The Lone and Level Sands Part 1

Curriculum: it’s the next big thing.

It should be broad, rather than narrow, and balanced; rich and deep; demonstrate high expectations; not be watered (and certainly not dumbed) down; avoid accusations of gaming and politicisation; enhance life chances and increase social mobility whilst also be stretching enough for high prior attainers. Easy.

It’s harder to design an English curriculum everyone’s happy with, than it is for a camel to win The Great British Sewing Bee.

You’d think, if curriculum were the next big thing, that there would be plenty of sources we could turn to for advice on curriculum design, especially in a core subject like English. In fact, there are very few. There are loads of books on English teaching. There are loads on teaching reading and teaching writing. There are even quite a few on teaching oracy. There are no books on designing an English curriculum (at least none I can find).

In order to grasp why this might be the case, it’s worth looking at books which deal, more generally, with curriculum theory. Both Summer Turner, in Secondary Curriculum and Assessment Design, and AV Kelly in The Curriculum: Theory and Practice, highlight four key questions of Ralph Tyler (from Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction) as a way of beginning the process of curriculum design. For the purposes of this post, I’ve taken the liberty of adding two extra questions, which I’ve put in italics, the second of which is borrowed from Summer Turner.

  1. How do you define the purpose(s) of education and, therefore, your curriculum?
  2. What content do you think needs to be delivered and what experiences do students need in order to achieve your aims?
  3. What limitations or barriers are there to the achievement of your aims or the delivery of the content?
  4. What is the optimum way of sequencing the content in order to achieve your purpose(s)?
  5. Do you expect the same of all of your learners?
  6. How will you assess whether your curriculum has been delivered effectively; whether students have reached your expectations; whether your purpose(s) have been achieved?

In this post, I only want to explore the first of these as I think this is  a significant barrier to the writing of a  well received book about designing an English curriculum. I’ll return to the others later.

The main issue comes from the breadth of possible answers to the question about the purpose of the English curriculum. Here are some potential responses:

  • Fluency in the use of language
  • Developing the ability to communicate and the capacity to be communicated with
  • Developing culturally, emotionally, intellectually, socially and spiritually
  • Acquiring knowledge and building on what is already known
  • Becoming someone who is able to participate fully as a member of society

These are paraphrased from the current National Curriculum for English in England (2013).

If we go back to the 2007 English Programme of Study for Key Stage 3, we see that it has “the curriculum aims for all young people to become:

  • Successful learners who enjoy learning, make progress and achieve
  • Confident individuals who are able to live safe, healthy and fulfilling lives
  • Responsible citizens who make a positive contribution to society.”

It also outlines four key concepts:

  1. Competence
  2. Creativity
  3. Cultural understanding
  4. Critical understanding

There are some subtle and some less subtle differences between just these two curriculum documents.

Michael Gove points out the issues with Ed Balls so-called gangnam curriculum.

If you then look at the English curriculum statements for departments across the UK, you’ll find aims like:

  • Challenging students to become critical and analytical thinkers, readers and writers
  • Developing independence
  • Allowing students to aspire to higher academic heights
  • Exposing students to a rich variety of texts by both literary greats and high quality, contemporary writers
  • Nurturing responsive students who are keen to take risks
  • Developing students understanding of the multicultural influences on English literature
  • Broadening enquiring minds
  • Promoting spiritual, moral, social and cultural development
  • Supporting the acquisition of personal learning and thinking skills
  • Providing students with a knowledge of the history and scope of English literature
  • Preparing young people for the world of work
  • Helping students fulfil their potential

Some of these aims are in opposition with one another whilst others are in opposition with the stated aims of the National Curriculum though, as academies and free schools are exempt from following this you could argue this is not a problem.

What is clear is that it would be exceptionally difficult to create a coherent, consistently deliverable curriculum which achieved all these aims together. What also becomes apparent in producing such a list is that, even if one were to buy into a specific set of these aims, it’s probable that someone else in your faculty would have a subtly, or even significantly, different list in mind when they were teaching. This would influence their enactment of the intended curriculum and highlights the importance of having a shared sense of purpose in your English faculty.

Finally, though there is much shared content across English curricula, these differences in purposes result in differences in the content as well as differences in the sequencing and weighting of the content. They also lead to claims, often fair, of a politicisation of the curriculum. I’ll look at each of these  in a further post on this topic.

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