What if the Curriculum is the thing and we get it wrong?

Our opportunity

What if our opportunity is to build, design and curate a curriculum that inspires the next generation to understand themselves and their place in the world? What if this curriculum, built by teachers, as curators of the curriculum, enabled the next generation to be unusually well prepared for their future? What if this requires us to think deeper about the curriculum and what children really need?

“The importance of knowledge is not in question, but knowledge alone is not enough.” (Mick Waters)

What if we need to go back and understand how children develop, how they learn and what they need to thrive now and in the future so that they are successful in adulthood? What if these are uncertain times socially, politically, environmentally and economically and that this complexity means it is hard to predict what children in Early Years will need when they are 30 (2045) or 40 (2055)? How will they navigate the increasingly fractured and fracturing world that they will inhabit? What if by exploring these questions we gain a deeper understanding of what the curriculum should be and why knowledge alone is not enough?  

What if the dominance of knowledge and skills in the curriculum may miss the point of what it really takes to be successful in an ever-complex world? What if it is not that knowledge is not important and that knowing more, remembering more and being able to do more is not important?

What if we are endanger of swinging and being seduced by cognitive science to creating a curriculum that fails to equip children with the confidence and tools to exploit opportunities now and in the future; a curriculum that does not provide space for children to find meaning and connections across their learning so that they know who they are (sense of self), how they fit within their world (sense of place) and engage positively in an ever-changing world (self agency); a curriculum that is not worth having?…

“This is Vanity Fair (our curriculum) a world where everyone is striving for what is not worth having.”

What if this is our opportunity to create a curriculum that is not limited to or by knowledge, but seeks to support all children to (based on a foundation of knowledge) deepen understanding, seek meaning and to have a greater sense of self and their place in the world; a curriculum that enables children to know what to do when they do not know what to do? (an ability that has never been more required)…

Enabling children to acquire knowledge and skills (expertise), which secured through application (over time), deepens understanding and allows children to seek meaning so that they have a greater sense of self and their place in the world.

What if we consider these aspects in reverse, to underline the servant nature of knowledge and to ensure we are building a curriculum that is striving for something that is worth having? Children know what to do when they do not know what to do because of a curriculum that is…

Enabling children to understand their place in the world, which they exploit because a developed sense of self and agency built on an ability to seek meaning and make connection based on  evolving understanding secured through playing with knowledge and skills.

What if knowledge is a servant for growing ourselves and our understanding of how we fit? What if knowledge falls away and is forgotten as we grow; such that we do not use as adults much of the detail of this early knowledge?

What if we start with what it means to be human on this planet; what it means to have a sense of place? then a sense of self and self agency? then seeking meaning and leave knowledge, skills and understanding as there is little risk of these being under-represented in the new approaches to curriculum? Explored here: What if this is how we learn?


Building a sense of place in the world

a curriculum that supports children to understand their world and how they grow within it as a connected individual.

What if 300,000 years ago the species known as Homo Sapian evolved in East Africa? What if sometime between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago there was a Cognitive Revolution, triggered by a genetic mutation that enabled the evolution of a brain, out of sink with other animals, that allowed for communication, memory and the opportunity to contemplate the meaning of life? … an advantage that would enable the species to conquer the world…

“The appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating, between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, constitutes a Cognitive Revolution… The most commonly believed theory argues that accidental genetic mutations changed the inner wiring of the brains of Sapiens… it enabled us to conquer the world.” (Yuval Noah Harari, 2015)

What if The cognitive revolution enabled humans to communicate, think, remember, learn, invent and collaborate together? What if this created the need to develop myths (shared truths) by which humans could exist together and understand their place in the world? (countries, currency, language, religion, laws, morals, values, rituals…)

What if our understanding of our place in the world is shaped and guided by a set of myths that humans have created?

“Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths. Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination.”  (Yuval Noah Harari, 2018)

What if understanding these myths and having cultural literacy is essential if a child can have self agency now and in the future?

“Cultural literacy is important too and if you don’t know those key facts in the society you live in, you’re permanently disadvantaged. I think that is a key fact” (Michael Barber)

What if as a species, humans are myth-makers, sharing myths to support collaboration and to bind humans together. What if these myths are shared stories and structures that help us to understand the world; to make sense of it and our place within it? What if these myths become the truth (laws, language, nations, currency, religion … the curriculum)? What if the curriculum we curate is essentially a set of myths that we believe will support children to understand their place in the world as they grow?


Building a sense of self and self agency:

a curriculum that builds a sense of self and releases self agency that allow children to flourish as individuals, exploiting their sense of place in the world.

“It’s unlikely that something as complex as the sense of self resides in a single brain region … many different aspects of the self – including the ability to distinguish self and other, the looking-glass self, the ability to introspect, and our cumulative store of memories and experiences… emerges from more than one different neural system … interact with each other to produce a complex set of behaviours, perceptions, dispositions and character traits that make up the (whole) self.” (Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, 2018)

What if our sense of self is the sum of our edited memories?

What if the structure of the brain has evolved to provide babies with neurons set in different regions of the brain that get connected by synapses over time to sculpt remarkable abilities that allow humans to communicate, store memories, build understanding, seek meaning and gain a sense of their own self and their place in the world? What if by age two there are one hundred trillion synapses

“At birth, a baby’s neurons are disparate and unconnected, and in the first two years of life they begin connecting up extremely rapidly as they take in sensory information. As many as two million new connections, or synapses, are formed every second in the infant’s brain. By age two, a child has over one hundred trillion synapses, double the number an adult has.” (David Eagleman, 2015)

All the experiences in your life – from single conversations to your broader culture – shape the microscopic details of your brain. Neurally speaking, who you are depends on where you’ve been. Your brain is a relentless shape-shifter, constantly rewriting its own circuitry – and because your experiences are unique, so are the vast, detailed patterns in your neural networks. Because they continue to change your whole life, your identity is a moving target; it never reaches an endpoint.” (David Eagleman, 2015)

What if Individual humans are memory makers. What if we are the product of our edited memories over time? What if our experiences over time shape our schema and create a unique set of connections across the architecture of the brain to give each of us a unique sense of self? What if this means that we each understand our place in the world in a unique way?

“Among the multitudes of mental representations that a human mind entertains… only a minuscule proportion are similar to other individuals’ representations. We constantly build and update representations of our physical environment … (and) … of the social world around us that are … unique, since we are each the centre of many networks of social relations, and nobody else occupies that particular position.” (Pascal Boyer, 2018)

What if these memories are edited and altered over time so that they are imperfect and distorted by time? What if as soon as we create memories they are both edited at the time (as we cannot fully encode everything from an experience) and edited over time (each time we recall a memory it will be influenced by other memories, adapted to fit your schema and open to decay (connections being weakened over time).

What if passing exams and assessments are necessary, but no longer sufficient? What if this is insufficient and counter productive for the deeper learning that is required for surviving, let alone thriving in the future?

It is frustrating to know that the kind of learning involved to pass .. tests does not bolster students’ sense of agency or belonging, and there is little room for the learning that would.” (Nath, 2017, in Fullan 2019)

What if the key purpose of any curriculum is to allow children to develop a sense of self and based on a sense of place use their agency to feel and be successful in the their lives? What if as educators we carry this burden of responsibility? Educators set the conditions and the climate that allow individuals to grow and invent themselves; a curriculum that allows children to know what to do when they do not know what to do.

“For many of us, a deep and complex sense of self, particularly of our social self, has its origins in adolescence.” (Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, 2018)


What would it take to create a sense of self, agency and place? What if this is for starters?

What if we understood that there are strategies that are key to developing a sense of self, self agency and a place in the world? What if to stretch beyond knowledge, skills and understanding it is important to:

  • Make explicit how the whole curriculum links and connects together; giving opportunity to explore direct and indirect connections between schema to piece together how they fit in the world. What if this is often facilitated in advantaged families? What if knowledge, kept in silos, widens disadvantage and does not contribute to seeking wider meaning and a developed sense of self?
  • Bounce up through the future curriculum to spark awe and wonder and set-up future learning, a sense of progression and to see the bigger picture early. What if teaching needs to seed future learning and connections? What if we need to be careful not to confuse cognitive conflict with cognitive overload? What if seeing the big picture at the same time as the detail is a key aspect of successful individuals?
  • Build in space in the curriculum to support children to seek meaning and develop their sense of self and place in the world.

What if you can bullet point the knowledge and skills requirement of the curriculum, but you cannot prescribe the meaning the children find, or their sense of self or their place in the world? What if this requires space and the highest level of teaching and support?

  • Explore the sense of self agency: the notion that social, political and other change can be triggered by individuals and groups. Developing skills and competences that build self-agency and the ability to trigger and sustain change. What the present up-swell if populist movements requires new insight and competencies?

“Empowering students to create social change and solve problems that will improve living conditions and increase well-being.” (Nathan, 2017 in Fullan, 2019)

  • Promote the he role of teacher: we learn by paying attention to others; it is staggering how much information is socially transmitted. What if it is significant others in our lives that actually make the difference; shaping who we are and who we become? What happens when to allow teachers to shape individuals?

“Humans stand apart from other species in the amount and diversity of information they acquire by paying attention to other humans’ behaviour, to what others do, and, crucially, to what they say. It is difficult for us to realise how much information is socially transmitted, because the amount is staggering and the process is largely transparent.” (Pascal Boyer, 2018)

  • Understand the key importance of disciplinary knowledge for deepening understanding, exploring meaning and enabling children to understand how to think and to conceptualise the world. What if Christine Counsell is right? ..

Disciplinary knowledge, by contrast, is a curricular term for what pupils learn about how that knowledge was established, its degree of certainty and how it continues to be revised by scholars, artists or professional practice. It is that part of the subject where pupils understand each discipline as a tradition of enquiry with its own distinctive pursuit of truth. For each subject is just that: a product and an account of an ongoing truth quest, whether through empirical testing in science, argumentation in philosophy/history, logic in mathematics or beauty in the arts. (Christine Counsell, 2018)

  • Contextualise learning in the present and future challenges that children face. We only attend to things that we belie/e or are made to believe are important; to these things that are directly relevant to us; how far does knowledge alone achieve this?

What if there are lots of other aspects of the curriculum that will support children to develop their sense of self, agency and place in the world? What if this is the true purpose of the curriculum; a curriculum in which knowing more, remembering more and being able to do more is just the start? a a servant (foundation) that allow children to invent themselves, thrive and take hold of the world in which they live.

… a curriculum that is that something that is worth striving for.


“Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. There is a new self-image, a new notion of possibility. There is an appetite for excellence.” (Ron Berger)

Dr Dan Nicholls | May 2019

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