With a completely blank slate for education, where would you start? Suggestions abound in the British press regarding what ‘should’ be taught (Parents and Teachers for Excellence, 2018). But whilst we could teach almost anything, we can’t teach everything. Constraints on breadth are inevitable, so coherence is essential.
A clear underlying purpose to education could be the most powerful tool for coherence but, most commonly, multiple, equally important goals are identified. For example, the foundation of the National Curriculum for England, Wales and Northern Ireland aimed to prepare pupils for ‘the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of adult life’ (Education Reform Act, 1988), and in 2015, the schools minister identified education’s purpose as economic success, cultural participation and preparation for adult life (Gibb, 2015). On a more global stage, Biesta (2015) has identified a formulation of qualification, socialisation and subjectification.
The problem is that such triads neither ensure completeness, nor suggest primacy.
A way forward?
In the online version of Issue 3 of Impact, I outlined an alternative single educational purpose derived from an overarching goal for society and life in general: to build the capacity for meaningful experience (Parsons, 2018). I have explored elsewhere what this purpose might itself actually mean (Parsons, 2019), but the Lifespace model encapsulates a way in which we can envisage and operationalise the expansion of our field of meaningful experience.
Essentially, someone’s ‘capacity for meaningful experience’ – their ‘Lifespace’ – can be conceived as being formed by their attunement in the World of Sensibility (education for value), their preparedness for the World of Necessity (education for requirement), and their access to the World of Opportunity (education for availability) (Figure 1). All of these things contribute to the extraction of meaningful experience for humans, and if you try to concentrate on just one at the expense of others, something is likely to wither. In my own school, the tensions between knowledge and skills, discipline and freedom, dogged determination and playful experimentation, and whether activities are teacher-led or pupil-driven, are complementary dynamics that work at different times to build our capacity for meaningful experience. What follows is a brief overview of areas where we have found the model to bring coherence to our own broad curriculum.
Subject scope and sequence
When considering actually teaching for sensibility, necessity and opportunity within an established subject curriculum, we have embodied the concepts through the perspectives of enabling ENCOUNTER, building STRUCTURE and facilitating ACTION.
In planning the scope and sequence of subjects and topics – whether across years or hours of learning – a facilitating relationship also opens up between the domains of SNO: skilful action is launched from relevant and internalised knowledge structures, which can only be created as meaningful schemas in the minds of humans if based upon relevant direct encounters within the real world (see for example the work of Barsalou, 2008 and Winkielman et al., 2018). Whilst a large amount of curriculum time involves going over abstract ideas and knowledge schemas, ultimately, all knowledge has to lead back through a conceptual chain to real-world sensory-perceptual experiences. In the most general sense, it is a young child’s experience of joint intentionality with another person that allows concrete experiences to be built upon by abstract language, which in turn scaffolds the development of complex thought processes (Tomasello, 2014).
So, a double planning process comes into play: firstly, an instrumentalist survey is necessary to identify the defining experiences, knowledge and capabilities required in a subject in order for someone to be generally considered ‘educated’ in it.
Secondly, a structural analysis should be carried out to identify the encounters that will anchor the intellectual structures, which will springboard the desired actions. To achieve this requires a degree of planning backwards:
- What are the opportunistic actions and capabilities that we would desire as our end point?
- What knowledge and competences need to be understood and mastered in order for pupils to engage meaningfully in the identified opportunities?
- What are the basics of sensibility – the foundational experiences – required to make intellectual instruction in the knowledge core situated and meaningful?
One example is music: an experience of sounds is required for meaningful practice to create action schemas, which can in turn facilitate a satisfying performance. A less obvious example could be from a historical study. We might ultimately want children to be able to evaluate whether Victorian workhouses were a good or bad thing. To do this, they would require – integrated into their thought processes – declarative knowledge about how workhouses functioned and the surrounding societal situation. However, they would also require an empathic sense of the significance of different factors as they played out in the lives of impoverished people in Victorian Britain. For most children in modern-day British schools, this would be a hard experience to replicate, but the teacher could nevertheless spend time helping children to use their imaginations to extrapolate emotionally from experiences they have actually had. The seat of evaluation refers back ultimately to direct experience.
Natural-fit pedagogical approach
When using the focus objectives of encounter, structure and action, discussions regarding ‘what’s the best way for children to learn?’ start to reduce to an answer of ‘well, that depends on what kind of learning we’re looking for’.
- Since encounter is about direct witness and tacit recognition of foundational realities, guided discovery is a naturally obvious approach to take. Where possible, this should include authentic direct experience of real-world phenomena. In the absence of this, rich multimedia experiences can be employed (Bruner, 1961).
- Explicit instruction: explanations, modelling, practice and reinforcement techniques are generally regarded as the most efficient way to build factual and conceptual knowledge structures upon an appropriate base of sensibility (Rosenshine, 2012).
- Once direct ‘teaching’ has built the structures, various problem-solving tasks, requiring action based on the critical application of personal thinking, are the best way to open up the world of opportunity (Prince, 2004).
For some time now, we have preferred a whole-class teaching approach where children ideally progress through areas and tasks together as a learning community, rather than us seeking to over-engineer individual learning paths. Hence, we prefer the phrase ‘task adaptation’ over the separating-out notion of ‘differentiation’ per se. This approach is also promoted in the 2019 draft Ofsted education inspection framework (Ofsted, 2019).
However, when and how to adapt tasks to ensure that children are appropriately ‘challenged’ can still seem like a sea of endless options. The SNO perspective suggests a potential rule of thumb regarding the expectations of task adaptation:
- The potential learning effect of activities intended to facilitate personal encounter in the world of sensibility will be both highly personal and difficult to predict. Consequently, the task can be allowed to automatically adapt itself to the child through a form of ‘differentiation by internal outcome’.
- With activities intended to build necessary structures, we need all pupils to pass through and achieve the same goal. This is when we are pushing all pupils for mastery, and an approach of ‘teaching to the top’ is likely the best way to adapt.
- Finally, with the world of opportunity, a springboard approach – with a more traditional mix of support for access and extension by challenge level/choice/external outcome – is likely to be the best approach.
In concluding this brief overview, it is appropriate to concede that the practical frameworks emerging out of the Lifespace and SNO conceptual model are still in their early stages of development. It is clear to us, however, that there is far more common-place educational practice that can yet be explored, rationalised and harmonised through their use.
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