Why the right don’t need to dominate the discussion on curriculum. Dead, white men and more.

I’ve been following a very interesting debate on twitter in response to Mary Bousted’s (leader of the National Education Union) comments that the curriculum must cover more than ‘Dead White men’, whilst simultaneously writing a holistic, academically challenging and chronological humanities curriculum, rooted in World History. This debate has crystallised much of my own thinking and I owe a huge debt to those articulating their ideas so brilliantly on Twitter and in their blogs, thank you in particular to @anitakntweets @bennewmark@sputniksteve. Since I began teaching, I’ve struggled to marry my intellectual commitment to critical theory (post-modernist and post-structuralism ideas about truth, post-colonial feminism and the pedagogy of Bell Hook’s and Paulo Frere to name a few) with my lived experience of working in schools in disadvantage communities but I’m finally able to and it feels revolutionary.

A quick disclaimer might be helpful here, I’m fully sold on knowledge rich curriculum/ powerful knowledge entitlement, which many, much more eloquent than me,have written and blogged about. I recommend in particular reading
https://teacherhead.com/2018/06/06/what-is-a-knowledge-rich-curriculum-principle-and-practice/amp/?__twitter_impression=truehttps://pedfed.wordpress.com/2018/06/03/im-bringing-knowledge-back/amp/?__twitter_impression=truehttps://bennewmark.wordpress.com/2018/04/10/planning-a-knowledge-curriculum/and Daniel Willingham’s 2009 Why Don’t Students Like School. My thinking on curriculum design has been completely transformed Christine Counsell’s insights, shared so eloquently in this blog series https://thedignityofthethingblog.wordpress.com/. At John Madejski Academy we’ve been thinking deeply about curriculum and I have been granted a huge privilege by our wonderful head teacher Laura Ellener @ellenerlaura in terms of both the trust and time to produce a brand new humanities curriculum. The vision for this is that it will provide our students with the substantive and disciplinary knowledge they need to grapple with and remember ‘the best that has been thought and said’ about our world, its past and how humans make meaning within it. The intention is that this will support them, not only to make sense of their place within the world, but also have the power to change it.

I first encountered this concept of ‘the best that has been thought or said’ in conversation with Jonathan @jonathanporter from Michaela School several years ago. At the time we had a fierce debate about the eurocentricity and objectivity of such a ‘canon’. We were however, both able to agree that the process of teaching is to some extent a process of inculturation and that our job is to make as best a go of it as possible. The passage from the preface to Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook is being shared a lot recently and sums up this process to me , in fact I think it’s so good I’m going to put it on my classroom wall. 

“Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this : ‘you are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. the slightest look at history will show how impermanent these must be. You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetuating system. Those of you who are more robust and individual than others, will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself — educating your own judgement. Those that stay must remember, always and all the time, that they are being moulded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society.’

Crucially, however Lessing also goes on to say “People who love literature have at least part of their minds immune from indoctrination. If you read, you can learn to think for yourself.”

Whilst, as Jonathan has rightly pointed out the idea of ‘indoctrination’ is perhaps not the most helpful one. Decisions about curriculum are always partial, when we make decisions about what to study we’re always leaving something out and always a reflection of our own prejudices. Whilst this may be epistemologically or ontologically?? (sorry Heidegger it was a while ago) problematic, my aim is to be just a tiny bit less partial, that is to give our students what I term the ‘broader picture’. By ‘broader picture, I mean that it is not enough for our students to simply learn about Britain in Middle Ages, they must also learn about the cultures and Empires across Eurasia, Africa and the Americas at that time, the Moors, the Ottomans, the Empires of Mali, Songhai and Benin. Crucially though (and Mary I’m looking at you) that doesn’t mean we stop learning about the dead, white men, we also need to know about them and the Magna Carta and the Peasants Revolt that they brought us as these foundational concepts for understanding parliamentary democracy and to some extent the ‘working class struggle’ right up to today.

I strongly believe that, as educators, we have a duty to offer all our students, and in particular those from working class or BAME backgrounds, this broader picture. I feel a missionary like zeal to, paraphrasing Audre Lorde, use the masters tools to dismantle the masters house’. That is to challenge the status quo by first understanding how it functions and what it excludes. To use an example from our new curriculum, you can’t learn about post-colonial theory without first understanding colonialism. The respect for the legacy of ideas is absolutely apparent in critical theory from Derrida’s engagement with Freud and Lacan to Foucaults concept of genealogy and its why as aoverwhelmed undergraduate I had to wade through 90 pages of Rousseau. It’s foundational stuff. But, we have to teach all of it, what has been remembered and what has been forgotten and how this came to be.

Of course there is a questions of curriculum time and something will have to be left out. I’ve made the decision to go for breadth over depth, rationalising it that KS4 is the place for depth studies. As a result there is a lot to know and remember but due to the way it is sequenced the idea is that all new learning will activate prior knowledge and therefore become part of the student’s schema. I explained to my colleague that I hoped this familiarity would give students a real stake in the learning experience and that it might function somewhat like a soap or serial and that students would be excitement to see ideas/ characters come back round again.

By having a stake in the way the world works, the goal is that they will also it feel that they want to contribute, that this knowledge will enable change. Mark Ensler talks brilliantly here about the concept of sustainability and that if we teach about it and through it successfully, young people’s desire to ensure the world is sustainable will follow.https://teachreal.wordpress.com/2018/02/25/sustainable-knowledge/

The draft curriculum plan is linked below. I hope this will be the beginning of an interesting discussion and reflection on what powerful knowledge could look like at our school and beyond. I’ve shared the curriculum plan below and opening it up to feedback/ debate critique.

Humanities whole game KS3 V2



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