Developing Curriculum for Excellance – Challenges and Opportunities
Curriculum for Excellence (CfE)has been hailed by the Scottish Government as ‘one of the most ambitious programmes of educational change ever undertaken in Scotland’. However, questions remain about whether it will lead to genuine changes in practice, particularly in secondary schools.
Or will it, as was the case with 5-14, be effortlessly assimilated into current practices of schooling? How schools respond to CfE is shaped to some extent by existing school structures and cultures. However the form of the new curriculum is also in part responsible for the ways in which it is unfolding in schools – and there are significant flaws in this structure, which are encouraging certain outcomes. Nevertheless, despite my misgivings, I see CfE as an opportunity for schools to develop worthwhile innovation. I believe that the new curriculum is sufficiently flexible to allow innovation, providing that school-based curriculum development is able to take account of the shortcomings of the curriculum model.
The structure of CfE is problematic, cherry picking design features from competing, and indeed incompatible curriculum design models. This attempt to marry the process and outcomes models of curriculum inevitably creates problems for schools seeking to innovate – and indeed early evidence suggests that this tension is playing out in predictable ways in practice. The Four Capacities are an obvious starting point for curriculum development, but in many cases have been reduced to little more than mantras. A more common approach is to start with an audit of the Outcomes and Experiences (what Keir Bloomer has recently called a cul-de-sac) comparing existing practice with the new prescriptions. This then enables decisions to be made about what needs to be ‘tweaked’ to meet the requirements of the new curriculum. The result is a time honoured tick-the-box approach. This is likely to result mainly in changes in terminology, while classroom practices continue pretty much in their present form.
A second issue concerns the place of knowledge. CfE is light on specification of knowledge – it is a polo mint curriculum, maintaining the existing framework of school subjects, but hollowing out the substantive content. This is leading to some quite dangerous fallacies, for example a view that content does not matter. Important knowledge is thus excised from the curriculum, perhaps because it is seen as ‘boring’. The danger here is gaps in the knowledge that young people need to become successful learners, responsible citizens, and so on. There also seems to be a tendency to conflate knowledge itself with transmission teaching methods. In some cases, decisions about content seem to be driven by an attainment agenda, taking advantage of the ‘flexibility’ offered by CfE. It is important to note that, while the specification of knowledge (i.e. subjects) should not be the starting point for curriculum planning, what has been called the accumulated wisdom of the ages is important in curriculum planning.
A third issue is method. CfE says a lot about pedagogy, but is never specific. For example, active learning is being promoted but there is often little clarity about what this means. There is a tendency to view active learning as kinaesthetic learning. Teacher-led approaches and worksheets have been denigrated, even though they can engage and stimulate, if properly designed.
The way forward
I make a plea here for the Four Capacities to be treated in the aspirational spirit of the 2004 document, A Curriculum for Excellence. As such they represent a clear set of purposes, or big ideas, that provide a starting point for dialogue about purposes and values. From exploration of purposes and values, it is possible to derive content (including skills development programmes) and methods that are fit for purpose – in other words to foster the development of the Four Capacities. Only at this stage should an audit of the Outcomes and Experiences take place, after schools have engaged with the big ideas about the curriculum and about education in general.
We should be asking, for example, what sort of content is necessary for someone to become a successful learner, a responsible citizen, etc. By linking content to purposes, it is possible to include knowledge that is traditionally not given much weight in schools, for example the development of information literacy. This process allows us to pose questions about method, including pedagogy. Becoming clear about the meaning of active learning and developing strategies for this are logical next steps. We should engage in a reflective evaluation of barriers to innovation that exist within the school, including questions about the structure of the school day. For instance, in many secondary schools the current timetable is a starting point for the development of CfE, or is simply not questioned. And yet, active pedagogies are often difficult to establish when lessons are only 50 minutes in length. This process also raises questions about whether the current organisation of the secondary timetable into discrete subjects is the best strategy.
Such an approach demands a boldness of vision. It calls for a willingness to question taken for granted assumptions about schooling. It is dependent upon a systematic engagement with the purposes of education. These are big challenges for schools, requiring time and space for practitioners to make sense of the new curriculum, resources, and support and vision from the centre. I am not convinced that these commodities are readily available at present.
Mark Priestley is a senior lecturer in Education in the Stirling Institute of Education. His research interests lie in the area of the school curriculum, and particularly in the field of curriculum change. Recent research includes the Curriculum Making in Schools and Colleges project (funded by the Economic and Social Research Council) and The social practices of curriculum development in Highland schools project, in collaboration with the Highland Council (funded in part by the Scottish Government).
Dr Mark Priestley
Senior Lecturer in Education/Editor Scottish Educational Review