Curriculum, critical theory and conversation: Why the right don’t need to dominate the discussion

Aurora Reid (@MsReidRE on Twitter) has written this wonderful blog for us…

The following is adapted from a talk that I did at the New Voices conference on the 13th October 2018. Warning! Will contain political opinion.

A few months ago I felt compelled to write a blog, following a debate on Twitter over Mary Bousted’s comments that the curriculum must cover more than ‘dead white men’. At the time I was writing a chronological humanities curriculum, rooted in world history that sought to be both academically challenging and socially transformative (I will talk a bit more about this later). Somehow this conversation crystallised the argument of trad vs. prog, skills vs. knowledge, raising standards vs. inclusion and left vs. right that seems to have been ranging since Gove’s reforms and which are amplified by the polarising effect of Twitter. It seems to me that in these debates, people so often speak past each other and this is my attempt to have a bit of a dialogue between these two perspectives.

The debate goes something like this: On the one hand there are those who think that education is improved by driving up academic standards, by teaching ‘the best that has been thought and said’ (which has to be dead white men apparently – more on that later) with unrelenting discipline, not making excuses for students and excluding them if need be. They see those that don’t take this approach as lazy and institutionalised, not prepared to make hard choices and sometimes not be liked by the children and their communities, in order to do what’s in their best interests. The opposing ideological standpoint sees this approach as patriarchal and disempowering, they recognise that the reasons for disadvantage and disengagement are complex and to solve them requires attending to culture community and individual needs. There is often a hesitancy to impose punitive sanctions or to teach knowledge, for fear of indoctrinating or alienating them. It sees the roots of disadvantage as external to the individual or community in structural racism and inequality or in the ills of capitalism.

In my experience, this debate doesn’t just happen on Twitter or in Westminster but it plays out on the ground in schools. In particular schools in areas of high depravation or which are in flux. It is in these schools that I have always worked, and a common theme seems to emerge. Disgruntled staff, who’ve worked in the community for years, rail against the ‘latest Oxbridge graduate’ who’ve come in to tell them what and how they and the children should do things. Whilst, equally exasperated colleagues, who are often bright and driven and work incredibly hard to improve the life chances of their students, are frustrated at every turn by colleagues who appear to want to make excuses for low standards rather than finding solutions.

I believe that this dichotomy in thinking is dangerous, it paralyses schools and risks alienating communities and their teachers, forcing children to see some paths in life for ‘us’ and some’ for them. The opposite of what both of these types of teacher actually want for the children and communities that work in, which is social mobility.

However, whilst both approaches align themselves to this goal, as many have discussed much more eloquently than I, social mobility is a slippery and problematic term. I would argue that those on the right and the left mean quite different things when they refer to it. For the right, social mobility means equipping disadvantaged individuals with the currency (knowledge, qualifications, softer skills) to compete with their more advantaged peers on the labour market. For those on the left there’s a more radical goal: transforming society, genuinely upturning the status quo, rather than simply teaching poorer kids how to partake in it.

Whilst, this blog will outline my suggestions for a more nuanced approach that offers a conversation between those the left and the right of education, I should be clear in my own political leanings. I am not after centrist approach. What I am suggesting is a radical left wing perspective, in that I believe that the goals of schools should be to challenge the status quo. To transform society, towards equality. The method through which I suggest that we do this is dialogic, listening to approaches to teaching which are often seen as traditional and the preserve of the right and considering approaches to decolonising the curriculum which have emerged from radical left wing universities (such as my own SOAS).

As a teacher I’ve struggled to marry my intellectual commitment to critical theory and post-colonial feminist ideas about truth and the production of knowledge with my lived experience of working in schools in disadvantaged communities. However, I think I’m finally able to do this, and it feels revolutionary.

It is the conversations that have taken off in education about a knowledge rich curriculum or powerful knowledge entitlement that have facilitated this. In the UK, these ideas have very much emerged on the Right and have largely been ignored by those on the traditional left, the Unions and the Labour party. Michael Young suggests avoidance of talking about this by Labour could be for two reasons: the intrinsically conservative nature of the act of ‘passing on knowledge’, and a fear that in turning away from child centred approaches we would be going back to the Gradgrind ethos of the Victorian era.

However, there are many wonderful teachers and researchers writing about curriculum. I’m particularly indebted to Daniel Willingham’s 2009 book Why Don’t Students Like School and Christine Counsell’s transformational blog series on curriculum leadership and well as the insights, shared by Ben Newmark (who describes himself as left wing politically and conservative pedagogically) in his regular blogs.

The curriculum that I put together at JMA had at its heart the aim to provide students knowledge they need to grapple with and remember ‘the best that has been thought and said’ about our world, its past and how humans make meaning within it. The intention was clear that is that this would support them, not only to make sense of their place within the world, but also have the power to shape and change it.

I first encountered this concept of ‘the best that has been thought or said’ in conversation with Jonathan from the Michaela School several years ago. At the time we had a fierce debate about the euro-centricity and objectivity of such a ‘canon’. We were however, both able to agree that the production of knowledge is not neutral and that the process of teaching is to some extent a process of enculturation, and that our job is to make as best a go of it as possible.

The passage from the preface to Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook sums up this process to me. She says:

“Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this: ‘you are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. The slightest look at history will show how impermanent these must be. You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetuating system. Those of you who are more robust and individual than others, will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself — educating your own judgement. Those that stay must remember, always and all the time, that they are being moulded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society.’

Interestingly, Micheala’s motto is knowledge is power – the phrase that French post structuralist philosopher Foucault is most known for coining. Decisions about curriculum are always partial and, as Christine Counsell highlights, always about power. Whatever type of curriculum we choose, when we make decisions about what to study, we’re always leaving something out and this will reflect our own prejudices. Whilst this may be epistemologically or ontologically problematic, my aim is to be just a tiny bit less partial; to put students on the path of truth and freedom. As Doris Lessing also says: “People who love literature have at least part of their minds immune from indoctrination. If you read, you can learn to think for yourself.”

How I suggest we go about doing this is by giving students access to the broader picture. In order to achieve this, there needs to be a conversation in the curriculum between what the traditional canon is made of, and what has often been excluded.

In History it is not enough for our students to simply learn about Britain in the Middle Ages; they must also learn about the cultures and Empires across Eurasia, Africa and the Americas at that time, the Moors, the Ottomans, the Empires of Mali, Songhai and Benin. Crucially though (and Mary I’m looking at you), that doesn’t mean we stop learning about the dead, white men. We also need to know about them, and the Magna Carta, and the Peasants Revolt; they brought us these foundational concepts for understanding our parliamentary democracy, and to some extent the working class struggle that pervades right up to today.

When considering literature we can’t erase writers of colour, but nor should we deny the foundational place in the world of Dickens, Hardy and Bronte. We need our students to read Jane Eyre but we need them to read The Wide Sargasso Sea too.

I strongly believe that, as educators, we have a duty to offer all our students, and in particular those from working class or BAME backgrounds, this broader picture. I feel a missionary-like zeal to, to paraphrase Audre Lorde, use the master’s tools to dismantle the masters house. That is to challenge the status quo by first understanding how it functions and what it excludes.

To use an example from the curriculum at JMA, it wasn’t possible to learn about post-colonial theory without first understanding colonialism. The respect for the legacy of ideas is absolutely apparent in critical theory from Derrida’s engagement with Freud and Lacan to Foucault’s concept of genealogy and its why as an overwhelmed undergraduate I had to wade through 90 pages of Rousseau, just to critique it. It’s foundational stuff. But, we have to teach all of it, what has been remembered and what has been forgotten and how this came to be.

I believe it is matter of intellectual integrity to insist on reading these voices together, and I believe there is transformative potential for our student in doing this. By understanding how the world works they also get to have a stake in it. They can see that the world is not something done to them but something they are part of. The goal is that they will also feel that they want to contribute; that this knowledge will enable change. To feel angry about the way the world works yes, but it must also equip them to take on the challenge of shaping it.

Of course there is a question of curriculum time. In the curriculum at JMA I made the decision to go for breadth over depth, rationalising that KS4 is the place for depth studies. As a result there is a lot for the students to know and remember. This will require ‘traditional’ (read teacher led, rote learning, lots of testing) teaching methods to deliver. Due to the way the curriculum is sequenced, the idea is that all new learning will activate prior knowledge and therefore become part of the student’s wider schema. My hope is that this familiarity would give students a real stake in the learning experience, and the cumulative curriculum might function somewhat like a soap or serial, in that students would be excited to see the ideas/ characters they were in conversation with earlier come back round again.

The curriculum we built wasn’t perfect, it never could be, and is really only a first draft. However, I believe we are at an exciting juncture in terms of discussions about the potential of curriculum and social justice. The traditional left now need to keep up, and rather than opposing it, they should join teachers in this conversation.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of PTE or its employees.