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Move away from superficial learning

I suppose it was only a matter of time before we began to hear the siren calls to speed up the implementation of A Curriculum for Excellence. But what's the rush?

A Curriculum for Excellence, described by Jerome Brunner as "a brilliant and ambitious document", represents a unique opportunity for the education community to rediscover the idealism and vision that brought many of us into the profession. It is based, essentially, on trust; freeing the profession from the shackles of a centrally-driven model which sought to tell them what to teach, when to teach it and for how many minutes a week to teach it. It assumes that teachers are capable of taking the framework of purposes and principles and, with support, of creating the right kind of curriculum to meet their pupils' needs.

Let's remember that A Curriculum for Excellence has its origins in the out-come of a national debate on education. It found that there was genuine confidence in the Scottish education system but that there were some causes for concern, notably the overcrowded curriculum, transitions and a lack of genuine choice for pupils. The report on the curriculum, fulfilling its remit, set out a framework and this appears to have received a cautious welcome from the profession.

The unwillingness to rush towards implementation, normally in the form of "guidelines", is, in my view, a strength rather than a weakness. If ACfE is to set the groundwork for a curriculum for the 21st century, then we need as much discussion as possible about its implementation.

In recent months, HMIE launched its impressive web-based resource to support A Journey to Excellence and the Scottish Qualifications Authority has embarked on a series of seminars to explore different approaches to national assessment and certification. These are hopeful signs.

Of course, there are vested interests in a subject-based curriculum, who cry foul when cross-curricular approaches are proposed. But research does not support their fears that inter-disciplinary approaches "have a negative impact on the integrity of individual subjects"; quite the reverse.

The evidence from the Queensland New Basics programme, with its radical "rich tasks" approach to assessment, suggests that when learning is organised on inter-disciplinary lines, the individual disciplines are strengthened because their contribution to the topic has to be made explicit. The uncomfortable fact is that, at present, even the highest attaining youngsters in our system can get an A at Higher with only a superficial understanding of the discipline they have been studying.

The challenge of A Curriculum for Excellence is profound. Can we move away from superficial learning, from an exam-driven curriculum to one which puts deep learning and understanding at the heart of the matter? Can we have a curriculum which puts inter-disciplinary learning not as an alternative to, but on a par with, individual subjects - for all learners, not just the very young or the "non-academic"?

Brian Boyd is professor of education at Strathclyde University and was a member of the review group which produced A Curriculum for Excellence.

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