Why we should stop talking about ‘delivering’ the curriculum

 

For a long while now, delivery has been the accepted analogy for curriculum design and teaching. First appearing in the educational lexicon about the same time as the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit in the early years of the Labour Government, it soon became the go-to metaphor for anyone talking about the teaching and learning process in the late 90s.

As a technical term, however, it is deeply flawed and fails to capture the multifaceted complexity of its subject. Teachers are not postal workers delivering knowledge like parcels from the page to the brain and children minds are not passive open-mouthed letterboxes, waiting for learning to be dropped in.

Metaphors matter and the way we talk about a subject, influences the way we think about it. Of course, ‘delivering’ the curriculum is as much a cliché as ‘discovery’ learning and most schools use a variety of different approaches. Nevertheless, it has become so ubiquitous and firmly entrenched that it is very rarely questioned or challenged. It is not unusual to hear educators talking about ‘delivering the curriculum’ or ‘delivering a lesson’, or even ‘delivering a great lesson’ (which must be close to an oxymoron), without much thought into what this actually means. It even crops up in the writing of education bloggers, who are otherwise very careful about their use of words. For Orwell it would constitute a ‘flyblown metaphor’ used so lazily that it no longer has any real meaning and should be consigned to the dustbin.

I’ve hated it from the first time I heard it used at a curriculum design meeting run by the Local Authority after the publication of Curriculum 2000. It filled me instantly with horror implying, as it does, the objectification of both adults and children in the teaching and learning process. It represented what I disliked about the Literacy Hour, a single method, universally applied, where teachers only had to follow the procedure for students to learn efficiently.

The problem with delivery methods in education is that they are impersonal, designed, as they must be, away from the classrooms where they will be used. Classrooms are a dynamic learning environment, by that I mean the adults and the children working in that space have their own motivations, interests, and levels of expertise. They react in response to the subject matter and methods being used, and the teacher is wise to adapt their own responses accordingly. For these reasons we should be wary of prescriptive strategies or teaching methods that claim to be the best way for children to learn. In my mind, it always depends on what children are in the room. Some children need more structure, others need more practice, some need an overview, and others like to find out for themselves. The teacher’s job is to plan and teach the methods that have the most effective outcomes, irrespective of what the experts say.

The problem with experts is that their opinion varies over time and has direct impact on what we do and don’t do in the classroom, here are three examples:

  • Ten years ago the received wisdom was that every lesson had to start with the children being told the Learning Objective. These were often written on the board and students spent five or ten minutes (depending on their skills) at the start of the lesson writing them into their books. Now we are told that this is not best practice and the LO can be shared at any time.
  • The new orthodoxy has it that Teacher Talk is a bad thing. As a consequence many teachers are told to limit their TT to a minimum. Lesson observations are focused on how much time the teacher talks (as they were ten years ago on LOs) and skilled teachers feel their professional expertise is under attack.
  • In the New Curriculum phonics is a prescribed method for teaching reading. From September 2014 every Primary School in the country is legally required to use phonics.

In my opinion forcing schools to adopt a prescribed method is always a bad idea (even if the idea itself is not bad) however the prescription of phonics is of a different order to what we have seen before and represents a serious erosion of our professional independence. Pedagogy has always been the prerogative of teachers and schools. Even the Literacy Hour was a non-statutory method, never a legal requirement. As far as I know, the requirement to teach phonics is the first time a single pedagogical method has been enshrined in law.

Some might feel I’m making a fuss about nothing, but these things are important. Teaching is a profession; it takes time and practice to do well. Pedagogy is not a simple matter of wrapping up parcels and delivering them to the right address, it is a complex and difficult process that takes many years to master. Using the right words to describe what we do is important, protecting our professional standing is important, and so is resisting those who tell us how to do our job.

14 Comments

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  1. Heather F August 12, 2013 at 8:32 pm #

    I don’t agree about phonics but OH YES that term is horrible. I have also heard of ‘delivering the input’ – poor kids.

    • Tim Taylor August 12, 2013 at 8:38 pm #

      Thanks for commenting Heather, my point is not about phonics, but about having pedagogy prescribed. It’s a mistake, whatever the strategy.

  2. manwithadog August 12, 2013 at 10:19 pm #

    I’ve always had the assumption that delivery was a perjorative term anyway – accurately describing the ‘its Wednesday morning, term 3 week 4 therefore I must be teaching persuasive texts’ model of lesson planning. It’s always astounded me that bright, capable teachers would never question the assumption that a published scheme of work or national framework would know their 30 children better than they did.

  3. Geraldine Carter August 13, 2013 at 4:54 pm #

    Foundational skills are the same for everyone- only the very gifted can do without. Leaving children without basic skills was ILEA’s omission in the 70s and 80s. It left thousands of children bereft of the benefits of education. But in reaction to this massive failure, a culture of micro-management emerged and the dreaded word ‘delivery’ gained purchase.

  4. RedGreen August 15, 2013 at 9:11 am #

    Tim, I think there are two subtly different issues at play here.

    1. Is there a best way to teach a skill like reading?

    2. To what extent should we let politicians meddle?

    I think where we fundamentally disagree is point 1. I just don’t buy all this “in MY classroom mixed methods works for MY kids”. These teachers aren’t doing double blind studies; they have no idea whether phonics would have worked better. Proper, rigorous research suggests phonics WOULD have worked better. This isn’t about politicians meddling. It’s about responding to education research just like doctors on the ground respond to research into new medical approaches. That’s something I think teachers have been criminally slow to do. To me, teaching phonics first fast and only is as much of a no brainer as a doctor telling you to eat healthily and exercise. We can never definitively prove it’s best but it’s the best information we’ve got, and it’s extremely hard to argue the alternative is better.

    Point 2 is where I have more sympathy for your position. Politicians are way too short termist for my liking, and I do see the dangers of letting them influence too much. But honestly, at the moment I feel that they’re the lesser of two evils. We have teachers and ITT tutors sticking their fingers in their ears, having a tantrum, refusing to listen to the research. They’re like doctors saying “well I really LIKE smoking so I don’t care about your poxy emphysema research. And my nan smoked 40 a day and lived to 105 so nerrr all your research is invalid”. In the face of that, I’m going to back the politicians enforcing it the hard way.

    • Tim Taylor August 15, 2013 at 4:24 pm #

      Hi Red/Green

      Thank you for writing a comment.

      1. I’m not sure where you get the idea that I don’t think teaching phonics is an effective method. To be clear, I do.

      Although I don’t share your complete faith in empirical research for ontological reasons (I wrote a blog on the subject – http://www.imaginative-inquiry.co.uk/2013/07/cognitive-psychology-apply-with-extreme-caution/), this is really a completely different matter.

      I believe it is our professional duty to keep up to date with new methods and to use and apply those methods if they prove to be effective. I describe this as adding to our teacher ‘repertoire’. I’m much less keen on reducing our options (if we’ve found them effective through practice) because someone tells us ‘according to research’ we should only use one approach. That just doesn’t sound like good professional practice to me. Therefore, when I first came across phonics through the Jolly Phonics scheme in the mid-90s, I (along with the other teachers in the school) tested the approach in our classrooms and found it be an effective strategy. As a consequence we added it to our repertoire.

      At the time we also explored other strategies for improving learning, which we were told also had empirical evidence behind them, but found them much less useful – they were rejected and never became part of our repertoire.

      I really don’t need convincing that phonics help children read, I’ve used them for nearly twenty years, but if you are telling me I can only use phonics, then I would respectfully decline your advice.

      2. On the matter of politicians and education, political interference is always the worst of two evils. Again for me it is a matter of principle. Politicians are driven by their own motivations and (as you say) short-term outlook. Forgetting that we both think phonics are a good idea, I think it is a real mistake to give politicians the power to legislate pedagogy. It’s not their job to tell teachers how to teach, just like it is not their job to tell doctors or judges how to practice. I remember the Literacy Hour, millions were spent on it -research conducted, resources made and compulsory training forced on everyone. Fortunately the politicians (who really believed in the evidence that it would improve standards dramatically) where never given the power to make it legally enforceable and we were able to avoid teaching the useless thing.

      In my mind we should never give politicians the power to legislate pedagogy, of any kind. Today it might be something we agree with, tomorrow it might be SEAL. God help us.

      • RedGreen August 16, 2013 at 8:48 am #

        Nobody’s against phonics as far as I know. What people disagree over is the “first, fast, and only” part – something I support, and correct me if I’m wrong but it doesn’t sound like you do. People with far more expertise and knowledge than me have tried and failed to convince you, so I’m not going to even try. But I think it’s only intellectually honest for you to acknowledge that when you talk about “adding to your repertoire”, you’re endorsing mixed methods, which explicitly goes against what research suggests is best.

        I think you may be overstating the importance of legislation. SEAL and literacy hour weren’t legislated but were still practically everywhere. A daily collective act of worship is legislated but is practically nowhere.

        • Tim Taylor August 16, 2013 at 10:12 am #

          1. Your are right about disagreeing on the “first, fast, and only” part. I think my position is both clear and transparent on this. You’re also right that others have tried to convince me and failed. This is for two reasons, (both outlined in this blog http://www.imaginative-inquiry.co.uk/2013/07/cognitive-psychology-apply-with-extreme-caution/)
          – The social sciences are not the same as the natural sciences – they involve human agency – therefore we can’t relay with the same level of certainty on empirical research. Even in the natural sciences (especially cognitive science) theories and evidence remain open to question and interpretation. In the social sciences this is even more so and it would be a mistake to give too much credence or to rely too heavily to the finding of empirical research. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Explaining-Society-Introduction-Critical-Interventions/dp/0415221838/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1376644456&sr=8-3&keywords=critical+realism
          – As we’ve already discussed the classroom is a dynamic social space with thinking people, motivated and affected by different interests, circumstances and concerns. I believe I must always work with the children in the room, this still means doing the work of a professional – reading research, testing out new methods and approaches, reviewing, reflecting and refining my practice – but always being aware that my methods are contingent and open to change. Any method (however well evidenced) must, in my opinion, live or die in this environment. I don’t care if the empirical evidence stacks up from here to the moon, if it is not working for my students I will use other methods.

          2. On the matter of legislation you are again (sadly) right. SEAL and LH were widely adopted, despite not being compulsory. However, I think this rather supports my argument more than yours. My point is, we could do something else – and many did after realising the methods were flawed – but if they had been legislated we would have had no choice. The lessons of SEAL and LH are that we should stand up more for what we believe professionally is right, rather than do what we are told by politicians. Not that we should give them more power to tell us how to teach.

  5. Miss Smith August 15, 2013 at 4:44 pm #

    Tim

    Yes. I agree completely. Once methods begin to be prescribed we are in murky water. Who needs teachers any more when the ‘evidence’ shows that more cost effective delivery works? The learning lab…
    My greatest fear at the moment is unscrupulous self serving politicians and their big business mates using the latest ‘research’ and a new crop of followers to endorse them, ruining the integrity of our profession.

  6. Debra Kidd August 15, 2013 at 5:23 pm #

    Another thoughtful blog Tim – thank you. The phonics debate is clouding this thread as ever, but I think it’s important to say that phonics does not come first. Speech comes first, forming sounds, listening to sounds, developing, using and building vocabulary. They all come first. And alongside that, an awareness that there are texts in the world and that those scribbles can create meanings. Great EYFS education focuses on these aspects first – building awareness of the existence and usefulness of written texts and the language to describe them. Phonics is then one part of a reading whole. I, like you, preferred Jolly Phonics because it knew how to make the learning of the graphemes/phoneme correspondence memorable through multi-sensory engagement. Something that Miskin never managed. The problem with legislating, alongside the state sponsorship of one scheme over another (Miskin’s company now reports profits of well over a million pounds a year) is that it ends up LIMITING the reading experience. ED Hirsch is clear on this. Vocabulary, vocabulary, vocabulary – that’s the key to reading. Phonics has been almost universally ‘delivered’ – on a plate – since 2007. Decoding and encoding skills have improved, but reading comprehension has not. This legislation will only exacerbate the problem. When I was an ITT tutor – with fingers not in ears as red/green would say – our sessions on literature, poetry, grammar and comprehension were squeezed by relentless demands by TDA/fasted to increase input on phonics. To suggest that ITT tutors are blind and not held accountable is laughable as is the suggestion that ‘evidence based research and science’ can ever deliver easy answers to complex human interactions. And I’ve used that awful word again – deliver – because that’s what everyone wants. A simple system of passing an item from one to another and as long as we crave it and try to force it, we’ll continue to reduce the education system to a meaningless mass of objectives measured by meaningless assessment outcomes.

  7. Hannah Pearson August 15, 2013 at 9:50 pm #

    In strong agreement with Debra here.

    I am too proud of my profession to blindly accept a statement such as ‘research shows…’ without knowing the parameters to that research. I refuse to base the way I teach a child to read upon anything other than that individual child’s level of interaction; life experience; love of story; pronunciation of sound; engagement with events; vocabulary to describe their experiences; auditory memory; visual memory; ear for rhythm; ear for rhyme; visual and spatial coordination (including left/right dominance), and last, BUT BY NO MEANS LEAST, their knowledge of letters and sounds.

    Reading requires metacognition. Cultivating metacognition is the most effective way to intervene to improve a child’s life chances. I can’t say I know how to achieve it. It requires a journey in each case, one where the teacher spends time unpicking a child’s unique responses and behaviours in order to allow for new connections, assimilation and application. It has to be a complex and unique process. I’m not saying that it is hard, or that, as adults, we should not try to frame pedagogy (for anything, not just reading). Indeed we need to do this to support people into the profession. However, legislating on pedagogy is frightening. I worry it could result in an increase of teachers who do not reflect on their practice, and a greater population of pupils for whom learning is difficult because the way prescribed is not the way that works for them.

  8. Michael Tidd August 16, 2013 at 2:02 pm #

    A very interesting post about an important issue. The ‘delivery’ issue is a real concern to me.
    Given what Nick Gibb once said about teachers being able to “laminate their lesson plans and recycle them”, my concern is that those in political power are too quick to see solutions in text books and too rarely recognise the need for trained and knowledgeable professionals.

  9. James Harlan November 26, 2013 at 11:27 am #

    I agree with you for “… forcing schools to adopt a prescribed method is always a bad idea.” Over time, the need keeps changing. Therefore, way of delivering the knowledge should be up to the need for it to be effective.

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