Let's make learning irresistible

19th May 2006 at 01:00
Catch their curiosity and pull them in, says Mick Waters. We all need to work together to inspire and excite our pupils

I have an amazing job. I have been asked to "develop a modern world-class curriculum that will inspire and challenge all learners and prepare them for the future". Can you imagine being asked to do that? I'm sure you can.

That is what teachers all over the country try to do every day. Heads too.

Despite all the teaching and learning responsibilities, the workforce reform, the targets and the self-evaluation forms, most teachers are driven by the challenge of preparing young people for their future.

My team at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is trying to get it right on a national scale, working in partnership with those in schools, colleges and other settings to make that vital difference to young people's lives.

Of course, it is an uncertain future. The advance of new technology, our shifting employment base, our ageing population and the movement of people around the globe all have an effect. If we are to prepare our young people for the future, then we have to help them to get ready to live in a very different world. Add to that the changing patterns of childhood, the enormous steps forward in what we know about the brain and how people learn, and we see the importance of thinking afresh about the curriculum.

We have recognised that the authority in the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority will come from a belief in our credibility, our willingness to engage in debate and to lead thinking and practice about the curriculum and how it will best influence the life chances of all learners. By all, we mean all: the gifted, the talented, the looked-after, the speakers of English as second language, the disabled, the carer, the newly arrived, the mobile, the struggler. Young people can fall into more than one of these groups, but every single one deserves the best we can offer.

The curriculum is vast - "the entire planned learning experience". As well as lessons, learning takes place in the events and routines of school, and wise schools recognise what happens outside school time as important learning opportunities. Knitting it all together is the challenge.

Every moment of every day matters. The experience of being part of a school performance may teach drama, music, art and dance. The limelight, chorus line, backstage or front of house can teach pupils about project management, improvisation, rehearsal, teamwork, determination, profit and loss, and public relations. Similarly, a sports event might teach PE. Well managed, it will also help learning about hosting or visiting, winning with grace or losing with dignity. School life affords the chance to learn positively or negatively about relationships, using a library, the value of worship, the etiquette of dining, or making a contribution to the community.

Subjects are vital. The national curriculum is part of the big picture that we are encouraging schools to think about in planning pupils' learning experience. How do we make sure the content makes sense to them? And how do we make the subjects play their part in the big picture? A picture that includes the Every Child Matters agenda as well as employment, respect, international affairs, spiritual, ethical, citizenship and equalities agendas.

If we are serious about learning, we have to bring it to life. We have to excite tomorrow's scientists about the difference they could make to humanity, encourage the mathematicians to see the impact they could make in engineering, to show our linguists how they can influence the business world, and to focus our communicators on the potential impact of the media, and promote our cooks, designers, inventors, peacemakers and builders through showing where the discipline of learning can take them.

We have to be clear about "what we want our children to be like" at any particular age. At the QCA, we have found that there is a broad consensus around the aims for education. Our society seems to want young people to be successful learners, confident individuals and responsible citizens. That's helpful, since that's what the national curriculum has always set out to achieve. Many people have not read that bit and have got on with teaching the content without the exhilaration of orchestrating real learning or real achievement in pupils.

We are working with people all over the country, "co-developers" of the curriculum. It is not so much the content that we need to work on but the way it meets the learner.

How are we trying to help? We are working on the big picture and trying to help schools come to terms with the challenge they face in a confident way.

We have developed with some schools a "'draft blueprint for curriculum design". It need never be more than a draft because anyone who gets involved can add to it, suggest changes, offer ideas and modifications. A true profession constantly seeks to support itself in doing its job better.

The blueprint notion comes from the way in which architects follow building regulations about light or drainage, and take account of the local circumstances such as position, gradients and thoroughfares to design buildings. We think that school communities can meet the curriculum specification, stick within the regulations and devise the best fit with local need.

The willingness is infectious: schools want to know they have permission to do things differently. Press the play button; we have been on pause for long enough. The learner needs to engage. You don't need permission, or an invitation.

Let's make learning irresistible!

Mick Waters is director of curriculum at the QCA

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