Reclaim your classes: a lesson from Occupy

11th October 2013 at 01:00
Choosing the curriculum is a democratic right - so exercise it

Two years ago, outraged by the perverse realities of the economic crisis, demonstrators began to occupy parts of our world cities' financial districts. Although the protests died down without clear political gains, the collective voice of "the 99 per cent" inspired others, from various Arab Spring uprisings to the recent unrest in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

At the same time as state-sponsored "market forces" were gambling with other people's money, triggering the Occupy movement, allied forces were at work on most countries' education systems. Despite the rhetoric around school autonomy, the general thrust of curriculum policy in the developed world has been highly centralising.

This has taken the form of increasingly prescribed content and the tightening of what the chair of the expert panel advising on England's new national curriculum, Tim Oates, ominously described as the "control factors" that, in his words, create curriculum "coherence". These procedures (in particular, accountability regimes) ensure that schools teach what central government has deemed appropriate, by minimising the difference between the curriculum on paper and the "enacted curriculum" shaped by teachers in classrooms.

Analysis by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2012 on curriculum innovation reveals that, despite the decentralising thrust of educational reforms over the past 20 years, in many if not most OECD countries, the influence of central authorities on curriculum has strengthened, both over its content and other control factors. In Australia, a national curriculum is seizing the initiative from separate states. Even in the US, whose constitution forbids the formation of a national curriculum, the "Common Core" national standards are rapidly being implemented by many states.

This is partly driven by the desire for greater equity of provision, to pass on a canon of national "core knowledge", and to ensure that all children learn the content deemed necessary for them to thrive. However, as US educational commentator Diane Ravitch catalogues in her latest book, Reign of Error, federal curricular control has also been lobbied for and welcomed by foundations, private sponsors and multinationals with clear vested interests in removing freedom from individual schools.

Despite the OECD's evidence for the importance of curricular autonomy for schools, and Andreas Schleicher's description of curriculum building as a "grand social project", the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), which Schleicher coordinates for the OECD, may also ironically be stimulating an international centralisation of the curriculum, as nations redesign their curricula with global league tables in mind.

When, inspired or battered by Pisa results, countries look to others for curricular inspiration, they tend to seek out what other successful so- called "jurisdictions", from Singapore to Finland, appear to be mandating. This is the wrong starting point. Instead of mere policy-borrowing from other countries, focusing on what their curricula include, our first question should always be, "Who should decide what each school's curriculum includes and why?" This is not just about the evidence of "what works". It's about reclaiming the power to create curricula as a fundamental democratic right of every school.

Throughout the world, many schools are occupying their curricula as a result (or in spite) of government encouragement. Among primary schools, terrific examples include Singapore's Tampines and Canberra schools, Hong Kong's Shatin Tsung Tsin School, and New Zealand's Maori Hill and Featherston schools. For older children, we can look to Finland's Jarvenpaa Upper Secondary School.

In England, Pimlico Academy's Curriculum Centre and Matthew Moss High School offer very different models for curriculum development but share a commitment to school-based curriculum design and long-term change.

Also in England, the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), and the University of London's Institute of Education, have launched Grand Curriculum Designs, a pioneering continuing professional development programme that aims to equip teachers to design curricula that are innovative and responsive to the needs of their students and communities. After a successful pilot, it is spreading across England, and we hope to go global from 2014.

For those willing to take the risk, we can offer five principles that will help you to learn from the Occupy movement and metaphorically take back your curriculum for yourself, your colleagues, your students and your local community.

Only connect

First, occupy with knowledge. Don't assume your government has a monopoly on defining what that is. In addition to universally necessary knowledge, consider what it would be valuable for young people to learn in their context and locality. Cater for different passions and needs - the personal is powerful.

Second, occupy with accountability. Treat it like a graphic equaliser. Reduce the noise of national "upward" accountability measures, from inspection to examinations, and boost the volume of "outward" accountability. Are outcomes for your learners meeting the needs of local communities and employers?

Third, occupy with assessment. Find alternative ways to assess the outcomes that you have decided to value. Make the tests worth teaching to. Remember the view of Carla Rinaldi, founder of the Reggio Emilia schools, that assessment can be an "act of love".

Fourth, occupy with your local community. It is as philosophically indefensible for teachers to hold a curriculum hostage as it is for politicians to do so. Create a curriculum with, for and by your locality. As demonstrated by the recent podcast "What about tomorrow?", created by RSA Academies students, young people worry about the adult world they will join. Involve students, parents and others in shaping what they will learn.

Finally, occupy with other schools and learning spaces. The more ambitious you are, the less likely it is that you have all the resources you need to hand. Work with other learning places, from schools to workplaces, colleges to cultural venues.

TES Connect shows the power of teachers working together globally to share resources. The next step might be to demonstrate a similar approach to curriculum creation - to wrest control from politicians and their preying lobby groups and to develop a platform for sharing curriculum design strategies, embedding change that is both radical and equitable.

Joe Hallgarten is director of education and Plamena Pehlivanova is an education associate at the RSA

Laying it out

For further information about Grand Curriculum Designs, contact

To download the free RSA student podcast, go to thersa.orgfrontline-voices


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