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Research School Network: Athena versus the Machine Curriculum: Athena versus the Machine, by Martin Robinson, Crown House, (2019)


Athena versus the Machine

Curriculum: Athena versus the Machine, by Martin Robinson, Crown House, (2019)

by Greenshaw Research School
on the

Martin Robinson writes a fascinating exploration of how curriculum’ has been conceived, contorted and misconstrued in recent times and then lays out his vision of what curriculum’ should really be about: the pursuit of wisdom’.

Robinson contends that curriculum has become a utilitarian, functionalist machine’ that views pupils as customers’ and sees its purpose as the delivery of a particular educational product’. The range of these products may be diverse but most will be instantly recognisable to those of us working in education today: the knowledge rich curriculum, social mobility, the treacherous concept of progress, to name just a few. In this context, pupils are often seen as machines (as too are teachers) and we spend so much time trying to measure the outcomes and deliver success’ that the fundamental humanity at the heart of the process is overlooked and overwhelmed.

Robinson highlights and indeed celebrates the humanity of learning, whether it be the subjective nature of teacher choices about content or the fact that every student responds differently to that content and thus knows’ it differently. He argues that we need to account for students’ free will and their feelings but also to educate these. He emphasises the emotional nature of true understanding and therefore encourages us to promote subjects that expose, explore and empower these emotions, even if these subjects may be hard to measure and therefore not beloved of those data managers so prevalent in the machine’.

Robinson concludes that the machine school, in failing to recognise the fundamentally human nature of its task, simply cannot deliver what is required in an education system. He then goes on to explore, at length, what he believes is required. The purpose of school should be, he says, the pursuit of wisdom with wisdom being the ability to make good judgements, to discern and discriminate based on values which are considered and examined throughout a lifetime”.

If we focus on this and appreciate the human nature of education then we can achieve the a human-rich’ curriculum which helps children to look out into the world as conscious, perceiving, thinking and questioning human beings”. Who amongst us would challenge this as a worthwhile goal for our profession? But how do we get that job done? That is the question on the lips of so many of us tasked with the exciting but sometimes overwhelming challenge of curriculum design’ in our schools.

Robinson has a lot to say on this subject but if you are looking for specifics on how to implement his enticing ideas in your school, you will be left wanting. While Robinson offers five key features of the Athena approach to curriculum design (coherence, context, a spiral curriculum, interleaving and collaboration) the hard edged question of what this looks like in a typical secondary or primary school is not addressed. Perhaps this reflects the truth that all schools are different and therefore what it looks like in practice will vary but as with so much of the writing on curriculum, this book may raise more questions than it answers.

Robinson made me think. Sometimes he made my brain hurt and I had to read a section several times to grasp his argument. At other times he made my heart leap for joy that I get to engage in such important and inspiring work. And despite failing to provide the answers we are all looking for, he did help me think more clearly about the curriculum design for my school. His emphasis on breadth supports our decision to roll back a little from our three year KS4 to ensure that more students are taking more subjects for longer and the fact that we have refused to shoe-horn our students into the E‑Bacc.

His references to the grand narrative that must shape a curriculum talks to our work on building an overarching storyline for curriculum in our school – we call it the Big Ideas That Shape Our World (or BITS for short). His rationalisation of the dead white men’ issue and his recognition of the subjective nature of teaching reflected our debates about which Big Ideas’ we should be including. His reference to the Spiral Curriculum and providing sufficient context before diving into detail will inform my upcoming conversations with HoDs about the content of their current curricula and what they believe are their curriculum big ideas (CBIs).

If Robinson has not told me how to create my curriculum, he has at least told me what I should be worrying about when I create it and for those inevitable moments when it will all just feel too much, he offers us a quite inspirational rationale to get back on the horse and push on.

Foye Weatherhead

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