A very brief response to Michael Merrick’s post regarding the power and curriculum

At the end of his extremely interesting and illuminating post, Michael Merrick challenges the reader for a more radical account of the nature of curriculum… here is a brief sketch of my offering:

People often talk about schools or teachers delivering the curriculum, as if the curriculum is something or a collection of things that one hands over or gives to the children. Sometimes, this thing that we are meant to be handing over is described, rather vaguely, as ‘the best that has been thought and said’, or ‘their intellectual inheritance’ etc. I would like to make a brief argument to suggest an alternative view.

The word ‘curriculum’ stems from the word for a running course. It is the path to be travelled.

Who decides upon the course to be travelled? This is the key question, and it is often the point at which I believe the mistakes are made.

If you were organising a 5K race, you would set the course. But who actually decides where the runners go? You can place the flags and markers wherever you like, but if I decide to duck out of the race halfway through and pop to the pub, I’ll do that. Or if I notice that a bystander is in need of assistance and decide to help them, then I shall do that. In the end, Antonio Machado was right:

Wanderer, your footsteps are the road and nothing more;

Wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking.

So, who can we say deliversthis path? The use of the word deliver is pregnant with possibilities: In the Theaetetus, Socrates compares himself to a midwife (perhaps grandiosely – my wife gave birth three weeks ago and actual midwives are my new heroes, wonderful, wonderful people. I would feel extremely uncomfortable comparing what I do to their job.). He says that he assists the student in giving birthto their ideas but does not give birth himself.

A midwife does not hand anything to the woman in labour. A midwife does not decide on the nature of the baby to be born. The midwife assists, enables, through their skill and knowledge, God-willing the woman to give birth. The midwife responds to the woman for whom they are caring.

So here is my suggestion: the curriculum is not something to be delivered in the sense of an (albeit metaphorical) object to be handed over or given. The curriculum is delivered by the student because it is the path that they walk; it is their ideas that they will give birth to; it is delivered by the teacher in the sense that they assist their students to walk that path, and do their best to ensure that it occurs as safely as possible for everyone involved.

(Perhaps I’ll flesh out the ideas here a bit more at some point and defend it from the inevitable attack that it isn’t a very practical approach – spoiler: I’d argue it is the most practical approach to the curriculum! And no, this isn’t an argument against direct instruction and in favour of ‘project-based’ or ‘personalised’ learning. Being a decent midwife frequently involves giving direct-instructions!)

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