What Should Schools Teach? Disciplines, subjects and the pursuit of truth – edited by Education Forum members Alka Sehgal Cuthbert and Alex Standish as part of UCL Press’s Knowledge and the Curriculum book series – is now available in an expanded second addition.

In a special webinar to celebrate its publication, contributors Cosette Crisan, Michael Reiss, Christine Counsel, Alka Sehgal Cuthbert and Simon Toyne outlined the thinking behind their chapters, and UCL Professor of Curriulum Zongyi Deng responded with his thoughts on the book’s contribution to current educational discourse.

The video of the discussion can be seen on the UCL website.

The experience of lockdown learning provides an opportunity to reclaim education from ‘teaching to the test’, argues Shirley Lawes.

The closing of schools to the majority of pupils during the periods of lockdown and the adoption of online learning have presented huge challenges to teachers who have had little or no experience of this teaching medium. As if that wasn’t enough to deal with, the cancellation of external examinations both last and probably this coming year too, has called into question the raison d’être of education. The effects of Covid disruption have exposed the weaknesses and fragility of our education system. The fear engendered by the Covid-19 virus throughout society, is such that young people’s futures are seen by some as being irreparably damaged and in peril. Our education system has indeed been challenged to a similar extent as our health service and despite the valiant efforts of teachers and health workers alike, the institutions of state education and health have been found wanting.

In education, there is a tendency to want to get back to ‘the way things were’, but the clock can never be turned back and before we panic ourselves into setting up ‘cramming’ sessions to ‘cover’ the curriculum, perhaps now is a unique opportunity to take stock, examine ourselves as education professionals and ask some fundamental questions about the future we want for education and how we might set about achieving it.

I am not a Primary specialist, so I hesitate to comment on this sector, but it does seem that there has been an increasing tendency to ‘cover’ ever-expanding curriculum content in order to ‘tick the boxes’. In the meantime, the expert teaching required to develop young learners’ foundational conceptual understanding of subject knowledge is given scant attention.

The culture of Secondary Schools has changed considerably over the last twenty years or so towards a more ‘business’ orientated organisation and ethos. The work of the teacher has been closely prescribed as part of an attempt to establish more consistency in the overall quality of education. The drive to ‘raise standards’ has arguably resulted in a progressive narrowing down of the secondary curriculum, particularly at Key Stage 4, in order to focus on exam preparation. The charge of ‘teaching to the test’ is a criticism often heard of teachers anxious to ensure learners are well-prepared for their exams, but in the process, the educational rather than credential value of school subjects has been lost. As many schools have prioritised examination success over curriculum and pedagogic experimentation, subject curricula seem set in stone or changed at the whim of political and social fashion. Neither option addresses the important epistemological and ethical questions associated with the curriculum, and more broadly, teaching, that have been ignored for too long.

Teachers often feel that they have little freedom to explore their subject discipline with learners. Secondary school teachers no longer teach a body of subject knowledge that is deemed worthwhile for its own sake, but ‘cover’ curriculum content that is, even at KS3, aimed narrowly at fulfilling examination requirements. ‘Teaching to the test’ is not just a critical slogan, it is now the accepted norm in many, perhaps most state schools. However much individual teachers might eschew the narrow focus on selecting and teaching subject knowledge to pass exams, very few have the confidence or professional knowledge to step outside the current educational straitjacket.

Teachers who have been trained as technicists struggle when they are suddenly required to exercise professional autonomy and, dare I say it, ‘pedagogical imagination’ as we have seen when we consider how challenging it has been to grapple with the demands of online learning. We should seize the current situation as an opportunity in all subject areas to climb through the barbed wire and to reconsider fundamentally what, in practice, it is important to teach and why. The absence of exams is not a disaster; it offers a temporary opportunity for a new beginning. It took a pandemic for scientists to develop a vaccine in record time, but they did it. Are educators up for their own particular challenge?

How, at this critical juncture, might we begin to re-evaluate and possibly revise our vision of education? The last ten months’ experience of virtual school closure could be a break from the past that calls into question many aspects of teaching, learning and curriculum content. Besides many problems, this novel experience has thrown up opportunities to reflect upon and re-think the ‘normal’; to re-evaluate objectively what, how and why we teach what we teach and to think beyond prescribed content and examination specifications. The on-line teaching experience has been a stark contrast to classroom teaching in relation to the knowledge content of our subject curriculum as well as the way we teach. But do teachers really just want this nightmare to be over and to return asap to the way things were?

Let’s take a step back, and ask some essential questions about education, like what should be taught in schools? Why should it be taught? To whom should it be taught? What does it mean to be an educated person? How might we move away from the immediate, instrumental concerns of outcomes and exam results and begin to take more of a ‘long view’ of education? Examination success is undoubtedly important but the curriculum should provide an enriched experience of subjects that seeks to inspire young people and enliven their curiosity to understand the world through knowledge. How schools are reconstituted after the pandemic is a vitally important discussion to be had now so that rather than scurrying around trying to make-do and mend, we can create a new vision and plan for a future education system that will more than compensate for the losses caused by Covid.

Shirley Lawes is a member of the AoI Education Forum Committee. She is a PhD research supervisor at UCL Institute of Education, a former Modern Foreign Languages teacher educator and is a Chevalier dans L’Ordre des Palmes Académiques.

Some quotes from Ian Mitchell’s review of the expanded second edition of What Should Schools Teach? (UCL Press, 2021), which was edited by Education Forum members Alka Seghal Cuthbert and Alex Standish.

‘…Seghal Cuthbert and Standish, aided by their team of subject experts, inject a healthy blend of cerebral intellect, classroom experience, and plain common sense into the curriculum debate. The well-researched content makes the contributors worthy of attention, with more than enough expertise to warrant moments of candour. There is no getting away, for instance, from the title’s implied meaning: what schools should be doing is not necessarily what they are doing.’

‘…if freed from the shackles of instrumental policies, teachers could even find themselves united by a simplicity of purpose, namely a moral, aesthetic and epistemological model of teaching and learning…’

‘If there is a common thread within the subject chapters, it is the need to understand and appreciate each discipline’s inherent value. Academic subjects are at best conservative (with a small ‘c’) in that they must conserve their discipline’s intrinsic value. It is a point made explicitly by Physics specialist, Gareth Sturdy (although it is echoed implicitly elsewhere): ‘we need to find, or re-find, what is truly unique about what we do, not only within the discipline but within the whole school, and have a robust faith in its intrinsic worth’.

Read the full review on the Secondary Ideas blog.

Gareth Sturdy was interviewed recently for David Didau’s and Martin Robinson’s podcast, It’s Your Time You’re Wasting!, about the second edition of What Should Schools Teach? (UCL Press, 2021) which features contributions from various Education Forum members. Gareth explains how the book can help teachers answer the eternal question ‘why I should I learn this?’.

The interview begins 22 minutes in, or you can subscribe to the podcast to watch the full 40 minute discussion and enter a raffle to win a free copy of the book.

Secondary school teacher Ian Mitchell reflects on the Education Forum’s recent discussion about ‘Head, Hand, Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century’ by David Goodheart.

Whilst an online Zoom call is not quite the same as a live discussion (followed by a pint) the Education Forum (of the Academy of Ideas) hosts another interesting debate, this time with a literary focus. David Goodhart’s ‘Head, Hand, Heart’ is introduced succinctly by Gareth Sturdy before a lively discussion about its implications and merits. In discussing Goodhart’s book, there is more than a little uneasiness. Whilst it is a book that touches heavily upon education, as Gareth Sturdy points out, ‘Head, Hand, Heart’ lies at the ‘intersection’ between economics and education. The dual preoccupations of educational experience and economic status inevitably tend to run deep with people, even at the best of times. However, during a period of educational and economic uncertainty, ‘Head, Hand, Heart’ offers a narrative on inequality in Britain’s economy which at times is more than a little discomforting.

Read the whole review on Secondary Ideas.

The teaching establishment is livid that poor children are coming to school expecting an education, writes the Education Forum’s Gareth Sturdy in Spiked.

The third national lockdown is starting to reveal the depth of the teaching establishment’s elitism towards the education of poor children.

It took only three days of schools being closed to most pupils before headteachers and teaching unions began to express their horror at the number of poor kids turning up at the school gates because it is their only chance of getting an education…

Read the full article on Spiked.