On new thinking in CfE

24th May 2013 at 01:00

I'm not sure if the headline "Teachers resistant to CfE's new thinking, say experts" (10 May) is a fair representation either of Henry Hepburn's article or the academic paper on which it is based. The paper, Curriculum for excellence: A brilliant idea, but ..., presented at the European Conference for Educational Research in 2012, concludes that "many teachers do indeed welcome the new curriculum" but warns that there is a need for "greater opportunities for sense-making about new curricular and pedagogic ideas".

The authors, Mark Priestley and Sarah Minty of the University of Stirling, base their findings on a survey and in-depth interviews with teachers in a Scottish local authority and, as such, the paper provides an important insight into teachers' understanding of the new curriculum. But there are some contentious issues which underpin their article. The first is an assertion that Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) claims to be "unique" among curricular reforms. I am not sure where this claim comes from, but the reality is that, from the outset, the ministerial review group consciously looked at existing models from across the world, particularly in countries that were in the process of changing their curriculum.

It is important to challenge some of the assumptions which are made and alluded to in the paper. There is an accusation that CfE "downgrades" knowledge. This is puzzling, since it sought to emphasise "depth" and placed importance on "understanding". The suggestion that interdisciplinary approaches undermine subjects is also contentious. Howard Gardner, an admirer of CfE, in his book Five Minds for the Future, echoes its claim that interdisciplinary approaches can actually strengthen the role of subjects by making their contribution explicit.

The authors are right, however, to point to the dangers of a a culture of audit and target-setting. At this time, many teachers feel disempowered and undermined by the punitive approaches to target-setting imposed by some local authorities. CfE was supposed to be based on professional trust and intelligent accountability.

If we are not careful, teachers will begin see the new curriculum as another version of the same straitjacket imposed by 5-14, and a great opportunity for transformational change will be lost.

Brian Boyd, emeritus professor of education, University of Strathclyde.

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