Inspiration essential

5th December 2008 at 00:00
Teachers have been told to 'go with the flow' at a masterclass held by the Tapestry Partnership, and look at the best alternative ways of doing things. Elizabeth Buie reports

One of the architects of A Curriculum for Excellence has described its progress as "unduly slow" and called on teachers to be "bolder".

Keir Bloomer, who served on the curriculum review group which produced the original vision for the reform in 2004, said there had been a failure to "sell it" in inspirational terms. The former chief executive of Clackmannanshire Council, who chairs the Tapestry Partnership, told a Tapestry masterclass in how to provide the "challenge and enjoyment" element of the new curriculum, that too many people still misunderstood what ACfE was trying to achieve.

It was not about telling people what to do but providing a broad framework within which people would do things for themselves.

Fiona Hyslop, the Education Secretary, had worked hard to put some momentum back into the programme in the past six to seven months, mainly by exhorting groups such as the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland to do more, he said: "That is good but not quite the same thing as trying to ensure that a message is being sent out that teachers, parents and others will find inspiring.

"We have gone too quickly and too completely from the original Curriculum for Excellence focus on big ideas to Building the Curriculum 3 minutiae."

His criticisms were meant as constructive and he, like many people, desperately wanted ACfE to work. Organisations such as the Tapestry Partnership could link what was happening in Scotland with the broader stream of international thinking, he said. All countries were developing their own ACfE, but none had made the breakthrough into transformational practice, because nobody was prepared to be sufficiently challenging to the 19th-century education system.

Teachers had been assured that the framework (page 13 of the Building the Curriculum 3) would tell them how to put the reforms into action. But it did not, he said: "It is just a random collection of lists lacking in organisation and structure."

Still, the document was important in that it emphasised the significance of the seven curriculum principles behind ACfE. Breadth, progression and coherence had been around for some time. Four new ones: challenge and enjoyment, depth, personalisation and choice, and relevance were the driving forces.

Mr Bloomer revealed he had some concerns about the way that challenge and enjoyment, and personalisation and choice, had been shackled together. "There are forms of enjoyment that are passive; there are forms of enjoyment which consist of the avoidance of challenge. But they are linked in an educational context and the approach that links the two together is achievement."

A "challenged" brain grew, while a "stressed" brain atrophied, he said. Challenge had to be difficult but not impossible, grounded in real-life problems, and contain a source of intrinsic reward. This theory came from the Hungarian-born American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, architect of the notion of "flow" - that people are most happy when they are in a state of flow, a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation they are in.

"A Curriculum for Excellence calls for a combination of challenge and personalisation. I am not suggesting that knowledge is not important - it is the foundation of all understanding," he said. "What is important is not its continuous retention but the intellectual rigour it represents."

Twenty years ago, while conducting a review of Strathclyde Regional Council's outdoor centres, Mr Bloomer realised their importance lay in the provision of a formative social experience within a framework of purposeful activity.

Every Scottish school should be offering every pupil an entitlement to formative experiences, such as participation in a residential outdoor course, contributing to a dramatic performance, or involvement in running a mini-enterprise, he said.

The economy of the 21st century would depend on creative ideas, not on the production of things. Another guiding principle was that it should offer "enjoyment". This was not the same as "fun", he pointed out. "Promoting enjoyment is difficult but attainable through effective pedagogy and quality teaching."

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