How to teach children: subjects or skills?

Emmet Livingstone reports on a lively SCETT debate about the best way forward for the school curriculum.

Emmet Livingstone

Topics Politics

The UK coalition government’s education policy has been in the crosshairs recently, following education secretary Michael Gove’s proposal for a return to traditional subjects, which would overturn much of New Labour’s school curriculum. This was the subject of the ‘Defence of Subjects’ debate hosted by the Institute of Ideas at Hamilton House, London on 11 October. Speaking in defence of the education reforms were Daisy Christodoulou, managing director of the Curriculum Centre, and Alka Sehgal Cuthbert, a teacher and PhD researcher in education. Speaking against were Martin Johnson, deputy general-secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), and Tim Oates, group director of Assessment Research and Development, Cambridge Assessment. Chairing the discussion was Toby Marshall, a lecturer and researcher in media, film and communication studies.

Cuthbert began the discussion by asking whether subjects need defending and, if so, in what manner should they be protected. She made a case for the importance of traditional disciplinary knowledge, pointing out that this is one of the major failings of the current system. According to recent research into higher education, 50 per cent of lecturers questioned thought that undergraduates were noticeably weak on analytical skills and were unable to present their thoughts in a clear, accessible way. These academic standards, Cuthbert argued, should be fostered in school; project- and skills-based education systems fall short of preparing students for higher education. Furthermore, she quoted the same research to say that the weakest areas among A-level teachers were in subject knowledge, leading to an alarming gap between ‘deep learning’ and attaining qualifications.

The solution, Cuthbert proposed, is a return to traditional subjects. She argued that despite claims that such a return is archaic (‘a curriculum of the dead’), what codified subjects actually represent is an understanding of human experience: the physical world is explained through the sciences, the social through the humanities, and the subjective through the arts. The claim is that to reject such subjects is to reject a body of knowledge honed over hundreds of years that arrives at an objective understanding of human experiences.

Cuthbert asserted that subjects, though they will each have their own specific rules and forms of assessment that might appear anachronistic to an outsider, have to be understood in this way. In her view, subject-based education is worth defending, not because academic knowledge is worthwhile in itself, but because potentially it can transform the way we understand the world.

Martin Johnson questioned the dichotomy between skills- or knowledge-based educational models, pointing out that applying the knowledge learned through subjects is in fact a skill. Taught skills, he argued, are what allow points of information to be converted into knowledge. Highlighting the easy access to information provided by the internet nowadays, Johnson concluded that distilling skills needed to interpret information is far more important than distilling a kind of knowledge.

He went on to contend that everything that is expected of a child from education should be written into the school curriculum, so that if there is a desire for certain skills to be inculcated, these skills should explicitly be included in the written curriculum. He went on to say that the gap between ‘deep learning’ and qualifications is to be explained not by a lack of subject teaching, but rather because of schools gerrymandering inspection results for funding purposes. He suggested that appealing to the realities of the modern world, to which school-age children would be more responsive, would create a more successful school curriculum. He highlighted the importance of physical and creative skills, as well as emotional and social skills, arguing that these areas should be emphasised in schools as much as, if not more than, traditional academic skills.

Daisy Christodoulou set out a case in favour of teaching subjects. She stated simply that teaching subjects makes the most sense for schooling, because that is the only form of teaching that works; it suits the way the human brain learns. The countries with the best education systems, she said, all use a subject-based approach to education. Finland, South Korea, Japan, Canada and China have little in common; one thing they do have in common, though, is that they have very good education systems and all teach through subjects.

Responding to questions about what form a broad curriculum would take, Christodoulou said that, roughly, the curriculum should include maths, the home language, a foreign language, science, history, geography, and some element of art, drama or music – all those subjects should be compulsory until pupils are at least 15, she said. This is what characterises the countries that perform the best educationally, yet it is not a feature of the UK’s education system.

She went on to contradict allegations that the current system is overly academic, citing Ofsted reports which show that most primary schools do not teach using subjects. The alternatives used are project-based curricula, which, she claimed, do not work because of the way the human brain functions. Thorough analyses learned through projects do not appear to translate across to other fields. So, for example, she said it is possible to learn to analyse the TV programme The Simpsons, but this does not lead to broader skills of critical analysis. She argued that project-based learning assumes an uptake of broader skills that often does not occur and that it is much easier to overemphasise some aspects of learning or underemphasise others. Furthermore, it is possible that some areas of study are completely neglected in project-based education; thus it is a wasteful method. Subjects represent, in her view, a much more efficient approach.

Concluding the discussion, and speaking against subject-based curricula, was Tim Oates. He acknowledged the dichotomy between skills and knowledge, but refused to acknowledge a dichotomy between social groupings arguing for a knowledge-based curriculum and those arguing for a skills-based curriculum, saying that any curriculum should include both skills and knowledge. He continued with a quote detailing Enlightenment ideas about education, where subjects seemed to coalesce into ‘natural philosophy’, as well as mentioning the cross-disciplinary achievements of the twentieth century: bioethics, medical physics, etc.

Oates did go on to clarify that specific scientific and social knowledge is important, and that all children must grasp such fundamentals to ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’. But he also said that as well being concerned with acquisitional knowledge, we should stress the development of personal capital, too. He argued that attention to the preconditions of learning, factors that make children sit still and be attentive, are a general condition of schools. Once these are secured, he argued, a broad curriculum must be safeguarded to ensure the widest possible engagement of children; this kind of curriculum has been recommended by various educational theorists.

Oates contended that a national curriculum should be sparse and dry, but that the teaching in the classroom (the school curriculum) should be rich and motivating. He went on to defend Johnson’s previous statement, asserting that the teaching of subjects requires specific skills and that the dichotomy between knowledge and skills is a spurious one. He criticised the notion that teaching outside the parameters of subjects results in a lack of ‘deep’ understanding, emphasising again the importance of personal capital alongside deep acquisition of foundational concepts.

Emmet Livingstone is a former spiked intern.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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