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Maria Von Trapp had it right after all

Friday, 07 July 2017

Principal's Blog

Maria Von Trapp had it right after all - sometimes we need to start from the very beginning.

The announcement of another 'overhaul' and introduction of 'T levels' to run alongside A levels causes many heads and teachers to shudder with collective despair, I suggest. Don't get me wrong, I think we need 'an army of skilled young people' (Justine Greening to the Chamber of Commerce, Thursday 6th July); I just can't see how further tinkering will do the trick. There comes a time when, however much you want it to, you can't overhaul an old banger and make it fly - unless you can also make sweets which whistle. The education of the Victorians has reached this point. 

Victorian society prized knowledge above all else; it was the tool of social mobility and self betterment, often used by the newly wealthy and successful entrepreneurs through prim governesses or newly fast growing ‘public schools’ to enhance the standing of their children. The curriculum as we know it, then, was set up to instill knowledge. And we imposed this view of education across the third of the world that was pink, with almost everyone else following our lead. We study subjects because that is how we segment knowledge into silos: disconnected units of information which need to be learned.

Our approach today is very different: we both value and need collaboration, creativity and craftsmenship, as Bill Lucas from the University of Winchester argues in his 7 Cs. We are trying to develop skills in our young people so that whatever this fast changing world throws at them in their lifetimes they are equipped - knowledge is a fixed commodity which cannot evolve or adapt to circumstance - skills move with the times and equip the young to continue to shape their own world for the better.

A knowledge based curriculum in this context seems antediluvian - and the word helps us see why. These days, few of us have enough Latin to know where that word comes from but we could all have the skills to break it down into parts, google a possible root language and understand it to mean before the flood, or anachronistic (for which we might go to the Greek…).

It is not that knowledge is useless, merely that it is the delightful byproduct of successful learning, just as exam results are. Neither should be seen as an end in itself. We need a curriculum which is fit for purpose, then, adaptable, skills centred and collaborative across knowledge areas. This will not be easy. Michelangelo broke the mould to remake it on the Sistine Chapel ceiling; Leonardo was accused of madness and heresy for suggesting that something looking very much like a helicopter could fly; Galileo died for his belief that the world revolved around the sun. In the same way, however, we need to remake our entire curriculum to answer the needs of tomorrow. A skills based curriculum would certainly see English, Maths, Geography and Science consigned to the recycling bin. And in its place? Critical thinking, Interpretation and analysis, Constructing an argument, Managing data. These subject titles might seem a mouthful to say and a brainful to understand but there are times when we have to be prepared to start from the very beginning. There is an opportunity for us to reshape the world’s thinking about education for the betterment of future generations, to do something really creative. And we have the skills - in men like Bill Lucas and Peter Tait (whose compelling EQ over IQ argument reflects much of the same need). It is time for politicians to recognise that knowing a little about something, be it education, defense or health, is a dangerous thing; they need to accept that they don’t know the answers, turn to professionals to ask the bigger questions and recognise that we need a bigger solution. With a group of creative educators from across the sectors, school types and age ranges, we could lead the charge if we are brave enough to put our heads above the parapet.

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