I am rather hoping that you might, for this blog post, permit me a slightly extended analogy.I have spent a lot of my free time in the last fifteen years in mountains. I suspect I’m around the 10,000 hour mark. My knowledge of the mountains of the U.K is very good. The Lake District, in particular, I know intimately well. I’ve climbed all 214 of the Wainwrights, quite a few of them multiple times, and I’ve walked across those fells in every season of the year. I’ve done Tryfan, the Glyders and the Snowdon horseshoe countless times. In Scotland, I’ve been up 188 of the 282 Munros, and in the Alps I have done a lot of walking and mountaineering in the Swiss Valais. There are some obvious holes in my mountain CV: perhaps the most obvious is that I’ve never been to the summit of Ben Nevis (I have thoughts about making this my last Munro).
What this fairly substantial experience allows me to do is to take part in some great conversations. I will happily sit down with you and talk about various routes one might take through the western Lakes or around Glen Affric. My experience gives me the confidence to push myself. I am happy being out on my own in a white-out in winter conditions in the Cairngorms as I know that I know what I need to know to look after myself, for I’ve been in such conditions many times before. I can make informed judgements about risk because I have encountered risky situations before and I’ve had to think through the decision process many times. I am aware of common errors and cognitive biases in this domain and, although I often make small errors, I only rarely make a large error. The experience that lets me do this is a repertoire of content: in my long-term memory I have a large bank of knowledge created from prior experience that opens up a wide range of opportunities. This knowledge is my content repertoire (I am grateful to Christine Counsell for this phrase).
My content repertoire is unique to me, though it overlaps significantly with other experienced hillwalkers. I have a good circle of mountain friends with whom I have made my many excursions. Some of them have many more hours of experience than I, and some fewer. Not one of them has exactly the same repertoire in their experience. There are some routes which nearly all experienced hillwalkers will have done in the UK: Snowdon, Great Gable, Scafell Pike, Ingleborough. It would be noteworthy for an experienced hillwalkers to have never been up these hills. But take my Ben Nevis gap: there is no one hill that it is necessary for someone to have climbed to be an experienced hillwalker. What matters is that each of us has a sufficiently large content repertoire, an undefinable critical mass of knowledge, that puts us in the same world.
And this is what brings me to the school curriculum. This idea of ‘content repertoire’ is vital. In each subject what one needs to master is a repertoire of content. It might not matter if that varies from one person to another. In one school pupils might learn about Henry II and Thomas Becket as an example of the crisis of church and state; in another they might do Henry IV and Gregory VII. The more examples one has in one’s content repertoire, the better placed someone will be to have a meaningful conversation about a subject. Even in subjects where one might expect a more standardised content repertoire (e.g maths or languages), it is nevertheless the case that each person has a content repertoire that is unique to them. This is the problem of curriculum: there is no overall body of knowledge that is a priori necessary, but it is necessary to have a body of knowledge, and this of course is in some ways going to be arbitrary.
But the arbitrariness of some aspects of curriculum design is not a rationale for having no design at all. For starters, every subject has some basics without which learning anything else becomes harder. The challenge of curriculum design, however, is often not teaching the basics (which if they exist are usually fairly obvious). The challenge is on determining the types of content that need to be included in an individual’s repertoire. I would not take a novice hillwalker only to the southern fells of the Lakes: I would ensure that over time different types of route in different places have been covered. The novice might have some vague ideas about what this content might be (she might have gazed at pictures or heard stories from friends) but it would be my job as her teacher to say “let’s take this route this time as it’d be good for you to do a scramble”.
So when planning a curriculum, this is what we are planning for our pupils. We want them to have a ‘content repertoire’. We want to design this repertoire in a way that gives some breadth in a subject, even if some of the choices we have to make are arbitrary. This is how we introduce our pupils to a new world of experience, perhaps one that they could not even imagine before they came under our tuition.