My name was on that list of academics who denounced Michael Gove’s curriculum plans this week. I was embarrassed that the headlines said ‘top academics’ because although many of my colleagues were, I am decidedly bottom drawer in that respect, but I did feel a little frisson of excitement when I read today that I (and they) are actually now ‘bad academics’, not least of all because we are ruled by our ideology and not our knowledge. I know…the irony!
Michael Wilshaw weighed in, telling us to get out of our ivory towers and into the real world. When did you last teach a class of Year 9s sir? My last was at 2pm today. As those of you who read this blog know, I’m in the classroom every day. My feeling is that an academic involved in education has to be, well, involved in education. But that doesn’t necessarily mean as a classroom teacher. The world would be worse off without the likes of Dylan Wiliam for example, or many of the names who were on that list. Keri Facer for a start, who has led fantastic research based projects into the use of digital technologies in the classroom. Every one of those academics values knowledge. What a ridiculous suggestion that this is an argument about binary oppositions between knowledge and skills. There was no suggestion in the letter that there was no place for knowledge in the world. But knowledge alone, particularly a single minded, prescriptive view of knowledge isolated from context is extremely damaging.
Isaac Newton, describing his very great discoveries said that he was simply a child on a beach, collecting pebbles while the whole vast ocean lay behind him, as yet untapped for its possibilities. He was suggesting that the knowledge we have is as nothing to that which lies yet to be discovered in the future. And the key to that discovery lies in curiosity. Nothing we have ever known or discovered has happened without someone asking a question. What would happen if? Why? What are the consequences of this action? Nothing in Gove’s proposals are future oriented. In looking backwards only, we turn our backs on the ocean.
No-one in their right mind would say, or has said, that learning to read, write and count aren’t vital skills. Maths, computer skills, science are of course crucial to the future survival of the human race. And, as I wrote in my last blog, the Arts are essential components of our humanity. We learn from history so that we won’t repeat mistakes in the future and so that we can celebrate our achievements in the past. And so it goes for every ‘subject’ – there is core, essential knowledge and other knowledge which it is quite nice to know when you get the chance. But there’s too much of it to cram into a curriculum and no-one should try. Because when you do, there is a tendency to skim, to superficially skip over events and information that might have been better done in depth and with contextualised understanding. Gove’s proposals leave little room for depth. And even less for creativity.
In the Ghetto Museum in Terezin, there is a quote – ‘As long as I can create, I know I am alive.’ Our letter suggested Gove’s Gradgrindian approach to education is deadening creativity. At the very time that other countries in the OECD are turning to innovation and enterprise as ways of developing their curriculum models, we are turning away. Let’s not be surprised when we fall further behind. The PISA tests are often quoted as evidence of the need to return to a rigorous form of rote learning, but the whole point of the PISA test is to see what pupils can do when their knowledge is demanded in novel and unexpected situations. In short, their ability to apply knowledge creatively. Britain does quite well on the knowledge aspects of the tests, but poorly on interpretation and application. We HAVE to teach children how to learn if we are to catch up. Apparently that view makes us badass academics. I have to say I quite like it. Because if we don’t speak up, who the hell will?