Author Interview: Michael Reiss and John White

Michael Reiss and John White discuss their recent publication An Aims-based Curriculum: The Significance of Human Flourishing for Schools. This month we have also published Morgan White’s review of the book.

Questions: Naomi Hodgson 


Why did you decide to write An Aims-based Curriculum: The Significance of Human Flourishing for Schools?

The book is about taking educational aims seriously as a basis for school curriculum planning at a national level. Since the National Curriculum appeared in 1988, there have been several attempts at spelling out overarching aims, but these have generally remained detached from curriculum content: the latter has always been built around a taken-for-granted basis of discrete school subjects. Our book takes aims seriously in that it seeks to derive curriculum content from aims themselves. It sees this as key to creating a coherent experience for all school students.

So what does the book aim to do in particular, and why is it important now?

Philosophical work in education has provided, among other things, intellectual backing for overarching aims to do with equipping every young person both to lead a personally flourishing life and to help others to do so, too. From these interconnected aims our argument derives sub-aims of increasing specificity. The second, altruistic, aim, for instance, includes specifically civic responsibilities as well as those of a more general kind; and civic aims, in their turn, embrace work-related aims.

A further specification of sub-aims generates a school curriculum that overlaps with the subject-based one we have now, but diverges from it in many ways, not least in accommodating other aims than the accumulation of knowledge.

The book is important now because school curricula, in Britain as in most other parts of the world, are currently locked into a régime of discrete, largely academic, subjects. While this kind of curriculum has deep historical roots, it faces serious problems of legitimation and needs to be replaced by something more intellectually defensible.

The argument of the book does not remain on a theoretical plane. Much of it looks at the practicalities of moving towards an aims-based curriculum, including implications for curriculum control, assessment and teacher education.

And what is it that draws you, personally, to this area of research?

One might imagine that discussion as to the fundamental purpose or aim of an enterprise would be something regularly undertaken before embarking on the enterprise. And yet, when it comes to enterprises that are long-established, such as school education, it is all too easy simply to carry on doing what has been done before with little reflection or critical analysis about what precisely one hopes the enterprise will achieve.

Many countries now have a National Curriculum; more recently, international measures such as those resulting from PISA and TIMSS have contributed to the increasing globalisation of education where, sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly, the aim of the curriculum is simply taken as being to ensure that students and schools do well in the plethora of league tables, audits, inspections and other regimes of measurement that we now experience.

We are not against accountability, quite the opposite; accountability can help to root out unacceptable practices. But we do passionately believe that education is about enabling students to learn for their own benefits and for the benefits of others, throughout their lives. An Aims-based Curriculum tries to develop this conviction into a reasoned argument for action.

What sort of reaction do you hope the book will get?

We will be content with a rapid and complete transformation of most countries’ education systems so as to enable more emphasis on learners and less on subjects as the starting point for curriculum design and implementation.

More modestly, we would settle for movement towards such ends. We do both find that over the course of our professional lives, too much of the debate about schooling has become simplified and polarised – consider, for instance, debates about the use of systematic phonics alone to help with reading. We would like to see a more fundamental and nuanced debate about the purpose of education and how a school curriculum can help in this.

The book is philosophically based but quite practically focused. What sort of audience did you have in mind when writing it?

We envisage two main audiences. First, there are those with some control or influence over the curriculum across many schools. So we hope our short book will be read by politicians, senior civil servants, teacher educators and policy makers in general. The book’s message is a simple one – that the curriculum should enable learners to flourish. We hope that this message becomes increasingly accepted as a fundamental principle of schooling.

Secondly, there are teachers in schools. We are well aware that we haven’t fully worked out what an aims-based curriculum would mean for the practice in a primary or secondary school or college. Our hope is that head teachers, governors and classroom teachers consider the book’s argument and what it might mean for their institution. One prediction we would make is that an aims-based curriculum would be more engaging for students so that teachers would spend less time and effort striving to maintain classroom discipline and dealing with recalcitrant students.

What’s your current project? What’s next?

We hope that the two of us may do more work together. At present, though, we are working separately.

MR: I am working on a range of science education research and development projects – to do with practical work, with Darwin-inspired learning, with the extent to which science teachers should take account of students’ religious sensibilities and with how teaching can increase the numbers of students who want to study the sciences and mathematics.

JW: At the moment, I am looking from a multi-disciplinary perspective at whether there is still a place for school examinations. Work on our book has highlighted for me the close dependence of a conventional examination system on a subject-structured curriculum. It is almost true to say that, in UK secondary schooling at least, we have an exam-based curriculum rather than an aims-based one. The same seems broadly true in China, Korea and many other countries. The first part of my new project is a sceptical account of the value of school examinations; this will be followed by a discussion of assessment systems better fitting an aims-based alternative.

One final question…What is philosophy of education and why does it matter?

It would be misleading to attempt a definition of the term in a short space, beyond saying that our subject marries investigation of central concepts in the field of education to critical discussions of policies and theories in the area and the formulation of alternatives.

The subject matters in that it is essential to a vibrant democracy, in which the credentials of our major institutions are not simply taken for granted but are constantly subjected to critical appraisal. It has a related role in teacher education, not least at in-service level, given that every teacher needs an understanding of the system in which they are working and tools to critique it.

The ‘definition’ sketched above is also broad enough to include work of a theoretical sort by writers past and present that is more tenuously connected, if at all, to current practice and policy. If Philosophy of Education is to matter beyond its own circle, the balance should be tilted towards more outward-looking work. There is every reason, too, why scholars in the subject should collaborate with workers in other fields of educational studies working the same patch as themselves.