Why we should stop talking about ‘delivering’ the curriculum

13th August 2013

For a long while now, delivery has been the accepted analogy for curriculum design and teaching. First appearing in the educational lexicon about the same time as the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit in the early years of the Labour Government, it soon became the go-to metaphor for anyone talking about the teaching and learning process in the late 90s.

As a technical term, however, it is deeply flawed and fails to capture the multifaceted complexity of its subject. Teachers are not postal workers delivering knowledge like parcels from the page to the brain and children minds are not passive open-mouthed letterboxes, waiting for learning to be dropped in.

Metaphors matter and the way we talk about a subject, influences the way we think about it. Of course, ‘delivering’ the curriculum is as much a cliché as ‘discovery’ learning and most schools use a variety of different approaches. Nevertheless, it has become so ubiquitous and firmly entrenched that it is very rarely questioned or challenged. It is not unusual to hear educators talking about ‘delivering the curriculum’ or ‘delivering a lesson’, or even ‘delivering a great lesson’ (which must be close to an oxymoron), without much thought into what this actually means. It even crops up in the writing of education bloggers, who are otherwise very careful about their use of words. For Orwell it would constitute a ‘flyblown metaphor’ used so lazily that it no longer has any real meaning and should be consigned to the dustbin.

I’ve hated it from the first time I heard it used at a curriculum design meeting run by the Local Authority after the publication of Curriculum 2000. It filled me instantly with horror implying, as it does, the objectification of both adults and children in the teaching and learning process. It represented what I disliked about the Literacy Hour, a single method, universally applied, where teachers only had to follow the procedure for students to learn efficiently.

The problem with delivery methods in education is that they are impersonal, designed, as they must be, away from the classrooms where they will be used. Classrooms are a dynamic learning environment, by that I mean the adults and the children working in that space have their own motivations, interests, and levels of expertise. They react in response to the subject matter and methods being used, and the teacher is wise to adapt their own responses accordingly. For these reasons we should be wary of prescriptive strategies or teaching methods that claim to be the best way for children to learn. In my mind, it always depends on what children are in the room. Some children need more structure, others need more practice, some need an overview, and others like to find out for themselves. The teacher’s job is to plan and teach the methods that have the most effective outcomes, irrespective of what the experts say.

The problem with experts is that their opinion varies over time and has direct impact on what we do and don’t do in the classroom, here are three examples:

  • Ten years ago the received wisdom was that every lesson had to start with the children being told the Learning Objective. These were often written on the board and students spent five or ten minutes (depending on their skills) at the start of the lesson writing them into their books. Now we are told that this is not best practice and the LO can be shared at any time.
  • The new orthodoxy has it that Teacher Talk is a bad thing. As a consequence many teachers are told to limit their TT to a minimum. Lesson observations are focused on how much time the teacher talks (as they were ten years ago on LOs) and skilled teachers feel their professional expertise is under attack.
  • In the New Curriculum phonics is a prescribed method for teaching reading. From September 2014 every Primary School in the country is legally required to use phonics.

In my opinion forcing schools to adopt a prescribed method is always a bad idea (even if the idea itself is not bad) however the prescription of phonics is of a different order to what we have seen before and represents a serious erosion of our professional independence. Pedagogy has always been the prerogative of teachers and schools. Even the Literacy Hour was a non-statutory method, never a legal requirement. As far as I know, the requirement to teach phonics is the first time a single pedagogical method has been enshrined in law.

Some might feel I’m making a fuss about nothing, but these things are important. Teaching is a profession; it takes time and practice to do well. Pedagogy is not a simple matter of wrapping up parcels and delivering them to the right address, it is a complex and difficult process that takes many years to master. Using the right words to describe what we do is important, protecting our professional standing is important, and so is resisting those who tell us how to do our job.


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