Book of the week

17th November 2000 at 00:00
SCHOOL SUBJECT TEACHING: the history and future of the curriculum. Edited by Ashley Kent. Kogan Page pound;40.

This important book demonstrates the range and depth of the London Institute of Education's contribution to teaching, learning and the curriculum. It also vividly illustrates the longevity of the subject-based structure of the secondary curriculum. Of the 10 subjects under scrutiny, only one, business and economics, would not have appeared in the regulated secondary curriculum of 1905.

The subject departments of the institute, from which the chapters come, have a formidable reputation. Their continued existence and strength illustrates the power of subject communities in influencing the shape and form of the secondary curriculum. Each of the major subjects, except physical education and technology, is considered.

The chapters work loosely to a common framework covering issues such as research, international developments and teacher education. It would be unthinkable, however, for a group of institute academics all to sing the same tune, and personal interests appear. ICT, for example, is well covered in history, but less so in other subjects.

All the chapters provide valuable and comprehensive analysis of the subjects they describe. The book is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the secondary curriculum. It must have been a challenging task to achieve consistent quality across such a range of contributors, and Ashley Kent is to be congratulated on the outcome.

There are some interesting insights into subject development. Alan Hornsey's carefully nuanced critique of communicative strategies in modern foreign language teaching, Charles Plummeridge's review of research in music education and Ruth-Anne Lenga and colleagues' analysis of religious education in a post-religious age are three particularly interesting examples. Sheila Turner and Tony Turner's diagrammatic historical representation of the recent history of science education provides an excellent synthesis of a complex but important field.

Inevitably there are quibbles. Clare Tikly's stimulating chapter on mathematics underplays the impact of "new maths" in the Sixties and Seventies with all the significance that movement had for the subsequent development of the subject.

The interesting chapter on English by Tony Burgess and John Hardcastle has the rather limp conclusion that "how the subject will develop in the schools in future looks presently to lie with government". English teachers have a stronger nerve than this suggests. The role of the National Association for the Teaching of English, for example, in resisting some of the excesses of pupil testing in the Nineties, an event curiously omitted from the chapter, represens for me a key event in reasserting the importance of teacher and parental, rather than central governmental, influence on curriculum.

The main title of the book describes the content well. I am less sure the subtitle, "The history and the future of the curriculum", does likewise. Denis Lawton in a postscript makes the point that no serious educationist would now pretend that a list of subjects on its own can produce a satisfactory whole curriculum. There is little evidence in this volume, however, of concern about the future of the curriculum. The subject worlds described are largely sealed. I looked in vain , for example, in the chapters on the arts subjects for references to Ken Robinson's influential work across the creative arts.

There are great strengths in subject communities. The influential Harvard guru Howard Gardner believes that students are most fully engaged and most productive when they lead a life in which disciplined training has become a regular and predictable feature.

While subjects are important, however, it does not follow that they exist in isolation, or that of necessity the curriculum as a whole is framed and structured around subject boundaries.

New models of secondary education, responsive to contemporary pressures, require new curriculum models. These must emerge as we move into a new phase of secondary school reform. And yet, as so often in the past, subjects can feel threatened unless they work in well patrolled and clearly defined environments.

This book shows how established and secure subject communities now are. From that position of strength they have the opportunity to reach out, forge new alliances and respond collectively to some of the exciting new possibilities opened up by the revolutions in learning theories and the new teaching and learning technologies now available.

A challenge for the secondary system is how to fuse the best of subject teaching into new models of school and curricular organisation. This is especially true post-14 and momentum is building up for change. Several influential commentators, including David Hargreaves and his predecessor at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, Nick Tate, are challenging the hugely expensive GCSE examination system, which falls like a fault line across the upper secondary curriculum.

Few countries, and hardly any in Europe, have retained this concept of a "learning" examination. This sort of feature needs to be addressed urgently. The institute, more than most institutions, is well placed to play a major role in such debates, open up some of the boundaries, and suggest new ways of interrelating subjects, pedagogies and curriculum.

Bob Moon is professor of education at the Open University

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