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Building an ethically vibrant curriculum: a church school perspective

Written by: Huw Humphreys and Tracey Feil
5 min read

Purposeful Curricula

Purposeful school curricula try to accommodate national experience and culture, philosophical approaches to learning that flow from the school’s identity, local factors (including the geography and history of the community served) and a clear view of what constitutes the common good. Ethically vibrant curricula include a reasoned view of human flourishing and what constitutes ‘goodness’ for those taught (J. Reiss and White, 2013). They see character and community development as intrinsic to the school intent rather than a bolt-on. Such curricula can challenge prejudices and lead to a broadening of thought and perspective. In our view, they also have to allow teachers a considerable amount of autonomy and opportunity to collaborate.

Here we briefly discuss curriculum design, implementation, monitoring and lessons learnt at Christ the Sower Ecumenical Primary School in Milton Keynes, from 2013-2018.

Starting points

Following the appointment of a new head in 2011, we rewrote our school vision in 2012, based on the Biblical parable of the sower (our founding story), determined that everything we did in teaching, learning and assessment reflected this:

…we provide the ‘good earth’ for all in our community to flourish; where every member can fully explore who they are created to be, with the high expectation that we, individually and collectively, will bear fruit beyond our wildest dreams…. Believing that we all can excel, we are a community that deeply desires to learn. We nurture children and adults so that we are all empowered to be fearless, lifelong learners: embracing challenge, releasing creativity, persisting through difficulty, seeing mistakes as opportunity, discovering for ourselves and responding in wonder to what we find.

Agreeing this vision for learning, we wrote and debated curricular aims to reflect a view of human flourishing that was communal, biblical and broad (J. Reiss and White, 2013); (Volf, 2013). The biblical concept we aimed for was that of shalom, a peaceable but active wholeness in both the curriculum content and the freedom teachers had to teach it (Wolterstorff, 2004).

The aims we eventually agreed were to:

  • seek learning that nurtures risk-taking and self-motivation, that promotes positive attitudes towards thinking, gaining skills and knowledge;
  • foster learning that offers broad exposure to new experiences enabling children to collaborate in learning opportunities through creativity, imagination and exploration;
  • enable children to know biblical values, helping them to work interdependently, and so flourish as respectful individuals, fully exploring who they are created to be;
  • empower children to become full members of both a local and worldwide community through collaboration in our diversity and stewardship of the Earth.

This was a lot to ask of any curriculum. We also needed practical principles that teachers could apply in order to sustain the richness of the curriculum, and which would serve as monitoring tools to check that the curriculum aims contributed to our learning vision. In summary the principles were:

  • Our understanding of how learning happens underpins a rich curriculum that engenders a love of learning
  • Literature enriches, expresses and creates meaning for life
  • Effective dialogue and learning skills are foundational
  • Themes enable children to understand the learning ‘big picture’ across disciplines, whose distinctiveness we respect
  • Our Christian identity underpins what and how we teach, using an ethical virtue-based unit at the start of each year in each class and the ‘what-if learning’ approach (Cooling and Cooling, 2013) in every taught unit
  • Our curriculum informs the whole child, so taught and hidden curricula are of equal value, the latter mediated through respectful, affectionate relationships; child-initiated learning is strongly encouraged
  • Our curriculum is distinctively local and relevantly global
  • Learning outdoors is both interesting and valuable.

To ensure that body, mind and spirit were given equal curricular attention, we made PE and RE core subjects along with English, maths and science, and defined clearly what the central skills that each of the disciplines we were teaching, consisted in.

Practical Application

Practically, units were of varying length, encompassing up to four ‘subjects’; they were rooted around an ethical question using the ‘what-if approach’, and had a strongly defined ‘project outcome’ that summed up learning from a variety of subject areas. Subject leaders checked termly for coverage, balance of curricular content, progression and depth of learning. See below as an example:

 

Year 4: Spring Term (6 weeks)

When Disaster Strikes: What if learning about natural disasters led us to find out how charities and NGOs create hope and show compassion to those affected.

Working as: readers, writers, scientists, geographers, fundraisers and artists.

Literature: Pebble in my Pocket: a history of the our earth by M. Hopper

Visitors: Geologist team from the Open University; speaker from World Vision.

Intended outputs: We will have…
• created a display which contains our art work and non-chronological reports about natural disasters, as well as evidence of our work as scientists. It will also include a prayer.
• raised money by performing our school play to support a disaster relief charity.

 

Does it work?

Four years on, the curriculum has been amended and refocused at classroom level, giving freedom to teachers to change and adapt units to each new class. A curriculum review  was carried out using informal interviews with teachers to establish the right questions and a simple questionnaire to establish consistency of focus (Humphreys, 2018). We learnt that:

a) teachers retain a high degree of fidelity to our curriculum, affirming its unique application to the school’s vision. They also recognise:

  1. we still meet our original aims
  2. children still enjoy curricular variety in the curriculum, with a good emphasis on humanities and the arts
  3. the strong impact of exploring Christian virtues at the beginning of each year
  4. the power of children’s literature at the heart of the curriculum.

b) in the face of changes from new management, teachers would fight to retain:

  1. good quality children’s literature in each unit
  2. the freedom to adapt material and follow children’s interests
  3. the trust offered by leadership to the teaching team to enact that freedom.

The ethically vibrant curriculum described above has been most successful where there has been intentional application of our ethically and biblically motivated principles by skilled teachers.

References

Cooling T and Cooling M (2013) Distinctively Christian Learning? Cambridge: Grove Books Limited.
Humphreys H (2018) Leadership challenges: hanging on to the good. Available at: https://huwhumphreys.wordpress.com/2018/06/30/leadership-challenges-hanging-on-to-the-good/ (accessed 12 September 2018).
J. Reiss M and White J (2013) An Aims-Based Curriculum. Inst of Education.
Volf M (2013) Human flourishing. In: Lints R (ed.) Renewing the Evangelical Mission. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, pp. 13–30.
Wolterstorff N (2004) Teaching for Shalom. In: Wolterstorff N, Joldersma C, and Goris Stronks G (eds) Educating for Shalom. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, pp. 10–26.
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