Hooked in by red herrings

26th June 2009 at 01:00
The debate about A Curriculum for Excellence

The debate about A Curriculum for Excellence is appallingly shallow at times. Gill Robinson was right to tackle a number of myths that have arisen (TESS, June 22). But did she really have to remind teachers that active learning is about exercise for the brain, not the body?

One area of ACfE where myths or red herrings proliferate is interdisciplinary working, or what I have heard recently described as "unifying the curriculum".

Readers of this column will know I'm a fan. I would love to see the highly successful "Joyning the Learning" work in primary translated into secondary schools. But I recognise that this is a difficult area in practice for secondaries as they are presently constituted.

Thirty-five years ago, in my second year as a teacher, I volunteered to be seconded to Fife's multimedia resources centre in Kennoway. It had been set up partly to cope with the overspill from nearby over-subscribed secondary schools and partly to experiment by offering multidisciplinary themes.

S1 or 2 classes or non-certificate S3 or 4 classes were bussed to the centre. They worked with the one teacher for an entire morning or afternoon on a theme - for example, "flight", "lighthouses", "farming". Who chose these themes, and why, I could never work out.

I wasn't expected to do any teaching in the traditional sense of the term. When pupils were with me, they worked in groups to complete worksheets on different aspects of the theme. Each group would take turns to visit the drama, science, technical and art areas of the centre to undertake the theme work. And, as part of the flight theme, each group had the chance to go up in a glider.

It was a brave experiment by a go-ahead authority. But the pupils had it well sussed. They called the Kennoway Centre the "multi-mental", and they were right. Let's leave aside the death-by-a-thousand-worksheets approach. Even if it had worked, how could it transfer into mainstream schools, as those behind the experiment hoped would happen?

Here we are, more than 30 years on, and what secondary teachers and schools are expected to do and how they are run has hardly budged an inch. I can summarise in three words: exams, subjects, timetable. You could argue that secondary schools, instead of changing what they do, have become more and more expert at what they have always done: getting pupils through exams.

Do they get thanked for this? You are joking. They are criticised by successive governments, because they still don't get enough pupils through exams and by people like me for not innovating enough at the same time.

No wonder teachers get a little frustrated, even annoyed at times, and are tempted to throw a few red herrings into the ACfE debate. What those who support interdisciplinary working need to do is to lay out a strong case as to why it's a good idea, what is actually proposed and how it could actually work in practice in secondary schools.

I have left myself too little space to discuss these issues in greater depth. So I'll confine myself to answering some of the questions that I and others need to address.

Why do we need more interdisciplinary working in the first place? If we do, how much time should be devoted to it - over a week, a session, a student's time in secondary school? Does it mean that subject expertise and content will become irrelevant? If we accept that some or all pupils need to go deep into subject disciplines at some point, when should that be? And, of course, how can timetablers cope?

These are fat questions, so let's not rush to answer them until we are sure we have it right. More or better questions on a postcard please.

Ian Smith is founder of Learning Unlimited.

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