In February Andreas Schleicher, director of education and skills at the OECD, took aim at the lack of depth of study in many schools. His view is that a “mile wide inch deep” education does not prepare young people for an uncertain future. In an effort to be responsive to the demands of the day schools keep broadening but what is added to the curriculum is only of the moment and potentially not relevant in future. The headline No point teaching coding, says Pisa chief makes clear his opinion on this particular area of study.
The article goes on to mention there is no longer a need to teach trigonometry in mathematics. This is indicative of a more general misunderstanding; Herr Schleicher has never taught in a school and is instead a statistician and researcher. It is therefore unsurprising that he has no real understanding of what happens in a classroom nor departmental meetings. The art of learning can sometimes be as important as the content that is learnt. The premise that the content itself is the sole objective of education ignores the process of learning in favour of merely the demonstrable outcome of what has been learnt. Education is all about processes rather than outcomes, yet we find ourselves in the position that statistical analysis reduces ‘success’ to the metric that can most easily be measured, e.g. examination grades. An unfortunate state of affairs that is compounded by pupils and schools being judged on the outcome rather than the process. The act of learning trigonometry is arguably more important than the understanding it brings. Just as an undergraduate degree signifies a student can read and review a variety of information under inflexible deadlines, and work – sometimes with others – to analyse a specific topic. This might even be regardless of what is being analysed. In itself this is enough to demonstrate qualities of application before the topic-specific expertise or class of degree are even considered.
However, Shleicher does at least highlight the discussion of depth v breadth. The curriculum is finite, so anything that is included has ousted some other – perhaps equally important – information. There should always be debate over what should be taught in a specific subject as well as what is learnt as a whole. Other than for hundreds of years of tradition there are many topics that are ‘outdated’ in one way or another or have ‘redundant’ content. There are also whole subjects that could be questioned! Changes at GCSE and A Level has seen a narrowing of curriculum precisely because outcomes are so highly regarded when assessing ‘success’. Shleicher might be wrong in questioning the topics being taught in the classroom, but as someone who ultimately assesses the worth of education systems his views on depth of study carry immense political influence.