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What Should Schools Teach?: Disciplines, subjects and the pursuit of truth. (A Review)

Updated: Jan 26

What Should Schools Teach, edited by Alka Seghal Cuthbert and Alex Standish, is celebrating its second edition, after being originally published in 2017. The timing is apposite since the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has prompted educationalists to evaluate what schools, teachers and the curriculum are for. Certainly such conversations are going on elsewhere about the future of schools including the opportunities, as well as the threats, in the wake of the pandemic. In What Should Schools Teach, educational philosophy is in capable hands, as Seghal Cuthbert and Standish, aided by their team of subject experts, inject a healthy blend of cerebral intellect, classroom experience, and plain common sense into the curriculum debate. The well-researched content makes the contributors worthy of attention, with more than enough expertise to warrant moments of candour. There is no getting away, for instance, from the title’s implied meaning: what schools should be doing is not necessarily what they are doing.

What happens in schools currently, to the distaste of Sehgal Cuthbert and Standish, is outlined cogently in their joint introduction. For a start, there is too much of what the writers call ‘instrumentalised’ learning, namely the practice of using schools and teachers for the purpose of confronting external problems. When teachers are expected to deliver lessons on diverse issues such as knife crime, teenage pregnancy, climate change and sexual misconduct, they compromise their duty as educators of ‘disciplinary knowledge’. Whilst the writers recognise that there is a knowledge-driven, national curriculum, accompanied by like-minded, exam specifications, teachers are too often constrained by the straitjacket of scripted lessons and teaching to the test. There is a very real danger that teachers share prepared lesson resources before they share ideas and wisdom.

Instead, Seghal Cuthbert and Standish claim, what schools should be teaching is a rigorous curriculum supported by equally fervent professionals who understand epistemology. Teachers themselves need a shared vision, one which understands knowledge, firstly as being intrinsically valuable, and secondly as having different forms. It is a simple enough premise, with no shortage of implications. The writers readily admit that few teachers see the value of theoretical knowledge in informing their practice. Somehow, their message is yet to win over the hearts and minds of the teaching profession. Whilst the argument is focused on schools, any shared sense of what a curriculum is for would need to be equally appreciated by wider interests: parents, teaching assistants and peripatetic instructors would, it seems to me, need to buy into the ethos that Seghal Cuthbert and Standish are proposing.

In their favour, Standish and Seghal Cuthbert do not sink to a paternalistic or patronising register when addressing their implied teacher audience. In fact, a sincere academic tone is set in an enlightening introduction on 'epistemic principles' which widely cites theorists such as Michael Young and Leesa Wheelahan. As far as youngsters go, the curriculum should encourage the acquisition of ‘disciplinary knowledge’, one which is moral, aesthetic and epistemological. As far as teachers go, What Should Schools Teach offers something of a reflective experience, particularly for the ‘generation of teachers who have been trained at universities and schools without being asked to think deeply about what is being taught’. It should be added that the problems are not really attributed to teachers. Rather, there is a poor ethos of education that favours teaching to exams and climbing league tables whilst betraying learning for its own sake. It is another strength of the book that the writers resist the urge to make partisan political points about who is accountable for turning schools into (my phrase) ‘sausage factories’. I daresay that I would have lacked such discipline in the circumstances.

In terms of the structure of What Should Schools Teach, it is analogous to a school open day. You turn up at reception. The Headteacher is doing a talk in the hall to explain the school’s philosophy. Then you are escorted on a tour of each department which is supposed to be in a certain order. But instead you abandon the guide and go where you feel like going. In each department there is a conversation going on, and it feels as though this conversation has been going on for many years. What Should Schools Teach is that open day. Sehgal Cuthbert and Standish are the headteachers: their joint introduction, followed by Sehgal Cuthbert’s chapter on Disciplinary Knowledge and Standish’s chapter on School Subjects, should certainly be carefully read before starting the tour.

In arguing for what should happen and what should not be happening in schools, the introduction condemns the politicisation of schools including the so-called ‘instrumentalisation’ of education, which is condemned for being as misguided as it is counterproductive. Moreover, if freed from the shackles of instrumental policies, teachers could even find themselves united by a simplicity of purpose, namely a moral, aesthetic and epistemological model of teaching and learning. Such a commonality of vision would require an acknowledgement of ‘truth’, and here lies a further challenge to overcome. When taken to extremes, social constructivist ideas question the very existence of universality to the detriment of all that is wondrous about academic learning. Indeed, there is even a school of thought which suggests that the world can be understood through power relations alone. Education pays dearly for being a little too accommodating towards over-simplified, critical theory, the kind which bright students can learn in a few lessons, as the inevitable curricular vacuum is soon filled with the latest government vanity project.

Perhaps the real theme of the book is that schools need to be more assertive in making the distinction between what is more or less valuable educationally. They should embrace the potential of language which, when ‘fully symbolic’, facilitates objectivity by seeing the world from a distance. Teachers also need to embrace ‘experiential knowledge’, one in which sensory experience will hopefully lead to an engagement with truth. Curriculum subjects must go beyond everyday discourse into their specialist discourses. There are implications for pedagogy, of course, such as how lessons should be conducted; ‘individual autonomy’, in Standish’s words, does not mean ‘giving pupils control in the classroom’. Essentially, what comes across is that teachers should own their teaching, own their subject content and, in the nicest possible way, own their learners.

If there is a common thread within the subject chapters, it is the need to understand and appreciate each discipline’s inherent value. Academic subjects are at best conservative (with a small ‘c’) in that they must conserve their discipline’s intrinsic value. It is a point made explicitly by Physics specialist, Gareth Sturdy (although it is echoed implicitly elsewhere): ‘we need to find, or re-find, what is truly unique about what we do, not only within the discipline but within the whole school, and have a robust faith in its intrinsic worth’. The ‘search’ for intrinsic worth has taken its toll on English teachers. English literature’s ‘curricular journey’, writes Seghal Cuthbert, has not been a ‘happy one’. To inject some optimism, what English teachers should do is rediscover the ‘aesthetic power’ of literature, instead of using literature as a means to fulfil other objectives, such as producing better citizens. Christine Counsell’s ‘History’ chapter presents the challenges caused by teaching to an increasingly ‘reductive’ test. In History, understanding that knowledge is both disciplinary and substantive is as important as which historical events should take precedence. In English literature and History the ongoing debate about content, which books and events to include on the course, is particularly stimulating. Clearly, the arts should welcome the content debate and make resolutions that foster the aesthetic experiences of the child.

The subject-specific chapters serve to remind the reader that not all knowledge acquisition is the same and will not mean the same thing in the humanities as it will in the sciences. This is not to say that the arts and sciences should operate a ‘never the twain shall meet’ policy, but that they are different subjects, with different epistemological challenges. One of the book’s great strengths is the way it puts the arts back on the educational ‘map’ for those who worry that it has become the poor relation to STEM fields. The arts should be seen as ‘every bit as important as STEM subjects, and not merely as compensation for the rigours of studying the sciences’. The earnest spirit of What Should Schools Teach is captured in the contributors who are the kind of teachers you wished you had encountered thirty years ago. This sentiment extends to the editors who, having put theory of knowledge back into the domain of teacher training, are exactly the kind of academics who should be running it.

'What Should Schools Teach?: Disciplines, subjects and the pursuit of truth' is edited by Alka Seghal Cuthbert and Alex Standish and is published by UCL Press.

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