Problematic approaches to School Curriculum – Part 1: The ‘syllabus’ model.

Just dubbing a curriculum as ‘knowledge-led’, making knowledge organisers and teaching in a particular way won’t improve attainment. Curriculum is far more nuanced and complex than that. I want to focus in on a way of beginning curriculum development (in certain subjects) that I think will lead to pupils remembering what they learn and understanding it deeply. Before I do this, it is important to address two popular, yet age-old approaches that are deficient.

Curriculum as a body of knowledge to be transmitted – the ‘syllabus’ model.

 This view of curriculum can be equated with the idea of a ‘syllabus’. The original Greek meaning for this word is quite befitting to this perspective of curriculum. The word ‘Syllabus’ means a succinct statement, index or table of the contents of a treatise or the subjects of a series of lectures. When curriculum is seen in this way, the learning is often set out in logical sequence; the knowledge to be learned is clearly outlined, like the contents page of a book.

Therefore, curriculum as a body of knowledge to be transmitted or the ‘syllabus’ model is only really concerned with content (Curzon, 1985). Curriculum is what must be transmitted to the students by the teacher. Education from this curricular outlook, is a process of transmission, or a delivery of content. Teaching then becomes about finding the most effective methods that can be found to do this (Blenkin, et al. 1992:23).

There are obvious positives to this. In some ways, school is the key place that children will learn factual information that they might not experience in their everyday lives. If they came to school and were taught nothing, then it would be a waste of their time and ours. School then should be a place where we give our pupils knowledge. (This is a central foundation to the whole idea of schooling without question, in my opinion.) Curriculum then should be a syllabus full of content that can be learned in a school and not anywhere else. Of course, for this knowledge to be meaningful, it ought to be laid out in a progressive sequence.

However, it is the fuzziness around what terms like ‘content’ and ‘knowledge’ mean that make this approach unclear and maybe even impoverished. If all we mean by content is a list of facts, then we might be missing some very important aspects of our curriculum development processes. To reduce content to a list of facts is dangerous for two reasons.

First, it makes what has been fought for, argued, discussed and debated within the subject disciplines amongst scholars nothing more than an answer to the question of a teacher or a test. Our subject disciplines have emerged over hundreds of thoughtful years and the knowledge we present to our students is bottomless in its richness. If our students leave our schools thinking History is a list of dates and facts about people who are now dead and buried – they’ve not understood History at all. If our students leave school thinking that ‘people used to think the earth is flat’ because they were stupid and today we know it is round because we are clever, then they have not understood the heart of scientific discovery and investigation.

It is reductive, too minimalist and possibly devoid of any value to the student. This is a dangerous way to view content because it doesn’t bring about any long lasting change in student learning. Yes they might be able to recite their number bonds to ten, regurgitate their times tables or reel off a list of dates but knowing these things doesn’t help them understand how to link this knowledge to the next piece they need to develop deeper levels of knowledge. This is where a more sophisticated understanding of ‘content’ ought to come into play.

Second, linked to the first problem I’ve explained here, the danger of this understanding of ‘content/knowledge’ as a list of facts is the inflexible-ness of what is learned. Willingham discussed the dangers of this here. The underpinning features of this second problem is that in an attempt to develop ‘knowledge’ there is a misconception about how it is developed. Just knowing doesn’t help our students. Teaching our students to apply new knowledge to prior knowledge helps our students. This is very different. They must constantly be learning new knowledge applied to the old knowledge. This cannot be achieved by moving along a well-sequenced, progressive set of lessons. This can only be achieved by ensuring that those lessons are explicitly linked together by the teachers and the pupils.

So what are the alternatives?

I need to address one other problematic approach before I discuss this.

2 thoughts on “Problematic approaches to School Curriculum – Part 1: The ‘syllabus’ model.”

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