Thursday, June 12, 2008

10 curriculum changes

Give the limited time and opportunities, what should one study at school? Unfortunately, the system seems to be overloaded with irrelevance, pain and wasted time. Learning is to get the brain to do things it often doesn’t want to do. It’s hard, so why make it even harder?

1. Maths – scrap complex algebra
Millions of children are subjected to the convoluted pain of advanced algebra, at the expense of being capable of understanding statistics, interest rates, mortgages or their own, simple, personal finances. The vast majority of people will sail through successful lives without ever having to use the subject, yet algebra is probably the main reason for switching people off maths and numeracy. Scrap algebra at GCSE and relevant results would soar.

2. IT – teaching the past
A fact that is often ignored in baby boomer complaints about dumbed-down standards is the fact that most students leave school with an unacknowledged A-level in useful IT, which they learn, not in school, but in spite of school. Curiously we don’t teach keyboard skills, troubleshooting, research on the web, how to search on Google and many other practical and useful skills. Instead they get outdated content and tools they are unlikely to use. For a subject of the future, the IT curriculum is hopelessly mired in the past.

3. English – irregular and difficult
I know the Shakespeare debate rumbles on, but taking students through to an exam, with specific questions on a Shakespeare play, without them actually seeing the drama is frankly stupid. Yes folks this happens all the time in our schools. Shakespeare did not write to be read, he wrote plays to be seen. Then there’s the irregularity of English spelling and punctuation. What is less well known is the drag effect it has in education. There are about 800 words that are very difficult to spell without hours of drill and practice, as they are loaded with unnecessary and silent letters. Compared to other European languages, English has a heavy burden to bear in spelling being phonetically weak (eight, height, dreamt, through etc). Other countries have changed and simplified their spelling (Portugal, Russia, Turkey, Germany). Language is about communication, so why make it so difficult to learn and use?

4. Music –violence of the violin
Desperate efforts are made by the educational system to get parents to buy violins for very young children. They are then subjected to the tedious task of learning an instrument that is particularly difficult for children to even hold, never mind finger (no frets). It’s a fiendishly difficult instrument to learn. Then there’s the noise. This is tantamount to child abuse! In terms of productivity, the attrition rate is horrendous. There’s a glut of half-size, second-hand violins on the market. Rather than promote instruments that are actually used by the vast majority of adults later in life we adopt an outdated ‘classical’ view of music and aesthetics, which more likely to kill than encourage a child’s interest.

5. Art – unstructured mess
At no point have my kids been taught to draw. Call me old-fashioned but this seems to be a basic skill in art. The teaching, in general, seems to be an unstructured mess, no more than a series of ‘try it and see’ creative experiments. Neither have they ever been taken to a major gallery, despite free entrance, and being less than an hour from London, which has some of the greatest galleries in the world. Have we abandoned the idea that there’s some skill, as well as creativity in art?

6. Languages – English the lingua franca of the world
Hundreds of thousands of students are put through years of classroom teaching in a foreign language only to emerge with little or no ability to speak or understand that language. Why? You don’t learn a language in the classroom without supplementing it with lots of other forms of practice. Language learning needs exposure, immersion and lots of one-to-one practice. An intensive few weeks in an immersive course would achieve more than a 4 or 5 year school GCSE course. We have other disadvantages. Everyone else is trying to learn English, and succeeding, making it difficult (and arguably less necessary) to learn a foreign language. If English is the lingua franca of the world, why bother?

7. Latin – resurrecting the dead
Where in educational theory does it say that learning a language that has been dead for centuries, is a sensible educational goal? Nowhere. This old fossil of a subject is perhaps the most wasteful, but also the most vociferously defended, subjects in the school curriculum. The old-chestnut of an excuse, that ‘it helps one learn other languages’ is simply false. If this were true, it could only be true of romance languages. You’re far better off just learning those languages. Learning Latin just reduces the amount of time you can devote to that task. Latin is a middle-class affectation.

8. Religious education – stay secular
We live in a largely secular country, so why so much compulsion around sheep-dipping in and out of the world’s major religions? Why not remain firmly secular in schools? Ethics I could understand, but seeing everything through the cloudy lens of multiple religions is a restrictive, pluralistic jumble.

9. Cut wasted corridor time
Imagine if every company and organization in the land got their employees to stand and march off to another department every hour. That’s what schools do. Getting students to shift every hour wastes huge amounts of their productive time. The time taken to pack up, file out of the classroom, walk the corridors, file into the next classroom, unpack and settle down is hugely wasteful. The there’s the rounding up of stragglers. Go for three 100 minute lessons per day; two in the morning, one in the afternoon. Our school does this and it works.

10. Learning at home – where did it go?
Why have so many state schools abandoned the idea of students doing their own learning at home? Our secondary school has all but abandoned homework in the first three years. Weeks go by without any significant learning at home. This has put many parents in the position of having to set homework for their own kids. Many simply hire tutors (this is massive in many state schools). I know of one parent who has simply lifted their child out of the school on this one criterion alone. Well structured learning at home (what schools foolishly call home’work’), is the foundation of autonomous learning. It reinforces and extends what’s taught in the classroom and allows parents to get involved.

The English curriculum looks as though it has been designed by a committee of pensioners from Tunbridge Wells. It’s old-fashioned, overloaded with unnecessary baggage and at times stops rather than encourages learning. On top of this we have several curricula, by several examination bodies, confusing the matter even further. What keeps all of this waste alive? Simple inertia, the fact that we’ve always done it this way.


Anonymous said...

Whilst I will happy accept that statistics and finance are vital life skills and woefully badly understood by the general populous this in no way argues against algebra.

Few would argue that English should be paired down to just reading and writing because most jobs don't use appreciation of poetry on a day-to-day basis.

Good teachers can use algebra to teach logic and reasoning. It can open fascinating new worlds exposing the fundamental beauty of the universe presented by cosmological theories, or delving into the incomprehensible detail of fractals. This can have as profound an effect on the human soul as any Shakespearian play, and act as the same motivation to drive our thirst for knowledge.

Algebra is also the foundation of computer programming, a very commercial skill, and a subject that would be a very interesting addition to the 'modern' language electives.

The complete absence of any good maths teachers (a chicken and egg problem), and the arbitrary division of maths and sciences work against this in the current curriculum, but it is not the subject that is at fault. (I have strong feelings on the ludicrous pigeon-holing of all subjects but I suppose that is a rant for another day).

The biggest problem is the incredible low level of maths being taught. If you where only taught some of the letters in English you might have a harder time appreciating poetry (no secondary school maths goes beyond the small subset of real numbers). The technical term for the field of algebra taught is elementary algebra not 'advanced'.

Donald Clark said...

It's a rare teacher who uses algebra to teach reasoning and logic, although I agree that some philosophical logic would be better than straight algebra.

The point about cosmology and fractals may be true but seems a little utopian at GCSE level.

I hadn't thought much about this one before - but I agree on programming. Indeed some simple coding could be usefully inserted into the maths curriculum - this would be a far more iteresting and useful introduction to algebra.

And I wholly agree with more cross-curricular work. The subjects should crossover and reinforce each other.

On the whole you argue for teaching algebra by making it more relevant. I agree. Thoughtful post.

Anonymous said...

I wish you could see our Indian education system. You would wonder how such brilliant Engineers and other professionals emerge through such a dead system. This is such a lovely post that it needs a deep analysis. I may be wrong here but forced studies of algebra made the reasoning sharper. It may have damaged otherwise, but if you consider the over-all impact, it kind of sharpened the intellect(this should not be the reason to study it). Here kids slog and burn mid night oil to get through the entrance exams. The two most popular are the medical and the Engineering. Kids feel humiliated when they don't make through. There are professors minting money teaching in coaching centers. So each year kids finish their senior secondary and face a cut-throat competitions. I myself took these exams for an year and got through the veterinary graduation course but that was not what the parents desired. Mostly here kids do their graduation along with such competitions. The high pressure situation is conductive to learning seems.
Here senor Cambridge board has all these Shakespear dramas, luckily our teachers were great performers and taught us by dramatising and making these plays very interesting.
Donald, a good teacher can mould your interests towards a subject. If algebra is taught by teachers who posess good communication skills it would be fun. You should consider that children in West will be soon competng with children in Asia, who are always pushed to do well academically. For this reason there should be no easy shortcuts.
About the lines from one class to another. Look at it from a child's perspective. It is fun to play pranks and shuffle and streach to go to other class. Children connect and blossom in nature and these small breaks provide that much needed relief. You yourself mantion how boring the lectures are and how the Chinese have post lunch siesta incorporated in the scedule.
Another thing as such the kids are going over board with gaming, here the school also encourage restricted timing for gaming. I face this as my twelve-year-old is addicted to the games. Whatever the benefits I would love to see him play Cricket in the field rather than the finger Cricket he plays.
I don't think you need to do away with the English words with silent sounds, there has to be some effort on the part of the learner too. Englis is a beautiful language and for centuries people world-over have embraced this language why distort it for ease. The people who come up to the literacy level can adept to these learning nuances.
About music I agree, it can't be forced and children should be encouraged to choose the instrument. Here we have lazy art teachers and most kids learn on their own. Home wor is a norm here and parents do sit with the kids to help and read with them. I used to now his concepts are so clear that I sort out the difficulties and some queries he has time to time. As I told you I was forgetting same does not apply to the five-year-old so here your experience and knowledge helped me correct and am implementing the practice approach. Certainly your education system is far better than the Indian but the need to execl is lacking. Why would you slog to earn a graduation degree if you can serve in a Mc Donald and have fun. Let's face it some kind of pressure is essential for learning and some huge incentive too. These opportunities were not present here and learning is therefore 'survival'. More than all this behavioural sciences should be taught as if your emotional life is a mess it's no use being the CEO of a company. So many suicides in affluent, educated people stress that. And when we are yet groping in dark about the 'subjects' this looked like a far-fetched thing. Nevertheless, some things bring hope specially this sharing of knowledge and the exchange of views. My kids study here, they allow kids to blossom. I love the approach strict at times but mostly gentle. Since you have such deep interest this is the link:
Thanks for such intelligent posts. Every time I gain relevant insight on things that matter at this moment. Regards and gratitude.

Anonymous said...

When it comes to learning languages, I should like to argue the case for Esperanto. Esperanto is a planned language with a grammar which does not allow for exceptions. Take a look at

I have used this language in speech and writing for over 40 years, and it has certainly enriched my life. I have used it during work-related visits to a dozen countries. Last year, for example, I was given a guided tour of Milan by a local Esperanto speaking lady, a tour of Berlin by a local man, and visited an Esperanto-speaking family near Strasbourg.

Esperanto was never intended to take the place of national languages, but to act as an auxiliary language, a 'helplingvo' - a role it fulfills admirably. Bondezirojn el Norda Kimrujo! Greetings from North Wales!

Anonymous said...


English is full of curious spellings and phonetic irregularities, and having taught English as a foreign language I often wondered if it couldn't be sorted out. But this in itself shouldn't be held up as a reason for it being too difficult to work with.

You recently went to China - a language that has no phonetic relationship between the written format and the spoken. It's this feature that allows people with entirely different spoken forms to read the same thing (Cantonese and Mandarin). However, I'm sure the majority of people you encountered were fluent enough readers.

Okay, so this in itself is no reason not to change English, but your later reference to it as the lingua franca should give us pause. English is spoken by people from such a diverse range of accents and dialects that what may make sense as a change for the dialect and accent of South East England may not make so much sense in South Africa, India or Australia (or indeed in other parts of the UK). Tinkering with spellings to benefit UK school kids may not seem such a great idea to these folks.

As for your points on almost everything else, I'd agree - particularly regarding second language learning which appears almost to be designed to fail.

Donald Clark said...

points. First, China is uusual in that its written 'ideographic' language can be separate from different spoke forms. IndeedChia has benefitted from several major linguistic reforms.

I have strong Scottish accent and appreciate the accent issue. However, some simplifications in English, especially silent and double letters (5 in the previous sentence), along with may common phonetic simplifications are possible. US English has gone some way down that route. It's all a matter of sensible degree.

Donald Clark said...

On Esperato, this is an interestig alternative, but in practice, I suspect that English has already become the 'Esperanto' of the 21st century. This may be worring for some, but I think it is true.

As a matter of convenince, the fact that it is one of the world's major languages, has been adopted by many academic and commercial organisations as the language of choice, and has momentum provided by popular media. For whatever reaso, it's happened and seems irreversible.

Anonymous said...

Donald, I remember you saying that the problem with schools is that they are built for the benefit of the teachers rather than the pupils. I would expand that to current day curricula which focus on teaching children to pass tests rather than teaching them how to learn - an easier job for the teachers!

Donald Clark said...

In a way, both sides are victims here. Blame the game, not the players.

A Guardian journalist tried a Stage 2 Sats test today. Here's the featured question:

"Steve made between 30 and 50 biscuits. If he packs the biscuits i fives, he has one left over. If he packs the biscuits in threes, he has two left over.
How many biscuits did he make?"

Practical or what!