Change Your Curriculum
Your pupils' grades are falling year on year; parents are voting with their feet; classrooms are noisy, disorganised and violent; teacher morale has vanished and the authorities are hovering like vultures over roadkill. "Change your curriculum!" cries a voice from the heavens. "How?" you shout back, from the broom cupboard.
Good question, and one that any number of experts and organisations will be be glad to help you answer. But which curriculum will best suit your failing pupils? Will the same one be relevant once they are thriving again? And is there an ideal solution that will meet every child's needs?
What is a Curriculum?
The word 'curriculum' comes from classical Latin and was first used in Scottish universities of the 17th century. In direct translation it means, "a running, course, career or fast chariot". In schools today it describes a course of experiences and activities that prepare children for their adult lives. The actual experiences and activities and how the 'course' is designed and delivered is where the debates begin.
From the Script
"We're teaching at a time when classroom lessons are too often reduced to standardized test prep and scripted curriculum at the expense of building classroom community, developing student engagement, and giving students opportunities to relate their education to their actual lived experience. Given the pressures of scripted curriculum (like Corrective Reading/Corrective Math) in our Empowerment Schools and the potential of seeing even more of it in Renaissance Schools/Promise Academies, it is integral for us teachers to raise our concerns in public dialogue."
(www.thenotebook.org, an independent Philadelphia schools website, 2010)
When school learning tumbles out of control it's a natural response from those with the power and responsibility to take hold of the reins very very tightly. In a scripted curriculum teachers read directly from a set of lesson instructions in a highly structured delivery of content. At its extreme (as was allegedly the case in 90s' Chicago public schools) you could hear the same words spoken on a particular day at the same time regardless of which school you happened to be in.
At Summerhill Independent School in Leiston, Suffolk, students are asked which GCSE subjects they wish to study. Once the requests are in, teaching staff arrange themselves and their specialisms around pupils' combined needs and create a teaching timetable to meet them. A.S. Neill's democratic philosophy and holistic, learner-led pedagogy at Summerhill have drawn criticism and controversy over the years but his school's latest Ofsted inspection report rated it as satisfactory overall with outstanding features. This is an indication that educational assessment measures have shifted in Summerhill's favour, rather than Summerhill compromising its principles.
Curricula in other non-mainstream schools such as Montessori and Waldorf-Steiner emphasise the child as leader of his learning. Teachers facilitate children's self-directed growth, imagination and thinking. The activities and experiences in these schools are initiated by the natural choices that children make rather than by what adults think they should do. Sudbury schools take this to the extreme, believing that no curriculum is necessary. These schools trust that learners will naturally acquire the knowledge and skills they need by having the freedom to interact with and mentor their peers.
Educators argue and parents worry about which type of curriculum is best for their children. Do we choose their experiences based on what worked for us and rigorously deliver activities in a pre-set order? Or do we trust children's inner sense and drive to learn, intervening only to clear their paths and provide guidance? Is there an ideal curriculum?
There can be no perfect curriculum, no perfect script. Each child is different and has unique circumstances. Children sitting next to each other in the same class have vastly different learning needs, yet are generally presented with the same experiences and activities. As professionals we need to choose the principles and values that guide a curriculum rather than the exact content of it. A curriculum fit-for-purpose in the 19th Century is long out of date. Today's children need preparation for an exciting and uncertain future through a flexible, dynamic and creative curriculum.
The Creative Curriculum
In 2007, Tim Burgess' NCSL report, 'Lifting the Lid on the Creative Curriculum' unearthed common features and unique approaches of schools that had implemented a creative approach. All schools in his survey had infused 'Creativity' rather than bolting it on. It was central to everything they did. Teachers had the trust and freedom to take risks and in all cases academic standards were universally high. However each school interpreted the Creative Curriculum in a different way: one focused on outdoor learning, another on skills development, and a third on enquiry-based learning. Teachers created what they believed to be right for their pupils.
A Creative approach is not only about making clay models or using the performing arts. It's about beliefs, attitudes and ways of thinking. A Creative Curriculum is designed and crafted by teachers who really understand creativity: they take risks, make things that haven't been made before, seek out new ideas, are open-minded and positive and believe that they can design and deliver experiences and activities that directly meet the needs of their children.