Curriculum is alive and well

10th April 2009 at 01:00

Michael Fullan, in his work on educational change, identifies an "implementation dip". He argues it is important to recognise it for what it is, a dip, and not assume that the first sign of difficulty means the whole process is flawed. There can be re-grouping, a review of progress and a move forward.

It seems A Curriculum for Excellence is experiencing such a dip. To read Lindsay Paterson's critique ("Teaching in the dock", March 6), one might get the impression that, if not dead, it must be seriously ill. I fear Lindsay has missed the main point.

The ministerial review group which produced A Curriculum for Excellence looked at the work going on in many countries and at the aims devised by Unesco for education in the 21st century. Most importantly, it built on the best of what was taking place.

ACfE does not represent "year zero". All the principles of 5-14 (breadth and balance, continuity, coherence and progression) remain, augmented by personalisation and choice, relevance, challenge and enjoyment, and depth. These are crucial additions to the principles which should underpin a curriculum for the 21st century. Depth is overdue as a principle; too often teachers and pupils scratch the surface of learning. Excessive breadth at primary and high-stakes exams in secondary are partly to blame. Indeed, it is an indictment of Highers that the most able can gain significant success without a deep understanding of the subject or any real conception of the discipline; simply learning the syllabus is enough.

Challenge and enjoyment is a key principle of ACfE. The pairing of these two concepts renders Lindsay Paterson's accusation, that fun is the goal, wholly inappropriate. Enjoyment in learning comes when the learner is challenged; pupils have told us in many research reports that they value teachers who make them do their best work, but who make learning enjoyable.

In short, ACfE is not about "dumbing down"; nor is it a threat to disciplines. The dichotomy of disciplines and inter-disciplinary studies is wholly false. As Howard Gardner argues in Five Minds for the Future, the disciplined mind and the synthesising mind will both be crucial in this century. He argues that "it is inappropriate to characterise work as genuinely interdisciplinary unless it entails the proper combination of at least two disciplines".

The new curriculum is therefore about deep learning which will outlast exams. The key is not, as Professor Paterson seems to think, "the didacticism of the expert": it is pedagogy, the meeting place of theory, research and practice. Being an expert in a discipline does not guarantee expertise in teaching; nor does interdisciplinary study pose a threat to disciplines.

ACfE offers teachers a chance to become re-professionalised, to rediscover their creativity and to use their skills in the pursuit of understanding for all. The tyranny of exams, the fragmentation of the curriculum, excessive focus on timetabling and putting pupils into ability sets have combined to make young people's experience in many of our schools tame and limited.

The traditional model of curriculum reform in Scotland, where there is tight prescription from the centre in terms of content and exams but a loose, decentralised approach to continuing professional development, needs to be reversed. We need more opportunity for diversity and creativity, and a greater emphasis on high-quality CPD for all teachers.

We can build on our strengths, promote deep learning through disciplines and interdisciplinary studies, and create an assessment and qualifications system which serves the needs of learners - if we have the courage to do so.

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

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today