Schooling goes back to the future

Teaching subject knowledge will give young people the means to shape their own destiny.

Jennie Bristow

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‘A young person loiters vaguely by your door. His mum wants him to check his targets again, so you go over his last report for the third time. He seems satisfied with your explanation and conveys himself back to maths. When you asked him if he enjoyed maths he said he was doing better this term than last and is on target for a C, a relief to you both. But in your darker moments you wonder what he actually knows, what will remain in his head after the next exam and what he will have made of his education once he moves on. Will he know enough to make sense of his life? What knowledge, you ponder, will help him to understand and make sense of the world? Does he know enough of science, poetry and human endeavour to encourage and sustain him? What have you actually done for him other than measure his “attainment”.’

Knowledge and the Future School, explain the co-authors, is written ‘primarily for those thousands of teachers… who have such dark moments’. It is about addressing some of the deep questions about teaching, which are often deeply hidden by policymakers in their frenetic attempts to create more and better education policies.

What is teaching for? Is it about the transmission of knowledge to the next generation, or about churning out kids with the requisite qualifications and skills? Is it about retaining the knowledge of the past, or preparing young people to be able to navigate an unknown future? Is it about developing the brightest and best minds, or challenging the wider problem of social inequality through what is taught and learned?

In grappling with these questions, the authors manage to avoid the boring old binary distinctions that tend to characterise debates about education and the purpose of teaching: and in doing so, promote a practical vision for the ‘future school’ that places the curriculum at its heart.

As a collaboration between Young, David Lambert, both professors at London University’s Institute of Education, Carolyn Roberts, a school head teacher, and Martin Roberts, a former head teacher and now consultant to The Prince’s Teaching Institute, the book is also a genuine collaboration between those who study education in universities and those engaged with teaching in schools. It takes the insights of Young’s brilliant but densely-argued 2008 book Bringing Knowledge Back In, and applies them to the teaching and schools of today.

The authors envision three futures for the school curriculum. In future one, ‘knowledge is treated as largely given, and established by tradition and the route it offers high achievers to our leading universities’; it tends to be ‘associated with one-way transmission pedagogy and a view of pupils that expects compliance from pupils’. This was the approach that went badly out of fashion from the 1960s onwards, condemned for being rigid and elitist.

The central criticism of the future-one curriculum was that it treated knowledge as static, and saw ‘the future… as an extension of the past’. Back in the 1960s, many intellectuals – Michael Young among them – sought to challenge this fossilised view of knowledge by stressing the extent to which knowledge is not simply handed down, but actively and socially constructed.

And these intellectuals were right – to a point. Berger and Luckmann’s brilliant little book, The Social Construction of Reality (1966), theorises the interaction between the objective world and the subjective meaning for those within it. Other contributions to the sociology of knowledge have emphasised that what we know is informed by the time and place in which we are living, the past that we draw on, and the way we are anticipating the future.

But just because knowledge is socially constructed does not make it arbitrary: and that was the problem with the critique of the future-one curriculum. Young famously, and bravely, underwent a volte face on the constructivist approach to knowledge when he became aware that many critics of the ‘old’ curriculum were demanding, not a more subtle, expansive, and dynamic approach to curriculum content, but the kind of curriculum that tried to avoid knowledge completely.

In this, the second future curriculum, boundaries between subjects disappeared, and much academic education became vocationalised. The idea that knowledge was ‘“constructed” in response to particular needs and interests’ replaced the subtle appreciation of the ways in which reality is socially constructed; knowledge became seen as the crude imposition of particular interests upon unwitting school students.

Criticisms of the elitism of the old curriculum were used to justify turning schooling into vocational training, based on ‘an increasingly instrumental view that education was a means to an end – usually expressed as the expectation of future employment’. As Young explains, this shift was not limited to particular subjects, or to low-achieving pupils, but became the ethos running through education as a whole: ‘Even the academic curriculum took on these “instrumental” features. Physics and history were given more priority because they were subjects valued by the top universities, rather than because they involved “the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake”.’

The anti-elitism of this second approach did nothing to tackle social inequality. Indeed, it makes the problems more entrenched, by denying pupils from lower-income backgrounds their ‘entitlement to knowledge’ – which, in Young’s view, should be the core purpose of schools. And at any level, turning the pursuit of knowledge into a race for qualifications ends up denying the very purpose of education: to know the world in order to transform it.

If teaching can do anything to give young people the means to shape their own destiny, it is this: provide access to the best of what is known, with the recognition that this knowledge can be developed and challenged. This, argue the authors of Knowledge and the Future School, can best be done through subjects: ‘the most reliable tools we have for enabling students to acquire knowledge and make sense of the world’.

Here we come to the future-three curriculum. The authors envisage it as more dynamic than the future-one assumption that the future is given by the past; it ‘does not treat knowledge as “given” but fallible and always open to change through the debates and research of the particular specialist community’. Yet unlike future two, ‘the openness of future three is not arbitrary or responsive to any kind of challenge – it is bounded by the epistemic rules of the particular specialist communities’. Ultimately, the future-three curriculum provides ‘a resource for teachers who seek to take their students beyond their experience in the most reliable ways we have’.

In this way, the authors tackle the challenge posed both by the instrumentalism of the New Labour government’s educational agenda, and the comfort blanket of traditionalism preferred by the current Coalition government. Their book is an engaging reminder of the need to avoid easy solutions, and to keep thinking.

Jennie Bristow is an associate of the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies at the University of Kent, and author of Baby Boomers and Generational Conflict, to be published by Palgrave in May.

Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice, by Michael Young and David Lambert, with Carolyn Roberts and Martin Roberts, is published by Bloomsbury. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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