Wragg's cubic feat;Book of the week;Books
Ted Wragg's latest book adds an exciting dimension to the education debate, says Peter Wilby
We have had the spiral curriculum, the core curriculum, the hidden curriculum, the common curriculum, the integrated curriculum, and Douglas Holly once took us beyond curriculum (I guess we've come back now). So it must be time for a cubic curriculum.
This, at first sight, is alarming. On page three of his book, Ted Wragg has a model with 480 little boxes or "cells" as he calls them. This looks like nothing so much as one of those widely detested national curriculum check-lists, except that it's in three dimensions. Even more alarmingly, the author insists we could have four, five or more dimensions and that the curriculum could be in hyperspace.
For an instant, I thought that Professor Wragg was pulling our legs and that this book was an extended version of one of his satires, escaped from the pages of The TES. It turns out to be that rarity in modern educational literature: an expression of common sense, making a plea for the unfashionable virtues of balance and moderation in all things.
The cuboid model is simply a way of expressing that need for balance. Just as a cube's structure gives it inherent stability, so a cubic curriculum should give stability to a school or education system. On the first dimension we have the conventional school subjects: English, maths, science, art and so on. On the second, we have the general skills or qualities that schools try to develop, such as language, thought, imagination, political awareness. On the third, we have the different ways of teaching and learning: telling, observing, practising, discovering, for example.
Each first-dimension subject can develop a quality on the second dimension; equally, each point on the third dimension can be used to assist children in the first and second dimensions. (The points where they meet - "maths-thought-observing", for example - are the "cells".) But the book's point is that the third dimension has a value in its own right. Nobody would now try to argue that only one category on the first dimension is worth a place in schools, that pupils should spend their entire careers on history or technology, for example. Nor would many people seriously suggest, on the second dimension, that schools should nurture children's imaginations while ignoring their language development. Yet on the third dimension the various warring camps seem to propose exactly such exclusivity. Children only learn through being told, says one side; no, says another, they must discover everything for themselves. Children should work in groups; no, whole-class teaching is the big answer. The truth is that children are impoverished if they don't experience different forms of learning, just as they are impoverished if they don't get music as well as maths lessons.
This, to me, is the most important message of Professor Wragg's humane and thoughtful book. As he puts it, the polarisations of contemporary debate on education are simply wrong. "Putting 'knowledge' and 'understanding' in opposite corners is ludicrous . . . Learners need the excitement of finding out, just as they need the confirmation of being told. They also need to engage with the factual as well as with the hypothetical and speculative. It should not be a matter of one versus the other, but rather a matter of when each strategy makes best sense."
What are the uses of the Wragg cube? The idea is that teachers, schools (for all age groups, though the publishers have absurdly labelled this book "primary education") or nations could scrutinise it and shake it about. If you think your country is weak on "individualism" - as some on the Pacific Rim do - you try to encourage schools to do more in such "cells" on the cube as "history-thought-discover" or "art-imagination-practice". If, like Chris Woodhead or Nick Tate, you are worried that people haven't heard of the Spanish Armada, you go for lots of "history-political-tell".
I found myself disagreeing with Professor Wragg only on a few things. I think he under-emphasises the extent to which the basic skills of literacy and numeracy are essential to the development of almost everything else on his cube. And I didn't like the way he kept wanting to fit "emotional" into his cube somewhere; I think the emotional, like the spiritual, is difficult territory for teachers.
I have one final reservation. In the closing chapter, Professor Wragg writes, in italics, that "the cubic curriculum is not meant to be used in a narrow, philistine or prescriptive way". But I fear that busy politicians and bureaucrats won't get past that nasty-looking model on page three and that, before we know where we are, teachers nationwide will be checking off Professor Wragg's cells.
This book is clear, concise, witty and enlightened, and I want every teacher, and certainly every head, in the country to read it. But I think, for the time being at least, it should be kept away from Sanctuary Buildings.