Book Review: ‘An Aims-based Curriculum: The significance of human flourishing for schools’ by Michael J. Reiss and John White
London: IOE Press, 2013. Pp. 72. Pb. £14.99.
Reviewed by Morgan White
The authors of this short (a mere 68 pages), easy and lively read, come with a wealth of experience, dedicated to both science education and the philosophy of education. The tone in which this book is written has an urgency and a directness so often missing in work on education. The book presents itself as a clear-minded advice manual for those about to embark upon curriculum design, whether at the level of policy-making, running think-tanks, education management, teaching itself, or, indeed, a Shadow Secretary of State. The argument is not leveled primarily at those of us with an intellectual interest in the philosophy of education. There is no mention of the usual suspects in talking about the aims of education. There’s no Plato, no Aristotle, no Locke, no Rousseau, no utilitarians, no Dewey, not even any name-dropping of flavor-of-the-month cultural theorists. Rather, this book is intended to have impact; it’s an advice book for people involved in education, especially, perhaps, politicians. Given this orientation, philosophers of education may find the general nature of the argument rather frustrating at times. It is refreshing, however, in the context of specialisation towards the esoteric in educational research, to read a thoughtful argument directed towards the general reader thinking about educational matters in schools. The argument boils down to a case for more freedom for those involved in education to determine what happens in schools, free from the constraints of politicians. If the book is really pitched at politicians and their advisors, it will be a difficult argument for them to accept.
Michael Reiss and John White (no relation to me) say that the national curriculum in England (and in most other countries), as a subject-based curriculum, prescribes the subjects that children study in state schools but only ever considers the aims of education as an after-thought. In the context of political interference in state education, they argue, this gets things the wrong way round. Instead, we ought to determine the aims of education and then build a curriculum upon those aims. Opponents of this view are likely to claim that the aims of education only emerge out of teacher and pupil engagement and interaction with substantive subject-matter. Indeed, John White has long been engaged in such a debate with Michael Young, a colleague at the IoE. Young, a sociologist of education, maintains that ‘powerful knowledge’ should lie at the heart of the school curriculum, while White is wary of the possibility of shallow and rigid learning that may well ensue from a knowledge-based curriculum, such as we find in the national curriculum in England. It might be tempting to see the stand-off in left-right political terms. The conservative favours knowledge, the progressive prefers a focus on wider aims. The different approaches, then, ask whether subject knowledge should take priority as an aim in education, or whether there is some other prior aim, such as developing qualities in students orientated towards human flourishing, that should guide the curriculum.
The book’s argument for an aims-based curriculum comes in two main sections. The first part sets out to determine a set of general aims appropriate for life in a liberal-democratic society. The second part then attempts to put practical-curricular flesh on the theoretical bones. In the first part, the authors take as their starting point the idea that the curriculum ought to aim at creating a flourishing life, for individuals and for society. School takes on the task of, first, preparing children to lead personally fulfilling lives, and, second, encouraging them to help others to achieve the same. These two aims then involve more specific aims. Leading a personally fulfilling life means here meeting basic needs, such as being healthy, and developing particular personal qualities, such as fortitude and good judgement. Helping others to lead a flourishing life involves moral education (respecting others’ autonomy, acting cooperatively) and education for citizenship (informed, active citizens with the understanding required to cultivate the disposition for political action and contributing to general welfare through work). Human flourishing takes place within a broad background understanding about the sorts of beings we are, the way we fit in to the rest of our environment, and our place in the universe. Education’s purpose is to help form this broad background understanding that provides context to determine more specific knowledge and attitudes. This broad background context is a liberal-democratic society in which personal and civic well-being can flourish.
The aims-based curriculum moves beyond a simple idea of education as knowledge transfer from teacher to learner. Reiss and White turn, in the second section of their book, towards subject content for the curriculum. The authors do not, however, go beyond some indication of the kind of knowledge that might be generated from an aims-based curriculum and they set about providing examples in the areas of history and science, maths and technology. The emphasis here is not so much on the specific content of a curriculum subject, but on the idea that ‘schools encourage students to connect knowledge, to see parts in relation to wholes’ (p. 42.) in order to develop interdisciplinary thinking in students. Such interdisciplinary thinking, the authors propose, is best encouraged through a broad range of brief introductory-level forms of knowledge (or ‘tasters’), which emphasise how this knowledge can be applied, for instance, in employment. Knowledge, to be sure, is important in the aims-based curriculum, but it should be given its proper place rather than being allowed to dominate over developing personal dispositions in students.
One might strongly suspect that the present Department for Education in England will be dismissive of the argument for an aims-based curriculum, arguing that it represents lower academic standards compared with one that values purer (less applied) forms of knowledge. Recent policy announcements point towards more (supposedly) rigorous testing and examinations, with GCSE grading altered to a numerical nine-point scale. Reiss and White address the extent of the legitimate role of the state in controlling education, and they conclude that the government has developed over-bearing powers in educational matters. It is worth remembering, while reading Reiss and White’s book, just how much assessment determines what students and teachers do at school. While the argument offered up in An Aims-based Curriculum may be convincing, and ought to be required reading for teachers in the early stages of their careers or in training, we would do well to remember the disjuncture often experienced by the trainee teacher between the university course and the school experience. I would suggest that this dissonance is largely the result of the managerialism in education that reduces schooling to passing exams and tests. In this respect, I wonder whether Reiss and White’s aim is fixed on the wrong target. A national subject-based curriculum has always been a problematic policy for the libertarian right. J.S. Mill warns us in On Liberty that any such centralisation of power in education would militate against human flourishing because of the reduced capacity for different views to collide in producing new knowledge.[i] An official national curriculum based around subject knowledge has become unnecessary, since schools are forced to accept the subject content set out by exam boards and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. Teachers, putative teachers, students, policy-makers, head teachers (and even Shadow Education Ministers) may well read Reiss and White’s book and agree with its argument, yet find themselves in an educational world so in thrall to accountability mechanisms and assessment, or economistic assumptions about attainment and international competitiveness, that it will take more than modifications at the level of the curriculum to set right the education of future generations of young people.
Reiss and White end their book with a list of twenty recommendations. These range from the establishment of a national committee for education, to protect schools from politicians’ short-termist interventions; to extending the National Curriculum to all schools (including private schools) but allowing more flexibility for schools by making the National Curriculum a matter of non-statutory guidance. Some of these recommendations are strikingly odd given the argument that precedes them. Why, for instance, bother extending a national curriculum that offers guidance; why insist on schools keeping their websites updated with how they are trying to realise nationally determined aims in the name of accountability?
The last three or four suggestions in the list seem more geared towards challenging the tangled mess resulting from trying to use exam grades to measure success in students and in schools. These recommendations relate to reduced assessment for students, more focus on cumulative records of achievement, and creating post-school institutions offering all applicants part-time education capable of bridging the divide between school and graduate level education.
Repeatedly, Reiss and White stress that their argument places the student’s well-being and flourishing, tied to modern liberal-democracy, at the centre of the school curriculum. The danger here is that our cultural understandings of well-being in contemporary liberal–democracy are so shallow that they are reducible to the same sorts of bleak instrumentalism Reiss and White associate with the subject-based school curriculum they hope to replace.
An Aims-based Curriculum offers the reader an alternative, but practical, way of thinking about what happens in our schools. This is to be welcomed in an educational world that is so reluctant to think what we are doing.
Mill, J. S. (1974) On Liberty, London: Penguin.
[i] See John Stuart Mill (1974) On Liberty, especially Chapter V ‘Applications’.