Kids are all right, it's the curriculum

Seeing educationas purely transmitting knowledge is simplistic, argues Joan Mowat

The TESS debate headlined "Why do kids disengage?" (December 2, 2005) made me realise we were posing the wrong question. The real one is: "Why does the curriculum disengage from children?"

Lindsay Paterson pointed out that the questions for the future relate to conceptualising what the reasonable citizen of Scotland might be expected to know and be able to do today.

However, while it may seem contradictory and counter-intuitive, the very question of posing what might be the appropriate curriculum for young people may take us down the same route of pupil disengagement.

More than a century ago, John Dewey wrestled with this problem. He theorised that the conceptualisation of the curriculum in adult terms lay at the root of the difficulty. This can be exemplified nowadays in the alacrity with which every problem society faces is put down to the need for education, most of it to be delivered within an already overcrowded curriculum, which many believe has led us to our present state of affairs.

It stems from treating teaching as a transmission model from one generation to the next, with knowledge being neatly packaged into subjects to be delivered to the awaiting, empty vessels.

However, the "vessels" are not empty; nor can they be filled in this simplistic manner. People arrive at any learning situation with prior knowledge, and the conceptions or misconceptions which come with it. This has arisen from their interactions with others and previous life experiences - unique to each individual. People can make sense of the new knowledge only if they have something which they can relate to it, and it will become part of their way of thinking only if they have the opportunity to use it in their daily lives.

Thus, for many youngsters, the well-intentioned actions of adults to transmit knowledge and culture fail because they make no connection. Young people cannot see the relevance of what is taught to them, nor can they put it into meaningful use in their daily lives; when was the last time you used Pythagoras's Theorem?

The failure lies in equating telling with teaching and teaching with learning.

There are many tensions within the current curriculum which arise because of the many adult claims upon it. This is exemplified in the press when any part of the curriculum appears to be under threat - witness the heated debates about the place of history and modern languages.

However, as long as we justify the place of certain subjects within the curriculum solely in adult terms - the need for educated individuals to take their place in a multicultural Europe; the need for young people to add to the wealth of the country through entrepreneurship; the need for people to be active citizens - we miss the point. These are important, but there has to be a balance between what adults want of their society and the needs of learners, and they are not necessarily the same.

Dewey stated: "If we identify ourselves with the real instincts and needs of childhood, and ask only after its fullest assertion and growth, the discipline and information and culture of adult life shall all come in their own due season."

This is quite a difficult concept to accept and it poses the question:

"What are the real instincts and needs of childhood?" Perhaps one way of illustrating the above is to think of the curiosity of the child and the search for meaning which is satisfied in play and in hisher interactions with others. Why does this happen? The need to know and to understand is not an added extra to human life which can be dispensed with; it is fundamental to humanity and to survival of the species.

So how can society, schools and individual teachers nurture the natural desire of children to learn? The difficulty is that, for some, the candle flame has already begun to dim even before they reach the school gates. The most important thing adults can give children (apart from basic nurturing) is their time, patience, understanding and passion for life. Many parents, particularly in deprived areas, cannot fulfil these needs because of the pressures of their daily lives, and perhaps also because of a failure to understand their importance in a child's development.

Thus, the starting point has to be supporting families by offering high-quality pre-five provision locally. Several schemes do just that: reading initiatives; toy co-operatives and playgroups etc. Indeed, some of the most exciting initiatives in education are within this sector.

However, what form should teaching take at all stages of a child's learning? At this point, there needs to be a convergence between the needs of society and the needs of the individual learner. No matter the subject matter, the starting point has to rest with the child and it is the role of the educator to mediate the life of the child with the needs of society.

Teaching for understanding has to lie at the heart of the endeavour. It is the role of teachers to try to ensure that what they are teaching allows the child to engage meaningfully with the subject matter. It should allow scope for the child's natural curiosity and foster the child's capacity for self-directed learning (supported and "scaffolded" by the teacher).

Teachers must be clear about what it is they want children to understand and the routes through which pupils will develop and demonstrate this understanding. They also need to give feedback to enable children to gauge their progress towards these goals. This is not new: it is exemplified in David Perkins's work in America on Teaching for Understanding. However, its potential in Scottish education has never been fully realised.

The time could not be better for Scottish education. The pruning of the curriculum - a major aspect of A Curriculum for Excellence - should provide teachers with the ideal opportunity to make their work more meaningful for Scottish pupils so they can engage with it and their own personal journey of lifelong learning.

Joan Mowat is a lecturer at Strathclyde University.

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