The Horrendous Hierarchy of Subjects

My niece, who is thirteen and lives in the UK, recently needed to choose what GCSE subjects she will take next year. It is that time in her life where she needs to sit down and decide her subject choices for the next two years.

Now, for most people that is normal. It is what you must do; it is what we all had to do. The school system is asking for them to choose and it is compulsory. It is the next step on the path of life. This act of choosing is a huge decision which will shape the future path of a child in a direction which will be hard to change.

‘Subjects’ in most traditional schools are associated with academics and usefulness for work. Which subjects are taught are decided on by someone. The content within each subject is decided by someone, and the standard a child needs to achieve is decided by someone.

These decisions are usually guided by a combination of tradition, a national or state curriculum, and the availability of teachers and the timetable structure at each school. Remarkably, that ‘someone’ who is making all of these choices is never the child themselves.

What people need to learn is a debate that has as many opinions as there are people with an opinion, and national curriculum policymakers decide for us what they consider essential.

There is a hierarchy of importance, with Mathematics, Languages and Science at the top, then Humanities, followed by the Arts, and then pretty much anything else the school can offer.

At many progressive learning establishments such as The Learning Project in Ibiza, there is no hierarchy of things a child might want to learn or be interested in. Who are we as adults to say that Mathematics is more important to someone than say, Dance? Try telling that to a professional ballet dancer. It is important that we as humans learn to read and write, as well as having some proficiency with the number system, in order to function well in society, and it is important to do away with hierarchy within subjects and let the child choose. 

A common argument for forced subject choice can go something like this: The world needs scientists so everyone should do science, because if a child isn’t exposed to science, how will they ever know what science is? 

A doctor who says, “If I hadn’t done science, I wouldn’t be where I am today”, usually gets the answer from me, “But you would be doing something else wonderful instead”. 

We need to get away from our worry that the world will not have scientists unless we force kids to do science. The world surrounds all of us with science every day and it is surely more important to encourage questioning and a love for learning, and then give opportunities for that curiosity to grow. Some of us will naturally lean towards science, and if there is a genuine interest, a drive, and all the time in the day to pursue that interest – wonderful learning happens.

Back to my niece. Here are her choices:

It is compulsory to do Mathematics, English and Science and then the choices are:

Select OneSelect OneSelect Two
Art and Design: Graphic Communication, Business Studies, Classical Civilization, Computer Science, Creative iMedia, Dance, Design and Technology: Resistant Materials,
Design and Technology: Textile Technology, Drama, Engineering, Food Preparation and Nutrition, Health and Social Care, Media Studies, Music, Philosophy and Ethics, Physical Education

I look at that table and think that what I would like to select are all from the final box. Or better yet, there are three others I am interested in spending my time doing – and they are not even listed.

Is it too much to question WHY this system still exists? WHY someone has decided that Mathematics is more important than say, Art and Design?

Often, even the choices in the final box are not possible if the class fills up and if your choices clash with the timetable planning. This system squashes a child’s innate desire to learn what they want to learn. It also re-emphasizes and continues the myth of a hierarchy of areas of learning.

The curriculum should indeed be only limited by the imagination of a child.

There are things you can do to change this. One is to consider another learning environment for your child which could include a more progressive school or homeschooling. An environment that allows children the option to develop self-agency now, where the child can explore their own world with the support of a caring community – to explore what they are interested in pursuing. For some, these choices are not possible, so another avenue is to question. Have this conversation with your school, your friends, and your colleagues.

At the very least QUESTION the status quo and never accept the ‘…because it is the way we have always done it’ answer.

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