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Chris McGovern: Subjects are better taught separately not muddled up

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In yesterday’s blog I explained some of the very serious deficiencies in Scotland’s school curriculum reforms in general and in its “Curriculum for Excellence” in particular.

BBC Scotland’s website provides a useful explanation of the “Curriculum for Excellence”. It includes this summary of the teaching approach that is central to the teaching of it:

“There is also the aim to join up more subjects on topic-based learning – using skills and knowledge from more than one subject within a project. A project on weather could combine elements of geography, maths, art and the sciences. Choose the right poem or piece of music, and English and music could join in the mix too.”

‘Topic-based’ learning, also commonly referred to as ‘project-based’ learning, is central not only to Scotland’s “Curriculum for Excellence” but, also, to what I have described as the ‘English disease’ in education – the teaching orthodoxies devised by the educational establishment, the Blob, south of the border. The integration of several subject areas into one topic or project usually undermines any coherent teaching of subject knowledge and, consequently dilutes that knowledge.

Now, research just published from the government-funded Education Endowment Foundation has confirmed what is, in any case, quite obvious. It concludes that the literacy levels of secondary pupils on free schools meals (FSM) suffer a “significant negative impact” as a consequence of project-based learning. The 20-month study found that FSM pupils made three months less progress if they were taught through a topic-based approach as opposed to a subject-based approach.

Not even the Blob’s mouthpiece, The Times Educational Supplement could turn a blind eye. “Schools have been warned, “ it reported (4th Nov), “against using project-based learning, because major new research has found that the approach could leave disadvantaged pupils behind.”

‘Integrated learning’ in the form of topic/project work has bedevilled teaching in England for decades, especially in primary school. Although, to some extent, the same has been true for Scotland, it was never the ‘holy writ’ it has become under the “Curriculum for Excellence” and it was never forced onto secondary schools as is now the case.

Subject integration, the holistic approach to learning, is sound enough, in pedagogic theory. In classroom practice, however, it too often leads to subject disintegration. It was, partly, for this reason that Ken Baker introduced England’s first National Curriculum back in 1989. The National Curriculum’s structure was, and remains, subject-based even though this has never really been much of an impediment to topic/project work. Government education quangos have even colluded in the subversion:

“The national curriculum is specified as separate subjects but schools are not required to teach the subjects separately,” announced the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority back in 2002. “The coherence of the curriculum can be strengthened by combining aspects of one subject with those of another,” it said in its publication, “Designing and Timetabling the Primary Curriculum”.

Superficially, the topic-based approach has seductive attractions.  What’s not to like about popular topics such as ‘volcanoes’ or ‘Victorians’ or ‘Van Gogh’? All of these are very worthy of study as part of a syllabus in geography, history or art. The problems begin when lessons about, for example, ‘volcanoes’ go beyond geography (or geology) to be the vehicle through which other subjects have to be taught. Science, English, maths, history, RE, even music and PE have to made to fit the ‘volcanoes’ theme. Done well, it can be interesting, even exciting, but, inevitably is distorts, dilutes and dumbs down the integrity of individual subjects. Their coherence and structure is ruined.

This is not to say that relevant links between subjects should not be made. Of course, they should. The problem arises when the links are forced or artificial and when coherent planning across, say, the four years of Key Stage 2 (age 7 to 11) becomes impossible. Blinded by the ingenuity of much integrated topic work inspectors are as inclined to applaud as to criticise such methodology. They are too easily taken in by the topic work pyrotechnics.

Sadly, the educational firework display soon fades and, too often, what children are left with is insubstantial and shallow. Scotland, be warned. It is better to learn from England’s mistakes than to copy them! Even some of the Sassenachs are changing their ways.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovernhttp://www.cre.org.uk
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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