Summer Turner

I teach, therefore I am.

Should the curriculum be prescribed or should teachers have autonomy?

This is a slightly lengthier version of my introduction to answering this question as part of a panel at the #ChoosingKnowledge event on Saturday 11th February 2017.

I think this question is crucial to understanding the vision for knowledge driven schools and for the teaching profession. Autonomy has been historically associated with a free for all when it comes to curriculum, I know that starting my teaching career I viewed autonomy as the opportunity to go into the classroom and teach what I wanted, and this was based on the progressive ideals that I had come into the teaching profession with and which I had been encourage to follow as part of my teacher training. Any element of prescription – even as far as the National Curriculum – I saw as an imposition on being able to teach content that I felt was relevant to my pupils. The consequence being less a curriculum, and more a bundle of skills based approaches to whatever text I thought would appeal, as well as ticking off the boxes of the exam specification. Subsequently having spent time researching curriculum design and having been persuaded by the knowledge approach to education, I know that this autonomy was problematic. I didn’t have the expertise to be allowed to run free reign with my classes on something as key as the curriculum.

Looking at international approaches to education and to successful curriculum in these countries, it is clear that a level of prescription in terms of resources and even lesson plans have contributed to successes and to the ability of schools and teachers to implement more rigorous knowledge driven curriculum.

However behind this prescription lies a story of education systems focused on developing teachers and on building subject and curriculum expertise. Whether it be Finland, where a new curriculum was instigated over four years with strong prescription at the beginning combined with a strong programme of teacher development, or in Japan where teachers are given time to collaboratively plan and evaluate lessons. If you have read Lucy Crehan’s book ‘Cleverlands’ you will see that autonomy is a key feature of these education systems but it is a structured autonomy with prescription available when and where necessary.

What these countries have in common is a two prong approach – firstly the use of communities of subject experts to develop meaningful subject curriculum and associated resources and secondly a dedication to CPD which allows teachers to build this expertise themselves until they are able to pick and choose the level of prescription, because they have the requisite knowledge to do this.

This is important because it’s also associated with the status of and expectations for teachers. It identifies the essential quality of an education system where academia is valued, and teachers are established as academic authorities – a point which Frank Furedi emphasised in his book ‘Wasted – why education isn’t educating’

One of my concerns about adopting a fully prescriptive approach to knowledge is that we are in danger of devaluing the academic purpose behind teaching and removing the idea of the power of an autonomous subject expert, who is able to fully embody their subject without restriction. As such, we need to both accept the pragmatic and the ideal: building subject communities or engaging with those that exist, for instance within this room, to create curriculum including prescriptive resources for those schools and teachers lacking at the expertise, whilst at the same time building curriculum leadership within schools. If schools do not understand the importance of curriculum and have not made that intellectual journey themselves, we are in danger of creating a new version of the prescribed Ofsted style of teaching which may have short term impact in recreating knowledge focus within schools but will not change the long term picture as it will be tacked onto schools rather than embedded within them. 

We must also fight the urge to assume that teachers do not want to become subject experts themselves because of workload. This may always be true for some teachers, but if we truly believe in the wonders of an academic curriculum for all pupils why would we not conceive that teachers can also embrace this and make this central to their practice. It lacks imagination to think that prescription solves the workload crisis – the crisis comes from schools focusing on the wrong things. Internationally the solution has been to increase class sizes and therefore lighten teaching time to allow for more professional development – this might not be something we choose to follow but we should open up the discussion about how to move forward rather than accepting the status quo of a weak, unmotivated teaching force who simply need a paint by numbers lesson plan.

Ultimately when choosing a knowledge curriculum, we need to do so because we are informed, because we embody that knowledge as a profession and we can be trusted to use this wisely. We are far from that reality but that does not mean it is not within our grasp.

3 comments on “Should the curriculum be prescribed or should teachers have autonomy?

  1. teachingbattleground
    February 14, 2017

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. Pingback: A word of thanks: our profession is packed with brilliant passionate people. | teacherhead

  3. Pingback: Blog Post Round-up: May 9, 2017 – Pondering Pedagogy

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This entry was posted on February 12, 2017 by in Uncategorized.
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