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Transforming the Secondary Curriculum

Posted on: June 15, 2020

By Meena Kumari Wood, education consultant and co-author of Secondary Curriculum Transformed

As we move towards a return to school in September, moving away from a knowledge led curriculum is necessary. Whosoever selects this knowledge will influence the shape and future of our young people. My focus is on developing a knowledge and skills-based curriculum so we can truly empower our young people to think for themselves and future proof their lives. This is now more relevant than ever within the context of ‘blended learning’( online and face to face). How can we expect our children to access the knowledge independently, without the ‘learning to learn’ ( metacognitive) skills and the all-important critical literacy skills?

Re-engaging our young people back to school through blended learning relies heavily on their ability to be independent learners, to have the necessary skimming and scanning reading skills. Only then can they select the right information and access the relevant knowledge they require, when working on line and from text books. Critical literacy now combines with digital literacy. Schools have not traditionally taught these skills as the curriculum has been knowledge based, largely reliant in most subjects on teachers instructing and /or guiding children in the classroom.

Only two per cent of British Children have the skills to spot whether a story is fake or real; an All- Party Parliamentary Group report identified. Children with the poorest literacy skills, such as boys and those from disadvantaged backgrounds, were found to be the least likely to be able to spot fake news. “Sometimes you can’t actually tell when it’s real and you never really find out, so you kind of believe it and then…  you… have a hint that it might not be but you never fully know.” (Year 9 pupil)

The reality that emerged from the All-Party Parliamentary Group report showed that whilst half of older children questioned accessed news from websites and social media, only a quarter of these actually trusted online news sources. Half of teachers believe that the national curriculum did not equip children with the critical literacy skills they needed to identify fake news, and a third voiced that these taught skills, were not transferable to the real world.

A system change is urgently required that links critical literacy skills to the real world, making it relevant for children and young people outside the classroom. Students’ independent evaluation of news articles and having the courage of their own convictions can only happen, once critical literacy is integrated into lessons with current affairs and real-life links to online and social media.  Oracy skills, leading to critical debate and discussion, together with reading skills, (comprehension and inference), enable students to ‘look behind’ the text and consider how an author’s use of language might position them as readers. An excellent resource that I have used is ‘The Day’, a daily online newspaper for schools, which links news stories to the national curriculum and encourages students to debate and engage with local and global issues . In this ever changing world critical thinking is  a key skill and greatly valued by students of all ages.

Encouraging critical questioning of all texts across all subjects is an effective way of embedding critical literacy practices, promoting deeper engagement and metacognition in students through critical reflection. It is important that students develop their critical questioning skills by extending these to beyond the traditional GCSE subjects of English, history, citizenship, PSHE. At ‘A’ Level, students apply interrogation and higher order thinking skills to, for instance, in philosophy, economics, law, politics, psychology and sociology. Are they taught the skills of asking perceptive questions, weighing evidence, sifting arguments, and reasoned arguments across English, history, science, geography, and mathematics at GCSE?

OECD Director, Andreas Schleicher (as cited in Siddique, 2017) argues, teaching critical literacy is:

“… building skills to help discern the truth into all lessons, from science to history.”

As educators we must be open to learning from good practice in other countries.  In Finland, since 2016 a multi-platform, cross- subject component of the National Curriculum means all students are taught, for instance, in maths, how statistics can lie; how images in art can be manipulated, in history, propaganda analyses and through language to discern words that can confuse or mislead.  The emphasis is on critical thinking, fact checking and evaluating information in each subject.

A solely knowledge- based curriculum is not going to pass muster, as we prepare our young people for resuming the discipline of learning in September. Importantly, given the ‘bubble’ timetables for September we also want them to access the interactivity that comes with using technology, when they are not in school and need to work independently. The fact is that our children stumble across on knowledge on a search engine or news on social media, or an algorithm selects it for them; they must approach it critically. We must ensure that our students understand the importance of fact checking and can refer to three /four different reliable sources across every subject. 

Is it not timely post Covid, that we teach our young people how to search out for bias, to be analytical and to question and aggregate information? These are the prime key skills they will need, more than ever, to navigate their way across this shifting-sands global landscape. The sudden challenges they now face when they leave school are far more exacting than those of previous generations.  They must access a brave new competitive world for higher tier education and training. They may progress to a bewildering world of new work opportunities… or potentially, worklessness during a time of recession. Adaptability, flexibility and resilience are key attributes that they all need during this era of instability.

Only through investing in this new way of learning, can we kick start the process of independent learning and develop the reflective and metacognitive skills all our young people urgently need to become genuinely knowledgeable and skilled.


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Secondary Curriculum Transformed

If you enjoyed reading this article, Secondary Curriculum Transformed is an essential read for school leaders and teachers interested in building a skills-based cirriculum.

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