An Interview with Michael Reiss: An Aims Based Curriculum

Feb 15, 2013 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) First of all , can you tell our readers a bit about yourselves and your past education and experiences.

After reading natural sciences at Cambridge, I did a PhD and post-doc on evolutionary biology and population genetics. I then trained to be a teacher and taught in schools for five years before returning to higher education. I am currently Pro-Director: Research and Development and Professor of Science Education at the Institute of Education, University of London, Chief Executive of Science Learning Centre London, Director of the Salters-Nuffield Advanced Biology Project and an Academician of the Academy of Social Sciences. I was Director of Education at the Royal Society, have written extensively about curricula, pedagogy and assessment in science education and have directed a very large number of research, evaluation and consultancy projects over the past twenty years funded by UK Research Councils, Government Departments, charities and international agencies. For further information see<>.

2) How would you define an Aims-Based Curriculum ?

An aims-based curriculum is one that starts by asking what schools are trying to achieve. It therefore begins with the fundamental purpose of education and goes on from there to consider what is the most suitable curriculum. This is different to what normally happens which is that one starts with school subjects.

3) You write about human flourishing in the schools. What exactly
do you mean by this ?

Human flourishing occurs when humans develop so as to maximise what is best about being a human ­ to develop one potentials and to be thoughtful and respectful of the needs and desires of others. We see it when learners are motivated to learn more, believe that they and others are worthwhile, and enjoy life without being overly worried if they don’t succeed at everything.

4) Blunt question,should the schools be equipping each learner to read,
write, do maths, spell, or should the focus be to equip each learner to lead a personally fulfilling life and help others to do so also²?

Part of leading a personally fulfilling life and helping others to do so too entails not only being able to read but to wish to read and to read a range of literatures including some that are challenging and stretch one. In the same way, both John and I want all learners to be capable and confident at mathematics. At the same time, we do not start from the assumption that a large proportion of curriculum time in every school year must be devoted to mathematics. We are attracted, for many subjects, by the notion of a ‘core and options’ model so that learners would have more opportunities to exercise choice over what they study than is generally the case at present. Reasonable spelling is need to read and to communicate in writing effectively, though its importance is sometimes over-emphasised. Spelling conventions change over time (as any reader of literature knows ­ I’m re-reading Pride and Prejudice at present).

5) Is the purpose of the schools in 2013 to facilitate a life of personal, civic and vocational well being or to prepare them for the electronic, computerized, technological world in which we live?

We do live in an electronic, computerized, technological world but that is not the only world in which we live. We also live in a world rich in human relationships and we live in a world with unacceptable levels of inequalities, including those that result from increasing damage to the environment. A life of personal, civic and vocational well being should help young people live in whatever circumstances they find themselves.

6) Do you envision having to lengthen the school day or school year in order to achieve your goals?

I see no reason to lengthen the school day or year. There are educational reasons to wonder if vacations might be of more even length (rather than varying from a fortnight to close on two months). At the same time, I see schools as becoming more ‘porous’ than they were a few decades ago. The new technologies and transport possibilities mean that much more valuable learning is available outside of school than used to be the case.

7) How involved should the state be in determining curriculum? How involved should OFSTED be in evaluating curriculum?

John and I are in favour of both the state and individual schools having a say in the curriculum. The state’s role is at a more overarching level; the school’s is dependent on its student intake and socio-geographical situation. We don’t say a great deal about Ofsted or any other system of school inspection. In principle, one wants some sort of inspection arrangements to check that schools are not under-performing or abusing their authority. Unfortunately, much of the recent history of school inspection in England is of a reduction of expertise among the inspectorate combined with an increasingly rigid focus on student attainment in public examinations. When I was teaching in schools, Her Majesty’s Inspectors (HMIs) (which is what we had then) were less in the public eye and more concerned with providing feedback to individual teachers as well as to the whole school so that teachers could improve however well they were performing.

8) Let¹s talk student choice—should students be given the option of preparing to learn at Oxford or Cambridge or preparing to work at Harrod¹s or as a gardener in Hyde Park?

It’s hardly rocket science but an important aspect of 11-16 education is enabling learners to keep their options open. With an increasingly high proportion of learners going on to universities across the world, one doesn’t want too early to force learners to decide between the possibility of higher education, getting a job or some sort of apprenticeship as soon as they leave school. One failing in the English school system has been to equate ‘vocational education’ with ‘education for low attaining students’.
Yet, for many students medicine, for example, is a vocation whereas stacking shelves at a supermarket isn’t.

9) What do you mean by school ethos ?

School ethos is the ‘feel’ and presumptions of a school. For example, does it value the creative arts? Are students given lots of choices or few? Is religious faith presumed to be the norm, a valid possibility or odd?

10) What changes in teacher education would you envision should your ideas be adopted?

Teacher education nowadays has less space for reflection on the fundamental purposes of education than when I trained to be a secondary school teacher in 1982-3. A good teacher education is all about learning how to manage a classroom, how to communicate one’s subject so that students learn and are motivated to learn and becoming the sort of person who finds teaching to be a fulfilling, albeit a demanding, career.

11) Where could interested teachers and others get this book?

An Aims-Based Curriculum: the significance of human flourishing for schools by Michael J. Reiss and John White is available to order in North America from Stylus Publishing and can also be ordered from online book retailers such as Amazon.
In the UK it can be purchased from online retailers such as Amazon and all good bookshops.
This book is published by IOE Press

About the authors:

Michael Reiss is Pro-Director: Research and Development and Professor of Science Education at the Institute of Education, University of London. John White is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy of Education at the Institute of Education, University of London.

The IOE:

A little bit about the Institute of Education, University of London

The Institute of Education is a college of the University of London that specializes in education and related areas of social science and professional practice. In the most recent Research Assessment Exercise two-thirds of the Institute’s research activity was judged to be internationally significant and over a third was judged to be “world leading”. The Institute was recognized by Ofsted in 2010 for its “high quality” initial teacher training programmes that inspire its students “to want to be outstanding teachers”. The IOE is a member of the 1994 Group, which brings together 19 internationally renowned, research-intensive universities.

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