Context and rationale
About this paper
This paper outlines some of the literature that has informed the early thinking of the project, and seeks to place it within some broader economic, cultural, theoretical and policy contexts.
The full version is available to download (open pdf version of Context and rationale - 41 pages, 364kb), while on this page you'll find the first couple of sections of the paper.
The stated aims of Enquiring Minds are to create opportunities for learners to be independent, to take responsibility for their own learning, create their own knowledge and conduct their own research. It builds on the understanding that children have things to say, and that they deserve to be heard; that they have past experiences and existing knowledge and understandings upon which their education should be designed; and that the current model of mass education is unsuited for the current time.
Overarchingly, Enquiring Minds sets out to explore what a fully personalised curriculum would look like - one in which young learners are able to develop autonomy and independence, have the ability to work effectively with others, are resilient when faced with challenges, are able to celebrate success and deal with disappointment, and have a clear sense that what they do in school is meaningful and useful to them.
It is clear that there has been significant interest dating back many years into how schools and curricula can be changed to support children to act in these ways. The approach to developing the Enquiring Minds concept has drawn on existing intelligence from the theoretical, empirical and political realms.
This section outlines some of the literature that has informed the early thinking of the project, and seeks to place it within some broader economic, cultural, theoretical and policy contexts.
It is important to recognise that the idea behind Enquiring Minds is not new. Indeed, it may be useful to understand the project as having its antecedents in the ‘child-centred’ or progressive educational developments of the late 1960s and early 1970s. This is a tradition of education that reached its apotheosis in the 1970s but which has lost favour in the past 25 years. In Re-Schooling Society David Hartley (1997) analyses how educational changes reflect important shifts in economy and culture. He identifies the late 1960s and early 1970s as a time of optimism about the potential for child-centred education – an older ethic of austerity and restraint was challenged by notions of creativity and play, and this was to be reflected in educational thinking.
Three official reports mark the boundaries of this period. The Newsom Report (1963) entitled Half our Future addressed the concern that a significant proportion of the school population risked being marginalised or counted out by a lack of success at school, and that new ways of engaging these pupils needed to be developed. Reflecting the post-war mood of optimism and a belief in social egalitarianism, the report nominated schools as the places where these divisions could be addressed, and central to this was the curriculum. Accordingly the Schools Council was established to devise new curricula and new methods of assessment. The Plowden Report on primary education was published in 1967 and enshrined the importance of child-centred approaches. This two-volume design for the utopian primary school was grounded in the pedagogy of the libertarian nursery school initiated by Maria Montessori in the 1930s. Its syllabus favoured the arts, teachers were to be encouraging and give pupils individual freedom, and its educational philosophy was based in romanticism, with a focus on creativity, expressivism, self-definition and autonomy. Finally, the Bullock Report, A Language for Life (1975) was a reaction to the realisation that educational attainment was closely linked to the types of language available to children and how these were received and validated in schools.
In relation to Enquiring Minds, these developments are important in that they reflected a period in which the school curriculum began to be understood ‘holistically’ and curriculum planners and teachers sought to ensure that school subjects were relevant and meaningful to all pupils. These ideas were influenced by developments in the philosophy and sociology of knowledge (see White 2004) which saw that the traditional subjects of the curriculum were arbitrary ‘constructs’. Edwards and Kelly (1998) argue that the new approaches to the curriculum that developed in this period were part of the process in which the school curriculum was freeing itself from the ‘shackles’ of tradition and move into the 20th century. They state that the ‘general climate of educational thinking was one in which the superior importance of the pupil to the content of the curriculum was beginning to be recognised’.
It should be clear that this focus on the importance of the pupils is central to Enquiring Minds. In an article entitled ‘Will the curriculum caterpillar ever learn to fly?’ Davies and Edwards (1999) argue that these developments were “imaginative responses to questions posed by the educational concerns and the socio-economic contexts at the time”. It is worth stating the important features of these approaches, since they are in line with the ways in which Enquiring Minds is trying to work:
- They recognised the agency of children and their right to participate in society – to have a say in what and how they learn.
- They were seriously concerned with the knowledge created through educational activity. They accepted that knowledge is socially produced and reflects the values and interests of those who produce it. The skills of learning are valued because they allow the creation of knowledge that is of use for children themselves. Such knowledge is likely to be interdisciplinary.
- They drew upon critiques of schooling and curricula in order to break down arbitrary divisions between subjects, involve children in their learning, make links between schools and communities, and develop new ways of thinking about what it is to be an educated citizen.
It is of course a matter of record that these approaches to the curriculum lost favour during the ‘Conservative restoration’ of the 1980s and 1990s (Ball 1994). There has been a return to a highly classified subject curriculum based on quite traditional ideas of subject content, and a revolt against so-called ‘trendy’ childcentred teaching methods. This may be read as revolt against what Keefe (1986) called ‘the wayward curriculum’ which had its roots in the social sciences and which promoted socially egalitarian values. However, as we argue in subsequent sections, the discourse of child-centredness has returned with renewed vigour in recent years, albeit in a new guise.