Curriculum design in the post-Covid world

The workforce of tomorrow now, more than ever, need to become less compartmentalised and more reactive, adaptive, creative and, above all else, ‘self-motivated’

Dr Brian Lighthill

Over a decade working as a workshop facilitator with the aim of making Shakespeare’s plays relevant to learners of all ages

This blog is in no way meant to be didactic, nor to offer a one size fits all solution. My aim is to provoke a response from all those interested in the basic premise that the education system is actually for the benefit of students – not for academics, statisticians nor MPs. I sincerely hope that I can start a dialogue with you which will hopefully go some way to inform future education policy on both delivery and assessment.

Let’s start with the title of this blog and in particular, with the word ‘Integrated’. As Harold Macmillan said, “Events, Dear Boy, Events” are the impetus for my thinking. This year, because of the Coronavirus pandemic, the modus operandi of the work-life has changed immeasurably, and as world-wide unemployment has increased exponentially youngsters are naturally becoming more worried about what kind of future lies in store for them, and how their education will help them develop the skills needed for this ‘new normal’. It could be argued that the workforce of tomorrow now, more than ever, need to become less compartmentalised and more reactive, adaptive, creative and, above all else, ‘self-motivated’. I think that the workforce of tomorrow need to develop the ability to think outside the box and outside the silos of subject specificity if they are going to be able to contribute to this ‘brave new world’.

The concept of a cross-curricula, trans-disciplinary, integrated timetable could be a way forward

There is a need to start a dialogue on an education system which is based on more integrated learning – and I think that academics need to develop a mindset which could enable this paradigm to become a reality. So, the concept of a cross-curricula, trans-disciplinary, integrated timetable could be a way forward. I consider that what is wrong with the current curriculum at secondary level (perhaps less so at primary) is that subjects are taught in artificial silos. But I also appreciate that this is largely the consequence of our compartmentalised exam system. Attempts have been made to devise cross-curricular approaches to learning, but they tend to founder on the above obstacle – the requirement to assess.

I dream that the primary aim for all education is to develop the ability in the learner to think for themselves

But I have a dream, ‘I dream that the primary aim for all education is to develop the ability in the learner to think for themselves’. I think that this would be a humanistic way of thinking about an educational system which aims to empower students – rather than treat them like empty vessels into which facts are poured. Let’s be honest, the education system in the UK is a de-humanistic process based on ‘cultural transmission’ which ‘process’ both knowledge and people in what Foucault called ‘factories of order’ – what we call ‘school’. What my research and experience has shown me is that instead of teaching knowledge in silos, a deeper, more relevant model could be one based on a more integrated system.

As we know the dominant methodology in the UK is ‘transmission teaching’. However, Reid and Scott’s research indicated that education should not just be about acquiring subject knowledge but should also be about acquiring the skill to transfer knowledge. Buzan and Dixon’s research on mind mapping is illuminating as it concluded that the mind does not generally think according to a ‘collection code’ which scoops up ‘knowledge’. The mind works best  when stimulated by images, key words and linked patterns using an integrated system – and that there is an enormous improvement in the performance of learners who substitute mind patterns for more traditional methods of approaching and organising transmitted information.

Organisational silos are pervasive in our educational sector

But, as Paechter wrote, are these ideals realistic in an education system which struggles to think ‘outside the boxes’ of subject specificity. Organisational silos are pervasive in our educational sector. Educational silos protect different subjects, teachers, departments, and even thought processes which in reality, can end up blocking access to the information they hold, thus thwarting positive change and deeper-discovery by the learners. Of course, compartmentalising subjects are ‘easier’ for school administrators – because it is easier to design such a curriculum, and easier to test too – and we are all well-schooled in teaching to test.

Lockdown education has given us a new way to think about how we organise our days

I often think a good starting point would be to ask, ‘What kind of education would I want to provide a child living at home?’  Would I divide the day into eight periods, or would I say, ‘The sun is shining, today we are going to explore outside’.  I think at the least I would want our future curriculum to be sufficiently flexible to be able to respond to what is happening in the parochial and the wider world.

Integrated studies could also offer students the opportunity to use modern technology and develop social engagement to increase their understanding of a topic. Integrated studies, facilitated by several experts, could loosen up the timetable and create an opportunity for the socialising skill of peer-on-peer learning. By learning within a curriculum which uses real-world applications, students develop a better grasp of the material as they see how the topics relate to scenarios outside of the classroom. Learning becomes ‘for-real’ not ‘for-classroom’. By “connecting the “dots” of the sciences with the humanities we can make the learning experience more authentic and more relevant for the students. So, could there be the need for a move away from single-topic lesson plans?  Is there a need to de-silo the curriculum to give students exposure to more sophisticated, integrated approaches to learning?

When I was brainstorming for this blog, I thought about a subject I know little about – Biology. I started thinking about a holistic, integrated, approach to a biology scheme-of-work on (to take an obvious example) the human body. Could such a scheme-of-work, lasting for several weeks – if not across a whole term – incorporate exploration on chemical reactions which apply to body changes; architecture which reflects the human structure; poetry which eulogises or criticises the strengths and frailties of the human body; art through the ages as the body is portrayed in different ways; history of dissection which will link into art history as well as sculpture; literature (from Frankenstein to Shakespeare’s ‘if you prick us, do we not bleed?’ – Merchant of Venice) etc. etc. (‘etc.’ means that any other teacher can offer their own speciality to such a scheme of work as it is designed.)

What a series of lessons that would be – real life, holistic, eclectic discovery. Thinking outside the box. Developing skills that the students will need in their future lifeworld. And because employers are starting to become, ‘qualifications-blind’ there is a need for educationalists to move educational objectives away from knowing information (proven by examination results) and towards holistic thinking (learning to learn).

From ‘Knowing’ to ‘Thinking’.

The current curriculum is too knowledge based largely because of the assessment tail is wagging the curriculum dog.

One consequence of this is that important skills like oracy have been pruned from the curriculum simply because trying to assess it was considered too complicated and unreliable. I think we need to consider the school curriculum afresh and begin by agreeing some priorities – in other words, ‘What do we really value in education?’  Only after we have explored that question should we then tackle the challenge of what is the best way to assess it? We are too guilty of valuing what can be assessed – rather than assessing what we value.

In a future blog I would like to explore what is the ‘point’ of School – what are we trying to develop in young learners and how to design and deliver a curriculum which best serves the students? And this will lead me to exploring better ways to assess the ‘success’ of such a curriculum – and that means success for all learners – no longer that demoralising bell-shaped grading system where a third of the learners have to fail. We adults would not accept that in our work life – why then should young learners accept it?

Let’s start a dialogue…all responses to the idea of integrated education gratefully received.

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