Curriculum must save our subjects

9th March 2007 at 00:00
is chair of the Geographical Association's education committee The curriculum Jacobins are on the march, setting up guillotines in The TES. Gathered are some learned professors, a few pallid members of a Department for Education and Skills policy unit, and some ambitious deputy heads. On the tumbrels are various national curriculum subjects, symbols of the old order, guilty of everything from disaffected youth to disaffected teachers: because subjects are so academic, so retro.

It's true that the key stage 3 curriculum subjects look pretty similar to those in the 1904 secondary regulations. Transport an Edwardian 12-year-old into 2007 and many subjects on the timetable would seem familiar. But open the classroom door and much of what they might experience would be very different.

In geography, a 12-year-old in 1904 would likely have been learning about the British Isles - its towns, agricultural products, industries. Today, they may well be studying the diversity of British society or the economic geography of sport. Tomorrow they could be using geographic information systems (GIS) technology to investigate global links, or the geography of mobile phones. The world has changed and our understanding continually advances.

Far from being outdated remnants of a bygone age, subjects are dynamic, changing with the times. Let's think of them as disciplines of thought, communities of professional understanding that support this dynamism. It is interesting, too, how similar "ours" look to those studied in other European countries. In the early 21st century, a framework of subjects is still a useful way to help us define and select what we want young people to experience.

There is another reason why subjects have offered a lasting solution to framing our curriculum: subject knowledge is a vital source of teachers'

expertise. Great teachers know what they're talking about, ask good questions and explain well (some of the qualities that pupils most admire).

Understanding their discipline helps teachers to sequence learning and match it to pupils' needs. Good subject knowledge helps to develop successful learners.

The latest revision of the national curriculum is an opportunity for us all to re-think our priorities for this age group. Should we follow the Jacobins? The wiser sans-culottes in the staff room may conclude that evolutionary change will serve our pupils better when reconsidering, in the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's elegant phrase, "the learning the nation sets before our young".


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