Knowledge can take wing with subject experts

2nd July 2010 at 01:00

A categorical requirement for Scottish teachers and their pupils is that specialist knowledge should be respected and nurtured. The lead story in The TESS, June 18, reported how Tony Finn, chief executive of the General Teaching Council for Scotland, was warning Scottish teachers about moves in England to dilute subject specialism.

Like the mocking rumbles of early thunder, another threat to specialism is the grouping of subjects in faculties, allied with the manipulation of the principles of Curriculum for Excellence itself. The directive that planning the curriculum must consistently take account of the need to develop wider skills in all subjects and courses is being swivelled to diminish rigour when it comes to the qualifications of teachers.

The references in recent documentation to the entitlements of learners rather than curricular content might be responsible for the menacing whispers that question the need to preserve the knowledge base of subjects. Budget cuts now determine much of what is happening in schools. Teachers, like pawns on a chess board, are moved about by the keepers of the purse strings to suit the economics of their local circumstances. The logic of interdisciplinary learning can easily be fudged, so fallacious arguments are put forward about how cross-curricular projects mean that we all teach everything.

Consider what Curriculum for Excellence is about. It claims to offer to all learners "a clear entitlement to a broad general education, including experiences and outcomes up to and including the third level, as far as that is consistent with needs and prior achievement".

This flabby statement needs a knife to cut through its layers and expose what lies at the heart. What do pupils want? From first to sixth year in secondary, the themes remain fairly constant. The quality of the relationship with the teacher is important, a variety of teaching and learning strategies keep the learners hooked, and content matters in terms of quality and interest.

Central areas of knowledge are crucial and diluting these would remove a key part of what arouses the curiosity of young people. Maslow's theory that humans have a need to use their intelligence to chase knowledge has not, as far as I am aware, been challenged.

This drive is evident early in life. My two-year-old grandson's most frequently asked question is "what's that?" While he is clearly motivated to learn new skills, often by observing others, he is single-minded in his quest for knowledge. I watch him standing still as he sees a bird flying in the sky and I imagine his brain turning somersaults as he allows himself to wander in the realms of delightful inquiry. He has no limitations.

I also see that wide-eyed thirst for cognitive satisfaction in some senior pupils who, thankfully, have not had their capacity for wonder and fascination drilled out of them.

Ultimately, the people who can create a sustained vision of glorious knowledge in the classroom are the subject experts. For that reason we must make sure the content of the new qualifications is not a pallid shadow of the accumulated wisdom of centuries. Our children deserve a better inheritance than that.

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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