Sometimes the language we use without thinking tells us more about our thinking than we realise.
Firstly, let me set aside the word “rigour”. It has become meaningless in the current discourse, largely through excessive use by politicians to justify a desire for old-fashioned schooling. There are merits on either side of that argument which I will not re-visit.
A word that slips comfortably into the arguments of both sides, though is “subject”. We use this quiet little noun all the time to refer to the chunks into which we divide our curriculum. There are those who would argue for the abandonment of them, and those who believe them to be the very founding stones on which all else should be built. But the word itself seems rather innocuous.
The OED contains tens of varied definitions of the word, but the one which most closely matches what I imagine most teachers and others are referring to in these contexts is definition 12b:
A body of knowledge or particular department of art or science which one studies or is instructed in, esp. as part of a curriculum or for the purpose of examination.
This seems to fit entirely with the current government’s push on knowledge. It implies a pre-existing set of facts and information which can be imparted or learned. A “body of knowledge” indeed.
Now, I’m not going to argue for the other extreme. I saw much of value in Jim Rose’s previous review of the curriculum, but I don’t want to suggest vague “areas of learning”. But what of that synonym of “subjects” – the discipline?
The definition of discipline seems much broader – and much more fitting in my opinion. It seems to much better demonstrate what teachers have in mind when working with their students. The OED says:
A branch of instruction or education; a department of learning or knowledge; a science or art in its educational aspect.
I shall overlook the risk of each school department being required to come up with its own motto leading to “a department of learning” signs all over campus, but stick rather to the subtle differences I infer.
A discipline is not so much a matter of imparting knowledge or facts – although it is clearly a part of it – but of a whole way of learning; the very essence of each discipline’s specialists. Much is made of the debate between skills and knowledge as thought they were mutually exclusive. Of course – as always – the reality is different. It is, indeed, the appropriate combination of skills and knowledge that is at the very core of disciplines.
The way in which a biologist might plan, carry out and reflect on his endeavours differs from that of a historian, or a mathematician, or an artist. They are each valid in their own field, but equally each relies on a combination of knowledge and other skills specific to that discipline.
So perhaps we need to move the debate forward? Enough of the dichotomies. Let’s really get to the bottom of what it means to study the disciplines we cover in our schools – and then can we have a curriculum that matches?