Shining a Light on Meaning and Purpose: What kind of a curriculum does that?

Quality education helps people live their lives to the full. For some, it is a sacred endeavour – illuminating the dark. It engenders a sense of meaning, purpose and fulfilment. However, we need to beware we aren’t unintentionally undoing the intent behind our curriculum design by how we deliver it.

Image by Harish Sharma from Pixabay

I can almost feel my children’s dread when they look through their knowledge organisers. Both of them are now at secondary and do not mind a bit of learning – they are interested if you know what I mean. I think their dread is the lack of control and consultation at an attempt to fill up their brains with stuff that has little meaning or relevance to them – even when we do take pains to explain that ‘settlements’ is a concept that is worth knowing about.

Recently, I attended CPD on metacognition. The trainer was great, and I did not disagree with anything he was saying about how the mind works and reacts to learning new information. It was spot on. But I began to realise it did not have much to do with learning as I knew it.

If you are familiar with Daniel H. Pink’s Drive, he presents a highly persuasive argument that motivation is a result of three vital human drivers being met: autonomy, mastery and purpose. We first meet this in the book of Genesis. We need the freedom to walk our path, be good at something and have a reason for doing it. The new way of looking at the curriculum supports the latter two, but only glances at autonomy. Sure, we can give children mediocre choices, such as which pencil to use, how to present information, with whom to collaborate. Still, there is no choice in what is studied. Is it too strong to say that metacognition is wielded like a weapon here? Let me explain.

The course explained how metacognitive strategies could help children retain information and therefore get good grades at GCSE. He told how he had sent a secondary RE paper back to be remarked because he thought an answer to describe the crucifixion deserved more than the zero it was awarded. The child’s response explained in detail, why Christians believe in the crucifixion and how it linked to the idea of transformation. I can’t remember the answer exactly, but I think I was about 35 before I understood the concept behind it.

The exam board returned the paper upholding their decision. The question asked for a description of the crucifixion – just what happened – nothing else. The child had not answered the question. Now, I know – but does anyone else not think that this is a ridiculous way of gleaning a pupil’s understanding. The child’s knowledge far surpassed what was required, yet he had to accept a lesser grade. Gutting.

There is an assumption that if children don’t regurgitate what is expected in terms of concepts, schema and facts over time, they are failing. I say, if we deliver the curriculum in a way that is inconsistent with its purpose, we are failing them.

A business school may advertise a course on collaboration and partnership, but if in order to survive the course you are expected to compete with others; competition, not collaboration is what is learned.

So, the answer? Metacognitive techniques to drill pupils into passing exams and to cram young minds with all sorts of stuff that make them sound intelligent, but is more like the opposite.

No. No. No. No.

You can’t use a beautiful thing to a bad end. The new EIF, metacognition and the curriculum is used increasingly to help very young children retain all sorts of facts and information. And if they don’t, then the assumption is that progress isn’t being made. You know how the rest goes. If educators don’t aspire to this, our expectations are low. If children don’t match up to the measurement, schools haven’t done their jobs. Children are being failed.

Yes, they are failed. I would even wager much of the push back we get from children in the classroom is a result of 5.25 hours of daily frustration. Where’s the full life?

Last year, Finland’s post 16 curricula changed. It followed children’s concerns and interests, a topic approach and was planned alongside the pupils with the teacher acting as a facilitator of learning by taking what the children want to learn and weaving in concepts, attitudes, skills and knowledge (remember CASK?) from across the subject domains that are needed for life beyond school. No different from any other scheme of work except it is based on the children’s interests.

Not dissimilar to the EYFS curriculum.

As an EYFS teacher, I recall being challenged to include children’s ideas in my planning. I’m ashamed to admit; I rolled my eyes at this, believing that four-year-olds were not capable of this. Progressive claptrap.

Trying it anyway changed everything.

We sat in a circle around a large sheet of sugar paper on the floor.
“So,” I asked, “what would you like to learn next week?”

I poised with a pen, totally prepared for either silence or nonsense.

“I want to know why the sea goes in and out.”
Inside my mind: I can’t teach you that – you’re four.

Could I?

” Well, it has something to do with the moon….” and from there we mapped out a series of investigations and activities that might help us find out. I looked down at the paper, and there was this fascinating mind map (and my planning was done in the process – result).

It was more than this, though.

As the children peeled away to join in with the rest of their free flow play, one child stayed behind, looking sheepish, then suddenly their arms around my neck. “I can’t wait for next week, Mrs E!”

The following two or three weeks were a joy in the classroom. Our explorations included the planets (solid shapes, ordering, reading, spheres), messages in bottles, reflective materials – the moon is not a light, rock pool exploration, all sorts of connected storybooks, measuring the distance of the tide line at different times, looking after the planet, seashore animals, time and more. Children began skipping into school.

Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

Now, I know we don’t live in education utopia. There are all sorts of arguments against this being possible in the long term, and Development Matters is a skill-based, rather than a content-driven curriculum; learning to drive is the same skill set whether learnt in a Nissan or a Ford. There’s also a case for shared knowledge, but I don’t think the National Curriculum needs to be as full as it is. (I’m afraid I have to disagree they are all barriers in any case, and they can be worked around for the greater prize, but I understand. We can’t have children learning whatever they like, willy nilly. (Tongue in cheek AND eye roll).

In my earliest teaching years, I worked with a wonderful group of like-minded teachers. We were a bit naughty in that our curriculum planning wasn’t national curriculum objective led – we worked the other way. Interests first, subject links, progression in subjects – then looked for curriculum objectives that matched. Interestingly, we found that working organically in this way led to us covering the entire Key Stage One curriculum in four full terms, meaning we had two terms to teach WHATEVER WE WANTED. (For anyone whose heartbeat has upped in fear – there were plenty of opportunities for recap and review of linked knowledge and skills; it was organised under progressive subject domains).

This meant that we taught unusual things like the term we explored ‘Carnival’ – we even worked towards resurrecting the local community’s carnival and putting it on one Saturday and road closures and everything.

It was my happiest time as a teacher. It was harder work – we had to map the curriculum all the time and plan from scratch, but it was my happiest time as a teacher.

If children aren’t skipping into school, being grabbed by the beautiful world in which we inhabit, what is the point of education?

It isn’t to get good grades against a set of dry criteria.

Education is more than that. It’s a metaphysical endeavour.

Surely there is scope for some child-led choice.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Bill Woods

    Hi Shelley,
    I have really enjoyed reading your eclectic blog. Not many teachers have the energy left to do this. But you do; and it is testimony to your faith.

    1. sacredtinnedpears

      Dear Bill, Thank you for your kind words and taking the trouble to comment- I’m passionate about what I do – it’s not like ‘work’. And I love the word ‘eclectic’ – describes me to a tee. All a bit odd. (What have you let yourself in for?)

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