The Cat's Backbone Curriculum

The Cat’s Backbone Curriculum

The Cat’s Backbone

Strong and flexible: the opposite of rigour. Rigour is a word that pops up all the time in political talk about education. I can’t hear it without thinking of rigor mortis, Death’s icy hand on children. The Cat’s Backbone Core Curriculum is not at all rigorous, realising that if the tabby jumps from the fifth floor he is more likely to do himself an injury if he is rigorous.

In my previous post I suggested that the vertebrae of the Core should be:

  • Reading and Writingimage
  • Mathematics
  • Science

With the addition of two more subjects especially for boarding schools:

  • Physical Education
  • Nutrition

The way that traditional curriculum designers go about the business of structuring the core is by taking content and splitting it up evenly over time. This sort of makes sense if you are planting peas: I have one hundred peas and I am going to plant two per hole in five rows of ten. It works. Peas are much more uniform than children and they grow and develop at a more even rate. What’s more if they don’t grow well you can just chuck them out, unlike children.

It might work to a certain extent in Maths because there are logical steps that precede others in your developing understanding of the subject. It makes sense for there to be a progression through increasing levels of difficulty, guided by a teacher who can monitor where the student is having difficulty and help her overcome the obstacles. You know when you have arrived because you can do something you could not do before.

It does not work with subjects that have more open-ended outcomes. These are the subjects that really help children to take charge of their learning and grow, subjects where they research in and around the subject by themselves and develop a true passion for it. I would say that science is partly pea-planting because there is a lot that you just have to learn, although creating a passion for science demands a higher level of involvement in the subject. Reading and writing are nothing like pea-planting.

Bite-Size Parcels
The major obstacle that conventional curriculum design has to overcome is obvious: learning things in bite-sized parcels evenly divided up over time is not the best way to learn every subject. When I was a student and had to sit through a whole term of classes on Antony and Cleopatra there was a colossal disjunct between the passion in the play and the mechanical way we went about studying it. I’m not saying that close analysis does not have its place, but no one ever learned to ride a bike by drawing diagrams of bikes and looking them over with a magnifying glass.

Children have a capacity for learning that is actively squashed when they have to succumb to an overly-structured curriculum.

At Summerhill the taught curriculum is evident in the choice of teachers: Maths, Science, English and Other Languages with area teachers in Woodwork, Art, Class 2 and Class 1. This gives an extraordinary flexibility when it is handled well: children know that they can take advantage of classes at their level when they are ready for them; they also have areas where they can go and work on projects of their own devising. They have the freedom to dedicate the time that they need to the subjects they want to engage with. There is no pressure to attain a certain level by a certain age and there are many different entry points at different levels.

Passion and Interest
You cannot achieve this if you do not give the children freedom to choose. Teachers need to be approachable and sensitive but they do not need to devise “fun” or time-filling exercises at Summerhill, because when children go to classes they have a reason to be there and are under no obligation to stay. As I said in my previous post, teachers can bring to bear the full depth of their passion for their subject and children can respond with the full extent of their interest.

Why would you do it any other way?

I ask this question because it seems singularly puzzling to me that schools persist in offering boring and counter-productive learning approaches that seem to be custom-designed to alienate young people. Does it make sense to learn a foreign language in two lessons a week over four years? Of course it doesn’t! Yet schools continue to offer languages that way. Why? Because it fits the timetable. Would it be better to do a solid four weeks of language-learning to get a base before moving on? Of course it would! Yet we don’t do that because it messes up our timetables.

I have no doubt in my mind that democratic schools are simply better. Children learn more that is of more value through exercising their freedom than they do by being badgered and bullied through a nonsensical, controlled curriculum. Tell them there is a Cat’s Backbone and it will make a lot more sense to them than the hodge-podge they get at the moment.