Meeting the Benchmarks

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Life-based learning offers a vibrant and necessary alternative to the subject-based approach to learning used in so many countries around the world.

Michael Mac

Note to overseas viewers of this page

The context of this article is Britain as a democracy with the freedom for articles such as this one to promote an alternative to the subject-based approach to learning. The perspective is Western-centric, not just in politics, but in standards of living, life style, attitudes and values which can be very different to the circumstances you find yourself in. Hopefully you can still attach meaning and value to your own circumstances.

Six reasons why the life-based approach to learning is fit for purpose

The life-based approach to learning for young children is:


The life-based approach to learning is underpinned by a logical framework of content. This approach — based on the three areas of life — is philosophically tenable and internally coherent. The simplicity of its framework allows for high levels of sophistication in terms of the identification of key knowledge and skills.

This approach offers a blueprint for the construction of meaningful programmes of learning. It allows for a high level of analysis of the human condition and indicates key areas of learning for young people.

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The approach addresses urgent personal, social and emotional issues that are ignored or downgraded in importance by the subject-based approach to learning.

Urgent issues relating to each of us as individuals

  • Obesity: By 2030, 50% of the population will be obese: these are the children in school now
  • Mental ill-health: This is on the increase in both young children and adults
  • Non-learners: We currently have large numbers of children switched off from learning; learning is not harnessed to how the brain works; and the current subject approach to learning impacts negatively on pupil motivation

Urgent issues relating to each of us as members of society

  • Poor language skills: This starts with limited oral vocabulary, a lack of reading material in homes, brains underdeveloped from birth and learning hampered by a restricted understanding of the concept of communication demonstrated by the authors of the National Curriculum
  • Turmoil in relations: There is a lack of the knowledge and skills required in the formation of lasting personal and workplace relationships, including the management of people
  • The ‘broken society’: Political leadership is fragmented; people lack purpose in their lives; individual freedom is valued and prioritised at the expense of social responsibility; public organisations are not respected; society is litigious

Urgent issues relating to each of us as inhabitants of the Earth

  • Extinction of life: There is alarming habitat destruction and accelerated loss of plant and animal species
  • The ‘throwaway society’: Mismanagement and depletion of the Earth’s resources is rife; the consumer society is rampant; there is a failure to ‘buy to last’
  • Environmental disconnect: Lack of social cooperation at local, national and international levels to nurture all life and husband the planet’s resources

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The life-based approach matches learning to the three areas of life:

  • The individual’s physical, emotional and rational development
  • Positive relationships and contributions to society, founded on an enhanced ability to communicate
  • Children learning about and looking after the world they live in

The subdivision of each life area into three curriculum priorities creates a structured and comprehensive curriculum content that mirrors life itself.

Each area is equal in terms of importance, but this does not mean to say that they are delivered in the same way or allocated the same amount of learning time.

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Broad and balanced

The approach has breadth.

The three life areas and nine learning domains give the curriculum breadth. Every curriculum area of learning can be linked to one or more of these domains.

All aspects of life can be considered for inclusion, though obviously some would be considered inappropriate and the inclusion of all aspects would make the curriculum unwieldy.

Breadth has two advantages:

  • No learning area is left unconsidered
  • Key individual, social and environmental aspects of life are given direct attention

We want children to grow into adulthood knowing how to care for themselves, how to create and sustain positive relationships and how to live life in a comfortable, fulfilling and sustainable way.

The three life areas — the personal, the social and the environmental — interrelate and encompass much more than the usual meanings attached to each.

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The approach has greater meaning for children and teachers as it is life-based. It is much more than a bunch of subjects.

A life-based curriculum makes learning meaningful: it holds up a mirror to life and reflects the mirror’s contents in the curriculum.

Michael Mac

It arms children with the information, concepts, skills, attitudes and values they need as adults to tackle the urgent personal, social and environmental issues of modern-day living.

It is meaningful as it enables children to learn that their bodies, minds and emotions are what make them human beings, uniquely different in key respects from other animals.

It is meaningful by helping children to appreciate that they are members of larger communities with rights and responsibilities.

It is meaningful as it enables children to learn about how to look after our planet, which provides the resources we need to survive.

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The key life values are hope, respect and trust.

Life-based learning offers children hope for the future: hope for themselves; hope shared by the people in their lives; and hope for a vibrant and sustainable planet for future generations.

Children are treated with respect: respect for themselves as individuals, helped and supported in looking after their bodies, their minds and their emotions. Children learn respect for other people, whatever their ethnic origins or religious beliefs. They also learn respect for the environment that sustains and gives them life.

Trust is fostered in children: trust that the education provision is truly looking to support the development of their bodies, minds and emotions; trust in their relationships with their peers and adults in their lives as they grow and develop long-lasting relationships as adults; trust that they are part of a collaborative effort to sustainably manage the environment.

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Intention is key to success. What does that mean in terms of different approaches to learning?