In my experience, the longer an argument goes on the messier and more confusing it will get. Arguments about education seem messier than most. We warm to our themes and suddenly mud is flying all over the place.
Traditional subject based curricula versus relevance and skills, as it’s often (mis)presented, is a long running debate, but there has been a recent spate of comment worth noting.
Today, we have Sir Jim Rose’s review of the primary curriculum getting a lot of play, notably his advocacy of a curriculum content organised around six themes. Melanie Philips doesn’t like it much. Lessons in well-being, happiness and health represent ‘the way a society tears up its own future’.
In Friday’s TES was a comment piece which built on an article about the decline in membership of subject associations by fretting that ‘recent developments in education have emphasised skills and social concerns at the expense of knowledge and understanding’ (Time Education Supplement, 5th December 2008). *
I’m tempted to point out that this didn’t seem to be what the subject associations themselves were particularly concerned about. As Mick Waters has often said, ‘excellent subject teaching will always make links within and between subjects’. Planning an Opening Minds curriculum with its topics and themes requires real subject expertise.
Critics of the Rose Review who present ‘skills vs knowledge’ as a zero-sum game need to say why they feel justified in doing so? Where is the evidence that this has to be the case? It isn’t offered by the Tim Birkhead’s article quoted in the TES, however strong his arguments about the importance teachers’ subject knowledge and good quality assessment might be.
Not only do those who argue that Rose is sacrificing knowledge and truth on the altar of skills or of social/political ends need to demonstrate their case, they need to do so in the face of a compelling argument for relevance in the curriculum.
Our world faces huge challenges. Young people will need knowledge, but growing up into a complex world with an uncertain, unformed future, knowledge is not enough. The acid test of a good education will be not just what people know, but how they are able to act, individually and collectively. How are they able to take that unformed future, and understand and realise the common good?