A learner's curriculum

I worked for several years alongside Professor Mike Newby, who at the time was serving as Dean of the Faculty of Education at Plymouth University. After his eventual retirement, he continued his research, and in 2005 published what I consider to be one of his most significant contributions to the education literature. A Learner's Curriculum, published by the Association for Teachers and Lecturers, outlines what Newby considered to be a curriculum for the 21st Century. Almost a decade later, in a time where all school children have been born after, or have no memories of the last century, it seems an appropriate time to revisit his work to see how it relates to present day 21st Century practices.

Newby's first assertion is that in a time of rapid change, the curriculum cannot remain static, but must be responsive to the shifting needs of society. He remarks that learning will change, because in the age of the Internet, 'non-hierarchical, self-managed networks will become characteristic organisational features of the middle years of the twenty-first century, and that we must therefore prepare children and young people for a networked world.'  Clearly this has already emerged as a phenomenon in the last few years, and since the proliferation of social media and smart mobiles, seems to be accelerating.

His second assertion is that the structure and boundaries of the curriculum will need to change. He suggests that student needs are changing too, and 'if learners are to flourish and thrive in the decades to come, they will need an experimental, progressive curriculum – one focused on the learner – where moulds will be broken and traditional barriers between disciplines and subjects will start to crumble.' Again, there are signs that this is beginning to happen, but this is a slower process. Conservative organisations such as schools often resist change, and the curriculum is perhaps the most resistant stronghold of them all. Some schools are beginning to break down the barriers between subjects, and are offering cross curricular opportunities. Others are seeing the benefits of progressive methods where learning is student centred, and where experiential approaches, personalised learning and learning through making are coming to the fore.

Newby shows that there are three common curriculum types. The first, and most prevalent in state funded schools is the content based curriculum, which is premised on the belief that children attend school to learn facts. There are several problems with this approach to education, including the fact that some subjects are privileged above others and that some kinds of knowledge can become irrelevant. The content based curriculum is characterised by rapid transition between subjects, little time to experiment and express creativity, and a great deal of testing to ensure that students are as knowledgeable as possible when they leave school.

The second type of curriculum is known as the vocational curriculum, and focuses on preparing children for eventual work. It emphasises skills alongside knowledge, and attempts to support children in their progression from novice to expert status, showing direct links between what is learnt in school and what is eventually practised in the world of work. The major criticism of this approach to education is that it considers children as commodities, and assesses their economic worth in their capability to transition from learner to earner. It fails to acknowledge many of the aesthetic and philosophical aspects of learning, and can stifle creativity.

The final type of curriculum Newby features in his review is the child centred curriculum, which encourages children to question and discover. It imposes fewer boundaries and constraints than its alternatives, and is based less on subjects and more on exploration, because it places more importance on how a child learns than what they learn. Interestingly, Newby describes the child centred curriculum as 'Making discoveries, being encouraged to connect unexpected ideas, not being corralled within conventional subject-based stockades – these habits of thinking could as well describe famous inventors, explorers and university
researchers as children in primary school.' The criticism of this approach is that knowledge is secondary to experience, and that too much school time is wasted on play and experimentation.

One of Professor Newby's statements could be considered a warning to the traditionalists: 'Knowledge will no longer uniquely reside in the heads of teachers, to be conveyed each lesson to their pupils, but will be perpetually available on the internet. The content-based curriculum, such as it is ‘delivered’ in schools (for it will be available everywhere), will have to change to take account of the ready availability of knowledge of many kinds. Subjects, where these remain important, will be in a constant state of flux. Barriers between disciplines will start to crumble, as subjects begin to blend and morph into new subjects. Teachers, eager to protect the status of their subjects, will nonetheless be asked to think anew, and to work alongside others from different disciplines.'

Photo by Frederick Wallace on Flickr

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A learner's curriculum by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Laura Ritchie said…
Hi Steve, Thank you very much for sharing this. I didn't know of Newby and his ideas sound very familiar to me. I run a class where I teach people to create a music learning curriculum for one individual learner (as happens in music lessons), and more than telling them what to do I work to give them tools to do it themselves. I had to read your post twice, as in the beginning you mention how Newby's work is very influential, but those last two points come with heavy criticism... so I wasn't sure what you thought? I agree that unstructured play can be less obviously connected to learning, but if the teacher is a facilitator and is able to guide the play then it can become highly relevant and a way of allowing students to 'discover' through what they feel is their own experimentation, when it is actually a semi-structured activity. (I need to read the whole of Newby's publication, but after reading your post I had lots of thoughts, and don't tend to comment as much as I should, and thought I would.)
Going backwards to the career criticism. If he considers students as workforce commodities that is not good - but if the learning is geared to equipping and enabling students to be employable and stay within their chosen field for their lives, then that is exactly right. For me as someone teaching in music, it is incredibly important to know that my students have skills that will carry them forward and allow them to continue with what they love. I completely agree that they will carve their own jobs - and that with the changing landscape of our technology influenced society it would be silly of anyone to pretend they knew exactly what things would be like, even in 10 years.
Lastly, thank you! It is far less important to me whether you agree or not with what I have said- the important thing is that you made me think. I will be including Newby's writing in my class (it's an open class btw) and hopefully it will provoke thinking from all who participate as well.

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