I read an interesting blog post today that took a critical look at an approach to curriculum that involves providing teachers with scripted lessons and very limited choice about what to teach or how to teach it. For what it is worth, I agree with the critique. It does not matter how much you try, you cannot ‘teacher-proof’ a curriculum. Nor, I suggest, would you want to. We simply cannot live in a world where we think it acceptable for a teacher to know so little of what he or she teaches that he or she is incapable of interpreting a curriculum. If a school is facing this problem, then the first and most urgent priority is to get the relevant teachers onto a decent course. Enthusiastic words from senior leaders and government ministers about subject knowledge are worthless if not backed by the time and money to take subject knowledge seriously, although it is very rare indeed to find a school that consistently invests in the subject knowledge of its teaching staff.
Knowing enough to interpret a curriculum should be a minimum starting point. The water gets muddied somewhat when thinking about what level of detail a curriculum needs to contain. It is often (wrongly) assumed that, the more detailed a curriculum, the less there is to interpret. This is simply not the case. As I argued here, even a list such as that included by E.D. Hirsch as the Appendix to Cultural Literacy leaves a great deal of interpretation to be done. One might list “Martin Luther King”, but what is it about him that ought to be learnt? Into how much detail do I need to go when teaching him? What is the vital core to be understood, and the supportive hinterland that sits around this? These questions will always be matters of teacher interpretation: there is no level of specificity a curriculum can provide that renders teacher curriculum thought redundant.
What, then, of “off the peg” curricula? Despite the fervour with which the idea is admonished, I think the picture here is more complicated than is usually assumed. Teachers have used ‘off the peg’ curricula in the form of exam-board specifications for decades, and, although there are plenty of complaints to be made, I do not think anyone claims to any great extent that teaching an exam course de-skills teachers or plays down the importance of their subject knowledge. Exam boards these days offer fairly complete ‘packages’ – textbooks, assessments, schemes of work, online resources, and so on – and, although I take issue with some (or, indeed, a lot) of what they produce, I would not go so far as to claim that this provision significantly undermines the role of the teacher.
I take more issue with scripted lessons, but it is worth pointing out here that this is a pedagogical concern and not a curriculum concern. The argument for scripting and more tightly choreographed lessons is that it provides greater conformity. Again, it should be noted that the rhetoric here is often unnecessarily hyperbolic. Many approaches to teaching involve scripting, and I do not think anyone would raise concerns about using a script in (say) a ‘Mantle of the Expert’ style activity. The issue, rather is over whether a script can control for the pupils, or become a “pupil-proof” lesson plan. Here, I would argue, scripts become restrictive rather than productive. If we should be thinking in terms of ‘responsive teaching’, then we need to be able to dedicate time to dealing with misconceptions as they arise, slowing down and speeding up as necessary, and stopping to re-explain something that we make a hash of the first time.
So, I do not have a great deal of time for scripted lessons. But, equally, I think we should recognise why the demand for these emerges. Where there is an absence of the necessary curriculum materials to support teaching (textbooks, teacher guides, example schemes of work, assessments, and so on), then it can be tempting to turn to pedagogical conformity (i.e. scripted lessons) to resolve a curricular deficit. It is counterintuitive, but I would argue that we have found ourselves in a world of greater pedagogical prescription precisely because we have not invested sufficiently well in curriculum development. If we were to invest properly in curricula, with all the necessary support that teachers need to interpret those curricula, then we would not need scripted lessons.
The historian in me wants to resist an over-generalised conclusion, but I shall allow myself this: in education, we typically look to pedagogical solutions to curriculum problems, and that is where we keep going wrong.