William Kitchen: It is the curriculum that is damaging education, not academic selection

Much has been said recently on the issue of educational underachievement.

Thursday, 17th June 2021, 7:30 pm
Updated Thursday, 17th June 2021, 7:43 pm
Child-centred learning sounds laudable but evidence shows it to be a pipe dream. It is part of a curriculum that is driven by people who are obsessed with progressive and naive ideals of education
Child-centred learning sounds laudable but evidence shows it to be a pipe dream. It is part of a curriculum that is driven by people who are obsessed with progressive and naive ideals of education

The phenomenon has been given the status of a ‘government priority’, with the findings of its Expert Panel recently published in the report entitled ‘A Fair Start’ by the Department of Education NI.

The purpose of this brief article is to unpack some of those findings, and to offer an alternative perspective of how we might tackle this most worrying aspect of our education system.

There is a worrying consensus emerging that blames academic selection as the key factor in educational underachievement, whereas I believe that the real culprit is a sentimental, child-centred curriculum, driven by people who are obsessed with progressive and naive ideals of education.

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In a far-reaching and extensive overview of Northern Ireland’s education system, A Fair Start gives some very interesting insights into a wide range of educational issues relating to underachievement, ranging across 8 ‘Key Areas’.

A huge range of key stakeholders were involved in the collection of the data. Key Area 3 was identified as “Ensuring the relevance and the appropriateness of the Curriculum and Assessment”.

Among a series of conclusions, under the heading ‘How will we know if we have been successful?’ the panel state “There will be support for teachers on an on-going basis to deliver the curriculum as originally intended.”

The Northern Ireland Curriculum was redesigned by the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) in the early 2000s.

It is described as a ‘child-centred’, ‘constructivist’ or ‘progressive’ curriculum, meaning that one of its primary focuses was to facilitate children to become so-called “autonomous learners”, and to shift the focus of learning away from being teacher-driven, and more towards being learner-led.

In other words, the teacher now facilitates learning, and there is more scope for learner freedom in the learning process, in which children create (or construct) their own meaning of the world around them.

This approach sounds laudable, even if a tad utopian. Surely we should want children to be more in control of their own learning?

Alas, the utopia of such an educational pipe-dream ends when we examine the evidence.

In Scotland, for example, their Curriculum for Excellence (CFE) was predicated on precisely the same principles, a realisation which led the University of Edinburgh’s Professor Paterson to write an article in 2018, under the title: ‘Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence: the betrayal of a whole generation?’

In unpacking that article, it is clear that Professor Paterson ascribes this betrayal to one major cause: the constructivist underpinnings of the CFE, which he concluded has “recently been the centre of widespread disquiet”.

He went further: “But the reason why the new curriculum is a plausible culprit for the [attainment] decline lies in what it gets children to learn. It belongs to a strand of curricular thinking known as constructivism.”

The similarities between the Northern Ireland Curriculum, and Scotland’s CFE are striking. The language used in the rationale documents for the inception of each are glaringly similar.

Paterson is not alone, however, in this criticism. Harvard academic Jean Chall concluded similarly in her 1990 book ‘The Academic Achievement Challenge’ that having reviewed a century of education research on which constitutes the effective teaching of disadvantaged children, the evidence only pointed in one direction: and that was away from child-centred education and towards teacher-led, traditional teaching methods.

She opined “Whenever the students were identified as coming from families of low socioeconomic status, they achieved higher levels when they received a more formal, traditional education. ... The teacher-centred approach was also more effective for students with learning disabilities at all social levels.”

In a similar manner, educationalist John Hattie concludes in his seminal text Visible Learning, written in 2009, that teacher-led teaching methods are vastly more impactful than their ‘child-centred’ counterparts.

And most definitively, the most far-reaching and expensive study ever conducted in education – Project Follow Through, conducted in the US from the 1970s through until the early 2000s — concluded across a plethora of studies that teacher-led, so-called “direct instruction” methods were the only methods which enhanced children’s academic skills, problem-solving skills, and self-esteem; whereas in contrast, the curricular approach and teaching methods similar to those used in Northern Ireland led to negative impacts on children’s educational outcomes.

Finally, consider another report which recently grabbed BBC headlines, under the title ‘Former paramilitary prisoners say academic selection should end’, under which the following claim was made: “Some loyalist and republican ex-prisoners think scrapping transfer tests and academic selection is key to tackling educational underachievement.”

This report had a shared author with the A Fair Start report.

This report on educational underachievement attempted to make the tentative link between selective education and educational underachievement, with claims that were unsubstantiated and offered little beyond anecdote and personal opinion.

I leave you with one simple, yet very important question: If educational underachievement is such a priority, why do we continue as an educational community to ignore the evidence, and push our ideological obsessions onto the public?

Answering this question with maturity and an evidence-informed approach, and concluding that it is the curriculum — and not academic selection — which drives educational underachievement, might go a long way to offset the £180 million the Expert Panel claimed was needed to tackle educational underachievement in NI.

In any case, whatever those ex-paramilitary prisoners believe, the evidence is clear: consign this curriculum to the scrapheap – rather than doubling our commitment to it, as the Expert Panel concluded in A Fair Start – and give the children of Northern Ireland a fighting chance to reach their potential.

• Dr William Kitchen is an academic and author

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