Shifting our gaze from the distraction

After Colin McCormick kindly shared his thinking with me, and following on from the EdClub discussion last week around what a post-COVID curriculum might mean for school leaders and teachers, there are aspects of the catch-up discussion that we may have still overlooked. I understand why, and it’s a little thorny, but it’s never been more important if our continued aim is to serve the students that we teach.

The catch up debate is somewhat polarised, and simplistic in its attempt to even be deemed a debate: whilst I won’t deny the influx of ‘making up for lost time’ webinars on the horizon, or the surge in tutoring availability which will strive to make promises that may not be possible, I think deep down, as a profession we understand that catch up cannot be deemed the silver bullet solution, and indeed, there is no time to be caught up upon. Time is finite- it did not sit in a pail during a pandemic, waiting for the next period of availability in which we looked to make use of it. Time is spent, not gained, and every day, one child will pick a book and one child will not. I think we made our peace with that a long time ago, understanding that this is the enduring task we continue to attempt to address. It’s the purpose of education. To reach across that void.

And yet, the term ‘catch up’ lingers- the acceleration of a race that we already knew was at play- and our dissatisfaction the the term highlights that in parts, we don’t have the label to present the alternative. This might be because the alternative is complex, and it hangs in the balance in a slightly more precarious fashion than the rudimentary act of blanket tutoring schedules, slicing away our curriculum offer at a subject level, or fishing out test after test so that we can not only say we’re ‘doing ‘catch up- it’s done and dusted. It feels cleaner, and easier.

These strategies are set to distract us from what we know to be better work, our finest work, which is the focused, collective and never-ending refinement of both curriculum development, and the development of the profession alongside this to ensure that we understand not only the importance of subject, but how vital it is that we set about understanding it as a collective pursuit.

To take the development of subject curriculum first of all, senior leaders and subject leaders must unravel subjects with care and deliberation: that to entirely dismantle something, to the unknowing eye, may seem secure and capable of such dismantlement, but to do so would be a bastardisation of the discipline itself, and to unpick the threads are a far more cautious act, led by a volition of the subject itself- its traditions and ancestry, as opposed to how we might package it as an unrecognisable skeleton, fit only for the framework of an exam specification- and perhaps not even that.

And so, senior leaders and subject leaders set about this dissection with patience, with an understanding that this isn’t just an response to the aftermath of a pandemic, but an ongoing process of refinement and reevaluation of the most important thing- that we have a duty of care to understand it better, even when at times it feels unwieldy. That we must look to handle where students are changed through the concepts they encounter; how each component looks to benefit the next; how such work is never done, but that revisiting it is joyful, even in such a difficult time.

Next, we could then look to share such knowledge with classroom teachers, in our continued bid to understand the subject a little better: to acknowledge that it has shifted since our own school experiences, our own academic venture. That whilst we attended to our education to become subject experts, no one shifted our gaze to the way in which knowledge of the subject was constructed, interacted, culminated. We wish we had known how powerful it was to possess knowledge of knowledge to truly see the impact of our work. That quality first teaching is where we make such a fundamental impact in school: the micro, nuanced, responsive changes that teachers make every minute are the collective undertaking that makes the greatest change overall. That by training teachers to move away from outstanding questions in outstanding lessons and instead, upskilling them with a diagnostic approach to finding out what is not known, it is an altogether more satisfying experience.

We cannot begin to equip ourselves with this necessary set of instruments without the prioritisation of time, and the humility of a re-education on our own part. That it isn’t knowledge of a spreadsheet, but a knowledge of where the subject itself has journeyed. It is both terrifying and intimidating. It proves to be a task that demands that you walk away and give it space to breathe, because the thinking holds such equal weight to the undertaking of the dialogue and debates that will inevitably come with it. And it feeds from debate as its fuel- because this is how we get better: by dragging our view from the quick fixes which we’ve seen fail, time and again, and instead look to the work at hand.

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