Why does pedagogy dominate curriculum?

In my previous blog post, I argued that one of the reasons we have ended up at the door of very prescriptive approaches to pedagogy – such as scripted lessons – has come about because we have not given due attention to curriculum. I want in this post to take this a little further and to ask why it is that we have ended up in a situation where pedagogy – and particularly generic pedagogy – has become so dominant in our educational discourse.

Let’s start with schools. All schools provide CPD for their staff and this can take many forms, but the dominant model is still ‘whole-staff training’. Subject-specific training is very typically the Cinderella of school CPD, devolved to the department level, poorly funded and, frequently, conducted in a teacher’s own time. In contrast, schools often invest quite considerable amounts of money and staff time in training on generic pedagogies. For school leaders, generic pedagogy is very attractive: it can be turned into a whole-school policy, made part of ‘learning walks’, used in staff coaching programmes, and so on. I do not intend to suggest that leaders do this out of any kind of malice – I, after all, ran many such sessions as an Assistant Head – but I think it does say something about the whole mindset we adopt in school leadership. We tend to focus on the things which apply in all contexts because our remit is the whole context. It is one reason why senior curriculum leadership has been so overlooked.

Social media of course maintains this status quo. If you want to get large numbers of hits or retweets then the last thing you want to do is write a highly-subject-specific blog post on covalent bonding or the causes of the English Civil War. By definition, such pieces are irrelevant to the majority of teachers out there. We thus end up with countless blog posts written on approaches to group work, the benefits of quizzing or techniques of assessment for learning. We have a vibrant educational discourse in this country, but it is by its very nature generic in character, and, as in schools, we tend therefore to talk about generic things.

Yet, I would argue, it is this careful thought about what is being taught that requires the greatest consideration. Consider, for a moment, the following questions that a teacher might reasonably want to ask in response to a curriculum demand to teach ‘the Norman Conquest’.

  • What do historians already know about the Norman Conquest?
  • What arguments do historians have about the Norman Conquest?
  • What questions about the Norman Conquest do we want pupils to answer?
  • What kind of overview of the Norman Conquest would be needed to answer those questions?
  • In answering those questions, what kinds of simplifications about the Norman Conquest can be made without causing too much distortion?
  • What prior knowledge is required for someone to answer the questions we will ask of the Norman Conquest?
  • What ways are there of structuring the new knowledge pupils need to answer those questions?

And so on. Now, of course, every department could answer those questions for itself, but there is clearly much to be gained by sharing that kind of knowledge at a much wider scale. I remember, in my second year of teaching, sitting down to plan a new scheme of work on the Spanish Civil War, and having to do that kind of thinking from scratch. Do not get me wrong: it is enjoyable work, but it is not possible to do it for everything that we teach. Good curriculum support material provides answers to those kinds of questions.

This is not to say that high-quality curriculum support materials cannot ever be found. They can. For a number of years I have served as an editor of a journal that does exactly that. This is nonetheless dwarfed in comparison to the vast provision that is out there on generic pedagogy. By way of example, plug “how to do group work in school” into Google, and have a trawl through the thousands of articles that you will find that convey a whole range of advice about approaches to using group work. Then type in “teaching covalent bonding in school”. What you will generally find are resources, but very little indeed in terms of clear advice concerning, for example, prerequisites for teaching, common pupil misconceptions or what kinds of simplification are appropriate.

A common response I get at this point is “but of course both curriculum and pedagogy matter”, and this would of course be true. I think there is some value in learning about generic pedagogy. My point, rather, is that we have got the balance wrong. Our institutions – indeed our whole discourse – is geared towards over-emphasising pedagogy and under-emphasising curriculum. Pedagogy has for many years now been some kind of magic bullet: if only we get the pedagogy right, then everything will be okay. For schools and leaders in challenging situations, pedagogy is the low-hanging fruit, where, with a nice run of whole-staff training, some quick inroads can be made. The hard graft, of sitting down with the curriculum and, for each part, building in-depth and codified teacher knowledge about what is to be taught, is not fashionable and nor will it get you a million blog hits or five-figure sums of Twitter followers. You will struggle to make a living as a consultant selling schools sessions on teaching covalent bonding (although good luck if you are!)

An over-emphasis on generic pedagogy is deeply embedded in our school system. I am not sure how this problem can be resolved, but I am sure that the first step is to recognise that the problem exists.

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