed by the extended networks in which we find ourselves.
The curriculum is a cultural experience; it binds us together. However, we don’t experience the curriculum in the same way. Each learner will see it somewhat differently: when a controversial decision is made by the referee in a football match, the crowd might have different views about what has occurred due to where they are in the ground… and who they support.
The curriculum is understood and interpreted in a myriad of other ways. What is learned by each pupil is imbued by their way of knowing it. Each child’s thoughts about what they are learning are an important part of the experience.
In her book How Emotions are Made (Feldman Barret, 2017), the psychologist and neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett writes about how our minds are constructed by the cultures in which we live, which help wire our brains, and, in turn, that we are agents of our own destinies in that we can alter our idea of ourselves and others. This subjective view of the world is enriched by the quality of seeing. The more words, concepts and ideas we have for interpreting the world, the freer we are to become architects of our own destinies. This is the vital role that a curriculum plays; it is an immersion into a specific culture that brings us into contact with some of the greatest thoughts of all time, enabling us to change how we think about the world
Curriculum content is therefore such an important choice; choosing easy books for ‘our kids’ might rob them of ever being able to think beyond the limited horizons that have been set for them. A rich curriculum tells stories that enable us to see more clearly, more thoughtfully and more wisely from a wide range of perspectives. Whether it is ‘the best’ can only be judged in qualitative, subjective ways.
A good curriculum will always be contested. A curriculum that isn’t contested is one that is neglected due to a lack of interest. This is why curriculum design should be a collaborative affair – people who are subject experts, working together to create the richest narrative possible for their pupils. The arguments that ensue show how difficult it is to arrive at their ‘best’ but if we don’t care for quality then the very thinking of our pupils will be dumbed down.
As the philosopher of cognitive science Andy Clark puts it, our higher cognitive self, that which operates at the level necessary for a pursuit of wisdom, including reasoning and abstract thinking, the ‘classical model’ if you will (Clarke, 2013): “…arises at the productive collision points of multiple factors and forces – some bodily, some neural, some technological, and some social and cultural.
“As a result, the project of understanding what is distinctive about human thought and reason may depend on a much broader focus than that to which cognitive science has become most accustomed: one that includes not just body, brain, and the natural world, but the props and aids (pens, paper, institutions) in which our biological brains learn, mature, and operate.”
The very school, the books, the artefacts and what we do all conspire to help us to interpret who we are. We are not atomised individuals waiting to have our innermost passions discovered; we are, instead, part of an extended community of minds that stretches back into the past and will stretch beyond us into the future.
We can’t teach children the best that has been thought and said. We can, however, introduce them to the conversation in which they can join with others, living and dead, to decide what ‘the best’ might be. A good curriculum serves as an invitation into this conversation – not so that a pupil merely parrots out the ideas of their teachers but so that they have, instead, enough grounding to become free of them. In order to help children join in this conversation, curriculum must create opportunities for argument, for comparison, for weighing up evidence, for comparing and contrasting, for returning to old ideas and placing them in new contexts.
What makes us human is our subjective selves; what unites us, what we have in common, are these fine-grained differences that enable us to see the world slightly differently – our explanations of these differences are the vital expressions of our collective culture, and every so often we take solace in the fact that others express what we think or feel so eloquently that we absorb their teachings and make them part of who we are. We can be – and be better – on our own terms because someone introduced us to the great conversation about what the best might be.