Bruner and Curriculum for Excellence

Happy New Year friends and fellow bloggers, Pedagoo-ers!

I have been slow in getting back to blogging after Christmas and New Year and my resolutions (in which writing figures prominently) are needing a fresh injection.  So- what prompted me to take to print, particularly during the Murray match in Melbourne??

Firstly, I couldn’t take the stress of the match and firmly believe I seem to be a bad omen for him as he started to go downhill when I started to watch the match?!

Secondly I have been dipping into Bruner’s ‘The Process of Education’ recently and it has whirling around in my head all week and needed breathing space to sort out what has been bugging me. Three words.  Curriculum for Excellence.  One more word…implementation. Don’t get me wrong- I remain committed to the ‘vast programme of transformational change’, however, herein lies the challenge.  It appears to me, perhaps an idealist, possibly a frustrated idealist, that the transformational elements are being eroded the closer we get to implementation of the 1st cohort’s ‘Senior Phase. I find some discussions I am having with secondary colleagues at the moment are structural ones- on the surface at least…and not about structure of knowledge but ‘choices’ at the end of S1 or S2. I mean choices as in dropping subjects although I have now started collecting pseudonyms for narrowing the curriculum and narrowing choice- particularly for those students identified as being ‘less able’ to benefit from the curriculum on offer in S1-3. (Worst case scenario could be that the teachers are ‘less able’ to teach for understanding to groups of students that have not traditionally taken their subjects…) The concern I have is that this appears to be a return to teaching for understanding for students that can naturally understand the ‘harder’ subjects.  A curriculum for more clever and less clever children. Often the subjects dropped or not opted for as an ‘elective’ are the very subjects we need as a society to compete in a global world.

So- where does this fit with Bruner’s 52 year old proposition that ‘any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development’? Bruner recognised this as a ‘bold hypothesis’ but asserted that ‘no evidence exists to contradict it; considerable evidence… supporting it’.  The Improving School Effectiveness Project’ (ISEP) in the 90s also highlighted a worrying finding in relation to this when teachers responded in a survey rather negatively to the item ‘all children can learn successfully’. I believe that Curriculum for Excellence is all about ‘all children and young people learning successfully’.

I found myself relishing the depth of thought in Bruner’s thesis including his later commentary on his own work. I liked that he quotes ‘brooding’ for 17 years on the theories he propounded in this book and reflecting on other schools of thought.  Yet he had no desire to rewrite or revise. Returning to the ‘spiral curriculum’ that was common currency in the 70s (when I started teaching) I found little to challenge and more to support the Scottish response to the demands for change from the profession in the National Debate: Curriculum for Excellence.  His summary, to me, outlines our aspirations for the transformative nature of CfE; ‘ the curriculum of a subject should be determined by the most fundamental understanding that can be achieved of the underlying principles that give structure to that subject…teaching specific topics/skills without making clear their context in the broader fundamental structure of a field of knowledge is uneconomical…’.  he goes on to outline his reasoning that sounds remarkably similar to CfE entitlements and curricular design principles.

Those who see CfE as a curriculum devoid of content or subject knowledge  need to stop thinking mechanistically about implementing changes to a curriculum or courses and go back to the foundations of CfE- the design principles and entitlements and what they mean for the fundamental structure of a subject.  They need to understand that this incorporates rather than denies connectedness and the importance of context.

Those who believed in the transformational nature of CfE until the going got tough with colleagues, parents, managers, media, staff room culture need to gird their loins, take courage and talk about what they believe in and hope for, what they know makes a difference to our learners.  As a profession we need to be knowledgeable and reflective about what CfE aspires to achieve for our young people. To return to an over- assessed, exam driven learning experience for our young people that results in a new form of a ‘two term dash’ to NQs is a travesty to a profession that has been handed, on a plate, the greatest opportunity in centuries, to educate not school our learners.

That is a scenario that causes me great sadness.  There is a seam of dynamic, progressive, courageous, pedagogical activity deep within the education community across Scotland- it needs to come to the surface and drive the ‘Leaders’ and ‘Managers’ and ‘Policy- makers’ into putting their money where their mouths were…no change of this nature is easy but educators need to be at the heart of driving the system.  As a good friend of mine once said ‘there are dark forces out there…’. To lose heart now- or to dilute the richness and ambitions of CfE would be madness.

Bruner identified the critical success of curricular development as being for teachers not pupils. ‘If it cannot change, move, perturb, inform teachers, it will have no effect on those whom we teach. It must be first and foremost a curriculum for teachers.’

Bruner cited that his ‘Process of Education’ (1960) was ‘a creature of its time, place and circumstances’.  I found much that was a ‘creature of now, Scotland and the opportunities we as a profession have been given…should we have the courage to run with it.


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