Time to think philosophically

30th March 2007 at 01:00
Few would argue that successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors are desirable.

But precisely what sort of curriculum is going to encourage their achievement?

What may be lacking from A Curriculum for Excellence is some coherent philosophy that explains what should be learnt, at what stages and how principles of personalisation and choice can be combined with the requirement for national standards and forms of assessment.

At a recent conference attended by undergraduates from Scottish universities, Richard Pring, educationist and author, rejected the kind of language which results in people talking foolishly about a "level A"

citizen, or implying that people who work with their hands are somehow less intelligent than those who are good at writing essays.

For Professor Pring, the key was to have teachers acting as mediators of student interest. This may mean that some teaching is best conducted under the familiar curricular headings - maths, science and so on - that have stood the test of time. But that does not mean all teaching must be structured in this way. Nor does it mean that some form of summative assessment is inappropriate.

What it does mean is that pushing everyone through a number of assessments is bound to fail many students. At different levels and in different ways, such students are capable of deepening their thinking about the world and their places within it. But teachers have a responsibility to encourage learners to develop their interests and to determine precisely how this is done. No amount of lesson planning or workbooks or "ticky box in quick time" is going to be relevant to those teachers.

Learning goes beyond familiar limitations of listening, reading and writing, embracing learning beyond school, outdoor education, improving community links through clubs and societies, engagements with places of work or leisure and making and repairing things.

A Curriculum for Excellence promises to declutter the curriculum and provide more space for the creative ideas of teachers and pupils. Yet, many professionals feel creativity has been smothered in the modern curriculum, with its emphasis on outcomes, results, testing and targets. How can a new generation of teachers reclaim the development of the imagination as a central goal?

There are deep philosophical issues here, and discussion is essential to the proper functioning of any education system. One common theme that emerged from the conference is that there is no worthwhile learning without risk, and the system needs to change to encourage risk-takers. There is no substitute for qualified trust in the professional judgment of teachers.

Strangely, the universities offering initial teacher education are not recognised as partners in ACfE. Yet it is within these institutions that the teachers of the future try to work out what is meant by such notions as curricular breadth, progression, coherence and depth. It is not possible to get very far without philosophical thinking.

John Halliday is professor of educational and professional studies at Strathclyde University

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