Book review: What Should Schools Teach?

A much-needed discussion about the relationship between the why, what and how we teach

Kevin Rooney

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What Should Schools Teach?: disciplines, subjects and the pursuit of truth
By Alex Standish and Alka Sehgal Cuthbert
UCL IoE Press
172pp, £19.99, paperback
ISBN: 9781782772170


What is the difference between a curriculum and a school timetable? And what is the difference between a scheme of work and an exam specification?

Sadly, the answers to these questions are no longer clear. A recent meeting I attended on the curriculum ended up focusing on how we allocate time slots to subjects and what time the school day should start and finish. Likewise, schemes of work today are often little more than sexed-up exam specs.

I long for more discussion about the relationship between the why, what and how do we teach? How do we know what goes into a curriculum? How do we decide what knowledge is important for children to learn? What even counts as knowledge? Where does it come from? What is knowledge for? How is knowledge different in the sciences, arts and humanities – and what does it mean to make progress in each?

Just when I was beginning to lose hope of such a debate happening, an early Christmas present landed on my desk in the shape of this wonderful book. With contributions from academics and practising teachers, it tackles the questions I long to explore.

The first point it makes is that the content of the curriculum is not a scientific process. Decisions about what is important for children to learn are philosophical questions about who we are and what we value.

In a powerful introduction, Alex Standish and Sehgal Cuthbert argue that many new teachers are unclear about the role of disciplines and knowledge in the curriculum.

For those already working in the profession, subjects have come to be viewed less in terms of epistemic principles and values and more as a means to instrumentalist ends.

Blurring the boundaries

Because of this, the curriculum is being treated as a tool to address economic and social issues, rather than for the development of knowledge and understanding.

The blurring of the boundaries between school and society has facilitated an approach where knowledge is treated as a means to achieve other aims, such as health and wellbeing and environmental awareness.

Particularly damaging is the way education is increasingly treated as a preparation for work. School is becoming regarded a place where children should develop skills and competences for employment, rather than a place of learning for the sake of learning.

In the following chapters, contributors put forward a robust rationale for and understanding of what schools should teach. They recognise that pedagogy is important and should not be dismissed. However, various contributors argue that what we should teach needs to be thrashed out and agreed before we discuss how to teach it.

The million-dollar question is: what should we teach? How do we arrive at a consensus about a common curriculum? This is where the book becomes particularly challenging. There are no easy answers, but opening up this debate is exciting and stimulating.

Because our society appears to lack a common foundation of beliefs and values with which to inform that project, there is plenty to debate. Standish and Sehgal Cuthbert think the curriculum should be informed by the pursuit of truth and freedom.

The editors make an important distinction between disciplines and subjects: production of knowledge (discipline) takes place in university and the transmission of knowledge (subject) takes place in school.

Most school subjects derive from or have a connection with disciplinary knowledge that emerges from universities and broader culture – this should inform the curriculum. But knowledge is not static or set in stone. Rather, as society develops, we take from the past and add to it. Or, as Matthew Arnold put it, “we stand on the shoulders of giants as we pass on our intellectual inheritance to the young generation”.

The challenge is to take on the task of working out what subject knowledge to teach and how. As this book reminds us, to do that we need to recognise that subject knowledge and the curriculum need to be constantly revisited and augmented.

Mostly, though, this book urges us to think again about what lies at the heart of the curriculum. If you know teachers who are jaded by spreadsheets and league tables, buy them this book for Christmas to remind them why they became a teacher.

Kevin Rooney is head of social science at Queens’ School in Bushey, Hertfordshire

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