The Great Pedagogical War is over? Huh? Since When?

The other day I was sitting in a staffroom browsing through the April 2019 edition of Teach Secondary. My attention was drawn to an article by Ben Newmark, Whose Curriculum Is It, Anyway?, in which he argues that “the Great Pedagogical War is over” and that “‘what’ has beaten ‘how’“. A little like the recent series in the TES, Newmark seems to believe that those working in schools are now engaged in some sort of post-revolutionary process of redefining what it is they are actually teaching in schools.

I’d agree with some of Newmark’s more general points, especially when he says things like “Deeper, more profound questions need to be considered and answered“. Like many reflective educators, he knows that there are fundamental issues affecting the development and wellbeing of the UK’s children which schools simply aren’t addressing (and it’s nothing to do with lack of funds). He quickly wanders off the main topic to express his views about “wrongheaded” History curricula (he’s worried that there are History teachers who think the subject teaches “The National Myth” and isn’t diverse enough). I’ve been in a number of schools recently and seen History lessons where the topic has invariably been… the rise of Nazi Germany! He spends time discussing the role of Mary Seacole in History teaching and ends his article:

We do need to have this conversation, we really do. But this is a big, big debate, which might involve deep structural changes for many history curriculums. Erecting strawmen won’t help. Nor will blunderbuss non-specific accusations of racism. Nor will defensiveness from curriculum planners when faced with legitimate challenge over perspectives they have, for whatever reason, overlooked.

Like the rest of – what I’m sure are genuinely-motivated – expressions about the shift towards curriculum-focused school models, I simply don’t believe them. There won’t be fundamental changes to the schools’ curricula. Like a lot of things in education, the chatter around the curriculum acts as a salve on the conscience of school leaders. It’s a little like the protracted discussions about “life after levels” assessment in secondaries several years back which saw a smorgasbord of models adopted which in practice became a HappyMeal of GCSE gradings (some honest secondary schools ditched any pretence and simply used GCSE criteria). It made school leaders feel that they had some control over what they were doing and gave the impression that they were somehow liberating classroom teachers from the tyranny of the old National Curriculum assessments. For most teachers it actually meant more work, more assessments, more data collection. It’s led, I’d argue, to the fallacious fashion for what’s currently called “knowledge-based learning” (which is, behind all the guff, an excuse for protracted exam-teaching).

All the time that the toxic obsession with GCSE outcomes dominates schools practices there won’t be any fundamental changes to the cultures of schools. Lots of schools have for all intents and purposes started teaching GCSE in Year 7. I’ve even seen a number of schools where GCSE exam papers in English are used for assessment purposes from Year 7 onwards. Certainly, there are few schools where GCSE isn’t explicitly taught from the start of Year 9 (even though, as OFSTED reminds us from time to time, GCSE is meant to be a two-year course).

It’s essential to remember that the purpose of education in the UK is quite limited and is thoroughly politically-driven. It’s about passing exams and finding work. “Strategies” like the social mobility agenda and Dweck’s mind-sets are tied into this. The purpose of the curriculum in the UK isn’t to encourage and enable young people to develop into happy, fulfilled human beings with a love of learning, critical faculties, creative imagination and understanding of justice and responsibility to others.

As for the end of the “Great Pedagogocal War”? All the time that mechanical, high-stakes lesson observations exist in a culture of schools insisting that professional educators adopt teaching approaches based on no evidence at all, the war continues. Newmark needs only to read the other articles in Teach Secondary to see that some quite aggressive pedagogies (more ideologies, really) still dominate. It was only a couple of months ago I was in a school where there was a huge display celebrating Learning Styles…