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In my blog last week I criticized the English and Welsh primary school curriculum for being overloaded and too prescriptive. This week I intend to propose changes that I think will improve primary education.

In 2004, the Northern Irish (NI) primary curriculum changed from being subject based (like England and Wales) to being area based, and is now organized as follows:

  • Language and Literacy
  • Mathematics and Numeracy
  • The Arts
  • The World Around Us
  • Personal Development and Mutual Understanding
  • Physical Education

These changes were made after reports found that teaching was being compartmentalized “into a series of subject specific experiences with minimal opportunities for exploring the links across subject areas”. While there is still a focus on literacy and numeracy in this new curriculum, areas such as ‘The Arts’ and ‘The World Around Us’ are designed to encourage pupils and teachers to make links between the topics they learn.

This is a learning principle that has been proven to work. It is analogous to Bjork’s concept of “interleaving”, whereby material and skills are mixed and diversified during the process of learning. This is a superior method of learning to learning in blocks, typified by our subject-based curriculum. The benefits of interleaving clearly apply to NI’s area based curriculum:

“If information is studied so that it can be interpreted in relation to other things in memory, learning is much more powerful” (Bjork)

Some UK schools, such as Bournville Junior School in Birmingham have managed to get around the problem of compartmentalized subjects by combining subjects to create ‘Learning Journeys’, such as the “Where in the World” learning journey, which combines music, history and geography, enhancing these individual topics and enriching the learning experience.

‘I think our Learning Journey is brilliant. Because subjects are grouped together, we don’t have to stop for the next lesson, but can carry on working on a project until it’s finished.’

–   Year 6 pupil at Bournville Junior School

As lcdobson91 highlighted last week, in England and Wales teachers’ lesson plans for children as young as four currently “consist of many little boxes of criteria to fill in for each subject each week”. Interleaved learning in the form of “learning journeys” unlocks children’s’ natural curiosity and enthusiasm for learning, while teachers have more time to help learners form patterns and connections between ideas. An interleaved curriculum, which encourages interdisciplinary engagement, questioning and curiosity, rather than compartmentalization and prescription, is surely more likely to instill in young children a permanent enthusiasm and love for learning.

A number of countries in recent times have moved away from the subject based approach to primary education. As of 2008, Northern Ireland, Scotland Italy, Australia, Spain, France, Germany and New Zealand all had “area” based primary curricula. The overall performance of these countries in the most recent PISA tests, especially in comparison to England and Wales suggests that it’s about time we followed suit.

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The state education system in England and Wales is divided into five key stages. The first is key stage 1, which children are required to go through between the ages of 5 and 7. It consists of eleven statutory areas that children and teachers are required to follow:

  • English language
  • Mathematics
  • Science
  • Information and Communication Technology
  • Design Technology
  • History
  • Geography
  • Art and Design
  • Music
  • Physical Education
  • Religious Education

There are eleven subjects on that list. There are 5 days in a week. Children are taught for around 5.5 hours per day, which works out at 2.5 hours per subject per week.

Is it really surprising that so many young children are underperforming? This curriculum is far too general, and it aims to cover far too many bases. Such a crowded syllabus does not allow students to engage with the topics to any meaningful level.

Recently schools minister Nick Gibb suggested a greater need focus and emphasis on the teaching of reading and writing in primary school. How realistic is it to ask teachers to do this when they are already burdened with covering all of these areas in those two years?

In 2008, former director of Ofsted Sir Jim Rose proposed a revised curriculum which places a greater focus on ensuring that by age 7, children have a strong grasp on the literacy and numeracy skills they need in order to progress in their later education. He highlights that a firm basis of language is key to promoting the cognitive capabilities needed for successful learning.

Instead of trying to cover all angles at such an early age, we should be building firm foundations upon which children can develop their existing knowledge and abilities. It is my view that the current curriculum introduces compartmentalized and isolated teaching too quickly, and that this is negatively affecting the quality of education provided by primary schools.

I found this quote from Rose’s report particularly relevant:

“Continuing failure to protect primary schools from curriculum overload will lead to the superficial treatment of essential content, as they struggle to cope with ‘the next new thing’ rather than teach worthwhile knowledge, skills and understanding to sufficient depth and make sure that children value and enjoy their learning.”

Until we address this issue, children will continue to underachieve and fail to reach acceptable standards by the time they reach secondary school, disadvantaging them throughout their academic lives. The real tragedy is that this report was written in 2008, yet the problems raised are still prevalent and the key stage one curriculum still shows no sign of being changed.

In 2008, sales generated by the UK video games industry totaled £2 billion. The global market for computer games is predicted to grow annually by 10.6% in the coming years and is expected to reach $86.7 billion in 2014. The UK is in a strong position to capitalize on this growing market, and demand for skilled employees in these industries is high.  However, industry reports suggest that the UK has recently slipped from 3rd to 6th in the world development league of computer scientists and artists, and that the education system is failing to produce talent of the standard required  (Livingstone, 2011).

Although video games and visual effects are growing industries, only 12% of graduates from specialist UK courses are employed in the games sector six months after graduating. In addition, more people are studying specialist video game courses here than there are jobs in the industry. However, despite this surplus of graduates, 58% of video games employers say that it is difficult to find graduates with the required skills straight out of higher education. This figure rises to 71% of employers in companies with more than 100 employees.

Dissatisfaction with graduate quality is not limited to the video game industry. A poll of major British firms revealed that 75% of bosses think that British graduates are poor across a number of domains, including written and spoken English, technical skills and interpersonal skills.

As a result of the shortcomings of graduates educated at UK specialist video game courses, employers turn to graduates from other countries. 30% of graduates employed in the UK video game industry have studied overseas. The following table shows self-report measures of the kind of skills students feel they are learning during their degrees, and the reports of UK students suggest that our courses are lagging behind overseas courses.

The standard of graduate educated in this country is falling short, and employers know it. Certain UK institutions with industry accreditations have higher employment rates than non-accredited institutions, but on the whole the consensus from industry experts is that most courses do not focus on the specific technical skills needed to create video games.

The UK video game industry provides a case study of why quality of the degree is limiting graduate employment, not saturated job markets. The evidence is clear: UK Universities are producing Universally poor graduates ill equipped for industry and employment.

* Unless stated otherwise all statistics in this blog were obtained from the Next Gen report, which was co-authored by video game industry experts.

(Part 1 of a collaborative blog – for link to part 2 scroll down to end)

The degree has been devalued. Graduates unemployment levels are rising, and employers are complaining that graduates just don’t have the skills to contribute to industry.  Within this flawed system, non-enthused students are able to coast by, working hard during exam periods in order to memorize the material necessary to pass exams, and then forgetting it all once it has served this shallow purpose. What qualities or skills have these students learned that would be of any value or desire to a business or an employer?

The degree needs to change. People argue that going to university is about more than learning; they say it’s about the lifestyle, independence, making new friends. That’s like playing golf just so you can wear a pair of silly trousers. You don’t need to go to university to achieve any of these things. The fact that many students leave university with 2:2 level degrees or above whilst maintaining the kind of lifestyle students are renowned for tells its own story about how hard it is to get a degree.

Our economy is stagnant, as are our schools, universities and the graduates they produce. If we want to produce graduates worth employing, capable of innovation and enterprise, we need to re-assess university education. A degree should be rigorous and demanding. It should be impossible to attain a degree unless you have engaged consistently with the course. University should be a challenging place where people learn, not passively through attending lectures and rote memorization, but through active participation, discussion, debate, collaboration and creation.

So how do we improve the current university model?

Lectures and lecture theatres exist because they used to be the best way to deliver knowledge. Now, information is widely available, and can be accessed electronically. Lecture-style material could be more efficiently provided online, and could also be organized in ways that incorporate learning principles that have been proven to work, such as dual code and multimedia effects, organization effects, desirable difficulties, and cognitive disequilibrium. (25 Principles of Learning).

By abandoning the constraints of the lecture theatre, core course material could be better integrated with relevant online material such as Ted Talks, YouTube videos, the latest research, and non-assessed online tests which would allow students to assess their progress and identify gaps in knowledge without fear of failure. Non-assessed tests are important because fear of failure can be demotivating to students (Caraway et al., 2003), while in the absence of fear students are more likely to feel confident in their ability to learn. (Ryan & Patrick, 2001). Providing material in this way would require students to be active learners, promoting long-term retention, and deeper understanding.

To read the second part of the manifesto, click here