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More on academic and non-academic subjects

November 19, 2017

Yesterday I wrote about what I think makes some subjects “academic” and other subjects, while still worthwhile, not academic. The discussion on Twitter immediately afterwards was particularly helpful in helping me reconsider some points and defend others (although by now it largely seems to have been replaced by various progressives arguing against things I never said).

My original argument was that the use of the word “academic” to describe a subject corresponds to those subjects where mastery of the subject was characterised by further study (e.g. history or maths) and not those subjects where mastery is characterised by some distinct activity or skill (e.g. woodwork, painting or football). I acknowledged grey areas (music and MFL can be taught in either academic or non-academic ways) and emphasised that the difference between academic and non-academic subjects does not lead to a value judgement. I also put forward the view that trying to make the non-academic subjects more academic (or vice versa) didn’t do them any favours. I’m still largely happy with what I said but there is something I got wrong, something that I didn’t think about and one new point that I would like to consider.

I will start with the point I got wrong. Because my definition referred to mastery, I think I ended up over-emphasising elite performance. While I still think that the best school plays might indicate the best drama teachers, and the best sports teams might indicate the best games teachers, I should have accepted that general improvement in performance, for everyone at a school, is at least as important as how good the school’s elite are. I should have accepted that participation in, say, sports or the arts might also be important. I will stick to my position that the best drama teaching results in better acting and the best football teaching results in better football playing, but I would not judge these things only by the elite actors and footballers in a school. I stand corrected.

The point I did not think about enough was how subjects are defined and did not make enough effort to be precise in the subjects I talked about. I was amazed that several people expanded subjects way beyond the content I considered them to have. People kept telling me of amazingly academic things that are part of drama that were not acting, from the history of the theatre to the theoretic basis of criticism. I have a GCSE in drama. I did not study one of those things. But, of course, the curriculum changes, particularly in subjects where there has been a deliberate effort to make them seem more academic. I was aware of this in design and technology, and that was why I referred to woodwork and metal work rather than to design and technology. Non-academic subjects are repackaged and have academic content added. Anyone who believes the subjects as they are currently formulated in the GCSE curriculum are definitive will, of course, see them as more academic than they need be. But that is begging the question. I was starting a debate about whether these things are being packaged the right way. We need to look at things from a perspective outside the current framework of assessment and subjects.

To apply my definition, we need to be able to distinguish between the essential and the accidental features of a subject. Acting is essential to learning drama; it is not clear to me that anything else, even if relevant in some ways to drama, is. If the essential elements of a subject are non-academic then it does not matter if the accidental ones are, particularly if they may have been added to the subject to give it more academic credibility. Similarly, learning biology is not essential to learning to play football, and learning how to design a menu is not essential to learning to cook. Perhaps, some subjects will be lacking in essentials and need to be completely rethought and we can perhaps reject any contemporary subjects that have been invented entirely to makes something practical sound more academic. Cookery is a skill in its own right, it shouldn’t have to be repackaged as “home economics” or “food technology”. As far as I can tell some design GCSEs are a way to make some really quite wonderful practical skills look more academic, with coursework folders and written work and without actually testing if somebody can,say, hammer a nail in. PE also raises some issues. I was wrong to think of it as sports. It also covers fitness and we should recognise mastery of it in those who attain a high degree of physical fitness even if they do so without playing sport. Perhaps we would be better off thinking of sport and fitness as two separate subjects. This might seem a contrivance to get round the shortcomings of my definition. However, accepting the current curriculum structures as guidance for subject boundaries and content is not an option, that would simply be accepting decisions that, in some cases, are very recent as telling us the nature of activities that may have been done for thousands of years. We might also get around those subjects that seem to be in grey areas by dividing them into more than one subject, so as to better reflect the nature of the content, rather than the conveniences of the curriculum. Is creative writing really part of the same subject as grammar and literature, or is it an art?

Finally, we have the question of what happens when we go beyond the typical school subjects. There was an assumption among many people that the non-academic subjects I was talking about vocational subjects. Actually, I avoided the word “vocational” as it is not applied consistently in schools. Just because something does not lead to further study, does not mean it is suited to the workplace. A lot of people asked questions that referred to the world outside of schools. Some claimed that if something was studied at university then it must be an academic subject. But of course, universities exist to study things academically. Just because a university might teach sports science, it does not make football an academic subject. You might as well argue that a university teaching criminology makes burglary an academic subject. Universities create new academic disciplines to study things that are not academic disciplines. Sports science, political science, business studies are so called precisely because sports, politics and business are not academic subjects in themselves and have to be made so. The really interesting cases are probably the professions. Are medicine and law academic subjects or not? Perhaps part of the answer here is in the concept of a profession itself. Professions are not just jobs, they are also defined by having a particularly extensive body of knowledge in a way that other jobs do not. Perhaps that is what makes them the hard case, because we struggle to see the dividing line between doing the job and studying that body of knowledge.

Before I finish, I should point out again that this has been an exploration of definitions and the nature of subjects. It has not, and has never been, about policy. Some people think that if you say drama is not an academic subject and it is not best served by being tested in exams, then you would abolish drama GCSE and replace it with nothing and thereby drama would cease to be a priority for schools. I do think drama is more important than drama exams and I really mean this. I would hope getting rid of drama the pseudo-academic subject would not kill drama the art but, if this is a risk, then I am asking here for ways to prevent that, not suggesting it should be allowed to happen. I have no interest in getting rid of non-academic subjects, just replacing pseudo-academic subjects with the actual arts, crafts and sports they currently distort.

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8 comments

  1. Reblogged this on DT & Engineering Teaching Resources and commented:
    More on academic and non-academic subjects


  2. Academic or not is a difficult question. Would Leonardo da Vinci’s understanding of painting be academic? He studied various subjects to become a painter, anatomy, the mixing and making of pigments, maths for proportion and perspective. Beethoven could both read and write music and play at least one instrument as well as being able to conduct. In painting mastery of its disciplines are complex but practical. In music unless you can read musical notation it is questionable whether you are competent. Are these subjects academic? Yes, for to do them well takes further study, and long practice, including looking at and discussing others artists’ work and examining how effects are achieved, playing and listening to music and practising writing it. Schools might not teach painting and music in these ways, sometimes treating these disciplines as being about self expression, much as they teach creative writing and writing poetry. These are subjects where the academic content has been taken out in the last half century – it needs to be put back if state schools are going to produce musicians and painters.


  3. “Non-academic subjects are repackaged and have academic content added… [in] a deliberate effort to make the subject seem more academic”

    Because you did a 100% practical GCSE in Drama, you now imagine the academic content you see in Drama education has since been retrospectively added.

    But really, the 100% practical GCSE Drama you did was in itself a birth child of the 80s, a single 2 year course, one moment in time.

    Drama education is a living thing, changing with the times. At times it has been text-based; at other times performance-based; other times (your GCSE experience) process-based.

    Contemporary GCSEs in Drama tends to contain a combination of these elements, with teacher discretion.

    We didn’t all one day have a panic meeting about our discipline being not academic enough, then artificially generate theoretical content to make it “seem” more academic. That would be silly.

    The theoretical has always been there. It’s just that your (very narrow) experience of a 90s 100% practical GCSE has fooled you into thinking Drama *is* 100% practical, and that the academic content was forced post-hoc to dissemble theory, which, in fact predates your GCSE by about 3000 years.


    • So the academic content would have been consistent over the years? Not constantly changing? Not repeatedly debated?


      • God no, Drama is a living thing! Yes, constantly changing, constantly debated. It’s great to introduce such theoretical debates in the Drama classroom; even better to embody them in praxis!

        And there are so many sources to choose from!

        I think it would be selling students short not to introduce them to at least a few elements of the theoretical conversation. I love that this is at the discretion of the teacher in most GCSEs I have come across.

        I really don’t care about what Andrew presupposes as “credibility”. What I care about is a rounded Drama education, including analysis of the forms, exploration of theories, investigation into the contexts and experimentation with the styles.


  4. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


  5. […] More on academic and non-academic subjects […]


  6. […] that the content of some domains is a lot more settled than others – there is, for instance, very wide debate about what a subject such as drama should consist of.) There are some domains, such as history, or English literature, where the breadth of content is […]



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