Chapter 2: Curriculum aims and teaching methods
Chapter 2 opens with a focus on how the “generic skills” approach to teaching came to dominate. Christodoulou offers some good examples of the emptiness of approaches such as the RSA’s opening minds (although I wonder how many still teach this curriculum). She also uses Ofsted subject reports to show how generic approaches have been promoted. In many senses, this comes back to my own point about chapter 1, namely that I think the power of Ofsted, and their abuse of this power, has much to answer for in terms of promoting poor approaches to teaching. It is good to see this being acknowledged more fully here. However, it is worth noting that most of the examples Christodoulou cites come from several years ago now, especially the work from DfE level. I think there has already been a significant shift in the educational landscape and the “generic skills” voices have certainly lost much of their prior power and influence.
A good deal of the chapter makes the case for deliberate practice as a means of targeted improvement. The example is given of a baseball player who might only get to run a particular play once in a game, but might ask for the pitch to be given over and over in practice. This is argument does make logical sense, although I wonder if it runs counter to some of the research set out in Brown et al.’s “Make it Stick”. In the book and using the same baseball analogy, the researchers suggest that deliberate practice is important, but that ultimately the moves need to be practiced in a game-like situation for the learning to fully embed. This does not discount Christodoulou’s point, but I wonder if we place so much emphasis on deliberate practice, that we might in turn encourage teachers to ignore the final outcomes altogether. Pianists may play scales and football players practise drills, but at the end of the day they all play regular concerts or games too.
Christodoulou’s also makes the assertion, later in the chapter, that learning does not need to involve significant effort, also seems to run counter to Willingham’s research suggesting that memory is the product of thought: the more thought happening the better the memory. I think her point here may be about cognitive overload, but I would be interested to know more about this debate.
I am also interested in Chrostodoulou’s complete rejection of “authentic tasks”. Whilst the cognitive science (and to be frank common sense) supports the notion that students cannot be asked to think through problems for which they have limited knowledge, there is a point in every person’s academic life when they must bridge the gap between knowledge acquisition and knowledge generation. I would hold that it is also important to inculcate pupils in the methods of a discipline as well as its core content. This is especially true of history where the “core content” is completely limitless. Although Christodoulou does not address this point directly, I think there is a disconnect between the view shared by many in the “traditionalist” school, that subjects should not be “dumbed down,” and at the same time, holding the same children off from advancing in their knowledge of their subject as an academic discipline.
Christodoulou’s observations on self- and peer- assessment were quite interesting. I was partly expecting a full rejection of these in favour of teacher led assessment. However, Christodoulou seems to suggest that peer- and self- assessment are vital components of teaching and learning.
At this point I have found myself in general agreement with most of the rest of the chapter. Christodoulou makes a convincing case for deliberate practice. I am sure such practices are embedded already in many classrooms, even if they are not seen more widely during Ofsted inspections. I do wonder however if there is an implication that direct instruction and deliberate practice were once done more effectively (before the advent of “generic skills” for example) and if so, if there is any reliable evidence to support this notion. Certainly, in terms of history, Cannadine’s investigation into 100 years of the history curriculum would suggest not.