What did you to in the curriculum wars, Daddy?

When I asked back in March what we do about evaluation that goes against the grain I was asking (part of ) a question that I come back to again and again: What is a curriculum? and the purpose of the rather glib title is to begin to  wonder about whether the contested nature of the curriculum is something I should return to.

We are surrounded by real violence at the moment, and the notion of curriculum wars is a bit silly: there are other things we might take arms, or a moral stance on, and I won’t digress on them here. What I do want to do is look at some possible readings of the OfSTED report “Teaching and play in the early years: a balancing act?” which is linked here.

The Summary begins like this:

“Research has never been clearer – a child’s early education lasts a lifetime.
“For too many children, the foundations for a successful start to their education are weak. In 2014, around two fifths of children did not have the essential skills needed to reach a good level of development by the age of five. Worryingly, in our most deprived communities, the outcomes were much worse.
“The 19 percentage point gap between disadvantaged children and their better-off counterparts has remained unacceptably wide for too long.”

My heart sinks at this; this looks all too like the “beat-up-the-teachers” line of too many politicians. But read on (and I hope I’m not being too selective here):

“The early years providers we visited showed that a strong start can be the norm for all children, regardless of their background. The schools and settings in this survey focused relentlessly on developing children’s communication, language and vocabulary.
The schools and settings we visited did not see teaching as separate from play or infer teaching to mean one fixed view of how things should be done.”

Where is this going? Well, this is the key section for me:

“There is no one way to achieve the very best for young children. Many different approaches to teaching exist. Most of the providers we visited did not think of their time with children as being either teacher-led or child-initiated. They found this terminology unhelpful and sought a better way to articulate the subtleties of their work. They saw their approaches to teaching and play as sitting on a continuum, their staff weighing up the extent of their involvement and fine-tuning how formal or informal, structured or unstructured, dependent or independent each learning experience should be to meet the needs of each child most effectively.”

So is this a contrast with opposition to child initiated learning? Or a compromise? Or a plain fudge?

When we ask what a curriculum is we have to be careful. Is it a programme of study? A set of adult-composed activities through which a child is taken systematically (Swarbrick 2013: 81)? or is it “what it intended to be taught and learned overall (the planned curriculum),; what is taught (the curriculum as enacted); what is learned (the curriculum as experienced)”?  [This is from the final report of the Cambridge Primary Review, Children, Their World, Their Education (Alexander 2010:250).]

I suggest that the ambiguities in Teaching and play in the early years are reflected in the subtitle (and its question mark). Is it “a balancing act?” Who requires it to be a balancing act? Still no nearer to a lasting stability, perhaps, but at least the struggle to keep upright, the wobble of a balancing act sounds better than the violent image of a curriculum war.

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