Sunday, 10 September 2017

When did we start narrowing education?

With all this conversation on curriculums and the newfound scrutiny on schools’ curriculums, I am thinking about the content of the lessons in our school.  Is the curriculum good enough? Good enough for what? Students? Jobs? University?  The two words commonly linked to curriculum are ‘broad’ and ‘narrow’.

What if the whole education system is responsible for this narrowing of content? Not nasty exams.

It is interesting to know that an old ‘university’ education was as broad as they come. The Latin word ‘universitas’ means ‘whole’.  Although there was some focus on a specialism or topic area to become a specialist, the content was a range of subjects including religion, astronomy, theology, medicine and much more. It truly was a universal education. Now, look to today. Can we really consider our education to be truly universal?

The narrowing of our education system is everywhere. Take the following:

1: Year 6 students are assessed on writing, reading, Mathematics and spelling, punctuation and grammar.

2: Year 9 students take options for Year 10 – reducing the number of subject areas.

3: Year 12 students reduce subjects to three or four areas of focus.

4: University students reduced the subjects to one or two subjects.

5: Post graduate students then focus on one subject and narrow it down to one aspect of that subject.

Is that a universal education? Is that making broad minds? You see: we have a system that explicitly and implicitly narrows our knowledge. Yes, you may learn lots of stuff, but it is narrowed knowledge. Knowledge good for one purpose only.

We know that the narrowing of our curriculums have been partly influenced by results and league tables. Look at how English and Maths are reported with everything, so the curriculum is narrowed a lot of the time because of them. Stop mentioning ‘including English and Maths’ and you will not have whole schools moving heaven and earth to improve English and Maths. They might even try to improve everything, including English and Maths.

Ahh, Xris, well that’s where you are wrong: we have introduced the Ebacc. Yes, the Ebacc does in part combat this narrowing, but you still have subjects not included in the Ebacc. And, don’t get me started on the Progress 8 buckets.

At every step, there is explicit or implicit narrowing of the education system. But, there is also social narrowing too. Parents are great, but some actively help support narrowing of the curriculum. Take some of these comments:

Why should my child study French?

He's never been good at Maths; he’s always been better at English and literacy.  

One comment might be generated by some misguided xenophobia. The other one is probably more prevalent in schools: the acceptance that you can’t be good in every subject. And, this is the biggest lie. Students are fed a lie that is culturally acceptable to be stronger in one area (Maths, English, Science) because the greatness in that one subject is great enough to smother the weaknesses out of existence. He’s useless at Maths, but he is fantastic in English. Shucks, he just has a brain for English. He’s a bit like me – I am no good at Maths too.

Our culture has created this problem for us. We see endless images of people who are good at one thing. Success has become the fruit of one niche area. We see people successful as being really good in specific area. A footballer is good in football. A business man / woman is good in business. A singer is good at singing. Success is presented through the specialism in an area. Young people are seeing the repeated message again and again: you only need to be good at one thing to be successful. When you see that, it is easy to see how students narrow their own educations. They select the subjects that they are good at and focus on them. They neglect the subjects they are not successful in. After all, you only need to be good at one thing to be successful in life.

Year 10 and Year 11 are the years where schools spend most of their time try to stop students narrowing their focus and get them to broaden their focus and concentrate on other subjects. Some schools might go: ‘To hell with it, let’s focus on English and Maths.’ Others might go: ‘Get the buckets filled.’ I think it is so hard to stop this ‘self-narrowing’ of curriculum by students because they have had the following messages and points:

SATs told them they only need to worry about English and Maths.

Parents told them they had problems with Maths too.

Teachers told them they had to do a subject because the Government wants students to do the Ebacc.   

Colleges told them they only need four Cs and a 4 in English.

The Government told them they need a 4 in English and Maths or they will need to resit it again.

So is it any wonder a Year 11 student narrows their revision and focuses on one or two subject. Almost everything is telling them to narrow down their studies. When subjects are viewed as being more important than others, then it is understandable why students select what and what not to focus on.   

We need to work on making every subject equal in the eyes of parents, students and teachers. A student will start to see every subject as important when we treat it as equally important. Maybe we need to go back to the old days and build up this idea of universal education. However, this is hard to do when the whole system is built and designed to narrow things. Even Maths and English have been narrowed down. That narrowing is symbolised in the names of the subjects. There are so many disciplines in English that the word ‘English’ does not do enough to reflect the subject effectively or truly.

I love the concept of the Renaissance man (or woman). The idea of being good in several areas. Or, at least trying to be. We should be forcing students to be polymaths. I’d like to think I am one, because the opposite of a polymath, according to an online dictionary is a goof, an ignoramus, a nitwit or a clot.

In our attempts to improve things, we have erroneously made them good at something rather than everything.

Rather than teach students about grit and resilience, let’s teach them the importance of excelling in all things, rather than one. Let’s focus on the whole rather than the parts.

Thanks for reading,


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