Curriculum trials again raise questions about ministerial meddling: cited ‘evidence’ is limited

Janet Downs's picture

The government’s curriculum programme trials have raised serious questions about the timing of the pilots, their scale, links between the Department for Education and Ofsted and the philosophy underpinning the trials, Warwick Mansell writes on Education Uncovered*.

I shall concentrate on just one aspect of Warwick’s wide-ranging reports –how the pilot scheme appears to have been set up to reinforce ministerial prejudices.

The DfE’s specification for schools wishing to bid Curriculum Fund money reveals the DfE (or rather ministers) had already decided what form the curriculum should take and how it should be taught:

The Department is therefore committed to using the Curriculum Fund to support the development and sharing of curriculum materials…[which] are knowledge-rich, and have teacher-led instruction and whole-class teaching at their core.’

The DfE produced ‘evidence’ which it said justified its insistence that an acceptable curriculum should have these three elements ‘at their core’.

Knowledge rich

One book only: Why Knowledge Matters (2016) describing the theories of E D Hirsch, originally published in 1996.   This is not uncontroversial (see here for example of criticism).

Whole-class teaching

No evidence provided just assertions and a plug for Mastery teaching.

Teacher-led instruction

The three pieces of 'evidence' don't endorse direct instruction as much as the DfE implies. They cover just two subjects - maths or science.

The first, published 2004, looked at low-achievers only. These were split into two groups: one received ‘constructivist’ instruction in multiplication; the other ‘explicit instruction’. The latter improved ‘significantly more’ than the former. But BOTH groups, whether constructivist or explicit instruction, improved ‘significantly more’ than the control group. This led the researchers to reach a tentative conclusion: methods ‘requiring students to construct their own knowledge may not be effective for low-achieving students’.

The second, also published 2004, studied 112 third- and fourth-graders in the USA. This pitched ‘direct instruction’ against ‘discovery learning’ in science. The researchers adopted an ‘extreme’ version of discovery learning – ‘no teacher intervention beyond the suggestion of a learning objective…no guiding questions and no feedback’. This extreme version can’t be said to describe all enquiry-based learning.

The third was OECD discussing the PISA 2015 results. OECD found direct instruction of science resulted in higher results in PISA science tests. But OECD also said enquiry-based instruction was ‘particularly important’ in teaching science. It required pupils to do experiments. It challenged pupils and encouraged a ‘conceptual understanding’. Top-performers were found to have taken part in such enquiry.

To sum up: the DfE offered four pieces of evidence.  One was a controversial book.  The other three were confined to two subjects.  One had a tentative conclusion relating to low achievers, another used an extreme method of discovery learning and the third didn’t damn enquiry-based learning.

It’s a matter of concern when a government pushes its own view of curriculum content and teaching methods.  Curriculum interference by politicians of the type we’re seeing now in England creates a disturbing precedent.

*Subscribers only.

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Nairb1's picture
Thu, 02/05/2019 - 13:34

Remember the DfE will always come up with a simplistic 'solution' to any complex problem because it has to be something Nick Gibb can understand.

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