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Education for All Educational development Health and wellbeing

Education Really Matters: How Meaningful is Your Curriculum?

All learners deserve curricular experiences which are relevant and meet their everyday needs. Courses of study should be based on authentic values and benefit both individuals and society as a whole.

Frank O’Hagan

Issues of importance and complexity

It is a truism that any nation must not allow the curriculum on offer to children and young people to stagnate or be mired in myths of former glories. Very helpful curricular innovations can be stymied through inadequate consultation with stakeholders, a rushed execution or a lack of preparation for those whose responsibility it will be to deliver programmes of study. Strategies for effective implementation need to include sufficient, up-to-date resources for learners and relevant, ongoing professional training for staff.

A school curriculum must encompass the personal needs, motives and aspirations of every student. It requires to be fully democratic in the sense that it belongs to all of them and pays due cognisance to their diverse abilities and talents. Its operation should not permit traditional ‘academic’ subjects or national examination statistics to dominate its rationale. Instead, students – regardless of their family background, social circumstances or perceived prospects – should feel confident that their learning and progress are meaningful and well-targeted with regard to their current and future wellbeing.

To regard any nation’s curriculum as if it is a straightforward, unitary entity is misleading. One syllabus cannot possibly fit all students as flexibility and individualisation are required to meet the wide range of their abilities and needs. Additionally, distinctions can be made regarding the formal, informal and hidden features of what takes place in educational establishments. All three aspects may exist simultaneously. The ‘formal curriculum’ alludes to what the powers that be – government, authorities and school boards – state in official guidelines about contents and delivery. In contrast, the ‘informal curriculum’ refers to facets which can waver, sometimes considerably, from authorised policies. These could concern unforeseen pressures on management or even unsuitable methods used by staff during teaching sessions. The ‘hidden curriculum’ is associated with the more secretive or undetected elements of school life, for example, students’ private interests and ambitions or prohibited activities, perhaps bullying or the use of the dark web, which may be occurring. Moreover, account has to be taken of the all-important ‘out of school curriculum’ which students experience in their everyday routines. At the formal level, it includes educational, cultural and recreational activities organised by learners, parents, guardians and others. It too has both informal and hidden characteristics which may be known only to the students themselves.

For the few, the many or all?

A recurring mistake has been to place too much emphasis on what might be described as offering a WEIRD curriculum (designed, even if unintentionally, for White and Educated students in Industrial, Rich and Desirable localities). Even in the world’s wealthiest democracies, such an orientation will miss out on the needs of many underprivileged and disadvantaged children and young persons. Truly effective curriculums should be all-inclusive, flexible, coherent and well-balanced. They should lead towards self- actualisation (learners becoming all they can be) coupled along with the enhancement of intrinsic human values (learners appreciating and embracing the attributes of personal worth, compassion, social justice, morality and so forth).  

Perhaps curricular innovators and pacesetters may need to remember more often that they are generally among the ‘successes’ of the educational system. In addition to their accomplishments while at school, they are likely to have achieved well in further or higher education and to have a genuine love of their subjects. They can have forgotten how they reached their high standards of attainment and might well have acquired them without difficulty or significant amounts of assistance. The problem – and it can be a very crucial one – is that they may have little insight into the prerequisites and constraints which many learners are experiencing. Listening attentively to all interested parties will hopefully impart some realism and intellectual humility when required.

Pressures and spin

The contents of curriculums in schools, colleges and universities are highly influential with regard to attitudes and behaviours within populations. Political pressures and technological advances constantly impact on educational programmes and their functioning for learners of all ages. Although not always welcomed, these adjustments generally are well intentioned and benign. However, there have been, and sometimes continue to be, the occurrence of nasty manipulations, such as when scientific and historical facts are distorted or when racial discrimination and false propaganda are encouraged. As highlighted earlier, what is taught must be based on authentic values and suited to the needs of individuals and society as a whole.

The emphasis on different subjects will change and evolve over time – the Romans gave prominence to rhetoric while, for the Victorians, classical studies were accentuated. In today’s economic climate, science, technology, engineering and mathematics (the so called STEM subjects) have been rightly regarded as crucial for a modern, industrial society. Additionally, the importance of the arts to the national wealth also has been recognised, thus lengthening the acronym to STEMA. However, by themselves, this grouping particularly up to at least 16 years of age would be unsatisfactory and insufficient for most learners. Clearly there can be advantages in maintaining breadth in the curriculum for young learners and allowing them to cultivate favourite areas at their own pace and in their own time.

Although STEMA subjects are of high value, it would be negligent to denigrate the importance of curricular areas such as English language and literature, social studies, foreign languages or personal, social and health education (PSHE) including ethics and employability skills. All have a place within a balanced and holistic approach prior to specialisation. Moreover, the danger of neglecting cultural heritage needs to be monitored, for example, in primary education is too much attention given to topics, such as ancient Egypt and Rome, at the expense of a nation’s own customs and traditions? Relevance within a syllabus will ensure that key global topics – healthy living, climate change, social justice and the like – are embedded and addressed rather than being tacked on as optional extras if time permits.

When it comes to describing their nation’s curriculum, politicians and administrators frequently are only too happy to use terminology such as ‘world-leading’, ‘excellent’ and ‘inclusive’. Such expressions have much in common with that of publicists and ‘spin doctors’. Does ‘an excellent, world-leading, inclusive curriculum’ sound apposite for what students are currently experiencing? Or are assertions of this kind merely superficial and out of touch with reality? Evidence-based evaluations should come before bloated exaggerations. But governments and officials across continents persist with these kinds of pronouncements. In Scotland, for example, the title ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ (CfE) seems both unfortunate and deluding. The nomenclature has the whiff of elitism and spin, perhaps even of ‘fake news’. Surely this is not in line with a national penchant for understatement rather than hubris? It has even been said – hopefully it is simply a myth – that at one point a debate took place about whether there should be the inclusion of the definite or the indefinite article at the beginning of the title (as if ‘The’ versus ‘A’ was so vital!). Neither now is to be found. If it is indeed an agenda for excellence, why are so many Scottish students not achieving excellent outcomes after nursery provision and 12 years of formal school education? Some practitioners appear to be of the opinion that ‘Curriculum for Mediocrity’ would have been a more fitting title. Others have far more disparaging or ruder remarks to suggest about what ‘CfE’ denotes. Basically, the public wants less hyperbole with better learning environments and much improved accomplishments for many more students.

Improving the curriculum

Curricular development, along with any concurrent organisational changes, can be extremely challenging. Planning has to take account of what realistically can be achieved given existing staff expertise, resources, support networks and stipulated timescales. The features of what is offered to students of all ages must comprise appropriateness, insight and usefulness. Any neglect of deepening knowledge and understanding in core areas like arithmetic/mathematics, reading/writing or health/wellbeing will be detrimental to long-term progress.

To be truly effective, a curriculum has to be deemed as much more than an exchange of facts, points of view or statistical data. Attention to the coherence and flexibility of tasks, levels of difficulty, and pace of anticipated progress is essential. If curricular activities are beyond their current abilities, learners may simply let lessons pass them by in an inconsequential and meaningless way. Some might resent being present and engage in disruptive or obstructive behaviours. Others may refuse to participate actively during instructional sessions, even opting for non-attendance.

More research needs to be given to the management and timing of topics in order to establish the most appropriate ages or stages for particular competences and skills to be enhanced. Similarly, trials are required to uncover decidedly effective learning and teaching strategies within and across subject areas. In particular, the use of technological equipment and artificial intelligence requires to be utilised to maximum benefit. All curriculum innovations should have stated ‘improvement objectives’ which they are expected to meet. If this stance was consistently applied, it would bring to light further successful ideas and practices. Perhaps as importantly, it might make trendsetters think more carefully about potential fads and whims, thus saving time and expense on failures and ‘duds’ which should be consigned to an educational dust bin.  

As the necessities of modern societies evolve, varying aspects of the curriculum will require evaluation to gauge their merits and usefulness. A query which arises during curricular appraisals relates to the appropriateness of the balance between national and local expectations. There is a real fear of investigating the difficult issue of whether we really know what a high quality curriculum means within diverse communities. Too often the demands of central government will prevail when some adjustment – in application or contents – would be more pertinent. Evaluations always should be open, cooperative and constructive with the focus on students’ present and future requirements as the foremost concern.

The case for permitting a good deal of freedom to a school to act as evaluator regarding its own curriculum does not preclude the need for also having objective and independent validations. A potential danger is that staff perceive external inspectors as ‘them’ observing and commenting on ‘us’. Such ‘us-them’ splits can be harmful. A much more positive, collaborative and wide-ranging stance, including the involvement of all stakeholders, should be adopted. A genuine partnership across students, their parents and guardians, educationalists, employers and the wider society ought to be brought into play and used to enrich our culture of learning.    

Towards better future provision for all

Although the benchmarks and functions of curriculums will vary from one country to another, there is a general tendency for provision to benefit those who are more able or enjoy privileged circumstances. Consequently, the allocation of resources is often to the detriment of learners who are experiencing difficulties or from impoverished backgrounds. Following the utilitarian principle, it might be argued that education should provide ‘the greatest progress for the greatest number.’ However, a preferable proposal would be to make accessible ‘the best support to enable all to achieve their true potential.’ In many respects comprehensive systems have not been adaptable or accommodating enough. They are not meant to be, and should not be, a case of ‘one size fits all’ as some commentators in the media seem to imply. When examined, it is frequently revealed that there have not been sufficient options to suit the requisites of individual pupils.

It is in the interests of society that special attention should be given to those young persons who have tended to espouse indifferent and nonchalant attitudes towards prescribed objectives which they perceive to be irrelevant given their actual situation and prospects. In common with pupils experiencing additional support needs, they are entitled to creative and stimulating routes to expand their hidden capabilities and talents. There can be little doubt that unsuitable directives imposed on schools, and subsequently on learners, can result in curricular programmes which jeopardise commitment and progress.

Of course, it is a welcomed bonus when curricular content and its delivery both captivate and entertain students. Occasions which provide moments of satisfaction and pleasure can stimulate a greater momentum towards a love of learning. This certainly does not imply that periods of study should be devoid of challenges. In practice, overcoming difficulties through endeavour and perseverance can truly bring well-deserved rewards. Good use of structure within a curricular area – designing pathways with steps or ‘ladders’  to facilitate progress through learners’ own efforts and assiduousness – is an acknowledged route to success.

Concluding comments

If future curriculums are to be genuinely all-encompassing, there will have to be more ambitious and coherent national long-term plans. These will need to ensure targeted and flexible linkage of learning activities from the nursery to primary stages and then onwards to secondary schools, skills-based training schemes, colleges and universities. Future steps forward in delivering curricular initiatives will inevitably involve greater communal engagement. Extended deployment of various forms of information technology, often managed simultaneously by users in separate locations, should prove to be highly beneficial. Feedback by way of computer-assisted teaching methods will require inbuilt and effective coaching components through being clear, precise and student-centred.

While promoting dedication to study and the pursuit of excellence, the overall curriculum must avoid contributing to wanton elitism, vanity and self-absorption. It should incorporate and endorse virtues and attributes such as confidence, courage, empathy, gratitude and inclusiveness. Many aspects of current educational and tutoring practices across the world fail in meeting these standards, not only at the expense of disadvantaged and poverty-stricken populations, but for many other groups as well.

Essentially, the messages, advice and developments on the curriculum which are conveyed to society at large will need to advocate more cogently the assurance that further progress can and will be achieved. Participants will welcome campaigns and advances which are value-based and relevant to the collective aspirations of students and their communities. Integrated action for improvement must include matters pertaining, not only to academic achievements and practical skills, but also to wider national considerations concerning citizenship, culture, social justice and cohesion, ethics and standards of living.

At all stages noted above, a genuinely meaningful curriculum should be accessible to learners.

Appendix

Further questions to ponder: Should more subjects, targeted to bring about social advances, be present in the curriculum? If so, how should they be introduced and delivered?

Many years ago, I attended a seminar organised in conjunction with the publication of a national report which had a specific focus on the structure of the curriculum for secondary school pupils. After an excellent presentation by a member of the report committee, he was asked about the problems of schools in addressing the perturbing issues which they encountered in their severely deprived catchment areas. His insightful reply indicated that in such a school it would be appropriate for the curriculum to include a subject which concentrated on tackling and overcoming poverty and hardship. Would it be valuable, even exhilarating, for many students to choose a national qualification of this kind? How could it effectively result in beneficial outcomes? Or would it be deemed as too risky by traditional or conservative influences?

(Dr Frank O’Hagan previously was the Adviser of Studies to Bachelor of Education students at the University of Strathclyde. Later, he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education.)

By O'Hagan

Dr Frank O'Hagan has formerly worked as a science and mathematics teacher, social welfare officer, teacher education lecturer, university lecturer and inspector of educational establishments. Now retired, he continues to have a keen interest in education and provision for carers.