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Are you ready for the next revolution?

TEACHERS might be forgiven for thinking that, after 25 years of major curricular reform, they are due a period of stability and consolidation.

First there was Standard grade, then 5-14 and finally Higher Still. Now that the key elements of the reform programme are in place surely all that will be required will be periodic updating? Forget it. We are about to enter a new phase which will bring about more radical changes in the primary and secondary curriculum.

It is perhaps no accident that one of the questions to be addressed in the forthcoming national debate is "What should children learn?" This will provide an opportunity to raise fundamental issues about the nature of the curriculum, of a kind that have not really featured in professional discourse since the publication of the Munn report in 1977.

The years following Munn have been marked by an increasing concern with managerial and operational matters, and a progressive sidelining of basic questions of meaning and purpose. I predict that the new debate will be extremely unsettling for teachers in the short term but that, in the longer term, it may enable them to break out of the centralised control from which they have suffered for too long.

A revolution is taking place which will challenge our notions of what schools are for. Traditional approaches to curriculum design start from the assumption that the whole of knowledge can be reduced to a few central cases (variously called subjects, disciplines, forms of knowledge), which represent distinct ways of knowing and structuring experience. These central cases are defined as "worthwhile" knowledge and the job of schools is to initiate youngsters into the various fields. Such a view is no longer tenable.

First, the huge expansion of knowledge and, in particular, the growth of interdisciplinary fields of enquiry, renders the conventional categories inadequate. Second, the pace of knowledge generation is such that, in many fields, findings become obsolete within a few years: the notion of schools passing on an approved "body of knowledge" thus becomes questionable. Third, the growth of information technology and the rapid developments in related media offer new forms of accessing and acquiring knowledge which serve to challenge the monopoly of educational institutions.

Taken together, these developments suggest that the capacity of educators to act as the "gatekeepers" of worthwhile knowledge cannot be sustained.

One important consequence is that the rationally planned curriculum is no longer possible. What is the alternative? Some would say that the way forward is to focus on skill acquisition - learning how to learn, thinking skills, information processing, problem-solving. This emphasis on learning processes and the construction of meaning has some attractions, but it can be oversold. Learning does not occur in a vacuum. As Dewey pointed out a long time ago, it must have some object - that is, some content. The difficulty is that we can no longer be sure of the nature of that content.

This will pose a threat to some teachers, particularly secondary teachers, whose sense of professional identity is closely tied up with their subject expertise.

But there are also opportunities in this situation. In the uncertainties of the postmodern world, the role of the teacher changes but does not become obsolete. Giving up the security of the subject-based curriculum opens the door to diversity, creativity and innovation. Professional judgment becomes more important than following guidelines. Such a situation could be liberating - and not just for the teacher.

Teachers and pupils might even find themselves able to take control of a joint enterprise that would be a genuine learning experience for both.

Walter Humes is professor of education and head of educational studies at Strathclyde University.

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