Imagine for a moment a cannon positioned on the south coast of England, pointing at France. The artillery officers identify a target on the French coast and calculate exactly what is needed to hit that target. Using years of experience that has helped them work out how to do this, they set off the cannon and, if they what they are doing, they hit their target more often than not.
We often treat schooling as if it should be a cannon. By this I mean that we set out a clear target, we aim children towards that target, and we judge ourselves on whether they hit it. To give ourselves the best possible chance of getting children to that target, we focus very closely on the fine details: we do not load them up with unnecessary weight, we strip away anything that might cause a distraction, and, for the delivery system that will get a child to their destination, we put all of our resources into ensuring that the system will get them there.
Like all analogies this is not perfect, but I think it’s not a bad comparison for what happens in schools. We focus on qualifications as outcomes, and we train pupils with just what they need in order to get a particular qualification. We model a curriculum as linear, a ladder-like progression model where each step inexorably leads towards the particular outcome we have determined.
Now I am not against examinations (to the contrary) and nor am I against the idea that I want my pupils to leave school with qualifications and future prospect. But I am not sure that the cannon model is the right one.
I prefer much more to think of a pupil as a ship in a harbour at low tide, sat on the muddy ground, unable to go anywhere without outside intervention. As the tide gradually rises, however, the ship begins to move. Channels in the harbour open up and, before long, the range of possibilities has vastly improved. A single bucket of water chucked in from the harbour side does not make a difference, but, collectively, the more water there is, the easier it will be for the boat to sail away.
Readers of this blog will know that for me the water here is an analogy for knowledge. Rather than have a narrow curriculum that gives a child just enough knowledge to pass a qualification, I would instead argue that we should be gradually filling the harbours of their minds, where each new layer of knowledge joins with what they already know in order that they might sail away to a wide variety of possible futures. With a high tide our sailing ship can get to the coast of France, and we can help to make sure it does, but we have also prepared the ship to go to many other places as well.
Our role as teachers is not to fire the cannon: it is to fill the harbour.