Favourite subjects versus relevant curriculum?

When I glanced through one of our new acquisitions – a book which analyses the success of Japan’s educational system – a list of pupils’ favourite subjects struck me.

Both elementary and middle school students had voiced a preference for sports, arts, and music, in that order. Both groups had rejected their own language (Japanese), their first foreign language (English, if taught), and maths as least appealing. Natural sciences and social sciences held the middle ground.

Boy playing discus. Pottery from Attica (5th c. B.C.) - © The Trustees of the British Museum

Boy playing discus. Pottery from Attica (5th c. B.C.) – Photograph: © The Trustees of the British Museum

So I looked at surveys from my European home country for comparison. And indeed, in 2005, 6 in 10 German teenagers declared physical education one of their favourite subjects and 4 in 10 loved art education. Roughly 3 in 10 voted for history, geography, English, or maths, while 2 in 10 professed a taste for physics or chemistry. In a 2010 poll, the undisputed number 1 on the podium, sports, was joined by maths at number 2, before geography and history.

Yet, I reckon that these studies were biased: the 2005 one was commissioned by the chemistry industry (would chemistry even have figured otherwise?) and the 2010 one by a foundation for arithmetics (would maths have retrospectively come top for adults otherwise?). Were there given lists, where music, for instance, was not mentioned?

In the same way, the results of a 2015 poll in France may be due to the presentation of subjects: mother tongue education (21%) and mathematics were much appreciated (25%) and history/geography came top (27%); yet, maths on its own scored almost as much as geography & history together, so was really the favourite.

Interestingly, sports was rather unpopular with French people (8%)! So were foreign languages, with natural sciences not much loved either. However, adults were interviewed in hindsight. Perhaps they did not feel up to strenuous exercise any more? And did the French pollsters offer any artistic subjects at all?

A third German poll (2008), amongst children aged 6 to 12, found great support for music amongst girls but next to none amongst boys. Figures from Germany also show again and again that sports is vastly more popular with boys and art with girls; maths with boys and language with girls.

Anyway, are not the German preferences quite different from, and the Japanese ones precisely the opposite of, most curricula on earth, be it in East Asia, in Europe, in America or in Britain? So why would children be most interested in the fields deemed the least important by adults – parents, teachers, politicians – and vice versa?

Are those core subjects really so much harder? Or are they made harder by exacting standards and constant testing? Are they really less engaging? Or are they still soured by dull curricula, dull teaching materials, dull teaching methods? And are they really so much more relevant to life? Or do the kids have a point in leaning towards exercise and creativity first, knowledge about our world and society next, and mathematics and languages last? Do they maybe want to balance out an imbalance created by us?

Photograph by Hanserblich (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons. Explanation (not covered by my national curriculum): The music produced by this group is a symphony and not a waterfall.

Photograph by Hanserblich (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons. –
Explanation (not covered by my national curriculum at the time):
The sound produced by this group is a symphony and not a waterfall.

When I looked at the current national curricula for primary education and secondary education, I was shocked at the proportion of space given to literacy and numeracy, to natural and social science, and to the insignificant rest.

We have stored these documents online for you – and for the public – on our DERA repository: The 2014 primary national curriculum in England and The 2014 secondary national curriculum in England.

For secondary education, the framework on English filled around 25 pages. The advice on maths and computing was 12 pages long, on sciences, also 12, and on history, geography, and citizenship together only 10. Lastly, art, design, music, sports were worthy of two pages each.

Religious education must have fallen by the wayside, and personal, social and health education is not mentioned either, both by contrast to the national curriculum of 1999.

The double page conceded to studying ‘a foreign language’, by the way, seems positively bizarre to someone from Europe, where the second language is considered the third core subject, together with maths and your own language and literature, and where a third language is the norm…

On the other hand, my prestigious baccalaureate left me with considerable command of algebra, but none of designing or even drawing any object, and with the ability to read Latin fairly well, but none to distinguish a symphony from, let’s say, a waterfall.

Why are art and music regarded as something separate, something artistic rather than academic, instead of teaching everyone, at the very least, art and music history just like political and, in fact, literary history?

West African textile, decorated with portrait of anti-colonial leader Amilcar Cabral. A double expression of identity through design and motif? - Photograph: © The Trustees of the British Museum

West African textile, decorated with portrait of anti-colonial leader Amilcar Cabral. A double expression of identity: through design and motif? –
Photograph: © The Trustees of the British Museum

As regards the multiple and invaluable benefits of actual artistic activity, Professor Susan Hallam of the UCL Institute of Education has summarised the research for you in The power of music (2015). As a UCL student or staff member, you can read her ideas online in an e-book of 2010.

Amongst the many boosts of music education are intelligence, literacy and numeracy! For the wider role of art and design education, the Library has just acquired a title on the identity of black people in Britain and their roots in Africa.

In this context, the recent speech by Schools Minister Nick Gibb, What is a good education in the 21st century? – also filed on DERA for you – is revealing.

The minister deplores the decline of ‘academic subjects’ and ‘knowledge’ in theories and policies of education. He provides a number of valid examples where problem-solving would not be possible without previously memorised and practised knowledge, like time-tables and vocabulary.

Gibb certainly makes some good points for the concepts of this and the previous Government; yet he confirms the hierarchy of skills and the hierarchy of studies. Little space here for intelligence through music or identity through art!

By the way, that study on Japanese schools by Christopher Bjork comes to a surprising conclusion on undifferentiated cramming and child-centred learning.

If you want to find out more on curricula, the classmarks at the Newsam Library are ‘Mabt’ and ‘Mabt Oversize’ (upstairs, right and further right). A search tip: If you go to ‘Full Search’ on the Library Catalogue and look up ‘Curriculum’, on the right hand there will appear a list of related search terms, very specific ones like ‘Curriculum analysis’ and ‘Curriculum relevance’.

Quick links to the current national curriculum are on our guide to Official Publications; European links and worldwide links can be found on our guide to International Education.

I do hope that all students at the UCL IOE will contribute to a meaningful education system in their countries – most of them as teachers and researchers and some of them as politicians!

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