In the last post in this series, I shared six key questions we should be asking ourselves when designing an English curriculum. Four of these are from Ralph Tyler, one from Summer Turner and the sixth I’ve added myself.
- How do you define the purpose(s) of education and, therefore, your curriculum?
- What content do you think needs to be delivered and what experiences do students need in order to achieve your aims?
- What limitations or barriers are there to the achievement of your aims or the delivery of the content?
- What is the optimum way of sequencing the content in order to achieve your purpose(s)?
- Do you expect the same of all of your learners?
- How will you assess whether your curriculum has been delivered effectively; whether students have reached your expectations; whether your purpose(s) have been achieved?
This time, I’d like to explore an answer to my own question, looking at three potential barriers to the delivery of a curriculum’s aims.
- Teachers – beliefs, knowledge and preferences
- Curriculum time
Teachers are both the greatest potential resource for students to learn from as well as, potentially, the greatest barrier to the delivery of an intended curriculum. In The Curriculum: Theory and Practice, AV Kelly maintains that “The quality of any educational experience will…depend to a very large extent on the individual teacher responsible for it; and any attempt at controlling the curriculum from the outside which does not recognise that is doomed to failure.” Why and how might our biggest asset become such a significant barrier?
The main reasons, in English teaching at least, relate to teachers’ beliefs and how these impact on their behaviours. These could be philosophical, cultural, political, linguistic or fall into any number of other categories of belief system, but they can each have an impact on the way in which a teacher delivers the curriculum which has been planned.
This has a significant impact at a national level. The likelihood of a national curriculum receiving universal acceptance from all English teachers is minimal. It also has an impact, though, at departmental level as English teachers, even within a small team, can have different views and resultant biases and behaviours.
Some English teachers see the curriculum as a means to ensure that students are exposed to The Literary Canon. They might define or subscribe to a tradition of texts which they believe all students have a cultural entitlement to read. A number of these teachers would see reading these texts as empowering. Knowledge of these texts and the relationships between them, they would argue, can enable access to conversations, situations, even jobs which would otherwise be closed off to their students. Some of these teachers would go beyond arguing that it is a students’ entitlement to read these texts, instead leaning towards seeing it as their responsibility to keep the literary tradition alive – they may believe they have a responsibility to the tradition just as or nearly as much as to their students. “Literature holds the knowledge, the dirty secrets, the brutal realities, the beauty, the ugly truths of humanity and our place in nature. Literature has a life of its own which needs to be sustained,” they might say.
Other teachers might agree with parts, or even all of, this yet not see the empowerment of students through the passing on of a tradition as being the primary function of the English curriculum. For some of these teachers, the criteria for text choice would be relevance to their students’ lives and how much the texts will engage their students. “We can expose students to all the classics we want,” these teachers might argue, “but if there’s no buy in, no connection, no relationship built between the child and the text, then the curriculum becomes meaningless.” In some cases, as a means of balancing this with the traditional argument, teachers will select texts which are considered classics but which also might be considered relevant to the lives of children. This could be because they are buildungsroman – Oliver Twist, for example – or because they contain themes which relate to our lives today – lots of these teachers would accept Shakespeare on these grounds. In other cases, in an attempt to make the curriculum as relevant as possible, faculties select texts which are highly contemporary – Young Adult fiction appears on curricula for this reason.
These philosophical differences don’t just impact on the literature curriculum. They also affect English language in terms of non-fiction text choices and the kinds of grammar students are exposed to. A traditionalist might argue that students should have the opportunity to read the great non-fiction writers of the past, to be able to grapple with diaries, letters, journalism, essays, pamphlets; to grasp the complex syntax, lengthy paragraphs, complex lines of argument in these texts. Other teachers might see it as their duty to help students navigate and craft the multimodal texts of the contemporary world. “Who writes letters these days?” they might ask. Included as an alternative might be websites, blogs, emails, tabloid journalism, the world of alternative facts, the transiently bombastic language of advertising.
Again, there is a middle road here. A teacher, a faculty, a nation could attempt to include both in their curriculum, though neither could be covered in the same depth.
Making choices about English curriculum content can be seen as a political, just as much as a philosophical, act.
There are teachers who see their role, and the role of the curriculum, as being to enable their students to use the language of power, the language of the job interview, the language of the professional. Here we might have a focus on the use of standard English, speaking in full sentences, tiers of vocabulary. The English curriculum becomes a pathway to empowerment and a route to raised aspirations. The alternative view here is not an attempt to hold students back from these aims. Instead, it offers a questioning of the concept of the language of power. “Why,” a teacher might support their students to question, “should we succumb to the homogenisation of English? Who are these people in power? How does their language differ to ours and who are they to tell us that theirs is better?” There are compromises to be made here if we take a middle ground. How do we sell a meaningful message about language to our students if we attempt to tread both these paths and what are we sacrificing elsewhere in the curriculum?
Another area in which the English curriculum can become deeply politicised is that of text choice. The literary canon is politically charged. The current National Curriculum, for example, has been accused of being a celebration, on the whole, of the works of dead, white men. It is certainly not as representative of English society as the National Curriculum used to be. On the other hand, because there are no longer the lists of approved writers present in the curriculum document, one might argue that schools have greater space and freedom to select works which are reflective of or challenging to the views of their own communities.
English teachers (in fact people in general – especially pedants) can getsurprisingly heated over linguistics. Two areas of the English curriculum, in particular, seem to generate a great deal of debate currently. The first of these is the aspect of the curriculum relating to decoding and the second relates to grammar.
In terms of phonics there are, at one end of the spectrum, the phonics purists and, at the other, proponents of a mixed or whole language methodology. These two points of view can be seen here, in an article by Debbie Hepplewhite for NATE’s Teaching English magazine, and here in a blog post from Michael Rosen. Imagine a primary school in which these were your two Year 1 teachers. It’d be an intriguing experiment, but an incoherent curriculum experience for the children.
The situation is similar with grammar. On the one hand, some teachers (including Daisy Christodoulou here) believe that grammar can and should be taught in a decontextualised manner. On the other, there are teachers (and academics like Debra Myhill here) who take the view that grammar is best taught in the context of specific texts or types of text. Again, it would be possible (if not probable) to have two teachers taking these approaches within one secondary English faculty, but it would also lead to an inconsistent as well as a likely confusing experience for students (and/or unhappy, conflicting teachers).
I’ve described here how, in my formative years as a teacher, I was convinced that I could teach students in my classes generic reading skills like prediction, inference, deduction, analysis and evaluation. There are still teachers who believe this is the case and I can empathise with this. There are both procedures and phrases, which we can teach students, that make it sound, in their responses to texts, as if they are doing these things.
However, there is a flip side to this too. Whilst some English teachers believe that their subjects (language and literature) are skills based and that, as a result, the curriculum should focus on the development of skills, there are others who see the primary function of the English curriculum as being a sequencing of the knowledge, which students require in their long term memory, in order to comment on texts in a more academic fashion and in order to craft texts of substance.
A third approach, as with the other divisions, is to see the curriculum as a means of developing both students’ factual and procedural knowledge so that they can recall information and apply it fluently.
One could possibly argue that, in describing many of the divisions above, I have had to resort to extremes. That few teachers hold such a firm set of beliefs. In fact, there are a significant number of teachers who would argue that they take a pragmatic approach to the curriculum – that they redesign the curriculum to suit their students. There is little mileage, some might argue, when a student arrives in your English classroom from another country with little to no English in Year 8, covering the curriculum in the same way as your other students. An alternative point of view is that any adaptation should be as short lived as possible and designed to support the student in catching up rather than providing a permanently different curriculum.
Pragmatism can have a place, but can also lead to a chaotic curriculum experience.
Knowledge and Preferences
There are some schools and English facultiea where the English curriculum is designed and adapted around the needs of cohorts of students to maximise the impact on pupils’ ability to retain and apply knowledge. Teachers are then expected to work hard to develop their own subject knowledge in order to deliver the curriculum.
In other schools, almost the reverse is true. Faculties avoid certain texts or potential aspects of the curriculum, either because there isn’t the expertise on the team or because teachers prefer other texts or elements of English. This is most marked, in my experience, in the case of GCSE and A-Level text choices.
Resources and Curriculum Time
I liked teaching Of Mice and Men. Mostly, when I look back though, I liked reading it with the voices – sometimes, cringingly, I even did the voice of Curley’s wife. When Of Mice and Men disappeared from the list of approved texts for GCSE English Literature, I got over it relatively quickly. I didn’t feel it really gave students a much better sense of world literature; there were some good descriptive sections but there are other texts of which the same or better can be said; and every year at least one person would let slip what happens to Lennie before we’d get to the ending. Despite this, or perhaps because they’d disagree, a lot of English faculties moved the text down into Key Stage 3. I do wonder whether this was because they genuinely felt it was the most worthwhile text students could study in Year 9 or whether it was because they had plenty of copies of the text and a (half) decent scheme of learning which fitted into the half term that was empty on the overview for the year after they’d got rid of a media module.
Resourcing has a significant impact on curriculum design, whether we want it to or not.
Curriculum time, similarly, impacts on what we deliver. We may want to spend half a year on a Shakespeare play but, if we do, this limits what we can do in terms of other content.
All of this means we have to make principled, but occasionally pragmatic, decisions about how we select the content and organise the sequencing or structure of the English curriculum and, when we do, we need to secure the buy in of the current members of our faculty and/or aim over time to recruit teachers whose views on content and curriculum design are in alignment with our own.
It’s the content which I’ll move on to next.