Research School Network: Blog: ​‘Not Just Circuses And Ice Cream’: Curriculum And The Challenge Of Engagement Let’s think deeply, and challenge our own creativity. Let’s focus on the optimal experience.


Blog: ​‘Not Just Circuses And Ice Cream’: Curriculum And The Challenge Of Engagement

Let’s think deeply, and challenge our own creativity. Let’s focus on the optimal experience.

Johanne Clifton, Head of Curriculum and Virtual School for The Elliot Foundation, looks into the process of curriculum design, and the effort involved in engendering pupil engagement. 

An important aspect of my role is working with school leaders to articulate their curriculum ambition, and to create a curriculum framework that puts this ambition into practice. A reasonable expectation is that there will be a curriculum rationale, together with a collection of documents that show how the curriculum is structured. These might include an overall curriculum map, showing what is taught and when, together with planning documents for each subject. The initial audience for these is teachers so that they know what to teach and when. However, they are fascinating documents not only in terms of curriculum content, but also as an insight into the thinking process of school leaders.

In the strongest settings, there will be a coherent design. This will be based on the knowledge that leaders have of their children and the local context. This means that they make conscious choices when designing the curriculum to ensure that it is fit for purpose and relevant for the community. They will also be working on what works best in terms of how to teach, whether it is through subject specific lessons or cross curricular learning. The pedagogical content knowledge is clearly identified and supported. The curriculum will be reviewed and developed on an ongoing basis, grounded in thoughtful debate and research.

In settings that are weaker, it is often because leaders do not have a clear rationale for why they do what they do. There may be a lack of depth to decisions that are made and language may be ill-defined. One such word is engagement. It is one of the most commonly used words that I encounter in terms of rationale for curriculum design or, indeed, for pedagogical decision making. It is often used in an ill-defined way but it is assumed that we will all understand what is meant. In one school, when discussing curriculum choice and learning about the monarchy, a leader said they would rather the children were learning about the Tudors through developing their skills in the Forest School because this would be more engaging. Here, there is an interesting point. Overall engagement’ is defined as enjoyment in developing skills in using equipment in the Forest School area and, therefore, prioritised over the curriculum content of key events in British history. In this definition, engagement is something that is fun and exciting in opposition to other teaching approaches which might be described as formal or classroom based and, therefore, negative.

Engagement is also described as a way of measuring the success of an activity in that children were really engaged’. This is used as a measurement of involvement and, therefore, success, as opposed to impact on achievement and more formal outcomes. This is seen as valuable because it is based on an assumption that without fun and exciting activities, children won’t learn anything.

However, using the word engagement as a rationale for curriculum design is a poor choice. Either engagement here is about making curriculum choices on the basis that they are fun, or it is about pedagogical choices based also on, well, having fun. A broad term of engagement here just won’t do. I want to emphasise that I have no problem with fun and excitement in education. One of my specific interests is in developing creativity in teaching and the curriculum, and I have definitely had fun along the way! However, I do have an issue with ill-defined terminology as a basis for making important curriculum and pedagogical choices. Creativity in teaching becomes all about circuses and ice cream rather than an essential aspect of curriculum design and implementation. Engagement should not be just to take part in something. It is a focused mental state. It is about working hard, even though – because one is so absorbed – it doesn’t necessarily feel like it. In the famous book, Flow’, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, he identifies that the best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times …..the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something we make happen’ (1990, p.3).

In developing curricula models, we need to ask ourselves if we want children to have that optimal experience’, then we need to challenge ourselves to do better than just using the term engagement’ as our rationale. Children enjoy challenge and like to think hard. We need to look for how we plan for those moments of absolute focus, of absorption. We want to hook into children’s prior learning and their experiences, and push them into a more challenging place. This might be through intriguing philosophical questions, texts that grab you by the arms and won’t let you go, moments in history that are mysterious and important. This is where new learning happens and where creativity kicks in. Those moments of challenge when an idea seems too slippery to grasp, or a problem too thorny. As Kate Wakeling says in her poem, Why Good Ideas Might Also Be a Bit Like Moths’,

They mostly dwell in darkness,
Fluttering just out of reach
Before a light clicks
On and they hurtle Into view’

It is as if the words are just on the tip of your tongue or a thought suddenly emerges as you close the book.

Therefore, when we are working on curricula design and we want children to be absorbed in their learning, let’s think more about absorption and challenge and less about dressing up and colouring in. Let’s think more about the reasons why we make the choices we do and less about ice cream. Let’s think deeply, and challenge our own creativity. Let’s focus on the optimal experience.

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