Genericism’s children

Many a head of history will have used some of the holiday to do a little thinking about how to move his or her history department’s practice forward.

Let’s imagine one such head of history. She has been anticipating the likely state of Year 9’s essay writing by June. What sorts of things will the essays tell her? How are they going to get better? And what does ‘getting better’ mean anyway?

Let’s imagine she and her department have focused on causation essays – those essays that will answer questions such as: Why did Russia have a Bolshevik revolution? Why did South African apartheid end? Let’s say she’s been thinking about this in the light of earlier causation essays, perhaps Year 8’s favourite on Napoleon’s demise. What is a strong argument in such a question? What layers of knowledge do the essays reveal? What deficits in knowledge do they betray? What is knowledge ‘doing’ in the stronger essays? What layers of knowledge from Year 7 seem to be indirectly affecting success in Years 8 and 9? What is giving these students power as they survey and wonder, judge and reckon?

Our head of history will steep herself in the numerous articles by other history teachers who have considered such matters over two decades. She knows most already, but she will search for new ones. And in order to move deeply into the deciding on the nature of what she is after, and to build her own knowledge, she will read recent historical scholarship, Christopher Clark on the causes of the First World War, Mary Beard on the fall of the Roman Empire, or perhaps that new book on the Ottomans… is there time?

… Stop. Stop right there, head of history. It’s 11pm. 3 January 2016. Time to stop reading. Time to stop dreaming. Time to go back to school. The place where all this should be happening. The place where all this professional knowledge should be prized and used, tested and explored.

The place where it probably won’t.

Dream on head of history. Maybe in the Easter holidays?

Our head of history falls asleep, all over the Ottomans.

How will our head of history’s efforts to use such knowledge fare when faced with a new whole-school approach to lesson planning, using a generic framework such as one derived from Bloom’s taxonomy? Let us imagine three such heads of history conversing with their senior leaders in three schools.

In Scenario 1, lesson objectives commencing with the verbs ‘describe’, ‘explain’ and ‘analyse’ or ‘evaluate’ must match successive stages of a lesson. Pedagogies associated with these verbs must foster the increments of demand that their hierarchy is deemed to enshrine. These pedagogies form a menu on which teachers are encouraged to draw.

The conversation our head of history has with an SLT member is confused, stressful and culminates in impasse. It does so on two fronts: first, over the term ‘explain’; second, over the status of the verbs. The head of history points out that she is indeed privileging pupils’ explanation, but causal explanation. She points out that this is a style of disciplinary reasoning that shapes many history essays. She insists that it amounts to an argument in response to a certain kind of ‘Why?’ question, that students will build such arguments across three or four lessons and that ‘explain’, in such a context, does not mean ‘explicate’, ‘set out’ or ‘expand’. It also has nothing to do with explaining the process of photosynthesis or explaining how a bicycle works.

To force an ‘explain’ (of either meaning) into the middle section of each lesson confuses the journey toward building powerful, informed, causal explanations, especially if, as SLT expects, the teacher must tell pupils that ‘explain’ is a step more demanding than ‘describe’, and even more damaging if teachers must distinguish it from ‘analyse’. Causal explanation, in history, is, necessarily, analysis.

The tense conversation muddles on. And as efforts to communicate lurch about, our frustrated head of history gradually realises what is going on. SLT is treating the verbs as proxies for learning processes, each with attendant teaching method. She is therefore reading our head of history’s comments on ‘explanation’ through that lens. In other words, our SLT member reads the history department’s curricular account as if it were a pedagogy.

But causal explanation is a curricular object; it is neither learning process nor teaching approach. Causal explanation may, of course, command all kinds of learning process; some might coincide with aspects of Bloom’s taxonomy, but it is not, in itself, a learning process. It is a disciplinary end, a curricular ‘what?’, not a pedagogic ‘how’. To read curriculum as pedagogy is not to read curriculum at all.

In requiring our head of history to build a lesson around learning processes, our SLT promotes an intransitive pedagogy, a pedagogy without an object.

The conversation is held entirely at crossed purposes.

In Scenario 2, by contrast, our second SLT treats Bloom’s taxonomy as curriculum, but the conversation with our head of history is just as vexed. In this school, a variant of the taxonomy is used to capture generic ‘thinking skills for the twenty-first century’. In this construal, the verbs describe processes, but processes to be learned rather than processes of learning – a crucial distinction, for it renders them a curricular object.

Underpinning SLT’s desire to add these into the curriculum is a perception of deficit. History is construed by SLT as information, as a collection of inert facts; students must therefore be taught, as an addition, the skills of critical thinking. They must be encouraged, as an addition, to be creative.

Yet our head of history knows that history is not a collection of facts but a structured field of knowledge. She knows that intricate relations between its factual elements – relations structured by language, by chronology, by narrative – give all that factual material, once secure in memory, a special power, a function in assimilating new knowledge. Our head of history also knows that history lessons tackle the origin, structure and status of that knowledge: students must re-arrange and re-construe, argue and analyse. A history teacher carefully shuttles between representations of the material that the discipline studies (substantive knowledge) and induction into the tradition of epistemic rules that made such representations possible (disciplinary knowledge). To climb into the conversation that is history, to learn its intellectual rigour, is to nurture criticality and creativity in abundance.

Our head of history’s resistance therefore now arises not merely from clashing nomenclature. It arises from the fact that the required curricular addition is redundant.

Scenario 3 yields a happier conversation, yet the result of its harmony is tragic. This time SLT listens well to the head of history. She realizes that strong history lessons already see students carrying out all the moves in the school’s generic skill taxonomy. Students in history do, indeed, combine and create, arrange and apply!

Delighted at this surprising, if accidental, compliance, all SLT need ask our head of history to do is to show where in her history curriculum documentation these modes of thinking will be taught, and to evidence the result.

Thus, in Scenario 3, curricular by-product has become product. A faux curricular narrative has been created, and now becomes the narrative that will hold the head of history to account. As price for being left in peace, this third head of history will now complete audits against these generic categories. She will screen out the distinctive historical meanings, the ones much discussed in her department, in history teachers’ literature, in her own subject-specific training. In order to satisfy a management narrative, she will re-write columns on workschemes and boxes on lesson plans. She will engage in concomitant casuistry in assessment.

It is not that the head of history does not value creativity and criticality; it is, rather, that these outputs do not correspond with the means of their nurture. They are not resolvable into objectives of the same name.

Above all, they derogate the thing that our head of history sees making the biggest difference for the erstwhile weaker student – the systematic, steady familiarisation with layers and layers of rich, fascinating, enabling knowledge.

The double tragedy is that this investigation of the history department has not improved SLT’s grasp of the nature of historical knowledge, its relational properties and epistemic structures. It has converted these things into a superficial and misleading curricular narrative, and in order to retain professional harmony, the head of history must pretend her curricular decisions are governed by it. She must be complicit in a lie.

 

These three conversations, about a non-curriculum, a redundant curriculum and a usurper curriculum, illustrate communication breakdowns between genericist and subject-specialist. They do no more than imperfectly exemplify a stream of cri de coeurs in my in-box from desperate heads of history which have waxed and waned (mostly waxed) over fifteen years. I choose Blooms – or rather common applications of its variants – at random. Any number of whole-school policies, on teaching, learning or assessment, would do.

I share them here for two reasons, each of which I plan to explore in this blog:

First, to illustrate a clash of cultures in many of England’s state secondary schools, that between curriculum construed as strongly bounded domains of specialized knowledge and curriculum construed as (or replaced by) sets of aims deriving from assorted perceptions of utility. It is a divide between two views of what is emancipatory for students.

Second, to posit a crisis in our conceptions of senior curriculum leadership. Such a crisis is characterized by an absence of curricular reflection on differing knowledge structures and their epistemic power, on the place of knowledge in definitions of progress, on subjects as distinctive yet shifting traditions into which pupils can be inducted, on the interplay of layers and forms of knowledge within subjects, and on knowledge as the inclusion issue: what Hirst and Peters called ‘public modes of knowledge’ and the access they give us to educated conversation.

This absence matters because it leaves a vacuum. It is a vacuum into which genericism flows.

Advertisements

20 thoughts on “Genericism’s children

  1. Argh, this made me cringe with frustration. As a HOD I was subject to all three of these scenarios which is one of the reasons I decided to give it up – the lack of understanding appeared almost wilfully ignorant at times, and once I read Kevan Bartle’s excellent blog on the methods of, and reasons for, managerial control I realised that, sadly, the fight was no longer in me, at least at that school.

    I’m delighted you’ve decided to blog, not least because I can now point others your way rather than rely on my own ramblings. Coincidentally I wrote something similar last night (http://mrhistoire.com/2016/01/10/knowing-what-and-knowing-how/), though, funnily enough, it was much more generic. I look forward to reading more.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great to see you blogging Christine. The online community of historians really helps me stay in touch with my subject now I’ve largely swapped the classroom for an office (but hoed illy I’m none of those SLT members ;-). I’ll certainly look forward to what you write.

    Like

  3. Thank you for such clarity about issues which have an impact on so many. It speaks volumes about my character no doubt, that I find Scenario 3 the most depressing of all of them. To have to take part in such lies is so common to so many though and they will find this both informative and heartening. Looking forward to regular things to read! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A great blog, thank you very much. The ‘obvious’ solution seems to me to be non-generic lesson planning frameworks and assessment criteria but I realise that is uncomfortably variable for many SLTs. My school utilises a number of different lesson planning pro formas (and, if you wish, concomitant lesson observation forms) which, whilst all requiring the teacher to consider the pedagogical and learning merits of what they are planning, do acknowledge that different lessons in different subjects (even within the same subject at different times) often work in very different ways. You choose the one that is most appropriate for what you are trying to obtain. We should celebrate different methods and practices in education more and avoid genericism where possible!

    Like

    • Your reply is really interesting to me Henry. I do not necessarily disagree with you but I am trying to get to grips with “non-generic lesson planning frameworks”.

      If you have a moment could you explain with a couple of simple examples what it is about knowledge/understanding in different domains that might benefit from such. Nothing lengthy just a couple of examples to illustrate.

      Thanks

      Brian

      Like

  5. What a fascinating blog, thank you.

    I am not a History teacher but I find that reading the ideas of teachers in other specialisms often illuminates things and hopefully allows me to develop my practice.

    I have to admit that I actually find the revised version of Bloom’s original taxonomy quite useful.

    I will follow your blog closely as I feel that you are onto something profound, however I will need to read the blog another 3 or 4 times probably. Each time I read it I understand a little more of your points. That will be due to my age rather than your writing.

    Like

  6. Great to see a blog from you, Christine. I’m looking forward to more!

    This has prompted all sorts of questions in my mind. I don’t presume to know your position on any of them, nor do I know mine necessarily, but for what its worth, to me it raises at least the following questions and tensions. Most don’t have a specific answer and given that I should probably be marking or devising a generic, whole school policy 😉 they are undoubtedly worse framed than they could be! Some are directly to the points you raise whilst others are tangents.

    – How far should subject teams be autonomous within a school? At what point does whole school policy damage learning in subjects? When might subject autonomy hinder whole school improvement strategies? And when and how might whole school policy facilitate and strengthen subject-specific learning? (e.g. whole school routines that mean all pupils are expected to take action in response to written teacher feedback – much easier to do well if this is habituated across the school rather than something only their history teacher expects).

    – What should be the role of a subject leader? Exclusively an advocate for a subject or also a school leader who needs to lead, manage, monitor and support the work of colleagues in the context of whole school policy and internal and external accountability frameworks? When do these roles conflict? And, if they do, which takes priority? How do subject leaders typically conceive of their role? Does that match with what SLT expects?

    – SLTs typically operate a cabinet government approach to policy development; to what extent are subject leaders within or outside the cabinet? How does that affect how they should behave in relation to debates about assessment, curriculum, etc., which are typically amongst the most contentious T&L issues in a school? Should what they say to SLT in private be different from what they ask of their teams in the name of school policy? How do subject leaders resolve conflicting professional pressures: on the one hand, their moral commitment to teach their pupils in the way that they personally think is best, vs their professional obligation to teach pupils in accordance with policies that SLT are employed to decide?

    – How far is the example you use here part of a debate about history exceptionalism vs whole school approaches, or a debate about subject specificity for all subjects vs genericism? The latter strikes me as the more powerful argument, both on its own merits and in terms of persuasiveness/inclusivity. If so, given that in practice most arguments for subject specificity emerge from the history community, how can we frame the debate in ways that avoid unhelpful perceptions of exceptionalism and instead are seen to be inclusive of all subjects? There are times when even to mention the word history can be counter-productive, yet it can be hard to find the case for subject-specificity argued well elsewhere (my ignorance, quite possibly).

    – Does “whole school” always have to mean “generic mush”? I would argue that there has to be a place for whole school policy that establishes common principles, allowing for subject specific interpretation and implementation, provided neither the policy nor the subject interpretation leads to fatal distortion of the other. How do we help subject leaders to analyse constructively rather than automatically reject the whole school? How do we help SLT to recognise potential risks to legitimate subject-specificity? How can we help both together to frame compatible subject and school policies?

    – How can schools and teacher educators enable all (or at least more) teachers to engage with debates about knowledge, assessment, curriculum, pedagogy, etc. at the level illustrated in this article? I know of very few who could. I’m not sure I can! And then extend this to SLT (and arguably subject leaders too) who also need to be able to access equivalent debates in every subject. How can that depth and breadth of professional expertise at a middle and senior leadership level be facilitated? There is so much hinterland, context, assumed common understanding etc. that informs the highest level debate about subject specificity that articulating the arguments to those outside that sub-set of the subject community is an incredible challenge. Similarly, there is so much that is discussed within the confines of SLT, so many hours of consideration that go into new policies, so much discussion about whole school issues & longer term or wider pressures that cannot always be seen by or fully articulated to those who are immersed in their subject and asked to interpret and implement the policy – so, how can SLTs better communicate the complexities of the pressures and tensions that they are wrestling with that have resulted in any particular policy?

    – How can schools and teacher educators help teachers (incl subject leaders and SLT) to be able to resolve tensions between subject specificity and whole school necessities in ways that result in meaningful reconciliation, rather than the impasse, distortions and misunderstandings you describe? SLT needs to understand all subjects sufficiently to recognise legitimate reservations about whole school policy. Subject leaders also need to understand the place of their subject, their team and their leadership role in relation to other subjects, wider school issues, national priorities, accountability frameworks, etc. As a subject leader, I tended to look inwards, to my subject and my team; not until joining SLT did I really appreciate what lay beyond both of these things. Neither perspective is sufficient – we all need to see both.

    – What place is there for compromise and meaningful reconciliation between the whole school and the subject specific? How far is it appropriate (or even possible) for SLT to compromise with the arguments of every subject? How far is it appropriate for subjects to compromise in order to help to achieve wider school goals? It strikes me that there are cases made for specificity and cases made for genericism but fewer cases made for how to generate resolutions that are pragmatic but not superficial. I don’t have the answer to that yet, but like pupils, whom we want to be idealistic enough to imagine how the world could be, but grounded enough to be able to succeed in the world as it is, so we need teachers, subject leaders and SLT who have the imagination to conceive of an ideal education system plus the pragmatism to reconcile themselves to operating within the imperfect model we have, at least for the time being, respecting the difficult decisions we each have to make and devising approaches that make the best of it.

    – In framing debates, how do we avoid generalisations that lead to assumptions, dismissal, division and alienation? e.g. how do we avoid automatic rejection of anything “from SLT” or anything whole school, especially given how many supporters of camhistmentors were SLT? To some, sadly, a generalisation written with a caveat is read as a generalisation without a caveat. Some revel in being anti-SLT for its own sake and it can be to the detriment of the school (and, thereby, the pupils), particularly where there are real needs for whole school change. Similarly, how do we help people (whether SLT, subject leader or mainscale teacher) to engage constructively with, say, Bloom’s, rather than seeing it either as a panacea or rejecting it entirely because it isn’t subject specific (e.g. to make use of it in the ways you hint at)?

    – To what extent are the worst manifestations of genericism a product of flaws in senior curriculum leadership or actually also a product of failings in subject leadership and training? After all, those people who are advocates of generically mushy models/policies etc. are all themselves in origin subject teachers. Is it that the case for subject-specificity in their subject has not been fully articulated, so they then do not recognise the merits in any case for subject-specificity? Or is it that they are persuaded by the arguments for genericism? If so, what is so persuasive about genericism or so absent or off-putting about the case for subject-specificity?

    – Or, are those who blame SLT for all the ills of a school (I know you are not, Christine) in fact missing the target altogether – that so long as accountability measures and inspection frameworks focus primarily on raw summative data and remain incredibly brief, then there will always be a requirement to work in ways that enable things to be put in a graph, and that nearly always means simplifying, generalising, reducing and thus tends towards genericism. This reality, combined with the consequences for poor inspection findings that are potentially catastrophic for pupil & parent perceptions, pupil numbers, staff recruitment, and staff morale – even the continued existence of the school – means that, from this, all other evils flow…? (Not that all attempts to track pupil progress (meaningfully defined) and ensure school and individual accountability are evil – some means of doing these things is essential – we are, after all, public servants with great responsibility). Perhaps, although this started as a question of subject specificity and expertise in curriculum, the answer to all of it goes beyond, starting with (a) more high quality subject specific teacher training, in ITT and beyond; (b) equivalent quality dialogue, training and professional learning about whole school issues and how to have meaningful reconciliation between the whole school and the subject specific (and both SLT and subject leaders are responsible for engaging in this); and (c) an inspection/monitoring system that is built around sustained dialogue and deep knowledge of an institution, built up over time. Once that exists, schools are free to look longer term, can be more comfortable dealing with the nuance, complexity and diversity that result from subject-specifity, and are able to articulate justifications of their approaches that need not fit onto one side of A4 with attention grabbing headlines, to make sure the inspector has noticed them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow James! Thank you so much for this. A typically thoughtful and rich response and I’m so sorry that I’ve led you astray from the marking (or from devising a generic whole-school policy…) all evening, but, selfishly, extremely pleased that you prioritised this instead!

      I can’t begin to reply, in one ‘reply’, to all you raise here, but that doesn’t matter because you have successfully anticipated my forthcoming series of blogposts on senior curriculum leadership! I have a series planned in which I expect to explore precisely the issues you raise. I’m going to try to do this by raising tentative questions about what senior curriculum leadership could be.

      For now, I will just say a couple things that draw together many of your questions. I would give them this gloss: while, yes, much hinges on making a much better case for subject-specificity (i.e. ALL subjects making that case, yes), my view is that the root problem perpetuating these fractures and fissures in communication and worsening the’ division and alienation’ you describe, across an institution’s professional discourse, is that there is virtually no such thing as senior curriculum leadership. It is an absence. That absence matters terribly because the core business of a school, its goods if you like, is knowledge (I use the term expansively; stick subsets within it). Yet it is invariably not the issue that is being discussed, or led and managed.

      There is (rarely) any senior curriculum leadership at all. The underlying reasons why so much gets lost in translation when we have to deal in those intellectual goods in inter-subject and pan-subject ways is that we deal in assessment, pedagogy, T&L, data, ‘progress’, resources and so on. But where is curriculum? Yet all those things are no more than means of managing curriculum’s goods. This gets easier to think about if one sees curriculum as knowledge, by which I mean the intellectual goods that schooling is chiefly (not exclusively, but chiefly) all about. Assessment is there to measure knowledge as outputs (interim and final); progress to measure it in transit; pedagogy to secure its transit and renewal; data to communicate its net effect. But these are packaging, transport, couriers. Knowledge is the thing itself.

      So, to take one of your questions: ‘does whole-school have to lead to generic mush?’ No. Emphatically not. Whole school really matters. Senior leadership of what is going on the whole school really matters. But if SLT can’t become experts in science, maths, music, what, then, DOES senior curriculum leadership mean?

      What kinds of knowledge do SLT need in order to make the school bigger than the sum of its parts, or even to let the parts function optimally? What questions should an SLT be asking so that it has a language for finding out about the significant features of subjects so that it can avoid inadvertently lowering standards in those subjects, forcing compromise that traduces rigour or simply wasting time? How do senior leaders/managers take assurance from subject leaders that things are as they should be in ways that are sensitive to the distinctive value of that subject and sensitive to its curricular structures, so that talk of progress or assessment doesn’t fundamentally distort? What knowledge of how subjects differ is necessary for SLT to lead informed debate about ways in which insights about pedagogy *can* be shared across subjects?

      None of this can happen if we do not think about curriculum at all, especially if we bury or collapse it into pedagogy. It’s as though our transport mechanisms have lost their cargo (crap metaphor but you know what I mean). Many of the problems I describe in my post and which you allude to actually arise from taking management eyes away from the thing itself – curriculum, its knowledge goods, and ways of structuring that knowledge over time, for that is what curriculum means. Even that strange and puzzling issue – one you and I often discuss – that some subjects sometimes don’t even seem to discuss their own subject, that they seem to lack passion for exploring its structures, nature, value, properties – is a problem that cannot be remediated only by ITT, subject-CPD etc, but is actually the responsibility of senior curriculum leadership. SLTs need to care about subject-specificity. That is their business because knowledge is the school’s business.

      I found it interesting that you used the language of a dichotomy that needs breaching, i.e. ‘compromise’, ‘reconciliation’, managing ‘tension’ etc – but I would argue that there is a danger in construing it as two sides, two sides that need to get along a bit better with a bit more ‘give and take’ and so forth. There are not two sides. There is simply the knowledge that we would have children transformed by as we give them what only schooling can – the special knowledge that brings them into public modes of knowledge, into the cultural commons, and that teaches them the conditions under which claims can be made in different types of quest for truth. There is simply curriculum. Its boundaries and structures, coming from its cognate disciplines and art forms, are actually what education is all about.

      If it is the business of SLT to lead on this weighty business, they need language for those boundaries and structures. And in so far as things must also, of course, be packaged, and carried and weighed and recorded, then this precious cargo must not be so lost in those processes that it is no longer properly described by them. Some of this comes down to trust, but SLT cannot be expected to trust what they do not know about. So how *does* a senior leader manage a curriculum then?
      I’m going to have a go at identifying the special knowledge that senior curric leaders might need, at least in the form of questions they might ask. It’ll be tricky, so I’m glad you’ll be coming along with me.

      Like

    • This is an incredibly reply James. I thought I was going to reply to the first of your questions, then I read the others. I could (but probably won’t) return to some of these myself in blog form. I can’t pretend to have thought it through as well as Christine, but all the questions you ask are answerable, usually via discussion and debate and in the act of answering them in actuality.

      I too, think Christine’s blog superb. I want more!

      Like

  7. Great to see a blog from you, Christine. I’m looking forward to more!

    This has prompted all sorts of questions in my mind. I don’t presume to know your position on any of them, nor do I know mine necessarily, but for what its worth, to me it raises the following questions and tensions. Most don’t have a specific answer and given that I should probably be marking or devising a generic whole school policy 😉 they are undoubtedly worse framed than they could be!

    – How far should subject teams be autonomous within a school? At what point does whole school policy damage learning in subjects? When might subject autonomy hinder whole school improvement strategies? And when and how might whole school policy facilitate and strengthen subject-specific learning? (e.g. whole school routines that mean all pupils are expected to take action in response to written teacher feedback – much easier to do well if this is habituated across the school rather than something only their history teacher expects).

    – What should be the role of a subject leader? Exclusively an advocate for a subject or also a school leader who needs to lead, manage, monitor and support the work of colleagues in the context of whole school policy and external accountability frameworks? When do these roles conflict? And, if they do, which takes priority? How do subject leaders typically conceive of their role? Does that match with what SLT expects?

    – SLTs typically operate a cabinet government approach to policy development; to what extent are subject leaders within or outside the cabinet? How does that affect how they should behave in relation to debates about assessment, curriculum, etc., which are typically amongst the most contentious T&L issues in a school? Should what they say to SLT in private be different from what they ask of their teams in the name of school policy? How do subject leaders resolve conflicting professional pressures: on the one hand, their moral commitment to teach their pupils in the way that they personally think is best, vs their professional obligation to teach pupils in accordance with policies that SLT are employed to decide?

    – How far is the example you use here part of a debate about history exceptionalism vs whole school approaches, or a debate about subject specificity for all subjects vs genericism? The latter strikes me as the more powerful argument, both on its own merits and in terms of persuasiveness/inclusivity. If so, given that in practice most arguments for subject specificity emerge from the history community, how can we frame the debate in ways that avoid unhelpful perceptions of exceptionalism and instead are seen to be inclusive of all subjects? There are times when even to mention the word history can be counter-productive, yet it can be hard to find the case for subject-specificity argued well elsewhere (my ignorance, quite possibly).

    – Does “whole school” always have to mean “generic mush”? I would argue that there has to be a place for whole school policy that establishes common principles, allowing for subject specific interpretation and implementation, provided neither the policy nor the subject interpretation leads to fatal distortion of the other. How do we help subject leaders to analyse constructively rather than automatically reject the whole school? How do we help SLT to recognise potential risks to legitimate subject-specificity? How can we help both together to frame compatible subject and school policies?

    – How can schools and teacher educators enable all (or at least more) teachers to engage with debates about knowledge, assessment, curriculum, pedagogy, etc. at the level illustrated in this article? I know of very few who could. I’m not sure I can! And then extend this to SLT (and arguably subject leaders too) who also need to be able to access equivalent debates in every subject. How can that depth and breadth of professional expertise at a middle and senior leadership level be facilitated? There is so much hinterland, context, assumed common understanding etc. that informs the highest level debate about subject specificity that articulating the arguments to those outside that community is an incredible challenge. Similarly, there is so much that is discussed within the confines of SLT, so many hours of consideration that go into new policies, so much discussion about whole school issues & longer term pressures that cannot always be seen by or fully articulated to those who are immersed in subject and asked to interpret and implement it – how can SLTs better communicate the complexities of the pressures and tensions that they are wrestling with that have resulted in any particular policy?

    – How can schools and teacher educators help teachers (incl subject leaders and SLT) to be able to resolve tensions between subject specificity and whole school necessities in ways that result in meaningful reconciliation, rather than the impasse, distortions and misunderstandings you describe? SLT needs to understand all subjects sufficiently to recognise legitimate reservations about whole school policy. Subject leaders also need to understand the place of their subject, their team and their leadership role in relation to other subjects, wider school issues, national priorities, accountability frameworks, etc.

    – What place is there for compromise and meaningful reconciliation between the whole school and the subject specific? How far is it appropriate (or even possible) for SLT to compromise with the arguments of every subject? How far is it appropriate for subjects to compromise in order to help to achieve wider school goals? It strikes me that there are cases made for specificity and cases made for genericism but fewer cases made for how to generate resolutions that are pragmatic but not superficial. I don’t have the answer to that yet, but like pupils, whom we want to be idealistic enough to imagine how the world could be, but grounded enough to be able to succeed in the world as it is, so we need teachers, subject leaders and SLT who have the imagination to conceive of an ideal education system plus the pragmatism to reconcile themselves to operating within the imperfect model we have, at least for the time being, respecting the difficult decisions we each have to make and devising approaches that make the best of it.

    – In framing debates, how do we avoid generalisations that lead to assumptions, dismissal, division and alienation? e.g. how do we avoid automatic rejection of anything “from SLT” or anything whole school, especially given how many supporters of camhistmentors were SLT? To some, sadly, a generalisation written with a caveat is read as a generalisation without a caveat. Some revel in being anti-SLT for its own sake and it can be to the detriment of the school (and, thereby, the pupils), particularly where there are real needs for whole school change. Similarly, how do we help people to engage constructively with, say, Bloom’s, rather than seeing it either as a panacea or rejecting it entirely because it isn’t subject specific (e.g. to make use of it in the ways you hint at)?

    – To what extent are the worst manifestations of genericism a product of flaws in senior curriculum leadership or actually a product of failings in subject leadership and training? After all, those people who are advocates of generically mushy models/policies etc. are all themselves in origin subject teachers. Is it that the case for subject-specificity in their subject has not been fully articulated, so they then do not recognise the merits in any case for subject-specificity? Or is it that they are persuaded by the arguments for genericism? If so, what is so persuasive about genericism or so absent or off-putting about the case for subject-specificity?

    – Or, are those who blame SLT for all the ills in a school (I know you are not, Christine) in fact missing the target altogether – that so long as accountability measures and inspection frameworks focus primarily on raw summative data and remain incredibly brief, then there will always be a requirement to work in ways that enable things to be put in a graph (and that nearly always means simplifying, generalising, reducing and thus tends towards genericism). This combined with the consequences for poor inspection findings that are potentially catastrophic for pupil & parent perceptions, pupil numbers, staff recruitment, and staff morale – even the continued existence of the school – means that, from this, all other evils flow…? (Not that all means of measuring pupil progress (meaningfully defined) and holding schools and individuals to account are evil – some means of doing so are essential, as we are public servants with great responsibility). Perhaps, although this started as a question of subject specificity and expertise in curriculum, the answer to all of it goes beyond, starting with (a) more high quality subject specific teacher training, in ITT and beyond; (b) equivalent quality dialogue, training and professional learning about whole school issues and how to have meaningful reconciliation between the whole school and the subject specific; and (c) an inspection/monitoring system that is built around sustained dialogue and deep knowledge of an institution, built up over time. Once that exists, schools are free to look longer term, can be more comfortable dealing with complexity and diversity, and are able to articulate justifications of their approaches that need not fit onto one side of A4 with attention grabbing headlines, to make sure the inspector has noticed them.

    Like

  8. Thanks for taking the time for such a detailed reply. Looking forward to reading future blogs – my MEd that I could never take up would have been on curriculum leadership as you define it and I remember at the time being warned that there was virtually no existing reading or research.

    Like

  9. Pingback: Moving to a knowledge-led, knowledge-rich, knowledge-based curriculum. – CPDL @ Cottenham Village College

  10. Pingback: Genericism and the crisis of curriculum – Clio et cetera

  11. Pingback: Fluency, vocabulary and knowledge: the problem with ‘oracy’ – Clio et cetera

  12. A thought provoking article, I met and listened and met you many years ago at a schools history project course (still my favourite curriculum). I am now part of SLT in an international school an watch my subject being marginalised at the expense of the more pragmatic social sciences. My Vice Principal even suggested that our small numbers are cause for concern for its very survival. They can see the value in the skills that we teach but equally when society devalues history to the extent it does now how do we push back

    Like

  13. Hi Christine,

    A really interesting article and reflects exactly the battle I’m fighting at the moment. Just had a very interesting conversation about why we shouldn’t just set date-recall tests as a way of fast-tracking progress.

    One thing I’d add to your post though, is that the entire climate of education in the UK (and by extension in my British school here in the UAE) is so geared towards results that the horse has been put well and truly before the cart. We all have data managers and SLT who’s sole responsibility is number crunching. I worry that it would take very brave school to forego this data obsession in favour of a curriculum based focus, but suspect that if we were left alone to mold a truly inspirational curriculum in which we can assess pupils in ways that are beneficial to their historical understanding, then the results would surely follow.

    On a different note, congratulations on the new job!

    Like

    • Hi Phil

      Fascinated to hear that this resonates with your experience in the UAE.

      I agree that it is in the area of data that we also see the problem of genericism. Data conversations that do not sit closely with curriculum conversations will at best screen out vital information and at worst mislead or distort.

      Good to hear from you!

      Christine

      Like

  14. Pingback: The 3D curriculum that promotes remembering – primarytimerydotcom

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s