Are there things that all children need to know?

In mathematics and (to an extent) in the natural sciences there is not a huge amount of debate as to what ought to populate a curriculum. The greater debate, particularly in maths, is not so much what to teach, but rather how to teach. In the arts and humanities, however, there are few things which are strictly necessary, without which it becomes difficult to advance in the subject. In history, for example, you could get away with having never studied the Avignon Papacy, the reign of Edward VI, the Thirty Years War or the unification of Germany. Whilst in all cases learning these periods would be a good thing and would enrich your knowledge of the past, there are not really empirical or rational grounds on which to say any period of history is strictly essential. The same is true of literature: although there are plenty of books, plays and poems which we might think are worthwhile teaching, there are few indeed which would fundamentally limit someone’s future in the subject.

One flawed conclusion from this problem is that, because very little content is strictly necessary, it is not necessary to specify content. Despite all the debate in the education world at the moment, few are adhering to the romantic notion of a ‘discovery curriculum’ in which we ought to let children make their own decisions about what they want to learn. Those who are advocating this are almost universally not practising teachers. Similarly, although many want to go beyond the principles of pedagogy that emerge from cognitive psychology (e.g quizzing, interleaving, elaboration, and so on), few are outright rejecting these as incorrect. Many of these pedagogical approaches rely on an early curricular decision to specify content, and so, even if you do think that in an ideal world children should choose what they learn about, the practical issue of how you teach essentially prevents this.

But how then do we square this circle? On the one hand, we know we need to make decisions about what to teach, and yet, on the other, there is not much rational basis on which to say ‘x is more important to teach than y’.

Part of the answer to this must be that we, as curriculum designers, accept arbitrariness as a fundamental feature of curriculum design. On some level, in some way, what we choose to teach in the arts and humanities is always going to be open to the accusation of arbitrariness. I do not think we can ultimately escape this critique, and our response to it should most probably be a challenge to our critics to outline a curriculum theory where specified content is not on some level arbitrary.

But I think we can mitigate this problem in a few ways.

The first is by making a curriculum internally coherent. I might decide to include something on my curriculum because it relates to something else on my curriculum. Perhaps it is part of a narrative I wish to tell. Perhaps it is a contrasting case to something else I have taught. Perhaps I choose to teach the American Revolution as I have decided that it is necessary for pupils to know about it in order to learn the causes of the French Revolution. Perhaps I choose to include West Side Story as I have already included Romero and Juliet. In all of these cases, I am making my curriculum internally coherent: its whole relate to its parts, and its parts relates to its whole.

Another way I can justify my curriculum is by allowing myself a level of abstraction. Although I probably can’t argue that the Frankfurt Parliament is something about which all pupils simply have to learn, I might feel more confident in arguing that all pupils do have to learn about ideas such as liberalism and nationalism. The risk here is to assume that, because you have taught the Frankfurt Assembly, you have ‘done’ liberalism and nationalism. It’s as ridiculous as saying that you have ‘done’ women’s history because you have taught the Suffragettes. But, if I have a framework of substantive concepts (such as liberalism, nationalism, feudal, serfdom, capitalism, limited monarchy, chattel slavey, theocracy, and so on) then I can begin to map particular instantiations of these more abstract ideas onto a curriculum design. The same is true of choosing novels to read in literature, though again it is vital to avoid the idea that we have ‘done’ 19th-century because we have read a single Hardy novel.

The third way of mitigating the problem of arbitrariness is less a matter of curriculum design, and more one of classroom culture. On numerous occasions in a typical week I say to my pupils ‘well, we don’t have time to go into this, but you might want to look up…’ No teacher believes that his or her curriculum is all-encompassing, and there is no shame in sharing that with pupils. Whenever a pupil asks me ‘why don’t we study x?’ my response is always ‘well we had to make some tough choices about what to include and what to miss out. Just because we missed it put does not mean it is not interesting or important. Why not come back to me next week with what you have found out?’ In this way, the school curriculum becomes what surely it has to be: a starting point and not an end. The critics of curricular models such as ‘core knowledge’ make the mistake of assuming that what is included is all that the curriculum designer thinks worthwhile: one does not have to spend long reading (for example) the works of ED Hirsch to realise that this could not be further from the truth.

The debate about what should and should not be in the curriculum is vital and ought to continue. What we need to avoid, however, is the conclusion that, because a curriculum will always be contested, we should give up on searching for principles that can help guide our selection choices. All curriculum models are imperfect, but some are nevertheless better than others.

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4 Comments on Are there things that all children need to know?

  1. I’m not so sure about your first statement about the teaching of Mathematics.

    In every province of Canada with the exception of Ontario and Quebec, the four standard algorithms were deliberately removed from the curriculum by educationists over the objection of the mathematical community. To be clear this means stacking to add and subtract with borrow/carry; vertically-arranged multiplication with partial products; and long division. In Ontario and Quebec these were not altogether removed but language inserted which implies they are to be diminished in emphasis.

    Here in Manitoba, only through extensive negotiations by our advocacy group, and against howls of protest by education school faculties and professional “math consultants” in the system, we managed to have wording added which implies that at some point students will be exposed to these procedures of arithmetic — much later than we would have them taught, but at least they are there. There remain 7 provinces still which either do not mention, or do not mention in a positive light, the teaching of the algorithms.

    I would say that this is a debate about “what should populate the math curriculum”.

    The four standard algorithms of arithmetic are by no means the only example but they are perhaps the most obvious. We object to the presence of a number of things which we think clutter students’ learning with irrelevancies or give them the wrong idea about what it means to do mathematics. And there are other omissions or misplacements (such as fractional arithmetic starting no earlier than Grade 7 anywhere in Canada) which we feel are inappropriate.

    So, while it may seem to one outside this domain looking in that there is nothing to debate, such is not the case. Indeed in mathematics I believe we see the effects of modern constructivist educational ideology upon content in the curriculum as it is the most obvious where classical curricular content is the most well-defined.

    • Tom Burkard // 27 November 2016 at 22:10 // Reply

      Although ministers here are doing their best to restore automatic recall of number bonds and traditional algorithms, I recently had a close look at the maths curriculum in one or our local authorities. It must be ‘aligned’ to the national curriculum, but it wastes huge amounts of time teaching alternate strategies for calculation. These are all presumably in aid of teaching ‘sense of number’–a concept for which no satisfactory definition exists. In reality, all the do is leave lower-ability pupils hopelessly confused. Although the National Curriculum specifies that children must know their number bonds by Year 4, teachers have no idea what ‘automatic recall’ means. We have found that almost universally, they think that they’ve met the curriculum if their kids can eventually calculate that answer when they add or multiply two single-digit numbers. Our schools minister announced earlier this year that he was going to introduce timed tests of number bonds for multiplication at the end of Year 6, but the opposition was so strong that he was forced to back-track.

      Similar howls of protest were raised when the new Physics GCSEs required pupils to actually know the equations for Boyle’s Law, acceleration, etc. However, the old GCSEs–where all kids had to do was plug the numbers into the equations that were provided for them– were so palpably absurd that the changes have stuck.

      Still, Michael has a point: at least we are just arguing about how things should be done, whereas in the humanities the question is ‘what’.

  2. Interesting that you haven’t included the notion of cultural literacy in your justifications for curriculum choices. Is this because you are sceptical of it, or because you consider it to have been dealt with elsewhere?

    Cultural literacy does have a strong sense of necessity about it, as Hirsch points out that depriving pupils of the knowledge which enables them to read serious writing in Standard English is a serious injustice, especially when those pupils are highly unlikely to encounter such knowledge anywhere other than the classroom.

    Of course, there is still the task of working out what such knowledge is, in literature, history and so on. But the starting point is not arbitrary. I would argue, for example, that if you have no idea who Ebenezer Scrooge or Hamlet or Falstaff is, if your schooling has deprived you of that knowledge, then you are at a disadvantage, and this is an injustice which curriculum designers must address.

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