Curriculum for Excellence and the Diderot Effect

When does the time come when things stop being new? Is there a specific moment when these things become part of the fabric of our lives and, just there, no longer standing out? In an excellent post from Bill Boyd recently, he argues that we should drop the term, ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ and simply call it the Scottish Curriculum. There comes a time, Bill claims, ‘when a name persists beyond its natural usefulness’.  It may indeed be the time to suggest that the Curriculum for Excellence is at that point. Despite problems in its implementation, difficulties and confusions in its management in a time of political upheaval at Government level, as educators who return to work next week for another year, perhaps it is time to stop talking about Curriculum for Excellence and simply return to great teaching. However, it is never as simple as that, is it?

Which brings me to The Diderot effect. The Diderot effect stems from a short essay called ‘Regrets on Parting with my Old Dressing Gown’, by French Philosopher, Denis Diderot. In it, the writer contemplates his life choices after the gift of an expensive new dressing gown plunges him into debt and despair. He’s delighted with the new gift but begins to see that this beautiful new thing starts to make everything else look dreary and old. The essay deals with his quest to replace everything else with shiny new things, in the hope that his new gown won’t seem so out of place. He descends into poverty and ruin.

It seems to me that part of the difficulty in ‘implementing’ the Curriculum for Excellence, or any shiny new curriculum really,  has been the assumption when any great change takes place, that everything that came before it is now defunct – dreary and old, in effect. Experienced teachers have every right to feel slighted by this, even if it is only a perception.  A situation should never arise where previous practice is immediately dismissed, whether that is done mistakenly or not. Effective ways of informing, collaborating and engaging with teachers were missed. Communication came across as flawed but it is not too late. The biggest challenges still to come are surely in preserving the best bits of what is happening and merging them with newer ideas.

It is perhaps these new ideas which provide the energy and thrust of any new curriculum. We also have to keep in mind that recent entrants to the profession will be aware of nothing else. They are not influenced by the past or indeed, holding on to something long past its sell-by date. However, they are also the source of some of the most original, creative ideas around. The Diderot effect will only occur if we undervalue either past or future. Without the best of all worlds our curriculum will be a shadow of what it could be.

It seems to me that the only true success of any new curriculum is that it is damn better than the last one, not merely something new. Our education systems require us to be the best we can at all times. In order to achieve that we need to take the best things from everywhere; past, present, future. The ‘narrator’ in Diderot’s essay becomes obsessed with newness. In doing so he ends up ruined. There is a real danger that unless we start to teach really well the Scottish Curriculum will become just another new set of clothes and a wonderful opportunity will be missed. It’s time to get back to doing what we do best. The rest of the world, it seems, look to our new curriculum structures with envy. Why can’t we?

One thought on “Curriculum for Excellence and the Diderot Effect

  1. Thought provoking and enjoyable post, Graeme Finnie, the guy who ran the coaching initiative a few years back for the Scottish Government, said in describing CfE to an English colleague on the Inside Learning podcast, “we are running an agenda of superlatives” with not a little sarcasm!

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