‘In with the new’ doesn’t mean ‘out with the old’

The problems with Scottish education and Curriculum for Excellence can be explained with the help of an 18th-century philosopher and his dressing gown
4th May 2018, 12:00am
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Kenny Pieper


‘In with the new’ doesn’t mean ‘out with the old’


On the first day of teaching practice in 1998, in the school at which I still teach, I entered the staffroom nervously, eventually sitting down beside a kindly gentleman who greeted me warmly. We chatted for a while before he offered me some advice: "Get your jacket on and go and do something else. Teaching will ruin your life."

Of course, I was shocked and outraged; I looked upon what I assumed to be a cynical old fool and vowed that that would never happen to me.

We went on to be friends over the next few years until he retired, but I never got over that first meeting, especially when I got to know this brilliant man who had been worn down by constant changes in schools. No longer willing to be ignored, or to be reminded that his experience counted for nothing, he'd had enough.

He, it appears, had been a victim of "the Diderot effect". This idea stems from a short essay called "Regrets on parting with my old dressing gown", by 18th century French philosopher Denis Diderot - whose portrait you can see on the right. In it, the writer contemplates his life choices after the gift of an expensive new dressing gown plunges him into a spiral of acquisition. He's delighted with the gift, but begins to see that this beautiful new thing starts to make everything else he owns look dreary and old. The essay deals with his quest to replace all of his possessions with shiny new things, in the hope that his gown won't appear so out of place. He soon descends into poverty and ruin.

The parallels with our current problems in Scottish education are startling. It all started with such good intentions. The will was there, both political and structural, but we couldn't quite envisage just what we really all wanted. Our excitement about the "new" meant that we, arguably, rushed through the important parts, not quite grasping that this new curriculum needed time, love and care to allow it to blend in, alongside the good things that were already there.

It seems to me that part of the difficulty in "implementing" the Curriculum for Excellence, or any shiny new curriculum, really, has been the assumption when any great change takes place that everything which came before it is now defunct - dreary and old, in effect. Experienced teachers have every right to feel slighted by this, even if it is only a perception. A situation should never arise in which previous practice is dismissed, whether that is done mistakenly or not. Effective ways of informing, collaborating and engaging with teachers were missed; communication came across as flawed, but it is not too late. The biggest challenges still to come are surely in preserving the best bits of what is happening and merging them with newer ideas. Whatever works best.

You could argue that it is these new ideas that provide the energy and thrust of any new curriculum. We also must keep in mind that recent entrants into the profession will be aware of nothing else. They are not influenced by the past, nor indeed are they holding on to something long past its sell-by date. But they are also the source of some of the most original, creative ideas around. The Diderot effect will only occur if we undervalue either past or future. Without the best of all worlds, our curriculum will be a shadow of what it could be.

The only true measure of success of any new curriculum is that it is a damned sight better than the last one, not merely something new. Our education systems require us to be the best we can be, at all times. To achieve that, we need to take the best things from everywhere, whether past, present or future.

The "narrator" in Diderot's essay becomes obsessed with newness. In doing so, he ends up ruined. There is a real danger that unless we start nailing down the best parts, our curriculum will become just another new set of clothes and a wonderful opportunity will have been missed.

It's time to get back to doing what we do best. The rest of the world, at one point in our romanticised view of the past, looked to our curriculum structures with envy. There is no reason that this can't be the case again.

In a year in which pay discussions loom large, we should, as part of a modern-day version of the 2001 McCrone agreement about Scottish teachers' pay and conditions, be prepared to demand a say on the future of the curriculum. We should make promises that we will engage with research if we are given the space to do so - but more teachers are required, please.

I understand that there's a lot of resentment out there, often rightly so, about time wasted in bringing about educational reform. But if there's a real chance of a curriculum approaching anywhere near "excellent", then it's worth fighting for.

A few years ago, I bumped into that old teacher. He'd gone back to university to study something he loved and he looked 20 years younger. He had been burned out by a profession he no longer believed in. I don't want that to happen to me. I want to look back and be proud that I was part of something special.

Kenny Pieper is a teacher of English in Scotland

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