Our blog

About this blog

This is The Curriculum Centre blog. Please read the following posts to get an idea of the new ways we are thinking about the curriculum.

Why 21st century skills are not that 21st century.
Why you can’t just Google it.
Why and how we should teach grammar.
The Power of the Humanities
Knowledge and Creativity

We recently featured on an episode of BBC Radio 4′s Analysis programme. You can listen again to the programme here and read a BBC news article on it here.

We’re an organisation who work with schools to improve their curriculum. This blog is a place for us to share some of our thinking, and to respond to topical educational issues.

This blog is mostly written by me, Daisy Christodoulou, and Dr Jo Saxton. Caroline Nash, our Chair, will also post from time to time. Sometimes we’ll feature guest posts too. A few posts have been taken from my personal blog on education, which you can still see here.

You can get in touch with us via our contact details at the top of the page.

Daisy Christodoulou
CEO, The Curriculum Centre

Seven Myths about Education – available now

My book, Seven Myths about Education, was published on 18th June.

It’s available as an ebook from the Amazon Kindle store – click here to buy it if you are in the UK, and click here to buy it if you are in the US.

There’s a nice review of it here by Joe Kirby.

Before publication I wrote a short summary of each chapter. Here they are.



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Myth Seven – Teaching knowledge is indoctrination

This blog post summarises chapter 7 of my book Seven Myths about Education. To read the introduction to this sequence of posts, click here. You can buy the book as an ebook via Amazon here.

In this chapter I look at some of the political arguments against teaching knowledge – the idea that it is impossible to make a politically ‘neutral’ selection of knowledge to teach to pupils, and that we should therefore not teach knowledge at all. The purpose of education should be less about pupils receiving knowledge and more about pupils sifting opinions and working with their own experiences. Here I look at the work of some influential curriculum theorists who all started writing in the 1970s: Michael Young, Michael Apple, Vic Kelly and John White. I then look at examples of lessons which clearly reflect this concern for the child’s own experiences and show a wariness about ‘external’ knowledge and its brainwashing potential. The problem with this argument is that it relies on there being a dichotomy between ‘bad’ brainwashing knowledge and ‘good’ empowering skills. In actual fact, as I hope I’ve shown, no such dichotomy exists. We can’t teach pupils to sift opinions and weigh up evidence unless they have some knowledge to work with. Nor can we expect them to work with their own experiences and then transfer these skills across to new knowledge, because, as we’ve seen, skills do not transfer like this. If we want pupils to be able to deploy their skills on knowledge outside their own experience, we have to teach that knowledge. If our aim is for pupils to be able to read broadsheet newspapers, be active citizens and to play a full part in the lives of their communities, we have to teach the kind of knowledge that makes such activities possible.   Education is often defended in economic terms, as a tool for making countries and individuals richer. But it undoubtedly has an important democratic role too, as a tool for making countries fairer.  If we don’t teach powerful knowledge in schools, we end up with social inequality, because richer pupils will gain that knowledge from their parents and private tutors, whilst poorer children will not.

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Myth Six – Projects and activities are the best way to learn

This blog post summarises chapter 6 of my book Seven Myths about Education. To read the introduction to this sequence of posts, click here. You can buy the book as an ebook via Amazon here.

The theory here is that in the real world, problems do not come neatly wrapped in boxes labelled ‘Maths’ or ‘English’. Thus, teaching pupils in these ‘subject silos’ is ineffective. Instead, we should teach pupils using projects or activities which more accurately reflect the problems they will face in the real world. Such projects also have the benefit of being more intrinsically motivating for pupils, and will help promote ‘independent learning’, a popular buzzword in modern education. Again, Ofsted, the RSA Opening Minds curriculum, the ATL and a variety of educationalists all make this practical or theoretical case. I argue that it is a confusion of aims and methods. Our aim should be for pupils to be able to tackle real-world problems by the end of their education; that does not mean that our method should involve endless practice of real-world problems. This is because real-world problems often involve a great deal of distracting information which overwhelms working memory. Likewise, our final aim should be for pupils to work independently; this does not mean that constant independent learning will achieve this aim. ‘Independent learning’ often just means discovery learning or unguided learning, which are highly inefficient and ineffective ways to learn new material. There is also a novice/expert issue here – experts are good at solving real world problems, but we shouldn’t ask novices just to mimic what experts do, otherwise we’re into cargo cult territory. Experts think in a qualitatively different way from novices.

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Myth Five – We should teach transferable skills

This blog post summarises chapter 5 of my book Seven Myths about Education. To read the introduction to this sequence of posts, click here. You can buy the book as an ebook via Amazon here.

In this chapter I look at the work of Guy Claxton, Chris Quigley and the RSA Opening Minds Curriculum. They all promote the idea that there are generic skills which it’s possible to teach in the abstract. By teaching pupils such generic skills they will then have them available to transfer to whatever new content they wish. Of course, if this were true it would be a very efficient way of proceeding, but unfortunately it isn’t. Skills are tied to domain knowledge. If you can analyse a poem, it doesn’t mean you can analyse a quadratic equation, even though we apply the word ‘analysis’ to each activity. Likewise with evaluation, synthesis, explanation and all the other words to be found at the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy. When we see people employing what we think of as transferable skills, what we’re probably seeing is someone with a wide-ranging body of knowledge in a number of different domains.

There’s a nice E.D. Hirsch article about this here (this is the one where he uses the metaphor of skills and knowledge being like a scrambled egg), and a good Herbert Simon article here where he points out that way we use the word skill often begs the question (as with Moliere’s doctor saying that the sleep-inducing properties of opium are caused by its dormitive power).

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Myth Four – You can always just look it up

This blog post summarises chapter 4 of my book Seven Myths about Education. To read the introduction to this sequence of posts, click here. You can buy the book as an ebook via Amazon here.

This chapter is about the very popular idea that the invention of Google means we no longer have to remember things. I cite a few examples of professors and teachers who make this case, although I could have cited a lot more: if I had to pick, I would say that this myth is the one I hear most in everyday conversations, sometimes even amongst people who are not involved in education. I then show some lesson examples from Ofsted and the RSA which assume that pupils can depend on the knowledge being ‘out there’. Actually, the limitations of working memory mean that we have to have a store of facts in long-term memory in order to be able to think. Not only that, but in order to use reference tools like Google and Wikipedia effectively, you need a great deal of knowledge to begin with.  This chapter builds on a previous blog post of mine you can find here.

Just after I’d finished writing this post, a friend sent me a link to an article by Justin Webb in the Radio Times (H/T @fairgroundtown). Here are some extracts.

  • ‘You do not need to know anything any more. Knowing things is hopelessly 20th century. The reason is that everything you need to know – things you may previously have memorised from books – is (or soon will be) instantly available on a handheld device in your pocket.’
  • ‘Why waste your time learning facts when they are on your phone, all the time, in your pocket? And soon on a tattoo on your arm, or on your shirt, or a pair of glasses.’
  • ‘What fascinates me about the new world is that along with there being no need to know things comes a massive need to be able to manipulate information when you find it…the key to entering this lucrative professional class will be knowing what do with knowledge, not knowing the knowledge itself.’

These are all perfect examples of this myth, and a perfect example of how this myth has gone mainstream, promoted by journalists in the popular press, not just by educationalists in unread tomes.

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Myth Three – The 21st century fundamentally changes everything

This blog post summarises chapter 3 of my book Seven Myths about Education. To read the introduction to this sequence of posts, click here. You can buy the book as an ebook via Amazon here.

In this chapter, I look at some more modern theories about the unimportance of facts. I consider what some current education professors and education unions have to say, and look at two phenomenally popular YouTube videos – Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk and Shift Happens. Their argument is that the speed of modern technological change means the education world needs to change equally quickly. I look at some lessons and curricula which have been influenced by these ideas, including the RSA’s Opening Minds curriculum and some more examples of good and outstanding Ofsted lessons. I show that in practice the kinds of changes these ideas lead to are not modern at all, but are remarkably similar to Rousseau’s prescriptions in the 18th century. I also show that these theories consistently exaggerate the extent to which our knowledge of the world is changing. In fact, fundamental bodies of knowledge and basic inventions are just as important as they ever were and are highly unlikely to change significantly in the future. I argue that the newer an idea is, the more likely it is to become obsolete; whereas those old ideas which are still useful to us are likely to go on still being useful in the future. This chapter builds on an earlier blog post of mine you can find here.

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Myth Two – Teacher-led instruction is passive

This blog post summarises chapter 2 of my book Seven Myths about Education. To read the introduction to this sequence of posts, click here. You can buy the book as an ebook via Amazon here.

In this chapter, I look at how Rousseau, Dewey and Freire’s opposition to facts works in practice. I show how their pedagogical approach rejects teacher-led learning, and instead encourages pupils to discover knowledge for themselves. Teacher-led instruction is stereotyped as passive and boring. I then look at some of the descriptions of good practice from modern English classrooms, which all tend to assume that independent enquiry and discovery are good and teacher explanation and direction are bad. I then show why this isn’t the case and why teacher-directed learning can in fact be an extraordinarily active process for the pupil. I also look at the remarkable story of Siegfried Englemann and Direct Instruction.

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Myth One – Facts prevent understanding

This blog post summarises chapter 1 of my book Seven Myths about Education. To read the introduction to this sequence of posts, click here. You can buy the book as an ebook via Amazon here.

In this chapter, I look at the educational theory of Rousseau, Dewey and Freire. All three were hostile to fact-learning, and all three set up a dichotomy between facts and true understanding. I then show how influential their theories have been by looking at the rhetoric of the current national curriculum, which is based on a similar understanding of an opposition between facts and understanding. Finally, I show why their opposition between fact-learning and true understanding is false. Facts are not opposed to understanding; they enable understanding. This is because of the way that our minds work. Our long-term memories are capable of storing a great deal of information whereas our working memories are limited. Therefore, it is very important that we do commit facts to long-term memory, as this allows us to ‘cheat’ the limitations of working memory. The facts we’ve committed to memory help us to understand the world and to solve problems.

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Seven Myths about Education – Introduction

On June 18th my book on the curriculum was published. It’s available as an ebook from the Amazon Kindle store – click here to buy it if you are in the UK, and click here to buy it if you are in the US.

It’s called Seven Myths about Education and it pretty much does what it says on the tin. There are seven chapters and each chapter discusses a different myth about education. I had the idea of structuring a book like this because so often in conversation about education I found that the discussion would end up being about one of these ideas. For example, I’d start to have a discussion about why knowledge was important, and before long the person I was talking to would suggest that knowledge wasn’t important because we all have smartphones now (that’s myth 4). Or I’d be talking about how important it was for pupils to learn subject content, and someone would suggest that what you really learnt from school wasn’t the subject content, but the transferable skills (myth 5). I have structured each chapter in the same way. First, I try to explain clearly the theoretical evidence behind this myth. Second, I show the practical implications of the myth, and I show that such practice is prevalent in English schools today. Third, I explain why it is a myth. In the days before publication I will be giving a short summary of each chapter. Here are all seven.

  1. Facts prevent understanding
  2. Teacher-led instruction is passive
  3. The 21st century fundamentally changes everything
  4. You can always just look it up
  5. We should teach transferable skills
  6. Projects and activities are the best way to learn
  7. Teaching knowledge is indoctrination

Another of the reasons for structuring my book in this way was because I would so often hear two linked – and I think contradictory – criticisms. Very often, I’d give a brief outline of what I thought about education and explain what that meant in practical terms – for example, teaching discrete grammar lessons. I would then get two responses, often from the same person. First, the person would say that most schools do what I am asking already, so what I am proposing isn’t anything new – eg, they would say, all schools teach grammar anyway. Second, they would say that I was backward looking and wanted to take education back to the 19th century. Self-evidently, both these criticisms cannot be true. If all good schools already do what I am asking, then I can’t be advocating a return to the 19th century. If I am advocating a return to the 19th century, then schools can’t all be doing what I am asking.

In actual fact, both criticisms are wrong. Most schools don’t teach grammar the way I advocate and I don’t want to take them back to the 19th century. But the logical confusion of these two criticisms makes it quite hard to explain this.

Similar criticisms would emerge whenever I tried to give an example of something I thought was wrong. So, I might say that a lesson where pupils learnt about Romeo and Juliet through making puppets was not very effective. Again, I would get two criticisms: first, the person would say that I was attacking a straw man and that nobody really taught like that. Second, they would say that making puppets to teach Romeo and Juliet was very effective. Again, you can’t really make both criticisms. If you think that I am attacking a straw man, then you are implicitly conceding that teaching Romeo and Juliet through the use of puppets is not effective. So going on to argue that such a method is effective is contradictory. Again, both criticisms are wrong. Making puppets to teach Romeo and Juliet is not an example of a straw man; it is an example which has been cited as best practice. It is also, in actual fact, ineffective practice.

The message I took from these criticisms was that it wasn’t enough for me to prove that such practice was ineffective; I also had to prove that the lessons and practices I was criticising were in fact fairly widespread. So that is what this book attempts to do.

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Word Up!

The Education Endowment Foundation Funds TCC’s Word and World Project

I often hear teachers talk about wanting to ‘skill up’ their pupils, so that they might become better readers, and thus independent learners. At The Curriculum Centre, naturally, we are committed to achieving the same end. In recent years the tide has turned in England’s primary schools with the power of teaching synthetic phonics consistently and explicitly widely recognised. A full sea-change, one where national literacy rates are sweepingly raised, is still yet to come, however. I wonder, now, whether there is more to the problem of improving literacy than the discrete teaching of phonics; and more, even, than teaching reading strategies. At The Curriculum Centre we are increasingly convinced that the missing piece in the puzzle of achieving consistently, and sustainably high, literacy rates, is related not only to phonics and to strategies, but to vocabulary.

We want to achieve skilled readers by increasing the language at their disposal – to ‘up’ their familiarity with words and the concepts they represent.

For this reason we are delighted to announce that The Curriculum Centre has been awarded a significant grant from The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF). The EEF has made the award to enable us to run a year-long pilot, in a range of primary schools, using the teacher and pupil resources we have developed that focus on explicit historical, geographical, scientific and artistic subject matter. Through these subjects we are able to give pupils a kind of universal language which makes so much that can be found in print gain meaning.

Our Word and World programme was inspired by the work of US academics and educationalists Walter Kintsch and E.D. Hirsch Jnr, which has demonstrated that the skill of literacy depends on background knowledge. In terms of language comprehension, reading comprehension, written expression and oracy, this is represented through a broad and rich vocabulary underpinned by understanding. In short, by increasing the word bank that pupils have at their disposal, particularly while their decoding abilities are burgeoning, our Word and World resources work as well for teachers introducing new terms and concepts, as they do for young readers and non-readers mastering them.

We are particularly excited that our programme will benefit from the expertise of Professor Stephen Gorard, thanks to the EEF. Along with his team, Professor Gorard will be helping us work out how best to evaluate the impact of the Word and World scheme.
As the project comes to life in schools beyond the Future Academies group we will post updates here from time to time.

On behalf of all the team here I’d like to single out Kevan Collins and Emily Yeomans of the EEF for supporting our application. I’d also like to thank Sir Peter Lampl and the EEF Trustees who have enabled this pilot through the generosity of their grant.

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