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.’
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.