Powerful Knowledge in the Curriculum for Excellence

Topics: Literacy, Knowledge, Education in Scotland Pages: 29 (7146 words) Published: April 2, 2012

Rick Instrell

This is an expanded version of a paper delivered at the United Kingdom Literacy Association conference at the University of Chester on 15 July 2011.


The Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) is the current Scottish curricular initiative for 3-18 year-olds. Although most educationists agree with its progressive goals, its documents have been criticised as being vague, anti-intellectual and ignorant of subject disciplines.

This paper will argue that all curriculum designers would benefit from insights from educational linguistics, a hybrid field formed by fusing educational sociology and linguistics. The most potent ideas come by combining Basil Bernstein’s analysis of knowledge structures with ideas from linguistics. Linguistics is a vast discipline but three related fields are of particular relevance: systemic functional linguistics (SFL), critical discourse analysis (CDA) and multimodal social semiotics (MMSS). Each comes with a formidable battery of methodologies and jargon. Despite this their key concepts and applications can be translated into a teacher- and learner-friendly form (Instrell 2008, 2010).

The paper will apply educational linguistics ideas to the teaching of high-level intellectual processes such as abstraction and metacognition and then extend the ideas into an analysis of subject English.

Critics have labelled the CfE as anti-intellectual but few have actually suggested how to repair its obvious shortcomings. This paper is a constructive attempt to put academic disciplines and the pursuit of excellence back into the Scottish curriculum.

Context: Curriculum for Excellence
The ideas explored in this paper have been developed within the context of the Scottish Government’s curriculum development for 3-18 year-olds, grandly titled the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE). It is claimed that the CfE focuses on learners’ needs by providing a coherent, more flexible and enriched curriculum which will lead to better quality learning and teaching and therefore increased attainment. The CfE was designed to give freedom and responsibility to establishments as well as autonomy to teachers.

Mark Priestley and Walter Humes (2010) identify CfE as being typical of recent international trends in national curriculum development in that it involves both top-down prescription and bottom-up curriculum development. Such developments seek to maintain standards whilst giving teachers a degree of flexibility and autonomy.

Implementation of CfE
The CfE initiative started in 2004 and its first year of implementation was 2010. It was a Scottish Labour project which was picked up by the Scottish National Party (SNP) when they came into power in 2007. Although conceived in time of plenty it has had a prolonged and painful labour in a time of scarcity. CfE demands substantial teacher input but many teachers have become demotivated through the deterioration of conditions of service, limited promotion prospects and attacks on pension rights. Despite this, the CfE has been enthusiastically taken up in the primary sector. The response has been much more variable in the secondary sector with some schools and departments very keen. Many subject departments however repeat the practices applied to other ‘innovations’: simply ticking the boxes in audit checklists and maintaining the status quo. The CfE has a commitment to literacy and numeracy across learning but much of this is hampered in the secondary sector by ‘departmental silo’ thinking and separate departmental bases in schools. There is also a lack of interdisciplinary thinking within many of the subject-based committees of the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA).

For media educationists, however, there are more hopeful signs. They have welcomed the CfE document Literacy Across Learning (Scottish Government 2009) as it recognises the centrality of both monomodal and multimodal...
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