Touch the living world

19th May 2006 at 01:00
Learning that matters to young children must be at the centre of our thinking, argues Mary Jane Drummond

In the years since 1988, a whole generation of teachers has been invited, expected, and indeed required to think about the curriculum in terms of mathematics, English and science; core and foundation subjects; programmes of study; attainment targets; clearly defined learning objectives; learning intentions; levels P, W,1, 2 3; desirable outcomes; early learning goals and stepping stones. Most recently, in the Childcare Bill, we find "education programmes... the matters, skills and processes which are taught to young children according to their individual abilities (sic) and maturities".

But there is an alternative, another way of thinking and another place to start. Some years ago, I invited a group of experienced teachers studying for an advanced diploma to explore their pupils' understanding of learning: how do the learners themselves define the word? One of them, Enid, marched into the reception class the following morning, notebook poised and her question ready to go.

"'What is learning?" she asked.

"Learning," answered her first five-year-old respondent, drawing himself up proudly, "is what I do."

Suppose we took this bold insight seriously, and began to look at curriculum from the five-year-old's position. Suppose we chose to design a primary and early years curriculum for the future by starting with children and what they do best, which is learning. Suppose we went further, and started with learning that matters to children, rather than with learning that matters to the Sats developers or the compilers of league tables - or any other official bean-counters.

If we were to recognise the "thirst for understanding" and the passion for learning that children bring to their schools and pre-schools (see Susan Isaacs, below), we would be in a very strong position to shape a curriculum that was good enough for them.

We would then be able to abandon curriculum structures bounded by official prescriptions of final outcomes, and replace them with a more humane, dynamic curriculum, driven by children's energy and purposes (see Robin Hodgkin, below ).

Taking learning that matters to children as an assumption that must not be touched would require us to offer children a rich and nourishing curriculum diet, stuffed full of engaging, relevant, irresistible encounters with the real world, just as the Hadow Report into primary education recommended more than 70 years ago.

Perhaps Wordsworth was having a bad day at Dove Cottage, perhaps the roof was leaking, but I still think he was wrong when he wrote (in 1807), "The world is too much with us." In too many schools, classrooms and early years settings today, it's exactly the other way around. In her wonderful poem "O Taste and See", Denise Levertov, the English poet who died in 1997, states the true case of things with impeccable clarity: "The world is not with us enough."

The curriculum of the future should bring the living world closer to children, and children closer to the world - and everything and everyone in it. A curriculum that matters to children will be rich in big ideas and provocative questions; it will offer them manifold opportunities to exercise their growing powers to do, to think, to understand and to act on the world, in ways of their own invention.

To put learning that matters to children at the centre of our thinking is no soft option; it's not an unprincipled surrender to a laissez-faire, anything-goes position. Prioritising learning that matters to children means recognising the principle highlighted in the 1967 Plowden report on primary education; it means understanding that all children are, from birth, committed to their full-time project of touching and tasting the world, making sense of the world, moving about in the world, understanding how it works and what it's made of. When children do this kind of learning, we can be confident that we are serving their very best interests.

Because there are other kinds of learning: the wrong kinds of learning.

Children go on learning even when the curriculum on offer is threadbare, watered down, irrelevant or purposeless. They still go on learning, but they learn the wrong stuff. They learn to disengage, to disconnect, to listen passively to things that make no kind of personal sense. Or they learn to sneak away from the boredom and trivia of the classroom and do something more exciting, such as making a flood in the toilets. The incidence of flooding in primary school toilets correlates positively with the boredom and irrelevance quotient of the classroom.

But when children are offered a curriculum that matters to them, they will do the right kind of learning: learning that has relevance and purpose, learning that challenges their intellectual and imaginative powers, learning that is deeply engaging.

And nothing else is nearly good enough for them.

Mary Jane Drummond is co-author of First hand experience: what matters to children, published by Rich Learning Opportunities, available from

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