20 Apr 2019

Useful and Beautiful?

It is as important to think about the implementation of the curriculum, as it is to think about the intent. Schools have spent considerable time and thinking about the vision and purpose of the curriculum in their context. And have followed this with the same exercise about the vision for individual subjects. This is helpful in clarifying the purpose of the curriculum within each setting.



However, what has emerged is that in some schools, the ambitions expressed in the vision have not always been translated into the quality of plans and materials provided for pupils. So I think it is important to have some principles underlying this aspect of work. I believe there are a number of things to bear in mind when planning and here are three suggestions: first, materials should privilege thinking over task completion; second, they should provide the stepping-stones to mastery and third, they should be beautiful.

Why should materials privilege thinking over task completion? Because too many tasks and worksheets focus on completion of the exercise, as opposed to making children think. This happens when the tasks involve activities such as completing the gaps, without having to think too hard. These are often ticked off, but when pupils are asked about what they have learned, or to recall information at a later date, they are not able to say. Cloze passages and gap-fills fail to embed information into scheme: they present vocabulary as a problem to be solved like a crossword puzzle, not part of a wider learning scheme. This kind of proxy means that misconceptions can go unnoticed, pupils get a false sense of security and the teacher signs off work, often putting it on to a spread sheet, when in fact very little has been really learnt.

To give an example. A pupil in Year 4 was talking about the work she had been doing in English. There was some imaginative writing, however the book contained some work on homophones a few lessons earlier. A worksheet had been completed, ticked off and no doubt satisfied the teacher that the child understood homophones. However, when asked to say what she had learned about homophones, she was not able to say. This was because the completion of the task trumped her understanding. And similar examples can be found across phases and subjects, where basic comprehension tasks are used to demonstrate mastery and progress.

So, we need to be careful that if worksheets are completed, there is plenty of discussion about what the actual work is about - in this case, the interesting case of words with different spellings sounding the same. This important aspect of grammar had not been unpicked, the etymology of homophone (sounds the same) had not been explored and yet the child and teacher had a false sense of achievement, having completed the task correctly, when in fact she did not really grasp what it meant. This is a shame.

The second principle is that work offered to pupils should provide the stepping-stones and a route to mastery. For a pupil to have mastered something, they have to have really grasped it. They know it, understand it and are able to talk about and do something with it on their own terms. The paradox of mastery is that the more we know and understand something, the more we realise how little we know. Why is this? Because as we delve deeper into a concept or big idea we realise how many possibilities there are and how far these ideas might go. This is both an exciting and scary place to be. It is also the place from which intellectual curiosity and cultural literacy is built. Without this scary leap into the unknown education would just be a life-long handholding exercise, as it is mastery that leads to the ability to satisfy and indulge in academic curiosity. So it is important that the goal of mastery should be at the forefront of planning, so that we are not seduced by proxies for learning.

And finally, I am making the case that the materials offered to our pupils should be beautiful. Not just aesthetically, but in the sense that they are absolutely fit for purpose. The reason for beauty being an important consideration is that I believe that our pupils deserve the best. And this doesn’t usually mean costing a lot; it means that they have value. Value in the sense that they make them think and that they lead to deeper understanding.

William Morris made the case that we should have nothing in our homes that is not either useful or beautiful, and I think that this is a useful lens through which to consider what we offer our pupils. Is this useful - in terms of making them think, and does it lead to mastery? And is this beautiful, not in terms of decoration or glitter, but is it beautifully and clearly presented, along the principles of Oliver Caviglioli’s[1] work? Marie Kondo, the organizing consultant has also worked on this principle on decluttering. While it might apply to peoples’ homes, I think it is also useful when thinking about the materials we offer pupils. Kondo asks ‘Does this bring me joy?’ and we might ask ‘Will I enjoy offering this to my pupils and will they get something worthwhile out of it?’ I think that there is a case to be made for having a spring clean of many of the resources we offer children. And these principles apply to power points. Adam Smith[2] has made a powerful case for revisiting this aspect of our practice.

And the final reason for arguing for beauty is that Plato in Republic XIII argued that in order for children to learn they need to play with lovely things. Now playing is not mucking about, it is exploring, engaging with and thinking about stuff. And I would argue that the things also include books, words and language.

So, to draw this together. I think it is important that we pass a quality control lens over anything downloaded from the internet that does not meet these criteria. And that means that a lot of second-rate stuff should be hitting the bin: a glance through some of the materials online through these three lenses will expose some of the low quality materials currently being offered to pupils.



[1] https://www.olicav.com/

[2] https://mrsmithre.home.blog/2019/04/04/reduce-reus...

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