A Curriculum Reflection: Without the WHY, What’s the Point?


It’s lunchtime at school and a Y6 pupil, Evelynn, gets sent to the office.

‘Mr Westby, I’ve been sent here for 10 minutes for swearing but I didn’t actually swear.’

‘What did you say?’

‘I said, “OH FOR F__________ SAKE!” really loudly but I didn’t actually say the word.”

‘OK, thanks for telling me, Evelynn. I’m going to need to speak to the adult who gave you the card. I’ll catch up with you later.’

And I sent the pupil on their way. I found out shortly after that it was said in a very loud manner inside the dinner hall and that a small group of them were being a little silly in the build-up. Shortly after, several friends of the pupil-in-question appeared outside the office wanting to speak with me.

‘Mr Westby we don’t think it’s fair that Evelynn has been given a yellow card.’ they chime.

‘I see.’ Smiling. ‘And why don’t you think it’s fair?’

‘Because she didn’t actually say the word. I just don’t think she should have been given a yellow card for something that she didn’t do.’

This went on for a minute or so and the pupils all put across their point of view.

‘Thank you for coming in to share your opinions. I’m pleased that you have spoken up where you deemed (I explained what the word meant) that something unjust (and again) has happened to your friend. It’s good to stick up for your friends, particularly when you think they have been wronged.’ At this, they all looked a tad perplexed. Perhaps they were expecting me to be annoyed? In any case, we proceeded to have a chat about the importance of standing up for what you believe in, including what they have learned in some of their history units, as well as a whole host of other related matters: slip-of-the-tongue etc.

‘So, Mr Westby, does Evelynn still have to do her time?’

‘Unfortunately so. You see, she was given a yellow card for her overall behaviour, some of which you were part of.’ They sideways-glanced at each other sheepishly. ‘And although she didn’t say the f-word, speaking like that isn’t appropriate for children or adults, particularly in school, is it? You children have spoken so well and politely to me now and I know Evelynn is usually polite, too. Don’t ever stop being critical of what’s happening around you and go and enjoy the rest of your dinner-time.’

It was one of the best lunch times I have had. It left me smiling about our great pupils, and consequently teachers & parents. But it also left me pondering about our curriculum, which is already very strong. Why are we teaching [insert unit of work] in the first place? Take history, for example. Some units of work place heavy emphasis on ‘the what’ perhaps making tentative comparisons to other past people or events and to an extent, present day, without ever really getting pupils to think how this knowledge impacts their own world as well as how it might in future. Segall (2006) writes:

Although history is the vehicle in Segall’s writing, I believe each subject has teachings that can help make sense of the world. So one of things that we are attempting to do with our curriculum is to teach children key knowledge within a subject discipline but just as importantly, teach children to think critically, evaluate and make informed decisions because of this knowledge. Debra Kidd has some really interesting blogs on developing a rich curriculum (see references) and are well worth a read. An example of this is in our Y1 Titanic unit of work (The anchors were built in Netherton, West Midlands – our local area).

Rather than teaching the children about the events and key people as well as, perhaps, how ships/water safety has changed as a result of this (the what), we have taken it further and begun to develop ‘the why’ (as in, why are we even teaching this?):

  • Who died because of the accident? (mostly people from the lower decks)
  • Why? (they couldn’t get out)
  • What do we know about the classes of these people? (mostly working classes on lower decks/upper on upper decks)
  • Do we have a class system today? (cinema/plane/train seats)
  • It is fair that some people can pay more to get a ‘better’ experience? (links to some things relatable to the children e.g. extra music opportunity at school/toast money etc.)

In the past, I’ve been guilty of teaching some great content without actually thinking enough about why I was teaching it in the first place, other than because the NC says I must. Yet reflecting on character traits that are desirable for our pupils, staff agreed that we want our pupils to be able to make informed decisions and educated life choices: whether that’s in the face of online bullying, racism or climate change.

We can best do that by explicitly planning in opportunities for children to really understand and question what has happened in our world due to people and events and then provide pupils with the knowledge and tools to consider their own values, future contribution and citizenship.

So the next time you plan a unit of work, not only consider ‘the what’ (people, places & events) and ‘the how’ (e.g. learning through reading, drama etc), try reflecting on ‘the why’ and contemplate if what you’re currently teaching is developing your pupils for the future.

References

Kidd, D. 2018. A Rich Curriculum. 11th June. Love Learning by Debra Kidd. [Online]. [14 March 2019]. Available from: https://debra-kidd.com/2018/06/11/a-rich-curriculum/

Segall, A (2006) What’s the Purpose of Teaching a Discipline, Anyway? The Case of History Vol. 272, Social Studies—THE NEXT GENERATION: Re-searching in the Postmodern, pp. 125-139

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