Five years ago in England, I was quite happily beavering away developing a curriculum with my senior team which I believed was relevant to the needs of 21st Century learners. I’d been working on developing my ideas for around twelve years before that. I wasn’t alone, there were many others involved in Education doing the same. Sadly, in 2015 things changed overnight. Mr Gove came to power (he’s still out there folks) and all developments relating to 21st Century learning came to a sudden halt. Knowledge acquisition became the order of the day accompanied by rote learning, desks in rows and lots of exams.
It’s been a hard few years for me. I put so much of what I was doing on hold and focused on getting pupils through exams. Not what I came into education to do – I still firmly believe it’s all about enabling young people to flourish in life. Exam results are a passport, but the aspirations, confidence and wherewithal to use this ‘passport’ is just as important – if not more so – as gaining the qualifications. I’ve always believed it is possible to do this with a good curriculum and a collaborative underlying pedagogy. But now there’s a bright spot on the horizon. Welsh Government last week released their draft specifications for the new Welsh curriculum. Planned for first delivery from September 2022, it’s a curriculum which really could meet the needs of 21st Century learners.
A quick description …
Central to the new curriculum are Four Purposes:
- ambitious, capable learners, ready to learn throughout their lives
- enterprising, creative contributors, ready to play a full part in life and work
- ethical, informed citizens of Wales and the world
- healthy, confident individuals, ready to lead fulfilling lives as valued members of society.
There are 6 areas of learning and experience:
- Expressive Arts
- Health & Wellbeing
- Languages, Literacy and Communication
- Mathematics and Numeracy
- Science & Technology
Each area has several ‘What Matters’ statements, which emphasise the skills required to gather, analyse, use, record and present knowledge and information. For example, many of the statements use terms such as:
- independent enquiry
- critically evaluate
- formulate and respond to
What’s good about the New Curriculum
All fantastic up to this point. Following each set of ‘What Matters’ statements (which all have progression steps) there are accompanying statements which highlight what learners should experience, know and be able to do – the skills. I have no problem with this. If elected governments weren’t tasked with highlighting what areas of experience, knowledge and skills have priority for development in our society, then the burden of choice and selection would be placed on schools and the teacher, therefore possibly opening it up to exploitation.
Some commentators have been voicing their concerns that the curriculum is too open or vague and could lead to high degrees of variation in terms of content delivered and standards met. Concerns such as these I believe stem from the fixation we have with assessing the acquisition of knowledge. Many of the tweets and articles this week have mentioned that teachers are concerned that they don’t know what is expected of them. It’s a far cry from 1990 when a lorry arrived at my school and delivered a pallet of big thick National Curriculum folders. As a new teacher, I embraced it; I didn’t have to think. It told me what subject knowledge to teach, how to teach it and what would be assessed. This ethos is hard-wired into our institution. It was like this before 1988 and the subsequent Education Act only served to reinforce it.
It wasn’t until around 2002, when I was involved in the first cohort of City Academies to be launched in England, did I begin to open my eyes to pedagogical possibilities. Before this, I used textbooks to deliver Geography because I knew they contained everything I needed to get students through their exams. I also taught vocational subjects (interestingly in a completely different way, which in hindsight met the needs of the students far more effectively), but I never thought to apply these teaching methodologies to the more ‘academic’ subjects I taught. The pressure to innovate in these first academies encouraged us to open our eyes to developing our pedagogy across the curriculum, giving the development of skills, competencies and, in the words of Guy Claxton, developing good habits of learning in parity with the acquisition of knowledge.
What I like most about the new Welsh curriculum is that it has done this very thing; it has placed the element that I consider to be central and most important to the development of 21st Century learners first. Its ‘Four Purposes’ and ‘What Matters’ statements have the potential to enable young people to flourish in life. The underlying pedagogy lends itself to learning that is: experiential (lending itself to project-based/real-life learning); relevant (cross-curricular, where and when appropriate); and collaborative (between teachers; students, students and teachers, and between schools and relevant external links).
This is not easy for teachers, we have not all had the same experiences or training. Teachers come into the profession as subject specialists first and foremost, when in actual fact in the 21st Century, they need to be masters of pedagogy. In my current school, we’ve taken our time with regards to staff development. The school was in a very challenging place and so we had to first develop all staff to a good standard in the basics. This did involve, amongst other things, students sitting in rows facing the front and introducing a very didactic methodology. It suited the teachers and gave them a strong element of control. Results rose, but have we enabled students to go on and flourish? Possibly not. We need to change our pedagogy in order to achieve this, and the new Welsh curriculum encourages us to do this, but as I’ve said it’s not easy. It will require much training and a mind-shift which will be gradual and take many years. Without this, staff will be fearful and look for the most controlling way to deliver the curriculum.
My second concern is related to GCSEs. Final decisions made by Qualification Wales on the advice of Welsh Government could make or break the curriculum. If say a geography teacher knows that plate tectonics are going to be assessed in the exam, then sadly, plate tectonics will take precedence over the ‘Four Purposes’. Also, if the exam (or will there be more opportunity to have controlled assessment and coursework?) does not do enough to assess the elements of the ‘What Matters’ statements, they too will be lost. Likewise, if staff are not trained appropriately, then they may not give enough time in class to developing the skills and competencies which underlie these statements, in order to develop them into good habits of learning. Ultimately teaching staff will be led by the content of any formal assessment. Especially if it is also linked to accountability measures.
A third concern, and linked to the above, is that we will not use this as an opportunity to use subject content as context to achieve the Four Purposes and develop the skills and competencies which underlie the ‘What Matters’ statements. This is an opportunity to break down the artificial subject walls we have built up and strengthened over the past 150 or so years. Wouldn’t it be amazing if students were able to learn through cross-curricular projects? Subject knowledge could still be instilled, but it would be in a relevant and realistic way. This wouldn’t necessarily mean students losing sight of discrete subject knowledge. Mapped out well, students could still revert back to more traditional subject-based assessments in their final year of secondary education. As a colleague said to me, when we debated this in an Academy 12 years ago: “we need to make a leap of faith”.
These last three paragraphs lead me to ask four questions:
- Will there be enough time to train staff?
- If there is staff training time, how will we ensure it is useful and focused on shifting mindsets, as well as developing practical pedagogical skills? We need to be specific as a nation in relation to what training is required.
- How will we assess students nationally and yet maintain the integrity of what the Welsh curriculum sets out to do?
- To what extent can we manipulate the GCSE brand to ensure we assess appropriately?
This is a fantastic opportunity for Wales and for the education across the UK, as long as we don’t lose sight of the Four Purposes and the What Matters statements. If it works, we really will have a curriculum fit for the 21st Century. It’s what’s encouraged me to stay in Wales and see out my career here. Let’s hope I’ve backed the right horse!
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