The Primary Curriculum – A Way Forward

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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4 comments
  1. Declan, I like your thinking! Another country you have missed off the list of ‘area’ based curricula is Finland- just read my blogs to see the effectiveness of their educational system!
    One piece of research I found (Richland et al., 2005), comparing the efficacy of blocked versus interleaved learning suggests that in the short term, interleaved learning creates more errors. After a delay, however, information is retained better and can be applied to more varied and complex situations.
    Student directed learning- in terms of choosing their own projects, has also been found to increase self-motivation and interest in the topic to be learned (Doppel & Barak,2002). And if the topics that are up for the choosing include many different aspects of the curriculum, all the better!

    Doppel & Barak (2002) http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/JOTS/Winter-Spring-2002/pdf/v28n1.pdf#page=23
    Richland et al (2005) http://www.gse.uci.edu/richland/Site/Publications_files/5-CogsciIddeas2005.pdf

  2. psua4e said:

    I agree, the curriculum is becoming too focused. This was one of the points made by Marc C. Taylors views of reforming higher education, that the curriculum should be re-structured to develop a sort of adaptive network that is more cross-disciplined.
    When students reach higher education, they have already been taught in ways where too much focus has been put on separate, unrelated subjects that are segregated. When logically speaking, if these subjects were to be made more collaborative, then research and education would be less biased, as collaborating subjects would allow people to consider issues and points from all areas of their study’s, the example that Taylor gives is that he attended a talk which was discussing why international relations had not yet been considered in the religion and society. Making subjects less specific and combining them to be taught through one project allows you to consider things from different angles, so that obvious links wouldn’t be over looked, which can only strengthen the research and education.

    http://thegillfarm.com/blog/2011/04/09/lesson-ideas-combining-subjects/
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/27/opinion/27taylor.html?pagewanted=all

  3. zolucock said:

    As I read through your blog Dec, my head immediately started to scream the word ‘Tracks!!’ Direct Instruction uses a track formation, as opposed to the traditional unit formation of teaching, whereby multiple areas are included within each lesson. I completely agree that this is the way forward; there are so many advantages to using tracks over typical unit blocks:
    Firstly, student attention is much better maintained because they’re not doing just one thing over a long period of time, they get to use different skills and different ideas and strategies within a short period of time. Secondly, difficult and easy information can be combined in one lesson so there are well practiced skills occuring alongside harder/newer skills. Thirdly, information and skills can be distributed over time/lessons to improve retention, and finally what you said; it allows information to be integrated across multiple subject areas to give the children a more connected and rounded understanding of what they’re learning and how that fits in with the rest of the world (Watkins & Slocum, 2004).

  4. Suzy said:

    An approach to learning, which appears in essence to be very similar to the one that you have discussed, is already being used in over 200 UK High Schools and is called “Opening Minds”. It has been researched and funded by the RSA. It develops links between subjects, with the children’s curiosity directing the links and learning, lessons are structured but with no designated or set topics (schools are permitted to choose their own curriculum). However the structure aims to highlight five factors, learning, citizenship, relating to people, managing situations and managing information. I am sure that from the RSA philosophy (which is explained on their website), that their aim is to incorporate this approach into primary schools too. For links to the website please see my third blog aptly named “Open your mind and learn”.
    (No marks).

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