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Children's needs and interests and the National Curriculum
Derek Gillard
June 1995

copyright Derek Gillard 2001
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'At the heart of the educational process lies the child' (Plowden 1967:7). This statement from the Plowden Report is significant not only for what it says but also for its position in the Report: it is the first sentence. Compare the 1988 Education Act which states that 'at the heart of the educational process lies the curriculum.' 'Child-centred' education is not new (it can be traced back to Rousseau in the 18th century), but it has always had, as its central theme, the idea that education must begin with the needs and interests of the child.

What, then, do we mean by needs and interests?

Needs

The definition of children's needs is not easy. Katz suggested that 'one of the most salient aspects of the field of early childhood education is the sharp divergence of views among workers and clients concerning what young children "need" as well as how and when these "needs" should be satisfied' (Katz 1977:69).

Maslow (1954) identified three types of need: primary needs (air, food, sleep etc); emotional needs (love, security etc); and social needs (acceptance by ones peers etc).

An important point is the difference between needs and wants: 'At all but the very basic levels it is impossible to distinguish what we need from what we want, or worse, what someone else thinks we ought to want or ought to have' (Kelly 1982:51).

Roger Scruton appears to be in no doubt that he knows what children need:

Children have many and unequal needs: but no need greater than that for authority, discipline and example that will convey them - whether they like it or not - the knowledge and skill which are required in the social condition to which they are eventually destined. (Scruton 1987:44)
This is an attitude to children's needs which was dominant in the elementary school tradition of the 19th century, diminished from Hadow onwards, but, I would argue, is now making itself felt again very strongly.

In its response to DES Circular 6/81, Northamptonshire Education Committee produced the following list of the needs of primary school children (not in any particular order):

  • 'to communicate with other people;
  • to develop an awareness of self and an understanding of the need for the care and protection of the mind and body;
  • to be creative and to appreciate the creative expression of others;
  • to understand the immediate environment;
  • to be helped to interpret experience and to consider ultimate questions concerning meaning and value in life.'
(Northamptonshire 1985:21)

Although hardly a definition, the ideas quoted above do give some idea of what is generally meant by children's needs.

Interests

I think we need to consider two meanings of the word interests. The first is simple: they are those things which interest children or in which they are interested. But we need to include a second meaning, too: the sense in which something is in a child's interest. It is clearly in the interest of children, for example, that they should learn to read and write.

The definition may be easier, but basing a curriculum on them is not so simple. Critics argue that such a curriculum will be too piecemeal and arbitrary. Each child will have his/her own interests, and, if encouraged to pursue them, the outcomes will be unpredictable to say the least. Planning and preparation, evaluation and assessment become very difficult.

Alternatives

A curriculum based on something other than children's needs and interests will be one of two kinds. It will either be based on a rationalist view of knowledge or it will be utilitarian.

'The rationalist view regards knowledge as 'having a status that is largely independent of human experience, as "God-given", and thus as absolute and, for the most part, unchanging' (Blenkin and Kelly 1987:13). There is no room in this view for the child other than as the recipient of this unarguably valid truth. This attitude is deeply engrained in our society: 'Belief in the superiority of certain activities and experiences over others is too deep within our way of thinking to be dismissed lightly' (Pring 1976:55). The fact that the government gives subsidies to certain activities and not to others is a good example of this: some things are perceived to be of greater intrinsic value than others.

Utilitarians, on the other hand, have little time for theories of knowledge. Their view of education is that it exists to serve the needs of society - in particular, of business and industry. I would argue that this is the government's view of education.

In highlighting what is taken to be a failure of the education system to meet "industrial needs" and all but a small academic elite's perception of individual needs, it (vocationalism) is able to claim a resonance with popular consciousness and to prescribe remedies which might in other circumstances have been controversial. (Young 1987:28)
Bernard Barker calls this the 'production' model of education, in which the child takes second place, this time to the needs of business and industry. This is not new: as early as 1813 Robert Owen (mill owner, educational reformer and socialist) said:
These plans must be devised to train children from their earliest infancy in good habits of every description ... they must afterwards be rationally educated, and their labour be usefully directed. (Gattrell 1969:106)
The danger is that this view of education is now being so powerfully forced on us again. 'A "back-to-basics" or traditional outlook belong to an earlier period when board schools and mechanics institutes were expected to civilise the working classes and prepare them for "useful toil"' (Barker 1987:48).

Kelly (1982:32) certainly has little time for vocationalism or utilitarianism and wonders whether these are 'an appropriate concern of schools at all.'

Child-centredness

If we dismiss these alternatives, however, because we don't accept the rationalist view of knowledge and we are not prepared to accept that the function of schools is to produce efficient labour for industry, we must still justify basing our primary curriculum on children's needs and interests.

Kilpatrick suggests that the starting point for education is 'the actual present life of the boys and girls themselves, with all their interests and desires, good and bad' (Kilpatrick 1918, quoted in Pring 1976:47).

Pring regards Kilpatrick's work as of special importance because of the popularity of interest-based curriculum ideas, the good ethical reasons behind them, and because of what he regards as the inappropriateness of the alternatives. He identifies the ethical argument for such a curriculum as being 'the underlying theory of value reflected in the concern for the interests of the child', but he rejects the idea that it is possible to do away with a heirarchy of values. 'The child must come to see their value if they are to be valuable to him' (Pring 1976:55). His cognitive argument embraces an empiricist view of knowledge: 'The meaning (and thus the truth) of what is offered is proportionate to its meaningfulness for each pupil (and to its "working") for him' (Pring 1976:56). He rejects the critics view that 'knowledge does ... somehow exist independently of individual knowers' (Pring 1976:56).

A fundamental aspect of a curriculum based on children's needs and interests is that it acknowledges that children already have active minds. 'It is this already active mental life, with its ways of judging, classifying and evaluating, that is both the starting point and the object of any educational process' (Pring 1976:116). Wilson argues that:

a child's education can only proceed through the pursuit of his interests since it is only these which are of intrinsic value ... whatever enables him to appreciate and understand his interests more fully and to pursue them more actively and effectively is educative. (Wilson 1971:67)
Children bring much to school with them - their experiences, attitudes and aptitudes. To treat them as though they were slates on which to be written is not only an insult but is to do them, and the education we seek to provide, a grave disservice. 'Learning is, after all, an individual matter, in which essential idiosyncratic elements must be supplied by the learner himself' (Gagné 1971:page unknown). Compare this with the view of Roger Scruton:
They come to the teacher unformed, ignorant and distracted; their existence as citizens, and the rights and immunities which confer equality ... lie at the end of the educational process and not at the beginning. (Scruton 1987:44)
Another feature of child-centred curricula is their emphasis on discovery. The child starts from his/her own interest and extends his/her field of enquiry outwards. Plowden suggested that this method had proved to be more successful than being told - a view which has been much criticised for being thin on research evidence. Many teachers, however, would argue that the experience of the past thirty years would back up Plowden's claim. Certainly it had the support of Bruner who proposed the hypothesis that 'to the degree that one is able to approach learning as a task of discovering something rather than learning about it, to that degree there will be a tendency for the child to carry out his learning activities with the autonomy of self-reward or, more properly, by reward that is discovery itself' (Bruner 1974:406).

Bruner was not suggesting, as critics would have us believe, that the learner should be '"abandoned to discovery" without the caring preparation and guidance of the teacher' (Beswick 1987:12). 'A teacher who stands back and just allows children to pursue whatever interests come into their heads is practising ... a travesty of child-centredness' (Wilson 1971:66). Rather, children constantly need the kind of confidence to proceed which comes from receiving effective help. 'This help is the educative function of teachers' (Wilson 1971:68).

The National Curriculum

My concerns about the National Curriculum in this context fall into two main areas.

First, it worries me that it is so content-based. Who decides what the content will be? It certainly isn't the children - it isn't even the teachers: it's some government quango. And once you've decided on such a curriculum, how will it be taught? Clearly, because the content is of paramount importance, so-called traditional teaching methods will be appropriate - hence the pressure for streaming and class-teaching in primary schools. Margaret Donaldson noted that children in the early years of school 'seem eager, lively, happy' (Donaldson 1978:13) whereas by the time they leave school a few years later large numbers do so

with the bitter taste of defeat in them, not having mastered even moderately well those basic skills which society demands, much less having become people who rejoice in the exercise of creative intelligence. (Donaldson 1978:14)
Her view (and mine) is that the problem lies in the fact that, whereas primary schools base their work, to some extent at least, on children's needs and interests, in the high schools these receive less attention, while the interests of business and industry become predominant. Surely this ought to mean that we should investigate the possibilities for secondary education learning from the primary sector? Apparently not:
There is pressure now for change at the lower end of the system. And there is a real danger that this pressure might lead to change that would be gravely retrogressive. (Donaldson 1978:14)
If those words were true in 1978, how much truer they are today!

My second concern is about the assessment procedures. The problems created by a flawed curriculum are compounded by flawed assessment procedures. Because all that matters in the curriculum is content, all that matters in assessing it is how much content pupils have absorbed.

We have just conducted Key Stage 2 tests. The Science test was little more than a reading test. I marked our pupils' English tests myself. How can you set a story-writing exercise without allowing any marks for originality, imagination or creativity? The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority can! SCAA should remember two things: that education is what is left when you've forgotten the content and that what is of value and what is measurable are usually at the opposite ends of a spectrum.

Finally, there is the inevitable danger that teachers will look at the tests and decide that, if that's all children need to know, then that is all they will teach them. League tables merely compound the problem.

Of course I am not suggesting that the government - and society in general - should have no say in the content of education. We do our pupils no favours if we don't teach them to read, write and add up and - these days - to become computer-literate. But there is a balance to be struck between imposed content and the needs and interests of the child. My view is that the National Curriculum makes getting that balance right much more difficult for teachers.

Don't forget that the child is a living thing, with thoughts and beliefs, hopes and choices, feelings and wishes; helping him with these must be what education is about, for there is nothing else to educate. (Pring 1976:51)

References

Barker B (1987) 'Production and progress' in C Chitty (1987) Redefining the comprehensive experience London: Bedford Way Papers/Kogan Page 38-49

Beswick N (1987) Rethinking active learning 8-16 London: The Falmer Press

Blenkin and Kelly (1987) The primary curriculum: a process approach to curriculum planning London: Harper and Row

Bruner J (1974) Beyond the information given: studies in the psychology of knowing London: Allen and Unwin

Donaldson M (1978) Children's minds London: Flamingo/Fontana Paperbacks

Gagné RM (1971) 'Learning theory, educational media and individualised instruction' in R Hooper (ed) The curriculum: context, design and development London: Oliver and Boyd/Open University 299-319

Gattrell V (ed) (1969) A new view of society and report to the County of Lanark by Robert Owen (1813-21) Harmondsworth: Penguin

Katz LG Talks with teachers Washington NAEYC, quoted in P Gammage (1987) 'Chinese Whispers' Oxford Review of Education 13(1) 95-109

Kelly AV (1982) The curriculum: theory and practice London: Harper and Row

Kilpatrick WH (1918) The project method New York: Teachers' College of Columbia University

Maslow AH (1954) Motivation and personality New York: Harper and Row quoted in AV Kelly (1982)

Northamptonshire (1985) The school curriculum - a framework of principles Northampton: Northamptonshire County Council

Plowden (1967) Children and their Primary Schools Report of the Central Advisory Council for Education (England) London: HMSO

Pring R (1976) Knowledge and schooling Wells: Open Books

Scruton R (1987) 'Expressionist education' Oxford Review of Education 13(1) 39-44

Wilson P (1971) Interest and discipline in education London: Routledge and Kegan Paul

Young M (1987) 'Vocationalising tendencies in recent British educational policy' in C Chitty (ed) (1987) Redefining the comprehensive experience London: Bedford Way Papers/Kogan Page 28-37

  • This article was first published in Forum 37(3) Autumn 1995 71-73.