Most of institutionalised learning…is based on the assumption that the learner’s view and the teacher’s view of what has been learned are identical. This is the implicit and therefore hidden teaching/learning contract which predominates in education. (Harri-Augstein and Thomas, 1991, p. 25)
After years of debate, argument and revision, England and Wales now have a National Curriculum which establishes ‘what pupils should be taught’ (DFE, 1995) but translating this prescribed curriculum into what certain children will actually learn is still far from straightforward. As ideas are developed from curriculum documents to teachers’ plans to children’s understanding they pass from higher to lower levels of generalization, changing at each stage as they are fleshed out with the increasingly particular details of specific local contexts. This progressive complication of meanings is neither a descent from order into chaos nor a corruption of the ideal form of the prescribed curriculum, it represents, rather, an increasing recognition of the importance of details which, at higher levels of generalization, would have to be dismissed as irrelevant. Just as maps at different scales are useful for different purposes, so different degrees of detail are appropriate for different stages of the mapping of school tasks: it would be unreasonable to look for the route-planner clarity of a national curriculum in the street plan intricacy of each conversation between a teacher and a child. At times, however, the call of the organized may be strong enough to distract teachers from the complexity of their interactions with particular children in a particular classroom because what should be taught is more tidy, more clearly structured and more obviously worthwhile than the comparative jumble of half-formed ideas and remembered experiences from which the children construct their understanding of what they are asked to do.