Let the children think

HMI's decision to squeeze out the topic study was a retrograde step for primary schools, says Robin Frame

IT is some years now since Her Majesty's Inspectorate squeezed out the use of integrated topics from primary schools. It is now time to weigh up that decision and its consequences. I'm biased. I think they were wrong, desperately wrong. Further, I predict that HMI will soon admit this and take credit for recognising the error. Here are a few reasons why.

There is pressure from a variety of quarters to see education holistically. There is pressure to address the idea of teaching children to think. Perhaps there are the beginnings of pressure from those who recognise that dissatisfaction with what is on offer, and expected, by schools is a cause of "indiscipline".

Let us identify a few of the calls for the holistic approach. Health education experts envision the health promoting school, where every aspect from the toilet doors to choice of European language can be seen as an aspect of health. Citizenship refuses to be constrained by the conventions of subject boundaries. It wants to permeate all areas - somehow.

Everything should be considered as a component of citizenship. Perhaps the most forceful supporter of this holistic approach is enterprise. Supporters argue that it adds reality to the curriculum. It gives a common purpose for the kinds of reading, writing, counting, talk and creativity which would otherwise be undertaken as unconnected activities.

Add to these stances the positions taken by "subject specialists" - that their discipline best opens a view on the world. Try this little test. Fill in as many subject areas, or academic disciplines, as you can for X in the following sentence. "It is through the study of "X" that one learns to collect information, organise it in such a way that patterns appear, make up explanations, then test these against further facts all with a view to understanding how the world works."

There should be quite a few. Indeed, if something is not contributing to this, should it be there? The sentence offers a reasonable description of the process in which any understanding of the world is built up. Notice that this model mimics and formalises the process whereby a child (and other creatures) makes sense of the world.

There is nothing in common between this vision and the teaching of a set of facts selected so that pencil and paper can test them. An axiom of 5-14 is this: the words "knowledge and understanding" are to be treated as one thing, not separated and considered as two notions brought together, nor ever thought of as a representation of the unimaginably complex notion of "thinking". In 5-14, this limited perception of "knowledge and understanding" too easily becomes "recall".

We are living, I am told, in a culture of accountability. I like the cautionary saying that you don't fatten a pig by weighing it. Let's spell that out. You don't educate a child by testing it. Try that another way. The result of a fixation with accountability will be a test-based curriculum. Once you have that, teachers will see their duty as enabling children to "pass". Secondary teachers have always known this and accept they must "get children through". They know also how this pressurises them and restricts the education they can offer.

How did we get in this mess? We know what we should be doing. We know that our job is to educate - to nurture and support (as the late John Aitkenhead of Kilquhannity free school insisted).

Consider the smallness of the current curriculum. The smallness? Yes, calls for less content hide the rather obvious fact that 5-14 offers precious little to occupy a child's brain. That's because the brain is a thinking device not a data store.

The virtue of education in the primary sector, as I first observed it in the 1970s, was its drive towards openness and breadth. There was an acceptance that we were there to encourage thinking. Children were to be challenged. The teacher's role was to help children express their views and ideas about how the world works (bits of it at a time) and then to introduce questions, problems, phenomena and the ideas of others with the intention of helping the child (or children - collaborating groups were popular) improve on these theories. We allowed and encouraged the children to theorise and wonder - in short, to think.

or some years this approach was supported and resourced, becoming a recognised Scottish approach. The integrated curriculum, what we called locally the topic study, generated resonances around the world. The past 10 years have reduced it to little more than a folk memory. It is there, though, in the form of exemplars, as a way of teaching, as a vision. It is there as a mechanism that can produce the desired integration, the holistic approach. It is there, and capable of making children think.

We could serve the interest groups. We could offer an integrated approach, a tried and tested method. We could service those who intuitively see that our present restricted curriculum simply doesn't grab children, so isn't nurturing or supporting them. Our present guidelines, together with the emphasis on accountability, are not helping children learn how to think.

Why don't we accept this? What will it take to see sense, to give it a go - to try it? After all, we can guarantee that it will work. Who ever heard of an educational initiative that didn't claim to be the answer and to prove it with numbers? It is, at heart, though, a question of belief. Why are we here, what should we be doing, what is schooling all about? What, dare I ask, is childhood for?

Arise! We have nothing to lose - but our strands.

Robin Frame enjoys his academic freedom in the primary education department at Strathclyde University.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you