Forever Changes

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Everything you always wanted to know about Curriculum Development but were afraid to ask…

If there is one current issue that would probably unite most teachers it’s that there’s too much change happening in education. There should, of course, be change in education, and it should be rapid and discontinuous, just as it is in the rest of the world: the problem is that at present it’s the wrong sort of change, and one that looks backwards to the distant past rather than forwards to the future.

Now All Change Please! has never featured a book review before, but, always keen to make changes, it is about to do so. And it just so happens that the book is about change in education, or at least about change as it used to be in the 1970s and 80s. If the government is determined to go backwards, perhaps this is where it should be looking and starting from?

All Change Please! first encountered Eileen Adams in 1980, and having kept in touch over the millennia was delighted when it was asked to write something about her work. Although her text primarily covers work Art, Design and Environmental Education the underlying theme is about how once upon a time positive change and progress was and can be achieved, and all without government interference. Here’s the review…

Change in education is notoriously difficult to achieve. The administrative structures, the numbers of teachers and managers, the range of agencies and political and economic pressures involved, not to mention the need to please Ofsted and achieve a high rank in different aspects of school league tables, means it’s usually easiest and wisest to leave things much as they are. Instead the focus is on the only thing that seems to matter these days, which is achieving the maximum number of children getting the highest possible grades in formal, and very traditional, academic public examinations that succeed only in revealing the true abilities of a minority of children.

But things were different in the 1970s and early 1980s, when teachers were encouraged to become involved in curriculum development in order to explore new and more effective ways of teaching and learning. Back then, ask almost any teacher of Art & Design or Geography what the leading curriculum development work in their subject was and they would have referred you to the Art and the Built Environment Project, run initially by the much-missed Schools Council and then by the Design Education Unit of the Royal College of Art, and powered by the inexhaustible Eileen Adams who toured the country – and indeed the world – running workshops and speaking at conferences. The premise was that architects and town-planners would work alongside teachers and children, but with the unspoken and delightfully subversive intention that it was not so much the professionals informing the educationalists, but the children informing the professionals by revealing to them the way they saw and experienced their world. The project also provided the basis for a successful model of curriculum development based on a ‘ground-up’ network that, with the advent of the ‘top-down’ National Curriculum, has yet to be explored further.

Since then Eileen Adams has worked on an extraordinary variety of major initiatives and commissions, most notably Learning Through Landscapes, which focused on the use and design of school grounds to promote learning outside the classroom, and more recently The Campaign for Drawing with its Big Draw – the month long nationwide festival, which is the world’s largest drawing festival.

Eileen’s book provides a detailed account of the wide variety of strategies she has adopted in her attempt to persuade teachers, lecturers and organisations and institutions to think and act differently, primarily through action research. At the same time the text documents the various financial and bureaucratic difficulties and frustrations she encountered. While essentially autobiographical it draws on her direct experiences of the successes and failures of initiating change in both a visionary and down-to-earth manner.

From a purely historical perspective ‘Agent of Change’ is a fascinating account of the way in which curriculum development was starting to work before the politicians decided in the late 1980s that they should be the ones who decided what should be taught in our schools. It also contradicts the current propaganda that the ideas of so-called ‘progressive’ educationalists of the time simply advocated a ‘do what you like’ approach, revealing the detailed and careful orchestration that scaffolded the learning experience.

This is a ‘must-read’ book for all those involved in art, design and environmental education, and particularly, and indeed ideally, those responsible for determining national educational policy.

There is further information about Eileen Adams: Agent of Change here, and it can be purchased here and here, and of course from all good bookshops…

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