According to the National Union of Teachers' conference, the revised national curriculum for schools in England is so narrow it will deter young people from learning, The NUT's general secretary Christine Blower said the curriculum was "desperately ill thought out". Delegates claimed that its emphasis on core knowledge was a throw-back to rote learning and uncreative lists of facts. Alex Kenny from the union's executive said it was a curriculum based on pub-quiz style chunks of information: "It's a curriculum in which the learner is completely absent, or just a passive consumer of information or knowledge." Martin Allen, a delegate from Ealing, described it as a "know your place curriculum", based on rote learning and "social control". But the debate also heard support for the idea of teaching a core of knowledge. Quentin Deakin from Bradford warned that in history pupils could be left "rudderless without some chronology". The NUT published a survey of more than 2,000 members of the union showing widespread opposition to the curriculum. It found that two-thirds of teachers believed there was "too much emphasis on 'facts' rather than skills". Not surprisingly, a Department for Education spokesman rejected the criticisms of the planned curriculum.
The problem with all the rhetoric is that the important questions tend to get lost. Of primary importance is what ‘knowledge’ means within an educational context. The rhetoric makes a distinction between facts and skills that is simply missing when looking at what knowledge means. In fact it is a false dichotomy since individuals need to know ‘how’ to do things and this relies, to a considerable extent on 'knowing ‘what’. For instance, individuals may know how to make a dovetail joint but to apply this skill they also need to know under what circumstances the joint should be used. Knowing how to make the joint without recognising the circumstances when it should be used rather than, for instance, a tenon joint is simply a case of skill for skill’s sake. Similarly, if students are to argue effectively and challenge orthodox views then their argument needs to be grounded in factual information to support or refute the argument. Otherwise, it ceases to be argument and becomes a rhetorical device for conveying a personal view.
If you teach students by rote learning then they do become passive receptacles for information but that is not what the curriculum proposes at all. Neither is it a ‘know your place curriculum’ since that implies learners can neither process the information or do not learn how to process the information and that clearly would negate many of the good learning methods that have evolved in the last twenty years. Neither is it about social control, in fact the reverse since a knowledge-based curriculum that develops understanding of factual information and the skills necessary to process that information had the potential to liberate the individual by developing the ability to question received wisdom through argument and debate. The problem, and here Michael Gove has a point, is that instabilities and changes in universities and in teacher education with the division between university-based PGCE and school-based courses have resulted in a teaching profession that may have the skills necessary to make good teachers but they often lack the basic factual knowledge…after all, any teacher under 40-45 would have themselves been taught through the National Curriculum. They are also those for whom the emergence of the Internet and Wikipedia means that you can always find the ‘knowledge’ (and I use the term questioningly) you need if you have the necessary skills to interrogate hyperspace. (All well a good but how many teachers are served up often unedited bits from the Internet as essays…I’ve even had essays with the hyperlinks still in place.)
The point about the National Curriculum is not what it includes or excludes or how it is taught but that it should engage students and make learning what it should always be enjoyable. In History, a good story well told remains the best way to make learning fun for students. I still remember listening to my primary school teachers tell the story of Alfred and the cakes and Marco Polo and it doesn’t matter to me that I later found that the sources gave a different version of those stories, I was hooked and that’s the point. Whether it’s the teaching unions (and I was a member of the NUT throughout my career) or the government or the educational establishment, what is missing is the kids…they don’t really care what they’re taught as long as it’s interesting and fun and, this is my final point, once they know things (and it doesn’t matter if it’s only to answer pub quiz questions), they will eventually learn how to apply them critically.