The Reduced Curriculum Part II
This is the second of three blog posts about the Reduced Curriculum responding to the anxieties of many people we have talked to regarding this important subject. There will be an accompanying PDF, which is free to our subscribers.
“Kids these days don’t do anything for themselves,” says Glen. We are walking the Camino de Santiago- walking and talking as you do- and he has some strong opinions about the changes he has seen in his lifetime. He is seventy years old and his memories of his own childhood are of something entirely different to what he sees in his grandchildren.
“They used to kick us out of doors and we would go play in the street,” he says. “There were gangs and we would sometimes get into fights, but no one much cared about that. We built dens down by the river. And I would go off on my own fishing or exploring. My parents only wanted to know where I was going, but they expected me to look after myself.”
“And that doesn’t happen now?” I ask.
“Like hell it does,” he replies. “When kids aren’t in school, they are either doing some sporting activity under supervision or they are plugged into some device. My daughter is run ragged taking Kylie and Jason to this or that complementary activity. They get way more tests, assessments and homework than we ever had. After-school there are more teacher supervised clubs for them to go to than ever.”
“That’s an improvement, isn’t it?” I say, playing Devil’s Advocate.
“I don’t know,” he grumbles. “Some of that is good, I guess, but it bugs me. The kids don’t know what to do with themselves unless it is all laid on for them. The adult world seems to have swamped out what I took as being a kid.”
Glen’s problem with the world he sees around him is that kids- and he means anyone from 6-16- have a world that is so structured that they are losing the autonomy he valued as a child and continues to value as an adult. The adult world hovers over children and will not leave them alone. It’s an anxiety-fuelled control system, and no way to develop free-thinking future citizens of democratic states.
At the root of it all is a lack of faith that children can grow up without guidance every step of the way. In education, this deep meddling with children’s lives is what gives us the Bloated Curriculum. The English National Curriculum documents call it “full and balanced” but the way the standards are applied in practice, and the anxiety induced in parents for their children to do well, increasingly make “bloated and imbalanced” the acceptable norm. The phenomenon is not limited to the UK; it is worldwide. If you are working in a Democratic School, you need to think seriously about your approach to this phenomenon.
Our solution is to offer a Reduced Curriculum
When people ask us to define our Reduced Curriculum we hold our hands to our heads and groan. “You’re a teacher, aren’t you? Or you’re hiring one? Take the national curriculum of your country and only offer the basics.” It seems so straightforward to us that a competent teacher would be able to do this that we tend to glide away from the seriousness of the situation. We now think that teachers asking for a Reduced Curriculum on a plate reflect the education they suffered up to and including teacher training. Deprived of free choice of action throughout most of their own education, reduced as teachers to part of a government curriculum delivery agency, forbidden to tamper with the content they deliver, they freeze when given responsibility to look, analyse, edit and re-fashion. We ask teachers to become adults again; the same way students reclaim childhood in democratic free schools.
Let’s settle back and meditate on curriculum. Wherever you are there will be some form of National Curriculum giving minimum standards for compulsory school education. These documents are not all bad in our view. They embody enlightened ideas about ensuring equal access to common standards and are intended to protect children’s right to education from frivolous innovation. They are designed using the resources of the state, which mean they have a solid foundation in accepted good practice and scientific research about educational levels. Sure, there is an assumption that all this curriculum content will be delivered by teachers, but it doesn’t have to be. The curriculum consists of everything that goes on in a school and even National Curriculum guidelines admit that minimum standards are not everything: schools are free to provide more than the minimum.
We have to define the difference between minimum standards and content. There are several studies that show that children are capable of reaching minimum standards without studying content in formal lessons. This means that the connection between teaching and standards is not a given. Many schools use the freedom that their national curriculum gives them to offer more than minimum standards to offer a wide range of freely-chosen options.
The fact that most schools use this freedom to give children more of the same does not mean that you have to.
So we say:
- Your National Curriculum guidelines should not be flippantly cast aside. Knowledge of this curriculum and what is expected in it is going to help you in the face of inspection.
- You can freely let some curriculum ride off into other areas, such as informal activity work, conversation and growing up in a democratic community.
- You can reduce the curriculum that is delivered in lessons taught by teachers.
- You have leeway to give children freedom of choice of action because of this reduction in content and time.
There is an implicit assumption in contemporary education that learning is only ever provided and structured by adults, that it has to be taught. We suggest that you get that idea out of your head. Only then will you be able to focus on teaching the skills and knowledge that really do require expert guidance. When we talk about the reduced curriculum that is what we mean: the reduced taught curriculum. This is not another document to replace the National Curriculum. Don’t make one: it will be a rope to hang yourself with. In practice, reducing the curriculum in mathematics, for example, means adjusting the content of a good set of textbooks to the levels and needs of the children whilst keeping an eye on the indicators in the National Curriculum.
Use your National Curriculum: it is good for kids, good for teachers, and keeps the government off your back. It is good for kids because, however special your school is, they will have to leave it at some point and join children who have been educated in more conventional settings. It is helpful for them to know precisely what they know and do not know compared to the norm in society. It is good for teachers because they will not be scratching their heads trying to invent some kind of ersatz democratic curriculum, with all the dangers of producing some kind of hokey, irrelevant nonsense. It keeps the government off your back because you can show that you are aware of levels and content, even when you are not always in compliance.
Primary schools may find there is a lot in National Curriculum documents that will happen anyway. Grab a hold of the curriculum and go through it marking what will happen as a part of normal child development and what is obviously pointless, like writing an essay about making a cake, or studying the changing seasons in the classroom. Look out for repetition. Curriculum documents and textbooks make a virtue out of repetition to reinforce learning year after year. Most democratic schools have smaller classes with an individual focus on learning and this repetition is unnecessary. If it’s chilly outside you put on a coat but you don’t put on three.
What is left over can be considered for inclusion in the reduced curriculum. It is going to be a bunch of dry peas, unfortunately, but all the sauce- the educational goo- takes away from the real objective of a democratic school: free choice for children. The reduced curriculum is not something new. It is an essentials-only version of the minimum standards- acknowledging that some content is repetitious, some simply not necessary for progress and that a lot of the standards can be covered by free play activity and by offering an Informal Curriculum in age-appropriate habitats.
Teachers need to know more than the curriculum for the age group they teach. They need to know where it all leads. Talk. Collaborate. If you have a school that goes all the way up to secondary, this conversation can happen in-house. If kids leave your school age 12, you need to create relationships with the schools you feed into. Leonard went to talk to teachers in the schools his free school fed into and they told him the minimum the children needed to know to make the transition. That was a long time ago and you may find that you have less room for manoeuvre these days, but it was a responsible thing to do. Anything else is a kind of vanity that does not put the children’s interests first.
In practice teachers will oversee curriculum reduction, using the National Curriculum guidelines and focussing on the needs of the children they have in front of them. However, school directors must guard against the rogue teacher- the curriculum cannot be reduced in an arbitrary way. A rogue teacher might be tempted to completely dispense with the formal curriculum and launch off on a quixotic endeavour to reinvent the whole thing on her own terms. She might have a neurotic need to gather the little ones around her. Well-written job descriptions and termly chats with all teachers that go over what the school requires can cut out these problems: we shall be discussing these administrative measures in future posts.
We do not aspire to create a school where teachers are tying themselves in knots trying to reinvent the wheel. We want good teachers who are confident in their craft and can deliver quality lessons to children at all different levels, focussing on the essential, eliminating the unnecessary and completely doing away with the authoritarian nonsense that goes on in many other schools. This nonsense consists in the tyranny that a school exercises over children’s time (see PDF). We suggest that children are quite capable of growing up by themselves, that the taught curriculum can be reduced to a minimum and that a significant amount of the breadth and balance that a National Curriculum requires can be covered through freely chosen activities, projects and play without any adult supervision except that of health and safety. With age-appropriate spaces for children to pursue their own interests and some sensitive resourcing of materials and tools, a school can be a hub of activity, play and investigation, where children have free choice of activity.
Would this school appeal to Glen, who was so worried about kids’ lives being micromanaged by adults? He was a successful journalist. His school life was a small part of his whole experience of growing up. He learnt from the example of his parents who were confident in his ability to make decisions for himself. He didn’t like the teachers he had at school, but he didn’t need to: he had his own friends and family. Teachers then did not twist themselves into pretzels to be accommodating facilitators.
“School was a boring chore,” he says. “But I had a whole world outside of school. What can I say? I think my grandkids’ lives are totally schooled. It makes me worry about the future. It really does.”
I asked him what he thought of a Summerhill-style education and he was sceptical.
“I reckon in a school like that I wouldn’t have gone to many classes,” he said, hitting on the reality of Summerhill. “And it is a school after all, isn’t it? I guess I’d have hated the teachers there just as much as I hated the teachers at my school.” He looked around him at the rolling hills in front of us and stuck his thumbs into his rucksack straps.
“It’s only half of the problem,” he said. “What happens at school is only a part of it. If you don’t educate parents to leave their goddam kids alone, you’re not going anywhere.”
This blogpost accompanies a PDF which sets out in more detail the reduced curriculum. You can get the PDF by registering on the website. There will be a small charge for future documents.