How Choice Corrupts the Curriculum

whats_wrong_with_the_world_1102Options sound like a good idea. Giving pupils choices is supposed to help them develop maturity, and to increase motivation, as they are thought to have more of a stake in something they have chosen. Thus in English schools, we usually allow thirteen and fourteen year olds to drop some subjects and select those which particularly appeal to them. There are even schools which allow, or actually encourage for some pupils, the abandonment of most academic subjects at this age.

I’ve always been sheltered from this business, as an English teacher, and yet I’ve often reflected on the impact it has on other subjects. There are many problems with offering the chance to choose too early.

The worst problem of all is that options turn teenagers into consumers, and teachers into salesmen. The role of consumer gives the pupil power over the teacher, subtly undermining their authority. It promotes the attitude that it is up to the teacher to entice pupils, not up to pupils to work hard and impress teachers.

Consumerism also tends to reduce academic rigour. If you have to persuade a certain number of pupils to take your subject beyond year nine, or even beyond year eight in some cases, then you will be tempted to make it more appealing to your customers. You will be tempted to reduce rigour and increase fun and games, in order to avoid putting them off with too much serious hard work. Thus options can lead to dumbing-down, especially at key stage three. The more marginal the subject, the more desperate the teachers can become to package it attractively to maintain their share of the market.

There are other temptations for teachers of optional subjects. I’ve often heard teachers talking about how a struggling pupil ‘won’t cope’ with their subject at GCSE. Should teachers of history or geography really be allowed to shed less able pupils? Shouldn’t everyone have the opportunity to learn about the history of the human race into which they were born, and the planet they inhabit? Maths and English teachers smile wryly when they hear comments like this. There’s no point in my saying anything about a pupil ‘not coping’. Up to sixteen, I have to find ways of enabling all to make progress.

In addition to the dangerous temptations it creates for salesmen and consumers in the subject marketplace, offering options could be seen as an abdication from curricular responsibility. Isn’t it the job of those in authority to decide what is really important for pupils to know? Shouldn’t schools be focusing on building a curriculum that will equip all of their pupils with broad knowledge, thus laying the foundations for a lifetime of active and informed thinking? If so, how much of the precious time available can be allowed to subjects which are ‘non essential’? Because if we make something an option, that is the message we are giving: that it doesn’t matter that much, that it is disposable.

This is an area where we see the powerful impact of differing educational philosophies. A traditional philosophy, that there is an important body of knowledge which it is the school’s responsibility to transmit to all pupils, logically leads to the minimising of choice. When a school is serious about producing cultivated and knowledgeable pupils, it will have very few options, because it will have the intellectual courage to say that history, for example, is too important for anyone to drop at thirteen. If, on the other hand, our educational philosophy emphasises self discovery and individual liberation, and views authoritative knowledge as tyrannical, we will maximise choice. Who are we to decide what young people should learn?

Accepting authority means taking on responsibility, and that requires courage. As G K Chesterton put it in 1910:

‘Now most modern freedom is at root fear. It is not so much that we are too bold to endure rules; it is rather that we are too timid to endure responsibilities. And Mr Shaw and such people are especially shrinking from that awful and ancestral responsibility to which our fathers committed us when they took the wild step of becoming men. I mean the responsibility of affirming the truth of our human tradition and handing it on with the voice of authority, an unshaken voice. That is the one eternal education; to be sure enough that something is true that you dare to tell it to a child.’ (What’s Wrong With the World)

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8 thoughts on “How Choice Corrupts the Curriculum

  1. Another really interesting post. I really do find that your posts get to the roots of the issues even if I disagree with your choice of roots.

    “Accepting authority means taking on responsibility, and that requires courage.”

    Acting on the basis of authority may require courage, but I believe that will depend upon the source of the authority. Acting on the basis of rational legal authority requires no courage and I would describe this as management. Acting on the basis of sapiential or charismatic authority requires courage and I would call this leadership.

    I thin the curriculum in the UK tries to gain some balance, with compulsory subjects and options. The age at which options should be chosen is for me a useful debate. Holding up so called “academic ” subjects as somehow superior is I feel a mistake and difficult to justify

    The world is a messy place. If we managed to get eveyone to PHD level what would be gained. If anyone has any reading on this subject I would appreciate it.

    People have the opportunity to study an academic subject, then a vocational subject and then an academic subject. People live long lives these days. In the days of Plato when there were free men and slaves I can see much of this had significance. Knowledge did indeed bring power. The world is changing however and once we get a shake up of political and social systems that perpetuate the inequality we find everywhere in nature, much of this handing down the knowledge stuff will not matter any more.

    Despite what people say, I really can look it up on the internet and I do so every day of every year as do you. I think what younguns need is to be passed the knowledge that allows them to relaibly look stuff up to solve any problem they come across. I, as an economics teacher am currently working to qualify as an electrician, it is fascinating and rewarding.

    My daughter went to her GP recently and explained that she had looked up her symptoms and identified her condition. A couple of textbooks and searches of the internet later the GP agreed. I am not suggesting that people should be treating their own malignant tuomours, but the world needs to adapt. It is my belief that people looking up their more common ailments will infuture be one of the major factors that might save the NHS. I believe the same will happen with education. A good proportion of 14-18 year olds could teach themsleves and only go to a “teacher” when they have a serious impasse which they cannot solve. They will go to an expert who will guide them. This expert is likely to be on the internet, because you see the internet can look things up on the internet, better than people can look things up on the internet.

    Long live options I say… but maybe not until 16. Maybe

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  2. What sort of options are available for students? In my school system after grade 6 they can choose a variety of arts, sports, or CTS courses, such as wood shop or cooking. Some schools offer more choice, some less, but all must still take the 4 core classes, physical education, a language (sometimes there is a choice between languages) and health.

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    • Typically, students must continue everything until year nine (equivalent to grade 10), although more and more schools are allowing some selection after year eight. In years ten and eleven, they usually do a core of English, Maths and Science, and everything else is optional. Having said that, the government is exerting pressure for more academic subjects to be studied until year eleven, through the English Baccalaureate.

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  3. Once upon a time our education system was created with the goal in mind to educate the masses. Over time, this has been eroded so that the student centred, inquiry minded environment, now casts an incredibly narrow minded focus, where knowledge is now left available to only the elite few. How is it that something so democratic, so basic, as to allow education for the masses, can be twisted and manufactured so that in a more enlightened time, only a few can truly obtain a knowledgeable education?

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  4. Some interesting thoughts. I agree that consumerism can be a dangerous concept, at worst reducing pupils to passive consumers of what teachers bring to the ‘market’. I do think there are many positives to offering choice in the secondary curriculum though. The first of which is this does help to foster active engagement in education. Year 9 pupils research careers and HE courses before making options choices – they lift their heads and look ahead. Another reason is that they begin to get an insight into the array of options available, of which GCSEs are a small sample. Business studies is a popular choice, for example, usually only available in KS4.
    Hopefully this helps engender an active approach to learning that pupils will carry with them into adulthood.

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    • One must be careful with the distinction between passive and active. Really listening to a lecture is an active intellectual endeavour, for example. Whole class drill is also highly active. And active engagement must be informed engagement. In other words, it depends upon knowledge previously mastered.

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Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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