Mark Priestley: Let’s get learning up to date

Education secretary Mike Russell is a champion of CfE.  Picture: Ian Georgeson
Education secretary Mike Russell is a champion of CfE. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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WHILE there is broad agreement about what an education system should do, there is no real consensus on how to achieve the goals

Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) has become an issue that arouses fierce passions, and vigorous debate. To its advocates it is a much needed reform to bring Scottish education into the 21st century, making young people’s experiences of school more relevant, useful and meaningful.

Education secretary Mike Russell is a champion of CfE. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Education secretary Mike Russell is a champion of CfE. Picture: Ian Georgeson

To its opponents it is woolly and badly conceived, putting at risk the prospects of young people and undermining a long and successful tradition of education in Scotland. Such controversy has played out in recent weeks in a number of ways. For example, there has been the recent fuss about the new national qualifications. More recent still is this week’s controversy about whether CfE is hindering the development of numeracy. These are a technical implementation issues – and of course, in the latter case, it is really too early to make such judgements.

The inevitable hyperbole associated with such debates risks obscuring some of the important issues. While it is important to question implementation practices, we should not let it get in the way of asking why and how a new curriculum should be developed. Leaving aside the issue of whether schools are implementing the new curriculum successfully, there are two questions to ask.

First, why for example does Scotland need curriculum reform of this nature? And I think it does. Second, is CfE fit for purpose in achieving this? I have more mixed views on this. It is worth emphasising here that CfE is fairly typical of current worldwide developments, and that many of the questions I raise here are being echoed in other countries.

The first question is perhaps best illustrated with reference to the well-known satirical curriculum parable, “The Sabre Tooth Curriculum”. This relates the story of a Stone Age curriculum, designed to provide youngsters with essential skills and knowledge for survival. Subjects included “sabre tooth tiger scaring”. Subsequently, sabre tooth tigers became extinct, but traditionalists insisted that the subject remained on the curriculum. The Sabre Tooth Curriculum was written in 1939 to deride the continued place of Latin on the school curriculum, but its message is as clear to today as it was then. Society changes, and the school curriculum needs to be updated to reflect such changes.

I believe that the “four capacities” of CfE – young people are expected to become successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors – represent a good attempt to [re]define in broad terms how young people might turn out as a result of their education. Moreover, our research suggests that a majority of teachers welcome the ideas contained within them.

However, agreement with the “big ideas” of CfE is quite different to saying that the new curriculum is fit for purpose, and will actually meet its aspirations. CfE represents, to some extent, a missed opportunity. The four capacities can be seen as broad purposes of the curriculum.

A successful learner, for example, is expected to have openness to new ideas, to be literate and numerate, and to be able to think creatively and independently. A responsible citizen is expected to develop knowledge and understanding of the world and Scotland’s place within it. Developing such attributes in young people is dependent, above all, on two things. The first is the nature of knowledge to be acquired in school; in short, we need to ask what sorts of knowledge a young person needs to develop the “four capacities”.

The second involves asking what teaching methods will best achieve this. So for example, traditional teacher “chalk and talk” might be effective at getting over basic content, but is not so good for helping young people to make sense of complex ideas, or developing group skills. For these, more active forms of learning are more useful.

So, in summary, if we accept that the four capacities are good purposes of education then the real challenge is to develop content (knowledge) and teaching methods that maximise their development. Curriculum development for CfE should therefore be about developing and organising content – including inter-disciplinary approaches – and methods that are fit for purpose.

This process has been rendered difficult for schools implementing CfE. Part of the problem lies in the current lack of time and resources available to teachers to “make sense” of what are often new, unfamiliar and complex concepts, as they develop the curriculum. However, part of the problem lies in mixed messages within policy itself and its subsequent development.

A particular issue is CfE’s lack of specification of a process of curriculum development to be followed by schools. This is a problem, given the lack of experience of schools in recent years to work in the manner advocated within the new curriculum. The curriculum has come to be articulated as statements of outcome, what are known as the experiences and outcomes (E&Os). These are in conflict with the four capacities.

When the E&Os were first released, it was clearly stated that they were not to drive assessment. In subsequent documentation they are described as assessment standards. This means that a great deal of activity in school is becoming assessment driven, in much the same way as within the former 5-14 curriculum. As a result, the prevalent approach to curriculum development has taken the form of auditing current practice against the E&O. Such box-ticking means change is often minimal.

Further ambiguity lies in the specification of content in CfE. Many teachers see CfE as being vague because it does not clearly specify what is to be learned. The curriculum has been criticised for downgrading knowledge, replacing this with soft skills. Many teachers tell me that schools are no longer about knowledge, but about skills. I think this misrepresents the complex relationship between knowledge and skills – skills have to be developed in the context of knowledge.

Questions of knowledge are thus important. Schools should be places where children get access to what the educational sociologist Michael Young has termed “powerful knowledge” – the accumulated wisdom and knowledge of humankind – that will enable them to be successful in life. Curriculum content should be continually updated. The audit approach I have described, combined with a lack of specification of content in CfE, means that many schools are simply continuing with old content, so long as it can be justified as fitting the rather vague E&Os. What is learned thus risks becoming divorced from purpose.

Another issue lies in the specification of how young people are to learn. CfE contains a multitude of references to active learning, but little explicit recognition of the well-established learning theory and processes that should underpin this.

The past ten years has certainly seen plenty of change in learning and teaching methods in our classrooms, particularly a wholesale move to group-based learning in many schools.

However, a lot of this was already happening as a result of existing innovation.

I do not subscribe to the notion that CfE will damage the prospects of a generation of Scottish children. I am firmly of the view that unless attention is paid in government, local authorities and schools to the issues I have outline, the real danger is that it will be a damp squib, and that it will not achieve its considerable potential to bring Scottish schools into the 21st century.

• Dr Mark Priestley is reader in education at the University of Stirling School of Education,