Set Your Compass: Share Your Direction

All too often we don’t co-construct our curriculum with the children in our class. What occurs is a complete lack of clarity about where, as a group of learners, we are heading. In fact the direction we are going in is all too often very much laid out for the learner – the route is set by the teacher and the outcomes are already known.

Curriculum planning in this vein doesn’t cater for the tangent or the divergent thinker- well it might entertain it briefly but will eventually settle back on the steady path to where we were always going.

Curricular of this ilk are not setup for serendipity. If I knew exactly the music that was going to be played on the radio all of the time, well in advance and had no control over it, I would miss out on those beautiful moments when you hear a wonderful track that hasn’t been played for ages and there you are in that completely unexpected moment savouring every note.

Much of this is to do with teacher control and the lack of willingness to let go of the reins and venture from the path a little. But it is also to do with a lack of ambition about what we plan, many models of curriculum, as well as units of work, are legacy systems:

A legacy system is an old method, technology, computer system, or application program that continues to be used, typically because it still functions for the users’ needs, even though newer technology or more efficient methods of performing a task are now available.

If the direction of a unit is already laid out, involving the learner in the direction is fruitless, for the learner at least, for no alteration can be made anyway.

In his book How Children Fail, John Holt reflected in 1958:

It has become clear over the year that these children see school almost entirely in terms of the day-to-day and hour-to-hour tasks that we impose on them. This is not at all the way the teacher thinks of it. The conscientious teacher thinks of himself as taking his students (at least part way) on a journey to some glorious destination, well worth the pains of the trip.

He continues to explain that he recognises a disconnect with what we as teachers perceive as a learning journey and how children truly see this. How many schools do you think could still be described in these terms?

At one of our partner schools in South London the pupils of Rosendale Primary School negotiate their learning. They have a clear direction and input into the course that is going to be set – not only that they have the ability to define how they get there. The pupil’s prior knowledge, skills, interests and passions are the starting point for much of the project learning that takes place.

With a vested interest the pupils at Rosendale have a much clearer understanding of the learning as a journey – they know what needs to be done and have made choices that help to define this and make it real and meaningful to them. It is not simply a set of tasks imposed on them by a legacy system.

Most of the time with these more open models we have to set our course into the unknown a little, we have to be willing to take the path less trodden.

When the teachers and Year 3 and 4 pupils of Thorney Close Primary School took on the challenge of running their own TEDx we didn’t know if we would be successful, there were a great deal of unknowns. At one point we didn’t have a venue because Take That were playing at the Stadium of Light!

With uncertainty often comes failure and we felt that for real and so did the children, but would they learn from it – absolutely!

Here are some reflections on the process by one of the teachers involved:

I learnt to trust the children and to let them go in the direction they want, trust that they’re going to make the right decisions with a little bit of guidance but not as much structure as we normally would give. So to sit back more and to listen more, and just ask the odd few questions – without waiting for that answer that the teacher wants to hear.

One of my favourite ways to describe this sense of a general direction, unclear and yet thoughtfully open, is the idea of a “fuzzy goal”. Taken from the opening to the wonderful book Gamestorming by Sunni Brown, David Gray and James Macanufo – a fuzzy goal can both describe our philosophical approach to change as well as the direction of a student led unit.

Like Columbus, in order to move toward an uncertain future, you need to set a course. But how do you set a course when the destination is unknown? This is where it becomes necessary to imagine a world; a future world that is diferent from our own. Somehow we need to imagine a world that we can’t really fully conceive yet—a world that we can see only dimly, as if through a fog.

Pic navigation (cc) by marfis75


  1. Reading articles like this gives me hope that we will produce self-motivated young adults who have the knowledge and skills to keep learning throughout their careers. I also hear a lot about how enthusiastic youngsters are turned off education as they get to GCSEs and A levels.
    It strikes me that the models for learning described here and in books such as “The Lazy Teacher” are great for students – until exams are looming, and then we go back to the teacher directed approach, with the intention of maximising exam success.
    I would love to have my A level Chemistry students discussing the skills they need to understand a curriculum that they have agreed upon as being educationally important and culturally relevant. Sadly, the reality is that I have something less than two academic years to do this, and many of my students want to get A and A* grades in an imposed syllabus simply to allow them to progress to their chosen medical school.

  2. I’m not sure it’s the fault of the curriculum as much as it is the fault in instructional practice. I can allow students to do open-ended projects that include diverse thinking. In the process of doing projects, students learn speaking skills, organization, presentation, sentence structure, and more specifically-stated standards and benchmarks. 

    Curriculum states what students should know and be able to do when they leave school. Tragedy happens when teachers believe there is one “right” way of content delivery and when they force all students to work at the same pace.

    Janet |

  3. As a teacher I totally agree. I am far more interested in the journey than the destination, and as Director of Studies at my school, I also have a large amount of control in what our curriculum both is and represents. This has involved a lot more careful study of the way our Kindergarten children are taught, using child-initiated activities seems to be one of the most logical steps forward. If we are professional teachers, our unique pedagogy should be to guide these intiations into something valuable and special for the children. Around 10% of our curriculum in Infants and Juniors is now child-initiated, and our recent Inspection praised this. It is brave, and risky, but incredibly worthwhile. I am certain that my pupils last year will remember our topic on Japan, initiated by both a Japanese student in the class and the Tsunamis, far more than any geography topic I would repeat endlessly every year. More importantly, it stretched me as a teacher too.

Comments are closed.