Attempts at thinking about curriculum across a school have often meant a push from leadership for generic models, consistency, and conformity. All lessons must contain x. All books must show evidence of y. All departments to submit z for quality assurance. Our subjects are forced into uniform shapes convenient for leadership, but they are damaged, and their value, and the joy in teaching them, leaks away. Subjects cannot be taught at their best in this uncomfortable state.
There is another way. If leaders can reflect on the nature of specialist subjects, through a shared language that allows subject- specific discussion accessible by non-specialists, then we can have directives, accountability, and all the other things needed for effective leadership and we can honour our subjects’ integrity too. A knowledge-centred approach is the only way to do our subjects justice, but we need a language to articulate and refine our approach.
I’ve been working on Subject Character Matrices (SCMs) as an attempt to develop this common language. In this post I explore some of the insights we can gain from SCM1: Objects of study.
This is the first matrix in the series because it tries to get at the things being studied, the referents, the objects of our interest. These may be part of the natural world and independent of us, or they may be our own deliberate creations, or they may be caused by us but not by design. They may be concrete, as in you can point to them or touch them, or abstract, meaning they are an intangible idea. The sextants can be coded as: Abst-Ind, Conc-Ind, Abst-Dep, Conc-Dep, Abst-Int, Conc-Int.
This matrix encourages some interesting conversations about curriculum design, planning, and the work we might expect to see in student books, and some of these are considered below. But more than this, it gives us a glimpse into the purpose of a subject, its orientation, how it connects learners to the world. Even if there were no immediate utility in knowing these things about our subjects, I think leaders should know it them anyway, out of intellectual responsibility. The subjects in our schools are more than just specifications, lessons and exams, they are human endeavours, fundamental to our culture and humanity: that’s why we teach them in our schools. Our subjects are at the core of the purpose of every school, or they should be, and an understanding of what they are should be woven into the identity of anyone seeking to lead those schools.
Let’s look at our how our subjects look on SCM1: Objects of study
Most of the objects of study for science are independent of humans: concrete things such as leaves and stars, and abstract things such as forces and valencies. But there are things made by humans as well: thermistors, genetic engineering and the Haber process in the concrete sextant and models of the atom in the abstract.
Some of our content is contingent on humans but not intentional: human biology, increasing carbon dioxide levels and eutrophication are examples.
A lot of school maths is, or at least is treated as if it is, independent of humans. Most of it is really abstract. In Abst-Ind, we have prime factorisation, surds, fractions, geometry. There is a small amount of concrete material in the statistics side of things for Conc-Ind. There are a fair few things in Abst-Int: the order of operations, units of measurement, rules of notation. And construction of loci is a very concrete technique devised by humans, and therefore occupies Conc-Int.
In art we study concrete objects of all kinds as the subjects of our work, such as landscapes (Conc-Ind), the human body (Conc-Dep), and clothes (Conc-Int). There are other concrete things: techniques such as hatching, printing and stippling and materials such as charcoal, oils and pastels, all Conc-Int. We’re also concerned with Abst-Ind ideas such as perspective and colour theory, Abst-Dep such as the emotions invoked by certain pieces, and Abst-Int in things such as composition, and juxtaposition. The study of the work of great artists is integral to art, and these occupy Abst-Int and Conc-Int simultaneously, as they are both tangible and carriers of abstract content.
Most of the objects of study for Design Technology are in the Conc-Int sextant: modern and composite materials, lever systems, cutting, drilling and turning, for example. There are more abstract areas as well, such as just-in-time production, lean production, and kaizen in the Abst-Int sextant. The consideration of natural resources and materials gives us some content in Conc-Ind and there are things such as density and hardness that occupy the Abst-Ind sextant. Conc-Dep is populated largely due to the focus on the environmental impacts of technology, while Abst-Dep has some content in the form of the culture and society aspects of the course.
Almost all of the content of computer science is Abst-Int; algorithms, data compression, and malware, for example. I have included a small block in Con-Int because of things like solid-state, optical, and magnetic storage.
Languages are the hardest subject to analyse, and I’m not really sure why. I think it might be because they are the most natural of all the subjects, the oldest, and the least deliberate in their origin. They are a fascinating problem and one I am determined to master: I am hopeful SCMs will provide some insight. For French but really all languages with a Roman script, I have put most of the content in Abst-Int since words and grammar are abstract, you can’t touch them, they are signifiers of other things, and they are deliberately made by humans, although I guess you could argue about their origin being deliberate or unintentional. I have included a small block for Conc-Ind because I think that pronunciation is quite a concrete thing, you can point to the shape of your mouth when you make a certain sound.
I will stop there for now:
Look at our subjects! Look at their faces! They are coming out into the light!
There is beauty and truth in looking at our subjects in this way, but there is also wisdom. In discussing curriculum with subject specialists, leaders might consider the following points.
It’s interesting to consider the level of abstraction or concreteness of the content of a subject. This consideration might offer pedagogical and curricular instruction: abstract things are often more difficult and can be made more accessible (without being diluted or dumbed-down) by illustration with concrete examples. A subject with a concentration of content in the abstract would do well to explicitly plan concrete examples in order to illustrate abstract concepts. Carl Maton calls this creating a “semantic wave“. Maton has found that less advantaged students struggle more with more abstract concepts and so enacting a semantic wave in this way is important in order to support their accessing the full curriculum. There’s a pupil premium strategy I can endorse! For areas that are Abst-Dep, concrete examples often take the form of case studies, whereas for Abst-Ind they will more often be exemplar-type questions. So we could ask: What case studies will you use to for a concrete example of this? Which exemplar problems and solutions?
It’s also valuable to consider the relationship between the objects of study and humans. Some subjects or areas of subjects focus on things out there in the universe, independent of us. Others focus on things deliberately made by us: our artefacts and ideas. Still others study things that are contingent on humans but not produced on purpose: our bodies, minds, groups, and inadvertent effects on the world. Why consider this aspect? Apart from anything else, I think there is philosophical value in asking how our subjects work as links between us as individual humans, and the world we find ourselves in. In a way, education is a millennia-long fight against solipsism: a bid for a personal connection with something more than the thinker, and a campaign for a shared language with others. Our subjects reach out from the individual to different parts of the external world, and it is fascinating to see how many kinds of external world we can touch through our disciplines.
More practically, the narrative of our curricula should be influenced by the relationship between the objects of study and ourselves. In studying our own intentional products we are often celebrating our own ingenuity and sophistication, or at least that of the individuals who have produced these objects. Our narratives should sing with our own achievements. Stories of problems and then solutions are exciting and memorable and we should tell our children those stories. What a joy it is to be part of so clever and creative a species!
In studying ourselves but not our intentional products, the narratives are there, but they are not teleological like the ingenuity tales. They are more neutral, less celebratory, and they need careful planning to make them memorable.
Where we are looking out at the world, the stories are different again. The relationship is different. Instead of self awareness, introspection or celebrating our ingenuity, it feels more like a religious act, a communication with the world that is unmoved by us, unchanged, indifferent. Studying it seems reverential, worshipful in a way it can’t be for the things we have ourselves created. The stories here are those of discovery, of brave pioneers who found things out where no-one had been before,who risked life and limb in finding their evidence, or who died before that evidence was found.
So leaders can ask, what stories will you tell? Who are the heroes here, or how will you make it stick? What is the drama, the suspense, the denouement? And the answers to these questions will be the substance of real thought, of intentional curriculum planning. These are the things we should be thinking about when we plan our curricula, and it is these are the things that make education sing. What is your subject’s song?