Scrap the national curriculum

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The national curriculum undermines real education and must be scrapped, says Karen Sullivan.

I’ve long worried that the national curriculum undermines precisely what it sets out to do: encourage well-rounded learning and achievement. In fact, the regimented approach to learning often causes students to disengage, largely because much of it seems irrelevant.

Learning and memory are profoundly influenced by relevance and interest; if you fail to spark and inspire early on, chances are that the work will be learned for exams and then largely forgotten, as it was never practically applied.

Much has been reported this week about Michael Gove’s leaked plans to scrap the secondary national curriculum as part of a return to O level style examinations. 

If we did get rid of the curriculum, this could provide teachers with the flexibility to gear their courses to individual classes and even students, and the freedom to personalise learning according to their own talents and interests.

How much more inspiring it would be for pupils to be taught by someone passionate about their subject, who is free to teach using the tools with which they may themselves have been taught – or the tools that are developed according to the particular strengths and weaknesses of the class.

I imagine that even the best teachers are currently stifled by an over-rigorous curriculum and that if it was scrapped they would gain confidence in their ability to impart knowledge through more diverse means to create a more rounded, balanced and relevant education for our students.

In Canada, where I grew up, our teachers decided upon the content of the course. We often read the latest Pulitzer prize-winning novel and a biography or two, alongside books that reflected our interests as a class. If we loved a particular author, we’d often read the whole gamut before moving onto something else. 

In the end, we probably read four or five times the number of books that kids read today under the national curriculum, largely because we were driven to do so out of curiosity, enjoyment and relevance. 

Surely that, in the end, is the educational mission of a secondary school course? Inspiring learning to the extent that it nurtures a life-long passion and a voyage of further discovery? 

It’s also worth considering the possible application of Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences (learning styles), which are increasingly gaining favour with educationalists, particularly in the US. Gardner viewed intelligence as “the capacity to solve problems or to fashion products that are valued in one or more cultural setting”, and believed that the seven different kinds of intelligence allow seven different ways to teach – rather than one.

He said: “Powerful constraints that exist in the mind can be mobilised to introduce a particular concept (or whole system of thinking) in a way that children are most likely to learn it and least likely to distort it. Paradoxically, constraints can be suggestive and ultimately freeing.” 

Several studies have confirmed that Gardner’s interest in deep understanding, performance, exploration and creativity are not easily accommodated within an orientation to the “delivery” of a detailed curriculum.

Adjusting the content of subjects to reflect the various types of intelligence within the classroom (all of which can be exploited) will encourage teachers to look beyond the existing, shallow and confined system of curriculum and testing and actively engage with individual minds. 

How much more rewarding teaching will be; how much more rewarding education will be for students if there is genuine freedom to experiment, explore and direct in response to genuine interest. The potential for positive progression is potentially limitless. See you in September! 

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. 


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