Current problems

Today, there is intense debate about the type of education system required to prepare young people for the 21st century. A wide range of commentators, from very different political positions, make the case that while the social and cultural experiences of children and wider society have dramatically transformed over the past 50 years, schools have failed to keep pace with this change. Some commentators point out that the classrooms of today would be easily recognisable to the pioneers of public education of the 1860s: the ways in which teaching and learning are organised, the kinds of skills and knowledge that are valued in assessment, and a good deal of the actual curriculum content, have changed only superficially since that time. In the light of these arguments, there is now an intense focus on how schools can develop the kinds of educational experience appropriate for young people growing up in the 21st century1.

This focus, in recent years, has often centred on questions of pedagogy and the development of new approaches to supporting effective, creative or personalised learning. There is an increasing interest in understanding the ‘science’ of effective or evidence-based teaching: in understanding what teachers must do to teach effectively2. At the same time, there is an increasing interest in supporting students to develop thinking skills and to focus on learning how to learn: to understand what students must do to learn effectively3. In parallel, we have seen the emergence of certain ideas of personalised learning, which promote the tailoring of teaching approaches to fit individual students’ learning preferences4. All of these debates suggest a renewed and important attention to the processes by which children can be enabled and supported to learn today.

However, some caution is required, since in much of this work the question of what is learned – the knowledge that makes for learning – is rarely discussed. Little is said, in these debates, about the content that students are supposed to learn or about the ends to which such capacity to learn is to be directed5. The question of curriculum is often seen as separate from debates on how to improve pedagogy6.

This is a surprising oversight. For, after all, if we are interested in supporting young people to develop as learners, to nurture thinking skills, to develop creative and responsive capacities to engage with the world, then the question of curriculum and how it is negotiated and constructed cannot be overlooked.

Surely, therefore, if we are asking students to be more and more self-aware about how they learn, then a core component of that exercise is to enable them to engage fully with what it is that is being taught. Our attention needs to be drawn not only to students’ learning processes but to the relationship between this and what they are learning.

And yet the formal programmes of study in the National Curriculum and how they are ‘delivered’ serves to exclude many students. Their emphasis on what is often seen as ‘proper knowledge’ privileges abstract and theoretical knowledge that is often divorced from the everyday worlds, concerns, needs and experiences of learners7. And so, many students will happily consume what they are taught; others will mark time and pass their exams; some will struggle; some will resist8. Despite high quality teaching, the extent to which ‘school knowledge’ is felt to be meaningful or useful to even the most academically gifted is an open question. What is in doubt is the extent to which students are fully engaged in developing their capacity to learn through activities which are of relevance to them.

In the past, one way of altering the curricular experience has been to make it more meaningful or ‘relevant’ to students by offering vocational courses, particularly for those students with less academic abilities. Such a response, however, runs the risk of restricting students to a narrow set of future opportunities9. It also equates ‘relevance’ with economic or workplace activities rather than, for example, the possibility of young people being engaged, challenged and excited by a range of more creative, expressive, reflective or emotionally-based activities10.

Another approach is to explore the potential for students’ own experiences, interests, concerns and lives to act as the starting point for creating a meaningful, relevant and engaging curriculum for young people. What has been ignored in debates on the development of effective pedagogy has been the question of how learning is intimately tied up with the question of knowledge, of how we address the questions: Learning what? For whom? And why?

The relationship between pedagogy and curriculum and between ‘school’ knowledge and students’ ‘informal’ knowledge is central to the search for more effective and powerful educational strategies for the 21st century. It is these relationships that Enquiring Minds is specifically addressing.

top of page