Embrace the Knowledge Curriculum, and then move on

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It would be tempting for schools to panic about the introduction of the new, harder National Curriculum at a time when the old measures for progress in levels and APP have disappeared, qualifying floor standards for achievement and progress have been lifted, and with the government baying for the blood of coasting and failing school leaderships.

It would be all too easy to respond by buying in a tick-led assessment system, which tracks pupils as they are remorselessly pushed through the yearly learning objectives and assessed regularly according to how they measure up to the government’s learning expectations. (We have developed a student tracking system in Climbing Frames which seeks to avoid the worst of this). 

In the process, it would also be all too easy to regimentalise the teaching in schools to ensure that all the NC learning objectives are met come what may, and that more creative approaches are progressively pushed to the margins by didactic outcome-based teaching. If you think this is setting up a straw man, just think how anxiously schools have been either unpicking the learning objectives of the National Curriculum, or choosing a system that will do it for them, and you will understand just how hard schools are driven by the ‘hands off’ government and Ofsted agendas.

Some corporate chains which have been swallowing up failing schools have responded to the real and perceived failures of their acquired schools by adopting a standardised, didactic teaching and learning policy as their response to improving standards. The knowledge-based curriculum however – and it’s not half as bad as the government wanted it to be – does not have to be taught as a slow, painstaking accumulation of facts. And there are ways of making assessment serve creative teaching and learning, rather than burying it.

In fact, the new curriculum could make a useful framework for approaches that put knowledge about learning skills alongside knowledge about facts, and traditional tracking assessments could sit alongside more innovative forms of assessing progress and achievement. 

Two articles in Creative Teaching & Learning 5.4 show how this could be done; Alexis Shea’s guide to leading project-based learning and ‘The wolves of Yellowstone’ by Ed Walsh both explore approaches to covering curriculum knowledge through forms of enquiry led by the students themselves. 

In fact, these approaches subordinate the acquisition of particular knowledge to the acquisition of general and transferable learning and social skills, such as asking probing questions, analysis and reflection, the development of embedded dispositions towards learning, the organisation of knowledge, and collaboration and presentation. 

Interestingly, the schools that adopt these approaches tend to get very good inspections because, when it comes to qualifying for its soubriquet of ‘Outstanding’, Ofsted is looking for engagement and independent learning skills. And children with these skills don’t tend to find the mainstream challenges of the curriculum and its assessments so problematic. Assessing the impact of what could be generically called a student-led research pedagogy is more difficult. 

But it can be done. 

Alexis Shea says it’s possible to use Guy Claxton’s 4 Rs or Bristol University’s Effective Lifelong Learning Inventory. Others have developed hierarchies or matrices of learning dispositions and questioning skills to help assess cognitive development; Professor Carol McGuinness in Northern Ireland has mapped learning and cognitive skills in subjects by age, and we have our own Myself As a Learner Scale, which assesses openness or ‘closedness’ of children’s mindsets and their pre-disposition to learning in general.

It’s a central feature of the reforms being attempted by the Common Core Standards movement in the US, who want to find new forms of assessment for the more serious intellectual skills they want their education system to inculcate. Of course, they had the advantage of a government prepared to back serious education reform, but just because that is lacking here, it doesn’t mean we have to simply become camp followers to an amateurish approach. 

The Thinking Schools movement, Schools of Tomorrow, Whole Education and countless individual schools up and down the country are exploring alternatives to the old-fashioned, bog-standard forms of teaching and assessment we have been lumbered with. Direct opposition is neither advisable nor even desirable; we do need to re-discover the importance of knowledge and use traditional assessments to make sure we are still on the right basic track. But to use a chess analogy, we should view these in an en passant sort of way, and they should by no means determine our concept of education, nor our ambition.

Creative Teaching & Learning