Independent Thinking Press
31 Jan 2020
Michael Fordham finds a book that challenges some of the poor thinking around curriculum, but is limited by its own inconsistencies
Curriculum is in fashion at the moment, and debates on curriculum are very polarised. One of those debates concerns the extent to which traditional school subjects should be the principal organising structures of the curriculum, or whether these should be broken down in favour of an alternative framework. Debra Kidd and I come from very different positions in this debate, but I approached her latest offering, A Curriculum of Hope, with the attitude of trying to understand whether a reconciliation of these positions might be fruitful.
The main argumentative thrust of the book is that curriculum design needs to account for the 5Cs of coherence, credibility, creativity, compassion and community. There is little here that can be rejected on a superficial level, and the book picks up a star for its timely reminder that curriculum design cannot be reduced to a standardised tick-box approach. Given the current accountability emphasis, we are increasingly seeing this happen across our education system, and if this book makes headteachers stop and reconsider restructuring their leadership teams along the lines of “intent, implementation and impact” then it will have done some good in the world.
The book also offers some good thoughts on how a whole-school approach might be used to bring together threads from different subjects. I like the idea that schools might at times get pupils to take a step back and think about wider questions and, although I find some of the examples in the book a bit clunky, the general principle is fairly sound.
It was also good to see plenty of emphasis on substantive breadth, with recommendations for pupils to study the history, geography and literature of societies and cultures that are not frequently found in school curricula.
I commend Kidd for including so much exemplification (too few books do this)
One concern I have is that the 5Cs could themselves too easily become a tick-list for schools to use in curriculum design. This potential is most evident in the appendices. I commend Kidd for including so much exemplification (too few books do this) but what these do reveal is how easy it is for generic frameworks to lead to the contrived insertion of content, practices and activities. Sadly, the very kind of superficial shoe-horning that Kidd herself lambasts can be found across the examples in A Curriculum of Hope (we need to tick the creativity box, so let’s do a role-play). Perhaps the issue is not that we have the wrong top-level generic framework (the 5Cs, the 3Is, or whatever); perhaps it is the very idea of a top-level generic framework that is the problem.
What undermined Kidd’s argument most for me, however, were the history examples. The most important challenge to the idea of breaking down subject boundaries (e.g. by having cross-curricular questions) is that it results in the subject being taught poorly. As a history specialist, I zoomed in on those examples throughout the book and what I found concerned me. For example, the emphasis on spotting bias in one example runs counter to years of work by history teachers to challenge that very approach. I also have concerns about the primary school that teaches the Second World War every year from Reception to Year 6. One thing this country does not need is yet another generation raised to see everything through the lens of that conflict.
I also had concerns about the extent to which different periods of history, which felt in some cases parachuted in to serve the needs of the generic question, could be brought together in a coherent chronological, thematic or conceptual whole, an issue that has long been identified as a problem in primary history.
In the end, A Curriculum of Hope does for early-Noughties-Mick-Waters-esque curriculum theory what Stranger Things did for the 1980s. If you were a fan of these ideas back in the 2000s, then you will like this book and its attempt to resurrect them for a different age. Critics of that school of thought, however, will find little here to induce reflection or to make them think any of the lessons of that time have been learned.