Monday, 9 July 2012

Further Education and the ‘Senior Phase’ of CfE

Before I begin, I must offer my sincere thanks to Dr Mark Priestley for giving me the opportunity to invest in reading some, but not all of his inspirational research literature. Specifically, Mark has allowed me to challenge the perception of my own teaching practice as well as the practice that I have witnessed working within the further education sector. I have reflected on many initiatives, both historical and current that, when I was first introduced to them, I thought of them as ‘quite sound’ ideas.

Additionally, my dissection of the Curriculum for Excellence has also allowed me to attempt a re-framing of my professional practice. I have spent literally hours reading reams of explanatory literature attempting to get to grips not with the essence of, but rather the practical application of what the curriculum translates to in pedagogical terms. Furthermore, I have listened to other practitioners give their valuable and valued opinions on what it means to them. Thanks must also go to   

Mark and Walter Hume’s paper entitled, The Development of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence: amnesia and déjà vu’ (Oxford Review of Education, 36[3], 345-361.) gave me an interesting dilemma. Was this new curriculum model one which I should put my faith in? The paper raised a substantial query-could it be ‘that curricular content runs the risk of becoming divorced from curricular purposes?’ The suggestion of a ‘process curriculum’ seems to me to be a sensible one but not without significant challenges.

Within the further education sector I have, and still do, work with prescriptive unit descriptors that provide the lecturer with a map for what he or she must do to satisfy the requirements of the awarding body (and not necessarily the learner). Content is thus referred to under the heading ‘knowledge and/or skill’s, process is covered by (minimal) guidance on delivery, and lastly outcomes are dealt with by evidence requirements which, of course, must be met to the letter. These evidence requirements will always pull on elements of the cognitive domain of Bloom’s Taxonomy. I should clarify, that as a business studies lecturer, there has been little or no attempt to capture the affective domain in any meaningful way-it’s easier not to!  We have been afforded less prescriptive assessment requirements in a recent SQA review, so with a little work and imagination, change may be demanding but not impossible

Support initiatives have always presented in the form of notes and these have been gratefully accepted by the profession, indeed many will get anxious if there are no notes to distribute! Assessment exemplification is provided by the awarding body and again there will be unease if none are available. The alternative to both specification and exemplification would be to commit to, and have the time for engagement that is more valuable and meaningful. We as teachers or lecturers (I tend not to make the distinction) have had to comply with structural and institutional norms but I am not suggesting that we are complacent, nor am I advocating that we are unwilling or unable to change our practice. This is where the importance of leadership, reflection and debate are of paramount importance.

Mark goes on to pose a question that I think gives us the prospect of a real professional dialogue- Is knowledge acquired, or is it constructed? The answer is, of course, that it is acquired through a purposeful process and if we are to address the needs of our learners and their future prospects, we must first challenge ourselves. I will end on a positive note by confirming that I and some, if not all of my colleagues, have made a pledge to do exactly that in the next academic session.


  1. Thank you for a thoughtful piece, Kenneth. I am heartened to see this level of debate going on amongst professional practitioners. It is also good to see my work being of some use in stimulating such debate - too often academic writing is viewed as esoteric and divorced from practice (and read by a small circle of academics accessing select journals).

    I wanted to respond on a few points – this will be in two separate posts as the word count is too long for the response box:
    1. You mention our Oxford Review paper ( as being a source of discomfort. This of course stems from our analysis that CfE has an inbuilt contradiction – that it simultaneously provides two competing starting points for school (or college) based curriculum development. However, CfE, due in part to its flexibility (ambiguity?), also provides opportunities. As Glasgow academic Margaret Sutherland points out, it offers much potential in the hands of a ‘skilled pedagogue’. The key to successful enactment of CfE, in my view, lies in treating it as a process curriculum. This means careful consideration of curricular purposes – the big ideas of CfE – and the development of content (and yes, knowledge is important, not just skills) and method. This is about developing content and pedagogy that are ‘fit for purpose’. Of course, this also means that the starting point for curriculum development is the big ideas, and not the E’s & O’s. Starting with these outcomes has led in many cases to curriculum development that is focused on auditing existing programmes, and making small (often cosmetic changes) when absolutely necessary – something surely not in the spirit of transformational change.
    2. A second issue lies in the balance between skills and knowledge. This is too often presented as a dichotomy – as an ‘either/or’ to cite John Dewey. Actually I think it is difficult to imagine a curriculum which does not focus on the need for young people to develop knowledge – and some forms of knowledge are simply essential for living life as a citizen in a modern democracy and an employee in a modern workplace. These include basic science, numeracy, literacy, knowledge of political systems, historical context of modern day phenomena, and so on. I would make a particular plea for schools to develop information literacy (see Alan November’s powerful examples at if you need convincing of this). A further point is that knowledge and skills are difficult to disentangle. Advanced conceptual understanding is actually skills based – the ability to categorise for example. And any skill rests on the foundation of contextual knowledge – imagine driving without knowledge of what a gear stick is, etc.

  2. Part two
    3. A final point rests in Kenneth’s tacking of the question ‘is knowledge acquired or constructed?’. This is an age old question. Actually I think the answer is that it is constructed. Acquisition implies that we gain a carbon copy of a piece of knowledge (a meme), and for me implies that learning is about listening to a teacher who transmits a perfect copy of the meme to each student. It suggests that knowledge is the same thing as reality. Construction implies something quite different. This is that we develop knowledge by making sense of the world around us, and by building understanding of difficult concepts. Each individual will develop a different understanding depending on a range of factors – prior understanding, motivation, etc. – and this understanding will correspond more or less with the reality that the learner is seeking to understand. Such a view of learning has a number of implications. The first is that knowledge of reality is always provisional and incomplete – and subject to elaboration and revision as the learner becomes more mature. Second, there are implications for teaching. I would not decry the use of teacher transmission, as this has its place, for example to introduce concepts. However, deep, reflective learning occurs when learners make sense of what they are confronted with. For sense-making, students need to engage in sense-making activities: contemplation and reflection; dialogue with teachers and other students; questioning and inquiry; and in general having rich learning experiences. Finally, the teacher’s role is to challenge incorrect or incomplete knowledge – as both an expert and a guide.