I’m an English teacher and I’d like to champion the new broader curriculum approach by sharing that the best documentary I’ve ever seen is Fermat’s Last Theorem.  I was at school when it first appeared via the BBC’s Horizon series, and I only heard about it because my English teacher enthusiastically asked us if we’d watched it.  And if Ms Frawley thought it was worth watching, then it had to be seen. 

Image from BBC 2’s Horizon Serious – Fermat’s Last Theorum

It tells the story of “one man’s obsession with the world’s greatest mathematical problem” and it’s mesmerizing from the start.  Andrew Wiles, at his desk with comical amounts of paper strewn everywhere in some sort of living embodiment of the stereotypically muddled but brilliant mind, reflects on his work, and as the camera moves slowly towards him you realize, as he tries to find the words, that he’s fighting to hold back tears.  A life and a soul spilling to the surface.

Still from Fermat's Last Theorem of Andrew Wiles
Andrew Wiles in BBC 2’s Horizon series with ALL the paper work, all of the passion.

As an English teacher, what drew me to this mathematical masterpiece?

Over the years the poor souls in my classes/tutor groups have always ended up with a viewing on the grounds that such work constitutes sustenance.  So say I.  But I’m an English teacher.  I grafted for my own GCSE in maths and, upon completion, dropped it.  How was I seduced by such an intensely mathematical documentary?  Well, Mr Wiles won me over with his very first words:

Perhaps I could best describe my experience of doing mathematics in terms of entering a dark mansion.   One goes into the first room and it’s dark – completely dark.  One stumbles around, bumping into the furniture.  And gradually you learn where each piece of furniture is.  And finally, after six months or so, you find the light switch, you turn it on and suddenly it’s all illuminated.  You can see exactly where you were.”

Oh yes, that most literary and artistic of jewels… the metaphor.  Understanding; clarity; illumination; revelation; the groping for and the striving towards the light.  I don’t understand modular forms, but I do know darkness and light; they fill my life, as they do us all.  Here the metaphor beautifully unites disparate fields of learning and reminds us that, however distant the subjects or interests of an individual may be, at the center will be found that oft hidden but always abiding kernel: our common humanity.  That same striving for clarity and light.

How do we strive for clarity and light in education?

But our education is atomized: divided and broken down into each subject and unit.  I get it.  It has to be this way.  Most students find themselves, sooner or later, with a preference for one of the two great pillars around which education is built: the humanities and the sciences.  Specialisation is the name of the day in an increasingly specialised world.  No place these days for the jack of all trades, like Da Vinci.  Narrow and sharpen your talents and do it quick, or you’ll be beaten out by someone who does.

There are many reasons why teachers and students are drawn towards a particular subject over others, but I suspect that at the heart of such a preference will lie the feeling – vague, opaque and inarticulate perhaps – that in their subject lies the way to truth.  That seeing the world and ourselves through that particular lens offers a degree of clarity and light that other subjects cannot give. 

Few talk of clarity and truth when discussing their subjects perhaps, but you will often see the implicit belief in the playful suggestions of both teachers and students.  The rigid scientist with their microscopic precision, dodgy beards and frowning intolerance of all things outside the hard grasp of fact; fondling their Bunsen burners and petri dishes.  The starry-eyed English teacher, belittling the narrow nature of such facts while nursing the hangover; cradling their poems and paracetamol.  The above is cheap and silly and fun, but the common stereotypes surrounding different subjects and departments reflect that seemingly different relationship with learning, with the world at large, and with ourselves.

Which lens/lenses do you see the world through?

I have no issue with seeing the world through the particular lens that works for you, but I do think that refusing to see it through any other is deeply limiting.  I have no issue with the need to specialise as a student moves through education and ultimately towards a career, but I do think that specialisation can, if you let it, become confinement.  Ofsted have got it right when they say they wish to see that,

“Learners study the full curriculum. Providers ensure this by teaching a full range of subjects for as long as possible, ‘specialising’ only when necessary.”  I know that, to some, praising anything Ofsted-related is a teacher’s equivalent of selling both self and soul, but hark!  Here I go again… “the curriculum extends beyond the academic, technical or vocational. It provides for learners’ broader development, enabling them to develop and discover their interests and talents.” 


How do we, teachers, play out this idea of specialism vs broader approach?

I hear people talk of being open-minded.  Like all admirable ideas, I think this is infinitely harder to achieve and sustain than it sounds.  And as usual it is us, the teachers, who do or don’t lead by example.  And yet we are largely subject and curriculum bound.  Look at your staffroom.  To what extent do departments mix?  A minor social observation perhaps, but also indicative of a culture.  If you yourself treat walking into a Physics (or History or Music or…) lesson like the intellectual equivalent of crossing the Rubicon, then we can expect to produce students who set about building their own boundaries and walls, within which they’ll feel comfortable and safe.  Fine to a point, as long as there are windows and doors which over a view of the broader curriculum on offer.

I’ve argued the importance of a broader, cross-curricular approach to teaching that strives to go beyond – when and where possible, and within reason – the boundaries of your particular subject and curriculum, yet I began with Andrew Wiles; an absolutely stellar example of enormous success achieved through profound specialisation.  I don’t wish to utterly dismiss the merits of specialisation.  That would be stupid.  But I equate learning with freedom, and I believe you narrow the former at the risk of the latter.

Birds free in the sky
Learning is freedom?

How does this equate in real life?

Years ago I had a fantastic A Level Literature student who went on to study medicine at University.  In his interview, the professors challenged him (fairly aggressively) on why he had chosen A Level Literature when it contributed absolutely nothing to his Higher Education and career path. He answered that in such a demanding profession, he would need to maintain some kind of intellectual space and distance apart, lest he be swallowed whole by the pressures of the job; that in books he would find nourishment and space and light, and that doing so would help him maintain balance and perspective.  There goes a young man with a real chance of happiness in this life.  Not because he studied English, or because he chose Medicine, but because he let neither the one nor the other cramp him.  In my book, he’s the freer for it.

Part of ‘The Good Fight’ by Tom Brooker for Consortium Education.

Find out more about Tom here.