You are on page 1of 10

Defence of Subjects

Battle of Ideas satellite event, Hamilton House, London, Thurs 11th Oct 2012 http://www.battleofideas.org.uk/index.php/2012/session_detail/6837

Speakers
Alka Sehgal Cuthbert
Alka Sehgal Cuthbert has taught and lectured in English, Media and Cultural Studies for 16 years. Having once sworn never to teach or have children, she subsequently decided she rather like to do both. Worried by what she regards as anti-humanistic trends in education, she decided to investigate further by studying for a PhD in Philosophy and Sociology of Education work in progress. She is a member of the IoI Education and Parenting Forum and writes articles on both subjects for spiked.

Martin Johnson
Martin was a secondary teacher for over thirty years, specialising in Social Studies and pupils with challenging behaviour in schools and units in Merseyside, Yorkshire, and mostly inner London. This experience was distilled in his book Failing School, Failing City. He was also a trade union activist, and became President of NASUWT in 2000. Martin then became an education researcher at the think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr). In January 2005 Martin joined the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the education union, and has been its Deputy General Secretary since 2007. Amongst his wide-ranging interests are curriculum; achievement, social class, and inequality; school funding; and resisting the privatisation of Englands education system

Daisy Christodoulou
Daisy Christodoulou studied English Literature at Warwick University and trained as an English teacher on the Teach First programme in 2007. In 2010 she edited a Policy First publication on the importance of ethos and culture in schools. In 2011-12 Daisy worked at Pimlico Academy on their pioneering new knowledge-based curriculum. Since July she has been Managing Director of The Curriculum Centre, an organisation which helps teachers and schools to improve the way they use knowledge in the curriculum.

Tim Oates
Tim Oates joined Cambridge Assessment in May 2006 to spearhead the rapidly growing Assessment Research & Development division. He was previously at the Qualifications and Curriculum Agency (QCA), where he had been Head of Research for most of the previous decade. Tim, who is Group Director, Assessment Research and Development, has produced work which commands national and international respect. With Mike Coles, he developed the new pan-European 8-level qualifications framework. He is active in transnational comparative work on examinations standards, regulation and management of national assessment arrangements, and post-16 vocational education and training. He has advised the UK Government for many years on both practical matters and assessment policy. From 2010 to December 2011, Tim was Chair of the Expert Panel advising the Secretary of State for Education on the review of the National Curriculum in England. He continues to advise Government on the development and implementation of the National Curriculum and allied policy.

Toby Marshall (chair)


Toby Marshall is Curriculum Manager at Havering College of Further and Higher Education and a member of the IoI Education Forum

In addition to teaching A Level Communication, Film and Media studies, he writes articles and reviews books on education and media issues for a variety of publications, including spiked, Culture Wars and the Journal of Further and Higher Education. He was co-convenor of the major conference on education in 2004, Crisis, What Crisis?

Introductions
Toby Marshall The coalition has promised a return to disciplinary knowledge and traditional subject-based knowledge. It has been widely criticised, even called the curriculum of the dead. Others have welcomed the return to subjects. Should it be applauded or is it a backwards step? Is this just another passing fad? Alka Sehgal Cuthbert Three questions: Do subjects need defending? What am I defending? Why? Why are we worried? Subjects are still there. But there are worrying signs about the health of subjects. eg Cambridge Assessment research into higher education found that 50% of lecturers are weak on analytical skills and the ability to write academically. They tend to be good on group work, but cant present their thoughts clearly or precisely. Their weakest areas were subject knowledge, although they had great CPD portfolios. Theres an increasing gap between deep learning and qualifications. We need proper academic content, otherwise learning is not going to be very deep. Students haven't internalised a substantial part of the subjects content. Subject documents are increasingly incoherent. eg 2007 English literature GCSEs in one of the available routes there were 9000 possible combinations of texts. Either this is true one-to-one personalisation which we all know is not happening - or the content has been stripped down to banal generic elements which become meaningless. Not defending chopped-up hollowed-out info, sequenced and paced according to external criteria such as exams; info thats easy to access off internet. Is defending traditional subjects not in the fusty musty sense but belonging to a living tradition derived from academic knowledge mainly produced in universities. Objective forms of our understanding of the world: Physical world - sciences Objective - humanities Subjective arts

To reject subjects is to reject decades of collective effort into understanding the world. Yes, each subject has its own rules and techniques but together they form an on-going effort to understand the world. Why defend subjects? Its not about generic skills or emotional skills. Learning subject knowledge is potentially the most transformative experience. It can transform the way we experience and understand things.

Its about upholding a conception of individuals as autonomous moral beings. Martin Johnson Two questions: Is the dichotomy between skills and knowledge real or false? And more importantly what do we mean by a broad and balanced curriculum? (which was promised by the National Curriculum when it was first introduced, and still underpins most curriculum statements) A lot of semantics involved - Alka wrote about the importance of subject disciplines. Many of the proponents of a skills-based approach see the ability to use disciplines as skills rather than knowledge. Its a distinction lacking in fertility. Historical facts are meaningless unless you're equipped with the skill of chronology. Skills enable you to convert information into knowledge. Information is so easy to access nowadays. Its far more important to install the disciplines of a subject, rather than the knowledge. Youve got to deal with items of knowledge to learn those skills, but it doesn't matter if you forget them as long as you retain the methods. Disagrees with Goves idea that schools will do lots of other stuff outside whatever is specified in the curriculum... if you want them to do it, write it all into curriculum and explicitly assess it. ATL members resent what they have to do in class. No assessment system on earth could withstand the pressure of the current accountability scheme. It forces teachers to teach to the test and means that achievement measured does not correspond to deep learning. Any external assessment system will dictate the curriculum as taught. The higher the stakes the greater the level of dictation. Nobody thinks these proposals are broad and balanced. So what would be? If you started from first principles and start from world were already in forget the history of what is taught you would come up with a very different curriculum. Alka is wrong things are still largely taught in subjects. The pursuit of academic skills and knowledge is important but its only one small part of what we need to cover. Very important physical skills creativity emotional intelligence social skills ethical understandings

We need a range of personal and interpersonal skills greater than currently had in this or any other country.

The ability to talk and relate is ever more important. Society places huge demands on everyone so it will fail unless we upskill. Daisy Christodoulou Subjects work. This is not being ideological or philosophical. Just being pragmatic. Subjects suit the way the human brain learns. All the best education systems around the world use subjects, remarkably similar subjects countries which otherwise dont have much in common. Usually: maths, a home language, a foreign language, science, history, geography, art/drama. Compulsory till 15+. Its a myth to say we have a largely academic curriculum. A lot of schools use a project-based curriculum. The evidence is in Ofsted reports and school mission statements. Topics she has come across include: I am what I am Time travelling with the Doctor The Olympics The Simpsons Bullying History of football

She was open minded about it when she started teaching. But once she taught projects she realised why they don't work. Thinking skills are subject-specific, precisely [why/because?] skills v knowledge is a false dichotomy. The skills lobby assumes there are these overarching skills. But skills are specific to a body of knowledge. Research into the way the brain works has confirmed this. You can be great at analysing history problems, bad at analysing maths problems. Its domainspecific. Research shows that our working memories are limited. We can't hold more than 3 to 7 new pieces of info at once. But we can commit things to long term memory. The subject-based approach accepts this limitation. It would be hard to design a worse system than project-based education. It guarantees children will get distracted. It makes them spend time learning irrelevant info. We should accept the fact that pupils are novices. Adults have got the specific subject knowledge that makes a project meaningful. With children, it turns into a mockery. We should believe that childrens time is precious and be angry about wasteful approaches to teaching knowledge. Tim Oates [I didnt get meaningful notes on some of Tims section]

Subjects are relatively new. During the Enlightenment enquiry was driven by natural philosophy, which was expansive and multidisciplinary. Crick (physicist) and Watson (biologist) their joint work unlocked the double helix. Knowledge is hard won. Children must stand on the shoulders of giants. The curriculum of the dead? If so, step forward [Charles Dickens, Sylvia Plath, other examples given] Approaches to dealing with troubled children should be decided by the teachers who know them, not centrally by government. A broad rich curriculum gets more children to where we need them to be. The curriculum should be sparse and dry. If you focus too much on current perceived needs, you condemn the curriculum to eternal political interference and change. Go cross-curricular if necessary at secondary. The question is: How to create intellectuals from the working class?

Discussion
Toby Marshall To Martin - what is distinctive about schools? What do they offer that other institutions in society dont? To Daisy isn't an ideological and philosophical case for subjects what is missing? To Alka what is the balance of power? Both positions see themselves as powerless. Both cant be right. Who's winning? To Tim the new English Curriculum is certainly sparse and dry theres no books in it. The first National Curriculum mentioned a lot of books. Is that the right way to go? Audience member (Anna ?) Surprised more hasnt been said about EBacc. Is it really a positive move? 250 schools are cutting Drama CGCSEs, teachers jobs are at threat. Toby Young Why has the left allowed the tradition of subject knowledge to be hijacked by the right? Dennis Hayes If you leave teachers to get on with it you get a drift to emotional education. Theres a new divide growing between schools the ones who teach subjects and the ones who teach skills. Daisy does have a philosophy. Its pragmatism. But subjects arent good because they work, they work because they're good.

If we unpack knowledge and understanding when people say knowledge its usually a shorthand for knowledge and understanding. Skills are examples of understanding. This ties them more directly to subject knowledge. Martin articulates very clearly what a lot of teachers think. A lot of people are defending subjects at this debate, but outside of this room hardly any are defending them. Martin Johnson [In response to comment made elsewhere, by I think Toby Marshall, about the notion that children being taught to walk is ridiculous] Would you oppose cadets being taught to march? [several other examples given] It doesnt help when debate is conducted in such a way. Prefers being serious. Gove's policy is to educate the elite. All the evidence is that qualifications are becoming less important in terms of employability. Soft skills are more important to employers. Daisy Christodoulou What is upper class knowledge? We all know Prince Harry is more at home with Nuts rather than Anna Karenina. The upper class are philistines, they dont determine high culture. Historically the working class struggled against the odds to understand the best of what is known. Will Crooks (early 19th C child labourer, later became Labour MP) picked up a copy of the Iliad for 2d: What a revelation it was to me. Pictures of romance and beauty I had never dreamed of suddenly opened up before my eyes. I was transported from the East End to an enchanted land. It was a rare luxury for a working lad like me just home from work to find myself suddenly among the heroes and nymphs of ancient Greece".' Alka Sehgal Cuthbert Elitism - one of the most damaging errors that has been made is the conflation of social/political stratification with knowledge. This reached its peak in the 70s. You go to school to learn what you can't elsewhere. Not everyone is going to be a Leonardo. This isnt a problem, its not up to education to make everyone the same that's the job of politicians and economics. Its our job to pass on the best knowledge we can. Harley Richardson: His sons previous school was exactly like the one described by Daisy. Everything was project-based which seemed to leave many of the children bored and lost, the opposite of the desired effect. Their most recent half-term project was: Find out about Modern Greece. A good use of a 7 year olds time? Disagrees with Martin that employers are desperate for soft skills. Plenty of those about. Whats in shorter supply is subject knowledge. Another semantic problem - when employers decry the lack of skills of graduates, they probably actually mean lack of knowledge.

Alkas point about internalisation of knowledge is key. Through internalising knowledge you compare it against what you already know and build up a better understanding of the world. Why is internalised knowledge not valued these days? Audience member: Is part of the problem that a shift to subject-based education reveals cracks in teacher knowledge? Daisy Christodoulou Once knowledge has collapsed, how do you get it back? Saw an Ofsted report which listed grammatical features: onomatapoeia, alliteration. These are not grammatical features. Deeply worrying that Ofsted inspectors would make mistakes like this. Martin Johnson [To the member of the audience who had enquired about cracks in teacher audience] How often do your pupils tell you things you don't know? [Response: Not very often.] Thats not the experience of a lot of his members. Thousands of them are undertaking higher masters degrees care of ATL... they want to improve their knowledge all the time, but they know theyre losing the race with their pupils. Their pupils will have Googled something the night before that they dont know. Regarding employers and soft skills, that comes from social theorist John Goldthorpe. A research project into employers confirmed what they want from school leavers although its incredibly difficult to get out of employers what they want - but they are looking for high quality communication skills. [Question from someone: In which jobs?] Companies want to have good customer relations. Alka Sehgal Cuthbert Regarding internalisation of knowledge and why is it not considered important: The usual answer is that its the effect of increasing monitoring and accountability. But if so, why has the profession allowed that happened? (Teachers are now just deliverers, with little control over what they teach.) Its about your philosophy, its about your conception of humanity. If you have a view of people that is basically affirmative, education should have an open-ended future-oriented aspect. Grown-ups may choose to go this way or that, or do nothing. The choices are up to them but they will be in a better position to choose having had an education. We should see the world as a place to be acted upon by people. The skills-based approach presupposes a world and society that are set in stone the best we can do is adapt to it. The point of education is to put students in the position where they can judge which aspects of the world they like and which they don't - and decide what changes they want to make. Re elitism: subjects are difficult and unfamiliar and alien to all, not just the working class. Autonomy teachers need it so can put their knowledge into practice with a particular group of children on particular day.

They need the trust that comes from firm subject knowledge to do that, but theyve lost that trust. Tim Oates Regarding the diminishing role of education in employment, the evidence points in the opposite direction to what Martin claims. Yes the role of qualifications in [post-initial?] careers is decreasing but those most likely to be in receipt of further learning are those already having a high level qualification. This is leading to more social concentration of social capital. Engagement is a pre-condition of learning. The more time you spend on it, the more time you waste. Hopefully you don't need to spend any time on it. Most South African teachers who came to the UK to teach went back to South Africa they couldn't deal with UK kids, the moral impulse to learn was not strong enough. Research into pedagogy in Asian nations found a difference in the way teachers understood it when their pupils failed to get something. [British?] teachers saw it as the fault of the children they were teaching. Asian teachers thought it was because they hadnt presented the information to the class in the right way. Daisy Christodoulou Her pupils often tell her things she doesn't know. Mostly things that are wrong. [Gave a number of examples] Its a complete myth that you can outsource memory to Google. By committing facts to long term memory, you effectively expand your working memory which is the site of creativity and solutions. Audience member Hes an employer who is looking for high level of communication skills like literacy, spelling. Audience member Employers want confidence, the ability to analyse, based on subject knowledge. Audience member Which subjects should schools teach? Audience member He had recruited many people the requirements are very basic, turn up on time, do what youre told, not rocket science. Rania Hafez Why should education give you that? Audience member (works for an exam board) People nowadays think subjects are too difficult for children. There is a widespread assumption that only 50% of pupils can access most subjects. Why? Audience member (worked for Bernardos) [Responding to Toby Youngs question] Society has changed, theres more poverty and disadvantage. Attendance to basic emotional needs is more important that may be why the left has abandoned subject basic learning.

John Law (electrical wholesaler) The point of education is not to do what your boss asks you to do. Audience member Education is so precious. Its disgusting to hear people look at it from the point of view of employers. Tim Oates Which subjects should we teach? The important thing is the underlying concepts [which he mentioned previously, but I didnt note down]. Deep learning of concepts oxidation, romantic love [other examples given]. Subjects are a good, efficient way of organising these concepts but theyre arbitrary and they change over time. Employers should not expect work-readiness from education. We need to re-establish proper apprenticeships. We need more long-duration high-quality training, with mass participation. Daisy Christodoulou Shes pragmatic because if something better was there, she would support it. Yes, subjects works because they're good. The Curriculum Centre is trying to put this into practice. If you care about this, you should do something about it. Martin Johnson Andreas Schleicher, OECD education guru, says no education system worth its salt works with concepts of vocational and academic as an opposing pair. We have to develop a curriculum in which the theoretical and the practical have their place. If its good enough for some, it should be good enough for all. We still have an intensely class-based education system in this country. The problem is that the top performers are amongst the top performers in the world, but we have a longer tail of underachievement than almost any other OECD country. We need a curriculum for all; for all youngsters to leave school highly literate. Gets very annoyed when people say teachers don't care. Why are so many youngster not adequately equipped for life? The problem doesn't [just?] lie in classrooms, it lies in the structure of education, the curriculum, assessment, the wider economy and inequality in society. Alka Sehgal Cuthbert What should we teach? Sciences, arts and humanities. Plus some practical subjects. (You can be more pragmatic about these, dependent on the teachers in the school.) Vocational learning isnt antithetical to academic knowledge, it presupposes it.

mile Durkheim the point of education is to direct people to a general role as citizen. Politics, history and the liberal arts are important for everyone. Carpenters are still citizens, they still need to know about these things. In the quest for equality, we have conflated boundaries. The British Baccalaureate (IPPR 1991) written by David Milliband and Michael Young proposed the complete and total modularisation of all courses... as if creating equality on paper would create social equality. The extent to which we've gone down that route is the extent to which we've destroyed education. Regarding the moral impulse to learn were bombarded by stories of discipline problems. But these are decontextualised and so we get horrible solutions: bring in security guards, shout at them like police wardens... Teachers know that its not the headline-grabbing instances that are the problem, its the everyday lack of engagement. This is a much wider cultural problem. Its a perverse unintended consequence of child-centred education - focusing on the feelings of child all the time. Bernstein said that although child-centred education is presented as beneficial to the working class its an idea from new sections of the middle class. Its really intrusive... taking away boundaries between school and home... opening up the inner life of child... looking out for inner dispositions manifested in outward acts. In these circumstances, children only survive through outright rebellion, but more often 'amotivation'. Increasingly no connection is felt between what they do and what they praised or punished for.
(Notes taken from the audience by Harley Richardson)