Genericism and the crisis of curriculum

What follows below is a talk I gave to the British Curriculum Forum event on Saturday 18th June 2016. Generally the talk was well-received, even amongst those who disagreed with the argument, though I did have one angry response as well! Comments are as ever welcome below.

It would be worth reading this lost alongside Christine Counsell’s post ‘Genericism’s children‘. 

I am grateful indeed to be asked to speak before this audience, and rather humbled to be stood here alongside Michael Young. I speak here with several voices – as a history teacher, as a school senior leader, as a mentor of trainee teachers, as an academic, as a blogger – and, although what I want to offer in my first few minutes is in some ways a set of highly theoretical and technical comments on the nature of the school curriculum, I nevertheless want you to understand that these comments emerge directly from issues and problems that I face on a daily basis in my practice.

I want to suggest to you today that the very language we use in discussing the school curriculum – the intellectual tools that we have for making sense of our place in society – are not fit for purpose. What I shall argue is that we, in our educational world, are under the spell of an idea that, while being superficially enticing, is in fact leading us into an intellectual rabbit-hole. That idea is genericism.

I am taking genericism here to be the idea that the aims and process of education – and in particular schooling – can be formulated in generic terms, a “one size fits all” model that can be applied to many of the things that we teach in schools.

Some examples here can best illustrate my point.

Take the case of ‘critical thinking’. Much is done in schools in the name of “critical thinking”, and it has achieved near universal recognition as being a ‘good thing’. But what is it? Is it some generic skill, or mental process, or set of procedures, which might be applied to any object of study towards which one might wish to direct oneself? Or, as Sharon Bailin and her colleagues demonstrated in their paper in the Journal of Curriculum Studies 17 years ago,  perhaps none of these positions are particularly tenable, and ‘critical thinking’ is rather a domain-specific exercise.

Or what about the idea of ‘literacy’? In many schools, literacy is understood as a generic curricular object, in the sense that ‘developing literacy’ is seen as a meaningful aim in the curriculum. Yet, and the cognitive psychologists have been useful in guiding us here, literacy is perhaps better understood as a function of domain-specific knowledge. Whilst I might skip through a complex academic text on tenth-century Anglo-Saxon law, I will find a paper on colloids near impenetrable. Have I stopped being literate in the time it took me to put down one paper and pick up another? Or does this tell me that a generic notion of ‘literate’ lacks much in the way of explanatory power to describe me as an individual? This concerns me, for in many schools children are taken out of lessons in order to be taught ‘literacy’, and yet I am not at all clear this is a meaningful curricular object.

Sometimes ‘teamwork’ is transformed from a pedagogy into a curricular object, in the sense that a teacher aims to teach a child ‘how to work in a team’. Yet not all teams are made alike. I have seen children execute brilliant collective manoeuvres on a rugby pitch, and yet fail utterly to work as a team to put up a tent together on a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expedition. Teamwork, like ‘critical thinking’ and ‘literacy’ gets reified as a curricular object, yet it strikes me that different types of team work in different ways and to different ends. I am, in short, questioning the very notion of ‘transferability’ that underpins much generic curriculum theorising.

I have chosen just three common genericisms, but we are surrounded on a daily basis as teachers and school leaders by many others.

We hear of engagement, without any account of what pupils are engaged in doing.

We hear of ‘analytical skills’, without any account of what is being analysed.

We hear of ‘making progress’, without specifying what has been learnt.

The list is near endless. Communication, creativity, collaboration, grit, digital literacy, resilience, leadership… All of these broad, generic ideas are now part of the lingua franca of education and schooling and yet all, I would argue, lose their ability to convey meaning if ripped asunder from a specific context.

The ethical bankruptcy of this genericism is clear. An internet scammer is undoubtedly highly analytical, as he drains away the life savings of an unfortunate pensioner. Considerable teamwork is exercised by English and Russian football hooligans, as they plan and execute their latest act of senseless violence. In 1994, the perpetrators of the Rwandan Genocide were, in carrying out their slaughter, most certainly ‘engaged’.

As curricular objects, ideas such as ‘analysis’, ‘teamwork’ and ‘engagement’ are hollow shells, if taken from a specific grounded context.

The problem is, at heart, that we have forgotten our objects of study, and indeed we have forgotten to comment on the telos towards which we direct ourselves. As teachers, school leaders, policy makers, and academic researchers, we have adopted, to use the words of Christine Counsell, an ‘intransitive pedagogy’, in which our processes no longer take an object, and in which our means have become ends.

Why has this happened? In part, it has come about because we have assumed that teachers of different things have more in common than just their institutional setting. In order to manage, in order to train, in order to inspect, in order to judge, and – indeed – in order to research, we have tended to move inexorably away from the specific and towards the generic, and in making this move we rip ourselves asunder from, to follow Alasdair MacIntyre, the very social practices and traditions that we aim to teach.

David Aldridge commented in his recent blog that grass-roots forays into ‘what works’ research are limited for not addressing the purpose of education. I would go further, although I frame this in a different way. Our whole establishment has convinced itself that teachers have some generic purpose other than to teach the thing that they teach.

As a history teacher, I have seen this repeated in so many justifications of history teaching, and indeed the words have left my mouth before as well. We teach history because it produces good citizens. We teach history because it contains transferable skills. It is rare indeed to hear someone say “we teach history because we want to induct children into a tradition of studying the human past”.

And of course we shoot ourselves in the foot in doing so.

For if the value of history – or philosophy, or chemistry, or mathematics, or graphical design, or chess – is that is offers ‘transferable, generic skills’, then we have done nothing more than say ‘the value of my subject lies outside my subject’. When the Headteacher comes by and says “we’re not going to do history any more, because we can teach ‘analytical skills’ in another subject”, then we have only ourselves to blame.

And this, if  you will allow me, is the crisis of modern curriculum theory.

We have forgotten that the discipline of history exists in order to produce better knowledge of the past.

We have forgotten that pianists have, as their aim, the production of beautiful music.

And we have forgotten that the telos of the cricketer is to play cricket well.

And I would argue, therefore, that a curriculum theory that is fit for purpose in the twenty-first century should seek not to make generic outcomes curricular objects, nor should it allow us to collapse curriculum into pedagogy by treating means as ends.

Instead, a curriculum theory for our time needs to provide us with the intellectual tools by which we can talk in a meaningful way in our various institutions – schools, universities, exam boards, think thanks, government departments – about the domain-specific ends towards which we direct ourselves.

I would not deem to suggest that I have the answer to this, although the three accounts of curriculum that I have found most capable of this are those of R.S. Peters, E.D. Hirsch and Michael Young.

Each of course has its limitations. Peters, and subsequently Paul Hirst, were limited by an intellectual idealism that ultimately could not justify why the academic disciplines ought to form the basis of the school curriculum.

This justification is advanced more eloquently by Michael Young and other sociologists inspired by the work of Basil Bernstein and critical realism, although Young’s model of ‘powerful knowledge’ needs far greater application by subject specialists in different curricular domains.

E.D. Hirsch’s recognition of the relationship between the psychology of cognition and the construction of curriculum has proved a pregnant idea for a number of teachers in the present, but the full implications of this model have yet to be fully realised in the majority of schools.

If I therefore began this talk pessimistically, I rather hope that I might end on a note of optimism. As Christine Counsell argued this morning, the greatest advances in curriculum theory are likely to be achieved when practicing subject specialists build a sustained discourse about the curricular properties of the subject they teach, although the ability of such  practicing teachers to flourish is, in the present, made exceptionally difficult by the repressive genericism of school managers, inspectorial frameworks and accountability measures that dominates our wider educational world.

I cannot decide whether or not it is a good thing that the most probing work in curriculum theory today takes place not in academic institutions, nor in exam boards, nor in textbook publishing companies, nor in government departments, but instead in the free-for-all that is social media.

Whatever the means by which curriculum theory advances, I am convinced that our next step has to be a rejection of genericism.

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6 Comments on Genericism and the crisis of curriculum

  1. Excellent talk–thank you for publishing it here. The issue I think many of us wrestle with (at least in the US) is that our administrators go to conferences, hear talks framed within the generic terms you highlight, and then come back to pursue curricular and even physical plant decisions premised on these concepts. For example, there is a movement sweeping through many public and private schools in the US to transform libraries into “information literacy centers”.

    It seems the trick is to be able to, as content area specialists, break through the wall of jargon that surrounds our admin team–no easy task…

    • Thanks for commenting, and we certainly see plenty of the same on this side of the Atlantic. It raises a significant question regarding what *senior* curriculum leadership looks like in schools. One approach is for school senior leaders (administrators in American) to devolve a lot more to subject leads in schools. A more intellectually satisfying answer would involve the construction of a set of questions about specific subject domains that schools leaders might ask, but it requires a significant reframing of the role of leadership in schools.

  2. Tom Burkard // 18 June 2016 at 20:38 // Reply

    Unfortunately, education is now largely run by ‘managers’ who believe that management is a generic skill independent of the activity being managed. Headteachers are no longer chosen for their ability to teach, their academic knowledge, or even their understanding of what good teaching consists of; rather, they think that armed with a good MIS they can pinpoint strengths and weaknesses in a school. They attend leadership courses like Future Leaders, which have more in common with the training one receives from pyramid selling schemes than anything to do with education.

    This disease is not limited to education; one often sees advertisments that offer ‘managed solutions’ to some problem or the other. Phillip Delves Broughton wrote a book about his experiences enrolled in a Harvard MBA course, and it makes for pretty depressing reading. He relates that leaders are now enjoined to obtain a ‘unique competitive advantage’ for their firm, which translated into plain English means avoiding competition altogether.

  3. As someone who has returned to the secondary history classroom after a 15 year break your talk resonates. At times I struggle to identify the supposedly identifiable skills rather than content. A good lesson in my view may well include aspects which encourage literacy, group work and presentation skills but these as an end in themselves are meaningless. I wonder where you put ‘source skills’ – something which has dominated history teaching for over 20 years within this argument. In a recent year 7 exam on King John the obsession with sources and assessing reliability meant that many students discussed King John’s merits and failings without reference to Magna Carta. As we were marking skills as equal to content students who did this were still able to secure a top grade. To me it seems we may have lost our way. Good to hear you championing the subject as valuable in and of itself.

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