Rethinking the curriculum, its purpose and its assessment

Both at the level of the individual school and as a society, the curriculum stands as a testament to that knowledge and those values and skills that we believe are sufficiently important to pass on to the next generation.

Post-lockdown, and in the wake of the movements of our age - Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter, Me Too, Pride and more - we need to take a long, hard look at the curriculum and how it is assessed, to recognise that it is more than a list of subjects, that it is, inevitably, shot through with values and beliefs and that it involves the total learned experience of the child, day in and day out, at school.

In particular, we need to take a look at the concept of curriculum breadth: What do we mean by it and how do we operationalise it? Can a curriculum consisting of only academic subjects, and fairly traditional ones at that, be considered broad? And can we expect a single form of examination to have the flexibility and dexterity to assess attainment in all subjects, and all types of subject? And must access to the domain of so-called ‘vocational’ education be limited to those who ‘fail’ in the (singular) academic route? How about a vocational and work-related learning offer that students positively choose, rather than one that they fall in to? How about a curriculum that reframes vocational and technical learning as professional learning, undertaken alongside programmes of learning in areas like entrepreneur- ship and active citizenship? Post-lockdown, we need to have the courage to think differently about curriculum, because, as those involved in curriculum studies are not shy in reminding us: curriculum is what schools do.

Growing digital connectivity, digital literacy and digital pedagogy

For many schools and many families, the quality of digital access during lockdown has been central to their perceived success in responding to the pandemic; most that we engaged with during the research for this book feel that the growth in teachers’, pupils’ and parents’ digital literacy over a period of six months or so has been striking and ought not to be lost as we move forward.

Key to this is maintaining a mindset that sees digital solutions as more than a quick and temporary fix. Thus, while digitisation may have been introduced or enhanced because of lockdown, its greater and more sophisticated use ought to be a longer-term legacy of COVID-19. But mindset and aspiration alone are not enough.

We need to think of digitisation across three dimensions: first, ensuring that homes are connected to schools and that children and young people are connected with each other through safe, secure networks; second, that there is a strategic and system-wide attempt to develop digital literacy among the adults who support children’s learning. As one of our research participants, the digital lead in a primary school who also works across the multi-academy trust within which the school sits, puts it:

I think there’s this myth that tech is hard, but it isn’t that it’s hard. It’s just that we get a bit afraid of trying it, and children learn so quickly language or tech because they just try it. They just press buttons and they see what happens. And what [the pandemic] has moved forward, perhaps two years forward, for my school and the network of schools I am working in, is that teachers have [begun to do the same]; they’ve just tried to use these tools and have seen [that] they’re not as difficult as they may have seemed.

(Nick Jacobs, lead practitioner for computing, Hillingdon Primary School, focus group - special education and alternative provision, 8 July 2020)

Third, that we need to bring together the best minds in our teacher education and professional development communities to develop new digital pedagogies that maximise the impact of these technologies. Writing for the web is different to writing for the page. Likewise, using the full capability of an electronic whiteboard requires a very different skill set than its chalkboard predecessor; so it is with digital pedagogy. Utilising the potential of online connectivity and digitisation involves more than simply ‘putting lessons online’. That has been the perfectly reasonable and commendable response of some schools and some individual teachers during the lock- down, but in terms of fully exploiting the potential of digital technology to enhance and open up learning, it only begins to scratch the surface. The challenge is to develop new pedagogies that utilise this potential. As Jacobs puts it:

The [teachers] that don’t like tech are the ones that I want to speak to the most right now, because often they have some wonderful insights [to offer] ... a lot of tech can be just substituting and okay, let’s have a worksheet online and send it out at the same time, great! But how can we really [re]define learning from tech? That’s what excites me the most... it’s not enough [to do] the old stuff in new ways.

And, if doing ‘the old stuff in new ways’ is one risk in the post-lockdown landscape, another is that the technology ‘just goes back in the cupboard’, so that ‘we’re already to go next time’. And yet, in the classroom, staffroom and leadership team, the new ways of working that have emerged during lockdown have the potential to augment and complement, rather than displace and replace, existing practice.

For the geographer, historian or linguist (or the young person), the virtual school trip may never replace the real thing, but it does offer the capacity to be in several locations during each lesson, rather than once a year (if your parents or carers can afford the cost). Likewise, for the chair of governors or the head, the prospect of calling a ‘pop-up’ board meeting may mean that an authorisation can be granted, an appeal initiated or a budget signed off weeks earlier than might have been the case in a world of on-site only meetings. And attendance at network meetings and professional association gatherings by heads and their deputies and assistants - vital if senior leaders are to remain refreshed and updated through exchanging lessons learned (not least about lockdown) with their peers - can mean an hour or two away from the frontline, not a(nother) day out of school.

And these basic examples barely make an impression on the potential of what the new technologies might be able to achieve in this ‘new digital learning age’ (Painter and Bamfield, 2015). Whatever, they will surely offer us what Matthew Taylor at the Royal Society for the Arts (RSA) describes as ‘opportunities to remodel and widen access to education in a host of ways, most of which we have yet to imagine’ (cited in Breslin, 2016, p. 4). Critically, Taylor goes on to caution: ‘But we will only be able to imagine these possibilities if we are willing to unlearn much of what we know about learning first’.

None of this means an end to face-to-face, in-the-room contact, socially distanced or not. It does mean a future in which we meet, communicate and teach in a much richer range of ways. The challenge, in this regard, post-lockdown, will be to resist simply dashing back to the old normal, before we’ve had a chance to embed some of the lessons from lockdown in the post-lockdown, landscape as part of a new mixed economy, one in which schools are not the only setting one in which blended learning approaches are a normal part of everyday life and in which how we learn has to itself be unlearnt and relearnt.

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