Potholes in the road to excellence

11th May 2007 at 01:00
Lindsay Paterson is professor of education policy at Edinburgh University

After decades of controversial reform, the warmth with which A Curriculum for Excellence has been received is remarkable. The reasons are readily apparent - romantic child-centredness, glances towards recent research on the brain, respect for teacher autonomy. But in much more serious ways this reform, as its documents proliferate and its development work mounts, is vague to the point of confusion on too many matters to be a proper basis for new educational practice.

First, there is confusion between enjoyment as motivation and as goal.

Fulfilment is not the same as enjoying the road to it. Sound learning is always engaging with what has gone before, and with what other people are doing now, and it often requires that we defer our own gratification.

Most worthwhile human activity is quite unenjoyable for most of the time, except at the transitory moment of fulfilment: you have to struggle to do good maths, learn a language, excel in sport and so on. A vital part of that struggle is learning to cope with failure, or partial success, and the criteria for these are often absolute and more independent of the learning process than Assessment is for Learning (endorsed by the curricular reforms) allows: its injunction that outcomes should be in the form of "I can" assumes, but ignores, independent criteria of accomplishment.

There is confusion, too, between "relevance" as motivation and as goal.

Moving from the particular to the general is a distinguishing feature of advanced human thought. The power of a good novel or film, for example, is that it forces us to pay attention to ways of living that are not immediately relevant to us. A deeper relevance might be appreciated only after first understanding that the world it depicts is not our own.

For all the talk of inter-disciplinarity, there is confusion about what a discipline is. There is no sense that the sedimentation of human knowledge into disciplines might be more than arbitrary, that our forebears have given us a structure for organising knowledge that might embody their collective wisdom as well as their prejudices.

And there is confusion about the role of the teacher. The talk of teachers'

having a good knowledge of their subjects is sketchy, because that knowledge is never debated. There is nothing of the old idea that teachers ought to be models of good practice in a disciplinary, as well as an ethical, sense.

As for teacher autonomy, there is no discussion of what that might be.

Teachers ought to have autonomy from politicians, from bureaucracies, from management, but no teachers ought to ask for more than very limited autonomy in relation to the subjects they teach: none of us should imagine that the task of teachers is to re-invent maths, literature, or the study of society. We might modify these things at the edges and find new ways of teaching old things. But, largely, to enter teaching is voluntarily to subject ourselves to a body of knowledge and skills that already exists.

And A Curriculum for Excellence is confused about the past, tacitly presuming to demonstrate that no previous generation has thought up goals such as the four which it ritualistically proclaims at every turn.

A curricular reform that threatens to destroy an inheritance by ignoring it, venerates autonomy and spontaneity above all else and seeks to allure with the promise that learning ought to be good fun is, no doubt, reflecting the spirit of the times.

Perhaps, as ever, these theoretical problems will be sorted out in practice. If not, will our successors thank us for the cultural desert we will then have created?

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