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Forming the Curriculum

Curriculum (re-)design is again in fashion, as inspectors and inspected alike recognise what should have always been obvious: that what we teach is equally as fundamental, likely more so, than how we teach.

Cue a flurry of activity from leaders and middle-leaders, getting back to fundamentals and looking once again at neglected and tired schemes of work, asking how we might be more ambitious, more attentive, and indeed more inspired by the subjects we love, or at least once loved, when we were still allowed to do so.

And what a wonderful development that is.

But as we tread the path to curriculum excellence, a central truth must be upheld: the curriculum is not just an academic matter, and the writing of it even less so.

Knowing What to Value

What we teach is a distillation of that which we deem worthy for future transmission. And not all those choices are strictly utilitarian – or at least they ought not to be. Populating the curriculum necessarily involves value judgements on the part of those tasked with constructing it; those judgements reveal something of the person creating it, the world they inhabit, or the world they wish to inhabit.

And this is important. Those tasked with fashioning a curriculum bear the heavy responsibility of creating the intellectual landscape of a domain we wish our pupils to experience, even if they choose to ultimately reject it. Its aesthetic, its values, its very temperament – a world pupils might not otherwise choose to aspire toward, or at very least might not otherwise fully appreciate. In a very real sense, designing a curriculum is therefore as much a spiritual reflection as an academic one.

This brings controversy, of course, since it cannot avoid value judgment, and one can well understand the challenge of those who argue that the move toward core knowledge can be exclusionary, or that it privileges particular kinds of knowledge over others, or that its aesthetic can be of a marginalising hue – from a particular perspective, there is a valid argument to be met here (see my previous post on one potential perspective here).

Anthea Hamilton’s infamous Turner Prize nominated sculpture – cultural literacy?

After all, if one deems a core knowledge curriculum to consist of art and culture beyond the parochial boundaries of place, or deems cultural literacy to consist primarily in knowledgeable articulacy of the contemporary, certainly more than the past, then clearly an alternative vision exists to the one most commonly proffered, and needs to be taken account of.

I’m not sure how often we see that challenge accepted. Curriculum development often appears to proceed without acknowledgment of an argument that concerns its very soul, sometimes ignoring altogether, other times attempting a cross-fertilisation to avoid accusations of the chauvinistic. One might well understand why: this is a minefield, strewn with the traps of politics and identity. But also, because it requires one to retreat back to first principles and ask the most basic questions: if the core curriculum goes hand in hand with developing cultural literacy, then what comprises this culture? And should we only focus on this culture? And what is our aim in seeking to transmit this culture to the next generation?

The Moral Dimension

Potential responses only outline the space for future dialogue, rather than providing a comprehensive answer. The curriculum is the capture of a process, the staging post of cumulative decisions and experiences coming together to form a proposed canon of knowledge. It is the principles guiding these footsteps which offer the best chance of fruitful dialogue.

And so, they begin: are curriculum decisions made with utility in mind – to help ensure future employability and the ability to hold one’s own, in general society as much as in esteemed company? Is it identitarian – to infuse children with the fruits and intellectual architecture of the culture in which they are being formed, the better to increase their attachment to it? Is it simple familiarity – those things which, through time and fashion, have traditionally comprised a liberal education and have long been seen as constituent parts of a quality curriculum? Is it resurrecting a memory – choosing a canon based on its resonance with a particular past, offering pupils ways of finding meaning in the cultural landscape around them? Or is it spiritual – to form the children in front of us and help them inhabit a worldview, a manner of being, which might otherwise remain alien to them?

A collection of all these? Or something else entirely?

The latter might be considered out of place, a soteriological cherry on top of what is otherwise a utilitarian project, by varying degrees, and there are those who would claim such an ambition is an act of oppression, taking upon itself an intimate concern with the soul that should properly be beyond the remit of the school. I am not sure this can really be upheld as a novel exercise – all schools do it, even those who deem themselves most devoutly secular, from content taught to rules administered to values upheld (children from socially conservative traditions, and with socially conservative views, will experience this most acutely in our schools today).

As such, the question is not whether the curriculum is in some sense shaped by a prior moral or spiritual commitment, or even whether it should, but rather which it should be – and how we should decide. Howsoever one finally chooses to answer that question, the issue of content selection as co-constructing that project is never far away, but it most properly follows the prior vision, rather than preceding it.

In a world of busy-ness and deadlines, the time to reflect on such matters can seem indulgent, even should the desire exist to do so – better to simply chuck all the ingredients in and get the job done. But avoiding these questions, or tactfully choosing not to consider them, only gives justification to those who would maintain that our curricula do not represent expanding horizons, but expanding certain horizons, whilst leaving others unattended – with the interlocutor free to speculate for themselves the underlying reasons for any omission. And whilst time is finite, and decisions must be made as to what makes the cut, this is of course understandable. It is not unfair for detractors to ask on what basis curriculum decisions are made.

Curriculum Kitsch

Looking around, it can sometimes feel as if curriculum improvement consists primarily of simply adding more stuff. This is clearly problematic – it is one thing associating challenge with quantity, but if there is no underlying coherence (important for both the learning and the remembering) to weave such knowledge together then the curriculum lacks authenticity, and gives to those charged with teaching it or learning it no justification for doing so, beyond personal fiat – the determination of a particular Head, at a particular time. Here, the curriculum risks losing its inner dignity, becoming an atomised collection of things, ready to fall apart once the authority of the person insisting upon it ceases to be its sufficient cause.

The focus on content accumulation, on simple quantity, risks turning knowledge into just another consumer product, in which the capacity to consume and one’s accumulated consumption becomes a social signifier and sign of success. And the more glamorous the consumption, the more niche the diet, the better, not because of the interior quality of what is consumed, but because of the status associated with the ability to acquire the exotic.

However, in elevating knowledge consumption by quantity to prestige status, we risk a sort of consumerist kitsch, choosing knowledge not to enhance or nourish, but to impress, to define oneself, to affirm status and the ability to consume and to have consumed – knowledge as performance, as spectacle, knowledge as bling.

The Alfred Jewel – likely the head of a ‘æstel’, much like a yad, which were distributed along with copies of Pope Gregory the Great’s Regula Pastoralis

I’m not convinced this approach has longevity beyond the personality of the individual leader insisting upon it, lacking meaning since it lacks telos – something which underpinned the motivations of those tasked with creating curricula and composing the canonical in ages past. When King Alfred completed his project of translating particular works into English, and insisted upon their distribution and even their reading, he did so not because of a desire to simply fill a neutral pot called knowledge, where the fuller it became the better, but instead because those works were ‘most necessary for all men to know.’ The justification, the enlivening principle, was formation, not a gluttonous accumulation. It was anticipated that the wealth of wisdom could flow from reading these texts, from knowing these principles, to the benefit of both the individual and society.

Whilst exposure to a broader variety of knowledge is certainly a starting point, and learning for learning sake is a virtue to be rehabilitated, this is not a permission slip for some sort of educational nihilism, either for pragmatic purposes or ideological: the question of ‘why?’ has to remain central. Only once this has occurred might one get down to better considering the what, and justifying the discrimination (in the literal sense) necessarily involved in defining it. Because in a finite world, or more specifically a 25 hour timetable, one must indeed be discriminatory in choosing what to include over the myriad other things that could have been included. And one best have in mind the reasons for doing so. Only here can one find the dignity of the curriculum, beyond fiat and fashion, to develop a coherence worthy of the formative years of our children.


The elephant in the room here is the demand placed upon schools by our accountability system, and the pragmatic necessity for highest possible exam performance. This has been left alone not because it is deemed to be of lesser moral worth – I tend to agree that the best we can do for our children is to deliver an education which enables them to achieve excellent exam grades – but because curriculum development is in some sense leading the way over qualifications, being at once more ambitious and more aware of the principled necessity of a broad and high-quality curriculum.

And this is as it should be – examinations capture a slice of what has been taught; they should not become the outer limits of what we teach.

Here’s hoping, then, that the current race toward curriculum improvement proceeds with a clear commitment to an underlying coherence. Or else we’re just playing at this. And however politically astute that might be, and however much professional prestige and career advancement people might find tied up with it, it shall nonetheless be destined to crumble with the passage of time, when, as inevitably happens, people ask why we study this, and do not study that, before realising that we have neglected to ever give an answer.


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