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What should the curriculum be?

There are so many curriculum models and theories and designs that it is difficult to know even where to begin when one thinks about what the curriculum should be. In issue 3 of The Conversation we are delighted to have been allowed by the Chair of the Education Select Committee, Robert Halfon MP, to reproduce his recent speech. He argues that GCSE exams should be scrapped. While this certainly made headlines, I wonder how seriously the Government is actually taking such calls for radical transformation. It is interesting to note that after the 1951 introduction of the GCE examinations (which replaced the school certificate), there were calls to overhaul the O Level system as early as 1978. It took a further 10 years until the first GCSE examination was taken. Will it take 10 years (or more) from now until we see a change to our examination system?

Thinking about examinations recently, I remembered a book I once read called “The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci” by Jonathan Spence. In 1577 Jesuit Priest Matteo Ricci set out from Italy to bring the Christian faith and Western thought to Ming dynasty China. ( Memory-Palace-Matteo-Ricci/dp/0140080988 ) Whilst there, he discovered the Imperial Examination System. This was a civil service examination system designed to select candidates for state bureaucracy. Though there were different levels of examination, the triennial exam could last up to six weeks with candidates expected to write down everything that they knew!

I have sometimes fantasised about students “graduating” from school at 18 with a series of oral examinations about what they know, much like a post doctoral defence.

But this of course is a discussion about assessment rather than the curriculum itself. What should the curriculum be? On page 9 you will find a brief and in-exhaustive list of some of the theorists of curriculum design and philosophy. Clearly there is an abundance of directions in which schools could choose to take their curriculum. Under the new OFSTED framework it seems as though schools must justify their curriculum choices and therefore the purpose and intent of the curriculum needs serious thought.

The false dichotomy of choosing between a knowledge or skills based curriculum has been seen for what it is. Students in the 21st Century need both skills and knowledge. The skills we should develop in our students seem fairly clear; literacy, numeracy, oracy, IT, problem solving, critical thinking and so on. Less clear perhaps is the knowledge that we want students to have. A possible route through the discussion is to think about what knowledge we, as educators, wish to transmit to the future via the students of today. What books do we want to keep in the future canon? What scientific ideas should be common knowledge in future society? Which moments of history should shape the future by their transmission?

Teachers and curriculum designers should be curators of knowledge. Educators can change the world. We can shape the future by shaping the curriculum and thereby shaping the citizens of the future. The knowledge that we choose to transmit to the future needs careful thought.

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