UK dumbing down?

December 16, 2008 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

Seems the UK is at it again. Not content with tossing out words like moss and heather from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, the UK is now busy tossing out history and geography from its primary school curriculum. Yes, well…I can see the logic. Why have kids learn about the rich history of previous civilisations and human settlements? That’s such ancient history! And why learn that Austria is not the same as Australia or that Canada is not actually a state of the United States?

A major Government interim report (The Rose Review) recommends that priority be given to literacy and numeracy skills as well as nurturing pupils’ personal skills (such as thinking and listening skills) and focusing on health, sex and relationships, well-being and personal development (including happiness and self-esteem). I have no issue with this. These are good skills to concentrate on especially teaching kids how to search the internet appropriately or whip up a podcast or two before they hit High School. The report also recommends moving from the current 14 individual subjects taught to six broad themes or areas of learning, which are said to strip away the clutter. So History and Geography is clutter??

Seems to me this is more about pruning the curriculum and having children learn less. As far as I understand it, History, Geography and religious education will be merged into the theme “human, social and environmental understanding”. Having been a teacher, I can tell you that teaching a broad, ill-defined theme around a pastiche of ideas is a whole heap harder than teaching a particular discipline (albeit more palatable for kids!). So if the pruning of the primary curriculum was also aimed at reducing the teaching burden, I don’t think it will achieve that. And having a degree in History, I’d ask why it’s no longer appropriate to equip students with a disclipinary framework through which to make sense of the past, understand the present and explore the future. Moving to six broad themes runs the risk of diluting specialist knowledge and producing a generation of kids pretty good at podcasting or whipping up a spreadsheet but having no in-depth knowledge of humanity’s historical narratives.

Thinking how I might approach this as a teacher, I can see that you could start off a theme with say an historical event, then move to locating that event within a geographical location, then move towards a broader topic within one of the six themes (say, how the historical event changed a country and its culture; or how the environment and tribes were impacted by the Conquistadors conquering the Aztec Empire; and you could bring in music and the arts of the particular country or human settlement). But I’d be worried that I was simply providing kids with a broad brush stroke across a wide thematic area at the expense of depth and intellectual rigour. And I’d also be worried that kids end up with a melange of ideas about a particular theme without any real anchoring of that idea within a discipline. Teaching “History” says something; it’s an anchor or a disciplinary framework through which a child can intellectually explore. Teaching the theme “human, social and environmental understanding” says what? What’s the structure?

And it seems to me from reading the interim report that the emphasis has shifted to practical skills and sees schools moving into territory that surely families and the wider community has occupied (teaching kids about sex and relationships, finances, health and well-being and so on). Of course, with our consumerist driven culture, it could be argued that families and community have stuffed things up by allowing kids to eat junk food and sitting mindlessly in front of the television. So schools (and the Government) now have to wade into the fray and take charge of life education of children.

But how on earth is this all assessed? How do you assess happiness and health? Will schools need “happiness ” or “emotional intelligence” targets? How do you teach “happiness” as it’s relative – what makes me happy may not make you so. I’d also ask whether the content from the current subject-based curriculum will be simply moved across to a theme-based curriculum or whether it will be reduced. And if it’s reduced, what exactly will be tossed out?

Perhaps, Sir Jim Rose (author of the report), needs to look at some stats. One in five UK teenagers believe that the Sun orbits the Earth and national tests showed that 50,000 so-called bright 11-year olds failed to reach an acceptable standard in English. Worse: Psychology professor Michael Shayer, of King’s College, London, found that the high-level thinking skills of today’s 14-year-olds are now on a par with those of 12-year-olds in 1976.

And while he’s at it – take a look at Melbourne University, which is now revamping its teaching programme. Part of its curriculum was based on broad topic areas such as “Politics of the Body” and “African Drum and Dance” (damn….missed that class!). Complaints have been received by lecturers and students alike that broad themes were not integrated enough, were not challenging enough or were too shallow.  Having learnt some lessons, the Uni is doing a rethink.


Entry filed under: Education, Schools and schoolchildren. Tags: , .

UK loses its memory The price of globalisation

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