It is reported that the recent lockdown has seen a large increase in the sales of DIY kits and materials. Anyone who has tried to build a bed or a cupboard from such kits will have found that the instructions are given, with a minimum of words, in the form of diagrams showing the component parts and step-by-step pictures of how they fit together to form the complete unit.
Many years ago, I remember when electronic kits were first available from China, the instructions were simple text, often hilariously derived from the Chinese by machine translation. This made assembly something of a guessing game, although I do remember one initial helpful instruction, 'Ensure serenity of mind before attempting'. I have to say that I have sometimes remembered this piece of advice when something is not going well with a particular assembly.
Today's kits are generally good examples of the information which can be communicated effectively by diagrams and pictures. Visual imagery transcends language barriers and if well done enables us to see at a glance how the various parts relate to each other and how they contribute to the whole. When it comes to building a curriculum, several diagrams have been produced at various developmental stages of the Curriculum for Excellence. What story do they tell?
Let's first see where we are now by going the the Scottish Government website and searching for 'Curriculum for Excellence'. Heading the list of results is the remit of an independent review to be led by the OECD, which was expected to be published in February of this year. It has been submitted to the government but is not yet available publicly The remit claims, '… the Curriculum for Excellence… places learners at the heart of education and at its centre are four fundamental capacities which reflect and recognise the lifelong nature of education and learning'. But what does this statement actually tell us?
There's the usual problem of the difference between 'education' and 'schooling'. Winston Churchill was not the only person to claim that his education was not the result of his schooling. It's assumed that every student is a learner – they may be, but what they are learning is not necessarily what is in the formal curriculum. And what of the words 'fundamental' and 'capacities'? It remains to be seen how fundamental these capacities are. And why 'capacities', suggesting as it does that students are some kind of vessel to be filled?
Perhaps the review might look at these questions. Unfortunately not. The remit permits no such questions. 'The principles and aspirations of CfE have had widespread support from practitioners, learners, parents, and politicians in Scotland and, as such, are not being questioned in the review'. In other words, the government, having already committed so much to the CfE, does not want any dissenting criticism at this stage.
In his article on The Fear of Innovation
, Donald Schon describes what happens when a company embarks on a new product. Initially, there is excitement and enthusiasm for novelty. Inevitably, as the product is rolled out, costs increase and the path of development becomes blunted by concerns for the company's other products. But those in charge of the new product urge more expenditure: 'We have already spent so much on development we might as well put in a little more to see if the investment is worthwhile'.
Unfortunately, large-scale developments undertaken by large corporations and governments, 'may proceed for months or years beyond the point where they should have stopped – they continue because of commitments to errors too frightening to reveal. They have their own momentum. In these cases, the personal commitment of the people involved in the development, the apparent logic of investment, and the fear of admitting failure, all combine to keep the project in motion until it fails of its own weight'.
Schon suggests one problem is that managers want 'a clear, rational view of where we have been and where we are going. It is necessary to believe that the future is essentially predictable and controllable'. Managers, 'suppress the surprising, uncertain, fuzzy, treacherous aspects of innovation in the interest of a therapeutic view of them as clear, rational and orderly. Armed with this myth, managers make decisions and mobilise resources'. Presumably to carry on regardless. Why?
'The rational view of innovation is more nearly correct for marginal inventions. The less significant the invention, the more the process tends to be orderly and predictable. The more radical the invention, the less controllable and predictable'. We can wonder if any of this is relevant to the CfE – maybe the 'other products' in this case might well relate to the Scottish Qualifications Authority.
If we trawl further through the government webpage, we come to a section on page 19 entitled 'Schools', which is a helpful survey of present government policy. It opens by reiterating the 'principles and aspirations', thus: 'Education should open the doors to opportunities which enable children and young people to become successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors to society. We are determined to improve the life chances of all our children. The vast majority of pupils get a good education in Scotland: we want to improve standards in education and close the attainment gap'.
Here we find listed the four 'fundamental' foundations on which the CfE is presumably based. But what we notice immediately is that it is possible to change round the adjectives without much altering the sense. Indeed it would be possible to suggest that our aspiration is for students to be confident, successful, effective and responsible, leaving it open as to which particular aspect of achievement is involved. We see here an interesting device, whereby placing an adjective in front of a noun we direct attention away from it. The nouns, learners, individuals, citizens and contributors are all in some ways contentious notions which are 'disguised' by the adjectives.
The quoted statement about principles and aspirations is an example of the kind of language we so often find in government publications and which may remind us of the poem by John Taylor in 1651:
Words are but wind that do from men proceed;
None but Chamelions on bare Air can feed;
Great men large hopeful promises may utter;
But words did never Fish or Parsnips butter.
Let's go back to the original document which set out the findings of the curriculum review group in 2004. The review identified the changes which were necessary.
• reduce over-crowding in the curriculum and make learning more enjoyable
• better connect the various stages of the curriculum from 3 to 18
• achieve a better balance between between academic and vocational subjects, and include a wider range of experiences
• equip young people with the skills they will need in tomorrow's workforce
• make sure that assessment and certification support learning
• allow more choice to meet the needs of individual young people
These are certainly a useful starting point and it would be good if the CfE actually delivered against these criteria. What we got was:
Government publications are very fond of this kind of diagram, ostensively to show the construction of some aspect of policy. Unfortunately, this diagram fails to present a coherent picture. The various sections contain aspirations which, although at a very general level (and hence open to a wide variety of different interpretations) might be helpful. But the diagram gives no clue as to the way in which various sections are to relate to each other.
Unlike our IKEA diagram, there is no hint as to how the various parts actually fit together. How are the outer ring of successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors to society connected to each other? In fact, these are not fundamental, but stem from an unstated underlying view of the place of schooling in society.
In essence, the CfE is a hotchpotch of different notions without any underlying principle of organisation. So it is hardly surprising that the gradual adoption of CfE has been characterised by a drift back to the system it was intended to replace, but with more tick boxes in an enforced list of targets for both staff and students.
If we think there is any merit in Schon's analysis, it suggests that a large scale innovation like CfE should not be a single prescribed scheme. Technological innovation is disrupting the stable state of society. Rather than attempting to pass off old ways of schooling by disguising them with the words of the new, we should be embracing a fuzzy, uncertain future by multiple interventions. Only by encouraging diversity rather than conformity will we find, by experiment, the innovations that work.
David Eastwood is Emeritus Senior Lecturer at the Department of Education, Aberdeen University