Cultural Capital – a discussion to help me think!

Cultural capital is one of the latest watchwords in education. Nearly every new curriculum policy seems to have it in there somewhere, and some schools even have ‘cultural capital time’ set aside for supposedly helping kids get some. It is in this vein, that I’d like to explore this concept and consider some of the questions it raises for schools and teachers. Furthermore, it might also help us understand what Ofsted mean when they say they will consider ‘the extent to which schools are equipping pupils with the knowledge and cultural capital that they need to succeed in life, as in the latest framework.

Firstly, I am taken back to my undergraduate years which featured the work of the sociologist and philosopher, Pierre Bourdieu –principal thinker behind the concept of cultural capital. For me, it was and remains, a very complex idea and certainly not something easily tacked onto a school curriculum policy…but we’ll see.

‘Culture’ itself is a pretty tricky concept to unravel. In its simplest sense you might say it is the way of life that groups and individuals share, ranging from beliefs, customs, ideas and practises that move through generations. We might talk about ‘cultured’ people as those who frequent the opera, visit museums, listen to classical music and have book shelves stacked with classic literature, but is that the cultural capital meant here? It might help to go back and revisit Bourdieu in a little more detail.

Essentially, Bourdieu was interested in how educated social groups in French society used cultural capital as a social strategy to achieve a higher social status. Cultural capital can be divided into three types: embodied, objectified and institutionalised. It might help to delineate these in order to support our understanding of it in more depth.

Institutionalised cultural capital refers to credentials given through institutions of authority such as schools, universities and other official bodies. This includes qualifications, degrees, letters after your names, or even before your name, like Dr or Baroness.  When we obtain this type of capital, we can gain access to more powerful positions using these official credentials. These credentials themselves maybe stratified as the institutions they are associated with are perceived to possess more or less value than others, certainly a first from Oxford tends to open more doors than one from Surrey University (no offence intended).

Objectified cultural capital refers to tangible belongings such as a five series BMW, a house in France and what about a pair Jimmy Choo shoes even? We know that flashing your objectified cultural capital around is often a way people seek to gain entry to more prestigious parts of our society, with varying degrees of success. The black market in fake labelled goods is a sign that people recognise these symbols and their association with forms of power and status.

It’s also worth remembering that all forms of cultural capital can be used to access different social spaces. One might wear and say different things in the pub on a Friday night than when networking at a conference for example. We use the capital we have at different times depending on where we seek status.

Embodied cultural capital includes what we personify as the individual, our skills and understanding, our accents, mannerisms even and importantly, our tastes in all manner of things from music and clothes, to food and TV programmes. This is perhaps why we can often take one look at someone and pop them into a pigeon hole in one fell swoop. We also tend to converge with those possessing similar embodied capital and diverge from those who differ. We are in fact evolutionarily programmed to adhere to a group like this because it increases our chance of survival (even though  rising above our primal instincts is often the way we differ from other animals in terms of human civilisation.) Unchecked however, this instinct serves as a vehicle for social reproduction if those with power and influence favour those in their image.

To my mind, cultural capital acts as the personal currency an individual, knowingly and unknowingly, possesses, Bourdieu called this ‘habitus.’ Importantly, educators need to understand that all children possess their own cultural capital, but according to some thinking that is gaining prevalence, less affluent children often lack the supposed ‘right kind,’ a concept many seem uncomfortable with.

In this way, habitus describes who you are based on your upbringing and the people and situations that have influenced you while growing up. For me, this is surely the place where educators need to tread carefully? We are dealing with who children are, and while curriculum is a course of study for children which can add to their ‘habitus,’ it cannot replace it.

Here’s something to think about:

Cultural capital

E.D. Hirsch suggests, that within society a ‘knowledge and language club’ exists that enables those in the club to get on in society as when one knows and says the right things, it acts like a back stage pass into higher status and more powerful positions. The idea that schools need to teach children this ‘culturally valuable knowledge and language’ seems to have translated into Ofsted’s idea of ‘equipping’ children with  cultural capital.

Initially, this seems like a good idea; why wouldn’t it be a good idea to teach the stuff that the movers and shakers know about so that more kids can get a leg up?  All kids deserve to know all the important stuff that matters for modern people. I can’t argue with that. As someone who floated through 70s and 80s schooling only to emerge with very little knowledge and understanding about the world, I’m all for teaching ‘the right stuff.’ I really wish I hadn’t been left in the 70s to ‘follow my own learning’ before I knew anything worth knowing, not least because I ended making clay pots a hell of lot, while being unable to add up, spell or name a single planet.

The question some educators then might ask is, whose knowledge and language is it? Are we simply talking about teaching children an accumulation of human thought? Or is it that the ‘best of human thought’ is the best that has been thought by a few key holders to the knowledge and language club, leaving out so much of the best that has been thought by everyone else? Some have suggested this is no more than a domination of the white, male private school curriculum over the rest of society. I agree somewhat, but can you say this about the main theories in science for example, has someone else got better theories there?  History perhaps is different? And anyway, isn’t it better to get into the club, then begin to give it an almighty shake up? Honestly though, I can’t pretend to have answers here.

As schools, we are in the business of, among other things, providing institutionalised cultural capital in the form of qualifications and official awards, yet we know that these can soon become subordinate to embodied capital. In interviews for example, interviewers will often bias themselves towards those with similar embodied cultural capital. At a party recently, I listened to a friend recount how he’d hired a person that day, not because his CV was brimming with credentials, although he had what was required, but because he liked walking and climbing like my friend did; in fact, they ended up talking about all the outdoor pursuits they both enjoyed. There is always a potential it seems, for people to get the job because they are ‘my type of person.’ Credentials get you through the door, but the embodied capital often does the rest. Maybe, if we were all more educated and aware of our unconscious biases then this would help?

So, what on earth do we as educators do with all this? How can we burst the merry-go-round of privilege that cultural capital seems to create? If it is as complex as it seems, then taking children to museums, reading them Dickens and watching Newsround and Planet Earth isn’t going to crack this, although I’ve no doubt it might help children have a breadth of experience.

We can certainly do our best to give children access to institutionalised cultural capital so they have the credentials to wave about, but as we know, if children only have this without the other forms of embodied capital, places like Oxford are uncomfortable places many young people feel they don’t belong. Thus, places like that largely perpetuate the cycle of privilege and status and our political and judicial system are testament to that. How far then are we suggesting some young people change in order to ‘fit in’?

It is this sense of belonging that matters here. It is what we really need to crack open. The moment any of us feels we don’t belong, if we don’t have the specific cultural capital required for that time and place, then this discomfort has the potential to displace us and we tend to exit to safety.

So, what can we do? Yes, we can and we should offer children many varied and different experiences, but haven’t we always done that? Maybe not? Is this what Ofsted mean? Whatever our curricula have or haven’t provided, isn’t it vital to respond to the very human need for belonging first?  It is, if we accept that learning is as emotional as it is cognitive. We won’t get kids anywhere unless they feel valued for who they are; how can you learn well if you feel you and your life aren’t as good as everyone else’s, but then hasn’t that always been the problem with schools? Still, this is the potential problem with trying to hand out cultural capital like cough syrup. Done badly, it has the potential to send a subtle message to many children that their way of life really isn’t as good. Is this the way we create confident people who can change the world for the better?

In conclusion, if I have really anything to conclude, shouldn’t schools be places where all children’s cultural capital is recognised so that they feel where they come from is valued because it’s part of who they are? ‘So, you’re saying that if the highlight of your day is going to MacDonald’s, this should be valued?’  Mmmm?  What do we say to that?  Well, I know that often how we think about other people’s lives often turns out to be incorrect, mostly because it’s not like our life. Everybody has something going on that’s worth talking about, it just finding the time and space to listen, something schools are often strapped for.

Undoubtedly, it is right to give children open access to all that will be valuable to them, but I’m pretty sure that they will utilise that in a much more meaningful and productive way, if they come at it from a place of solid self-worth to begin with.  How we do this should perhaps be part of that ‘cultural capital bit’ in our curriculum policies, but importantly, in our vigilance for recognising unconscious bias, generalising about groups and types and especially in our understanding that all humans feel the need to be valued and learn more effective when they do.

Why children are both experts and novices and what we might do to help.

Questions I’m thinking about here:

Why might it be both right and wrong to see the child as being ‘the expert in their own learning?’

Why do different types of human knowledge require different methods of learning?

Why is cognitive load theory not the panacea for all learners, all of the time?

How can teachers use cognitive load theory to support learners in becoming more expert in their own learning?

I came across a tweet recently reminding us to ‘respect young people as experts in their own learning.’ If I’m honest, I’m never quite sure what statements like this mean. In my experience, I usually know more about children’s learning needs than they do, but I make it my job to turn that around of course.

I assume then, that the tweet suggests that children should be allowed to lead their own learning  through a child-led curriculum because they naturally know where they are, and better than anyone else? After all, we can’t see into their heads, right?  The trouble is that there is good empirical evidence now that child centred approaches to learning new information are less effective than ones using instructional methods. Exploratory approaches also often favour more affluent children who arrive at school pre-saturated in all the cultural capital and background knowledge they need to thrive on, ‘leading their own learning’ and being ‘experts’ in it. Advocates of child-initiated learning may also have missed the differences between types of knowledge and how children learn these.

However, I have no doubt that children should be the experts in their own learning. In fact, I have never come across a teacher who did not want their pupils to become less passive and dependent. Whatever the disagreements rattling away between seemingly disparate pedagogical standpoints, aiming to get children to have more understanding about their own learning is surely a shared goal?

For me, the child-led verses direct instruction debate benefits greatly from acknowledgement of the distinction between instinctive, primary knowledge and non-instinctive secondary knowledge. Delineating these types of knowledge might go some way to lessening the tension between some practitioners (often early years teachers) who advocate ‘the child as the expert’ methodology and those of older children, who often favour more instructional approaches, though I admit this is based on purely anecdotal experience.

To begin with, human beings have evolved to learn some things naturally – this is instinctive, primary knowledge. Among the things we learn here are things like language, walking, interpreting facial expressions, empathising and in general the universal abilities that all human beings learn as social animals, whenever they are in the world.

Certainly, part of a child reaching a ‘good level of development’ at the end of reception is when they have had enough exposure to evolutionarily expected events like play, talk and the range of interactions with other humans and the environment that mean they have absorbed the natural human competencies that ensure as group animals we flourish. The human brain is primed to learn these things, to listen to voices and watch faces for example. We do not require direct instruction here because we are pre-programmed to ‘watch, learn and do’ these things. (TES have a great podcast on this with Dr David Geary ).

At the same time, this natural, or folk knowledge runs alongside and underpins the effective learning of many other things we need to learn in order to operate as humans in a modern, developed society. Human beings who are unable to communicate with others, share or empathise for example, will be hampered when it comes to modern adult working life.

Importantly, with primary, instinctive knowledge the child is the expert and they do lead their own learning as a developing social animal. A toddler knows exactly when they are ready to take that first step, let go of the coffee table and waddle across the room, while parents coo proudly. Granted, they might fall down here and there, but they are clearly leading their own learning. It is like this for many human activities; we measure the environment and decide where we are and what our next steps are quite naturally because we are evolutionarily primed to learn these things. Learning to speak is like this too; setting aside physiological problems, children do it when they are ready.

However, this is not the same for the non-instinctive secondary knowledge that is not tied to our evolutionary programming.  This type of knowledge has been shaped over human history and passed down outside evolutionary pathways from the expert to the novice through instruction, demonstration, lecturing, discussion, debate and all the other teaching devices we use to pass on learning through generations.

At the initial stages of learning secondary knowledge, the child (or novice) is not an expert in their own learning and cannot lead their own learning. The structure of the brain is such that secondary knowledge does not come naturally, that’s why children would rather play. We are not primed for example, to count or read symbols as sounds in the same way we are to distinguish and say sounds; we require a more knowledgeable other to teach us these things. It is the same with most of the other material we learn in schools.

Now, this is where cognitive load theory comes in. We know that when children learn new content, they learn best through instruction rather than being left to discover or find out by themselves. This is because working memory is limited and the extraneous cognitive load associated with problem-solving will often mean that children’s processing is taken up with the surplus information rather than the intended learning objective. This is why we need to take care with all the whizz, bang stuff we might use to try engage children in learning new content, especially in subjects like science.

Teachers then have a responsibility to decrease extraneous cognitive load when presenting new information. They need to think carefully about cutting out distracting content so that children can focus on processing intrinsic cognitive load involved in simply learning the new information. We cut out the cartoons and animations on presentations, the music, the excess writing and we instruct using devices like worked examples to externally minimise children’s cognitive load, there’s plenty on how to do this now on the internet. Importantly, this does not mean pupils shouldn’t have discussions and debates, or problem solve or explore using what has been learned, we just need to ensure this is at the right time and doesn’t impede with the initial laying down of content.

But there are potential problems with cognitive load theory if used as a ‘teach all’ approach. With the heavy emphasis on direct instruction, there is a potential (not a certainty) for teachers to over-manage children’s thinking which could result in quite passive learners with poor learning self-advocacy. Nobody wants this.

We must not forget that cognitive load theory is aimed at ‘the novice’. This means that once content has imprinted in long-term memory children do need to go off and apply this to problems and investigations – this is how teachers optimise the germane cognitive load so that unused working memory can then be used to build schemata and develop automatic processing, fundamental for expertise. This means that teachers need to pay close attention to assessing children’s cognitive needs and not hinder this through focusing on supporting initial mental load for too long. We have to hold children’s hands just long enough, too long and they start to drag along.

In truth, this is the about craft knowledge of teaching, good teachers know when children need to go it alone and move on. However, as a consequence, using direct instruction to teach new content does mean that assessment for learning practices may need to be even more rigorous, with an even clearer understanding of learners’ prior knowledge. Perhaps this is less significant with exploratory learning or problem solving?

Importantly however, we should support children in understanding when they need to move on themselves. With the emphasis on teacher-led learning that cognitive load theory suggests, we should also keep a watchful eye on the development of learners’ metacognitive skills.

One way to ensure that the emphasis on instructional teaching does not produce passive, dependent learners is to actively teach children to manage their own cognitive load. We cannot see into children’s minds and we cannot know the individual cognitive architecture of each child. We must  guide them towards a better understanding  of their own mental capacities while also supporting this as much as we can through our teaching methods.

As Mary Bannert notes:

‘….a reduction of cognitive load by ideal instruction format does not per se guarantee that all free mental resource will be allocated for deeper schema construction and automation’ (Bannert 2002:144).

In other words, teachers may design the most cognitive load friendly instructions known to humankind, but unless the child processes these adequately the endeavour  may be fruitless; it might all be ruined by a lack of attentional focus, such as thinking about last night’s football, a friendship worry or even a child in the next seat scratching their head too much. Ultimately, we must learn to manage our own minds.

Consequently, alongside what Bannert calls the ‘external management of cognitive load’ (the consideration of instructional design and teaching methodology) we should also develop children’s ‘internal management’ of this by making children aware of the strategies learners can adopt in order to cope with high cognitive load (2002:144).

This means developing metacognitive awareness of what mental load is and what it feels like to be overloaded. When children learn to recognise this for themselves and understand the effects on learning, they can act on this.  Such strategies might include, asking for explanations again, re-reading parts of texts, even seemingly tedious things like closing the window if there’s distracting noise outside or asking their friend to stop tapping , or scratching! As teachers, we know it is rare for pupils to police their own learning like this, but they should and it should be encouraged. We need to help children recognise their own overload moments.

In this way, we can move children towards expertise in their own learning while also providing them with the very best circumstances for learning ourselves through instructional design and management. Getting children involved in the internal management of mental load has the potential to result in more self-reliant learners who are more expert in their learning. Here’s a little diagram I made to help me organise my thoughts on this:

External and internal management

In summary here, I have tried to unravel why some people might feel so strongly that children are experts in their own learning, why they are likely to be right when it comes to instinctive kinds of knowledge and why they might be wrong in terms of non-instinctive knowledge. In addition, I have reminded myself about how this links to cognitive load theory and why new content needs to be ‘taught’ rather than simply found through exploration or problem solving. I have also thought about what we can do as educators to avoid children becoming overly dependent on teacher led methods by suggesting what they can do themselves to reduce cognitive load.

Any errors in explanations here are entirely my own rather than those quoted. More debate and discussion on these ideas – always welcome.


Bannert. M, (2002) Managing cognitive load- recent trends in cognitive load theory in Learning and Instruction 12 139-146.

Maintaining Curiosity – at what cost? A discussion in learning new concepts in primary science.


Between 2010 and 2013, Ofsted carried out an extensive survey of science education across nearly one hundred primary and secondary schools in order to support schools in implementing the 2014 new national curriculum. The report was entitled Maintaining Curiosity, and it concluded that the most successful schools visited during the survey prioritised child-led enquiry as a way to foster enthusiasm for science learning. Thus, just as physicians take an oath that commits them to ‘first do no harm,’ so the survey found that the best science teachers, ‘first maintain curiosity,’ in their pupils. This came in the face of a national fall in the number of pupils taking up science. The report also found that the majority of pupils decided whether they liked science or not in the last years of primary school. Consequently, it appears, primary science has been conferred the responsibility for making science appealing to young children, while at the same time ensuring they begin secondary school possessing adequate knowledge and understanding to engage with secondary science.

However, is prioritising an experiential, discovery type approach in science the most effective way to learn science? Do children learn best through ‘experience that is based primarily on the procedures of the discipline’ (e.g. playing at being investigative scientists), as Kirshner et al suggest many educators assume is correct (2010:78). Or is prioritising teacher instruction at the initial stages of acquiring new knowledge a more effective approach?

At present, the education profession is in possession of robust evidence concerning the role of long-term memory in learning. In the words of Clark et al, ‘long term memory is now viewed as the central, dominant structure of human cognition’ (2012:9). Prior to this, memory was largely thought of as an inert storehouse of bits of information we may or may not recall, and having little or no influence on cognitive processing, or conceptual thought.  What we know now, is that long-term memory is the seat of all experience and the bedrock of human learning.  Those who deny this are ignoring decades of research into human cognition and ignoring robust, empirical evidence.

If we accept that the main role of education is to support the transition of the novice to the expert in a plethora of areas of learning, in anything from counting, adding up and reading and writing to playing netball or painting a portrait, then we must except what science tells us about how this evolution from the beginner to the adept takes place. What multiple studies have shown is that experts draw on information stored in their long-term memory as ideas and actions known as mental schemas, and much of this is so well embedded it is automatic, or unconscious. In the same way that you, the experienced driver, can get into your car and drive without thinking once about how to work the brakes, clutch or indicators, so the expert operates, often without using much working memory at all because of the strength of the knowledge rooted in their long-term memory.

Appearing outwardly to possess quick and skilful processing, experts are relying heavily upon a storehouse of knowledge, selecting what they need automatically because of the breadth and expanse of what they know about that particular field or domain. While it is true that the speed in which information is processed may differ between individuals, fluid intelligence is not the same as that which is crystallised, experts rely on expansive networks of information in their long-term memory, and not simply mental agility or skill, as we once thought.

Of importance here, is the fact that the beginner, in any area of learning, is different from the expert with the result that their learning needs also differ. All too often, this is ignored when teachers debate whether an investigatory, discovery approach is the best way to learn new science concepts. Frequently, the desire to engage and enthuse pupils by playing at being scientists drowns out the need for knowledge and understanding.  Yet should these be set against each other? Is creating enthusiasm and learning the facts mutually exclusive for young children? Is there a way to ensure pupils love science, but ensure that this affection is not bound up simply in excitement for potions, explosions and fizzing test tubes? It is not difficult to create exciting scenarios where we hope pupils will ‘discover’ new concepts; children love running around with tape measures, magnifying glasses and making things pop and bang, but can they learn what they need to this way?

Cognitive science tells us that when processing new information within working memory it is highly limited in capacity, and may store information for up to around 30 seconds. This means that when children have to find out new information through a discovery approach, much of working memory capacity is taken up with processing all the extraneous information involved in the discovery experience rather than learning the new content. It is exciting and enjoyable doing all the investigating, it’s often colourful and messy, but at the end not much is transferred to long-term memory – little is learned.  According to large bodies of research now, it is more effective for beginners to be given explicit instruction in new content until it is transferred to the long-term memory. Only then should they be given opportunities to problem solve with that information with less instructional guidance. This is not unlike learning to walk before you can run.

In addition, this is not just cognitive science that tells teachers this, there is anecdotal evidence also. Most teachers can recall science investigations children enjoyed immensely yet at the end, after all that cleaning up, the actual content had to be taught explicitly through instruction during that plenary session entitled, ‘this is what we should have found out’.  This in itself isn’t wrong, but it is not the most effective use of learning time, or young minds for that matter. It’s just putting fun before learning and sometimes that’s OK, but, as Daniel Willingham’s much used idiom, ‘memory is the residue of thought’ asserts: we learn what we think about, and if children don’t think about the science, they won’t learn the science.

A classic is my attempt at introducing  eight-year olds to the the basic process of fossilisation (that animal remains get covered, infiltration and mineralisation would come later for them). I thought up an exciting scenario where pupils would learn about fossilisation by acting like real palaeontologists hammering and brushing pieces of plaster with toy dinosaurs embedded inside. The trouble was that in all that excitement, all that mental processing taken up finding a little dinosaur, and comparing their colourful dinosaurs with everyone else’s, not one child discovered anything about how remains might become fossilised. The only children who could explain anything about it, already knew about the process from outside school, from being taken to museums or even fossil hunting themselves, and what’s more, this group of children were all from privileged backgrounds. (This is also another argument against using discovery learning to ‘teach’ new material – it favours affluent pupils.)

Yet no doubt, I had provided a memorable experience for the children and I had raised their enthusiasm for science, but they learned very little. The wrong information was transferred to their long-term memories, if it was how fossilisation occurs that I wanted in there. If my aim was to make children love science then I achieved that, but I would hope that I could teach them some science too. In hindsight, I should have instructed them about fossilisation first so I was sure they understood it and it was there in their memory bank. Then I believe cracking open those pieces of plaster would have meant they used what they already knew to deepen their understanding – I think it would have been just as enjoyable too. This is how I teach now and enthusiasm is just as high, if not higher because pupils enjoy applying what they know and taking it further during investigations. Behind every, ‘what if?’ is a what.

‘Wow’ discovery lessons are common in primary science. Lots of emphasis is put on providing interesting contexts for learning and making the experience as exciting as possible. As Clare Sealy explains, in her excellent blog about semantic and episodic memory, it is semantic memory that is required to store that kind of non-instinctive, cultural knowledge that humans have developed over time and if this is over ridden by the more experiential, emotion content of episodic memory, then important learning can be lost. Learning is literally lost to all the sights and sound of experience, or the colourful dinosaurs and feeling like Indiana Jones.

The emphasis on pupils actively discovering concepts rather than being taught them first, relates to the constructivist theory of learning which asserts that learning is an active process where learners actively construct their own learning (which makes sense). However, as Mayer asserts, a constructivist view of learning does not necessarily have to translate into the constructivist view of teaching that has dominated education for so long, and with this preference for discovery learning with little teacher instruction.

According to the typical constructivist interpretation of teaching, approaches which emphasis teacher presentation, lecture or instruction are non-constructivist (and not in tune with the way children naturally learn), while active approaches, such as group discussion, debate and hands-on discovery type investigations are. As Mayer suggests, ‘the idea that constructivist learning requires active teaching methods is a reoccurring theme in the field of education,’ (2004:14).  This theory, asserting that the learner must necessarily be cognitively active (who would argue with that) has then translated into a theory of learning where the learner must also be behaviourally active. In short, enabling pupils to construct their own learning can only be achieved through ‘doing’. This is an enduring fallacy that seemed to have dogged education for decades. We are literally obsessed with it. We don’t like children sitting still…at all. Pupils constructing their own learning is mistakenly bound to being behaviourally active.

If pupils are sat still listening in lessons this is most often associated with passive, nonconstructive, old-fashioned traditionalism. Many primary science educators find it hard to entertain the idea of children sat still in a science lesson. As said, this has much to do with our confusion as a profession, between children being behaviourally active and being cognitively active.  Even though all evidence suggests that for new information to transfer from working to long-term memory the extraneous material associated with being behaviourally active needs to be limited, ‘doing stuff’ in science is considered that best way to learn new information.

In conclusion, there is no doubt that we have a duty to ensure pupils take science further in their educational career. By the time they reach secondary school we do not want science associated with the passive learning of series of facts; but we do want pupils to possess a knowledgeable love for the subject, otherwise they end up falling out of love for it quickly when they can’t access the content later. Science should involve practical investigation and enquiry, but we need to tread carefully when relying on discovery as the means for children to learn new information. We have to stop our misguided obsession with always having to make learning ‘fun’, even at the cost of learning. How about we make using learning fun? That would be better. And we have to stop thinking children have to be doing something all the time in science. Children can then go on to use what they have learned in order to, as Ofsted put it in the report’s key findings, ‘discover for themselves the relevance and usefulness of those ideas.’


Clark, R.E., Kirschner, P.A. & Sweller, J. (2012) Putting students on the path to learning – The case for fully guided instruction. American Educator.

Kirschner, P.A., Sweller, J. & Clark, R.E (2010) Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problems-based, experiential, and inquiry based learning. Educational Psychologist.

Mayer, R. E. (2004) Should there be a three -strikes rule against pure discovery learning? American Psychologist.

Ofsted (2013)

Sealy, C. (2017)

Make no apology – let’s teach!

chalk-and-talk    Child centred

Over the past few hundred years this country has lost its love for teachers. Those of us who have managed to stay in the classroom, and not left like the 40% who leave soon into their careers, do love our job; the problem is that the nation has not felt the same about teachers and teaching for many decades. Individually it will be a varied story, but our society’s collective feeling about teachers is pretty negative. (This is certainly not directed at any school, department or leader; this is all about the general spirit or zeitgeist in which we find ourselves as a profession.)

I can’t pretend to be a sociologist, or psychologist either, and those who are may indeed wince at my clumsiness here; I am simply a teacher trying to understand why it always seems like such a battle for so many teachers to succeed. The truth is, many teachers just can’t survive the rigors of the classroom without the kind of esteem teachers once felt and deserve. It is no longer considered a noble profession, like a nurse or doctor. You say you’re a teacher and people tend to change the subject, or sigh with a compassionate smile, as if to say, ‘don’t worry, maybe one day you’ll be free.’

Without doubt, nothing is straight forward in education and there is never one answer that will solve everything. The profession is constantly bombarded with new initiatives that send everyone running to one side of the deck, threatening to tip everything into the sea, only to send everyone running back the other way. This constant upheaval is destroying the profession as nothing ever seems to be good enough and teachers spend their lives having to reinvent everything over and over again, but why? Why have we been teaching children for so long, yet still seem unable to settle on the best way to teach our young?

Perhaps however, this is the nature of a profession that is so intricately entwined in both politics and economics, as well as the deeply personal, social, emotional and psychological experiences of everyone; after all, every single adult can talk about school, and usually with a fervour that ranges from antipathy and rage to romance and nostalgia, but rarely much in between. School is a passionate place. What I’d like to do here, is examine some of the fundamental ideas about teaching that underpin many everyday practices and approaches to schooling, yet are not often analysed or dissected to uncover their possible origins, or potential consequences.

Having studied Education at degree level, then post graduate teacher training and finally a Masters in Education, I was moulded into a way of thinking about teaching that became so deeply entrenched, it seemed as unconscious as blinking, even breathing. This thought was confirmed all the way thorough my career by almost everything I encountered, both in and out of school. It was the origin of nearly all sleepless nights, all stresses and worries, yet most often disguised as confusion about my role and how to be the best teacher I could.  Despite having a really successful career as a teacher, getting as high as you really can without moving into headship, and even receiving accolades like ‘primary science teacher of the year,’ I have been dogged by the idea that throughout all this, teaching is essentially an incongruous thing to do.

Initially, teaching is perpetually problematised because everyone has a view on everything a teacher does, so nearly always someone, somewhere has a better way of doing it. The pressure of being judged is relentless for teachers; it is why most leave the profession. Parents, leaders, inspectors judge us, and most of all we judge ourselves and each other in an effort to find that golden nugget of teaching that somehow eludes the profession over and over again. We are dogged by wanting to perfect the messy, unpredictable and complicated process of learning. And forever it seems to evades professional consensus.

Yet while we may never reach that realisation as a profession, it may ease our restlessness to look back in time and examine how attitudes to childhood have changed over hundreds of years which in turn have led to a fundamental change in our collective consciousness regarding teachers.

It would be simplistic to try to isolate single moments or events that caused changes in how society thinks, but a number of changes have together had significant impact on how teachers are viewed. Firstly, society changed its attitude to children from around the 17th century. Gradually children were thought of as less like miniature adults; we stopped dressing them like us, marrying them off to each other and, although I’m aware it is far more complex than just this, broadly speaking, the modern concept of childhood emerged.

Then over time, we recognised that if children weren’t adults then they required nurturing and schooling. Religious ideas of original sin, envisaging the child as wild and primitive and requiring taming, if not purging, dominated education. Schools were hard places where nature, the animal, was knocked out of children, and in some cases quite literally.

Steadily however, following enlightenment, we began to shrug off the idea of original sin and we began to make friends with nature. We painted and wrote about our environment as never before; we wanted to make friends with it, harness it and thus romanticism was born. There was a shift towards a romantic understanding of the child as being born pure and in tune with nature. Romantic poets like Bryon, described nature no longer as wild and angry, but as untainted and idyllic. While previously, there was the idea that nature, including our young, needed taming, the romantic movement introduced the idea that nature was inspirational, healing and cleansing. Children were envisaged as being born pure, only over time corrupted by the unnatural world of adulthood.

The stage was then set for completely new ideas to emerge into the social consciousness. No longer miniature adults, or primitive creatures who needed to be civilised, children became sacred and childhood something we should seek to preserve for its purity and affinity with nature.

From this movement, educational philosophers like Dewey and Rousseau expounded the idea of working with the natural aptitudes of children rather than imposing the world onto children through transmission teaching. Thus, ideas like child-centredness, discovery learning and learning through play emerged.  This movement framed teachers as facilitators whose role should be to create the stage where the child was able to develop naturally, untainted by the impositions of the educator. The imparting of knowledge became problematic, but teachers had to do something, so the idea of teaching skills rather than knowledge emerged and the emphasis moved from transmission of knowledge to the facilitation of experiences that would hone skills.

Following this came the addition of the natural developmental theories by psychologists like Piaget, and we arrived at the unspoken idea that children really don’t need teachers; teachers get in the way, and perhaps even it is teachers who should be seen and not heard. The institutions of education remain standing, but teachers and teaching are problematic, obstructive and even superfluous. Teaching is left in an awkward place (not unlike a spare something or other at a wedding) a very different place from the classical concept of the novice and the learned instructor, or the Eastern idea of the master and disciple that endures in Eastern cultures still, and is perhaps why teachers continue to have great admiration and respect in those areas of the world that bypassed Western Enlightenment and romanticism altogether.

On the one hand, Western society has asked that schools produce children who are educated, yet on the other, it quietly questions teachers’ authority to educate. This creates a subtle confusion about the role of the teacher within the profession; it leaves us wary of it, makes us want to check up on it all the time. Unconsciously and subtly over time, we have told ourselves that teachers are not to be trusted. The stereotyped image of a teacher is very often authoritarian and tyrannical, rather than noble and wise. Over time, teaching has lost its dignity and magnificence; being taught has been transformed into an unnatural imposition that our young must endure rather than warmly embrace. We are bricks in the wall that education erects around childhood.

This unspoken antagonism towards teaching is born out in the promotion of practices and curricula over the last hundred years that are in opposition to the transmission of knowledge from teacher to pupil. The idea of teaching, the passing of knowledge from a more knowledgeable other to a novice, filling pupils with information, is irrevocably problematised because it goes against the idea of natural development, of the child being like a flower waiting to open, of the child growing and passing through predetermined stages of development. Teaching does not fit with this. Intervention, training from a more knowledgeable other, interferes.

When examined this way, it is not hard to see the awkward position in which teaching finds itself. Of course, I have taken a very crude a simplistic look at our history, made bold, perhaps even hyperbolic assertions about what we collectively think, but to helicopter out and look down from afar might help to understand ourselves as a profession. Why have we put so much emphasis on child-led learning, problem solving and supposed ‘skills’ acquisition until now? Why have teachers been systematically told to talk as little as possible, to always strive to be the ‘guide on the side’ rather than ‘the sage on the stage,’ and why so vehemently? Surely, all approaches have their place? (Surely it’s what benefits learners most?)  Our antipathy towards the expounding and imparting of knowledge has been unhinged and left teaching an apologetic profession, not really believing in itself. It may  have also left large groups of pupils bereft of the powerful knowledge so many more affluent children take for granted, and which leads, unfairly as it may be, to success in life.

As our intolerance of our situation wears thin, we are beginning to question the essence of teaching once again. We are delving deeply into what learning is through cognitive science and on this basis, how best to teach. It seems too that we are discovering that effective teaching has never changed, only our understanding of it as we reconcile false dichotomies like skills v knowledge, transmission v enquiry and more. It is also especially relevant now when we understand more and more about the role of genetics and the types of knowledge humans learn naturally, and that which requires teaching.  No doubt some of us are afraid of returning to austere, regimented ways of teaching, wary too of the power of knowledge and its consequences, and skewing of knowledge in order to favour some and marginalise others.

Yet our understanding of the innocence and preciousness of childhood remains intact and our understanding of the potential of all children stands. We have done well to put the child at the centre of education and we should not turn our backs on that; however, now we must make no apology for being the knowledgeable instructors, the givers of knowledge to those lacking in it, the novices, the beginners, the learners; for we are teachers and teaching is not only natural, a natural result of humans retaining knowledge and understanding of the world which passes on, it is naturally good too.

We should also take great care at these times when polarisation often seems the default during debates and discussion.  Progressive ideas about education have revolutionised teaching, inserting great humanity into the profession, making schools places that children come to love and feel nurtured within and where they can be themselves, while ideas that reveal the benefits of instructions, practice and understanding how memory works should not run contrary to this, but enhance the strides we have made in education to put children’s well-being at the heart of everything. And above all, let’s make no apology for being teachers who teach!



Twenty years of getting it wrong? An essay in educational ideas.


In education, power is quite a thing.  As a young graduate in Education, I was introduced to the idea that that  schools were places complicit in reproducing social strata, keeping the powerful on top and working people down via the imposition of both an explicit and implicit curriculum which favoured the more affluent classes. State education was a place where not only was an elitist, private school curriculum taught, but the norms, values and language of the establishment were also transmitted, recycling the status quo, keeping the powerful in power.

These middle class ‘ways’ were either familiar to pupils, thus confirming their feelings of belonging and positive esteem, or they acted as barriers to such feelings, preventing pupils from utilising education in the same way. Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital, the invisible currency of the powerful, fuelled the idea that education perpetuated class division through the transference of culture, or what we might even call ‘taste’ or ‘style’.

Framed this way, teachers and schools were then considered to possess the means to disrupt this transference and to hand back power to the less affluent by working against the establishment through radicalising pedagogy.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paolo Freire, suggests oppression begins when students are perceived to be empty vessels, waiting to be ‘filled up’ by the knowledgeable educator. In turn, he rejects traditional education itself as the expounding of ‘official knowledge’ that always intends to oppress. For him, schools remain places of political indoctrination where teachers can and must, reveal and problematise establishment propaganda in order to liberate the oppressed.

Heavy stuff! Such extreme language you might say! Not what springs to mind when we think of the schools that we know, but these are the ideas that were prevalent in education degree courses twenty years ago, whether they still are remains to be seen.

Bourdieu was inspirational to me. I wrote a dissertation on his ideas that fuelled my desire to work hard in my life to make the world a fairer place through teaching. Some people might have called me naive, but Bourdieu was the god of socialist-educational zeal and moreover, his academic thinking and research gave credibility to this fervour. He was not wrong; we were not wrong, because how could it be wrong to want to work for equality?

Well, of course it is right to want this; it is right to feel uncomfortable with inequality and wise to understand that we are all better off when things are fairer; history has shown this time and again. No one is unaffected by the poverty, lack of education and empty prospects of others. Some might pretend they are immune, convince themselves they can escape to somewhere and close the door, yet the effects of ignoring the suffering and problems of others only allows it all to worsen until it knocks on that closed door and tramples it down.

Bourdieu, son of a postal worker, became a social anthropologist concerned with how power moved around in society. He found that the university students from poorer backgrounds didn’t have the same tastes or make the same choices in things like art, music, theatre, clothes etc as those of the more affluent students. In turn, this eventually prevented poorer students from accessing more powerful positions in society. It’s not hard to see this when we think about how we slot people we meet into a social class just by the preferences they might make, the clothes they wear and even the programmes they watch.

However, as Hirsch notes in his commentary concerning the down turn in the French schooling system after the change to progressive education, the poorer students still got to university under the pre-progressive system, whereas before poorer people weren’t even making it to university at all. Notably, the thing that Bourdieu really did miss, and what pulls his theory apart, is time. Bourdieu did not give education the time it needed to have a real effect on society. It takes more than a generation for schooling to make generational change.

He was correct that the more affluent students did exchange this cultural currency and move up through the ranks; it is true that what and who you knew mattered, likely they still do. However, as Hirsch asserts, Bourdieu did not analyse the choices made by the children of the poorer students. He did not give his brilliant idea time. The offspring of the poorer students made choices that were not the same as their parents, but moved closer to those of the ‘establishment,’ or what Hirsch calls ‘the insiders’. Cultural capital was transferred, power was moved, it just took longer. Education did not keep everyone in the same place as Bourdieu and his contemporaries asserted. As Hirsh reflects upon the French abandonment of their community based, knowledge-rich curriculum, ‘why dismantle a school system that had produced a Bourdieu?’

We see this today. My father, brought up in a small town in North Wales, son of a working-class council worker, got a place at University in London. He took the blows of being a small, town Welsh boy surrounded by the chic and savvy of London. And now here I am, with all the cultural capital he and my mother passed down to me, enjoying writing this blog in my nice house. Education did not hold my family where it started out, but it does seem to be holding more working class families back now.

At aged twenty, I had not read Hirsch. Thatcher, the daughter of a green grocer,  was in power, epitomising the tyranny of the establishment and the terrible inequalities of society that the rich enjoyed. She also hated teachers.

Then added to my pedagogic education, were the ideas of Dewey and Rousseau. Dewey argued strongly that the student should be encouraged towards self-efficacy and independence in their learning, which eventually they should, who would argue with that? Far from being empty vessels, Dewey believed that students arrive with their own understanding and therefore must relate what is to be learnt to themselves in order to create meaning.

In turn, Dewey asserted that students should be active agents engaged in enquiry, or what we might now call ‘hands on’ learning, thus linking Dewey rightly or wrongly to the huge advance in learning through problem solving rather than through rote or drills. In addition, Dewey criticised schools at the time for creating what he saw as passive recipients, mollified by the learning of multitudes of facts that only served to create compliant citizens.

Then there was Rousseau, another educationalist dominating post graduate reading lists.  Similarly, Rousseau propounded the idea of children learning through experience rather than transmission, asserting that it was better for children to acquire knowledge through active involvement in the world, supporting many of the ideas today regarding learning through play and self discovery.

All these ideas were further compounded throughout my initial teacher training and I began my teaching career with the firm belief that part of my role as a teacher was to try to readdress power imbalances, democratise the classroom and hand the means to new knowledge and new power to pupils.  Never really expressed in such terms in school, nevertheless, teaching was a career with emancipation as one of its prime intents.

Thus, I began my career by pitching myself as more a facilitator than a teacher; we should, after all these philosophies told us, position ourselves as ‘guides on the side’ rather than as ‘sages on the stages; we are not transmitters but co-constructors of knowledge. Children are not ‘tabula rasa’ or blank slates, but arrive in school complete with ideas of their own about the world, which I still believe to be true and of great significance in planning learning. However, from these ideas came the idea that the curriculum should  arise from the locus of the child, rather than from external imposition. As Hirsch says, this view asserts that we should ‘accommodate teaching to the characteristics of the child,’ so that the curriculum is not an ‘artificial imposition,’ but is instead ‘developed naturally’ (2018:139). It is this idea of working at the child’s pace and ‘where they are’ that dominated teaching when I started and even when I was at school in the 1980s.  I left comprehensive school embarrassingly ignorant of the world and later had to teach myself the basic humanities, science, maths and English knowledge required for teacher training. ( I recall that many post graduate students on my teacher training course did not understand basic grammar rules for example, or even simple fundamental scientific concepts, unless they had specialised in these areas for their degrees.)

Still, back then, learning through discovery was considered to liberate the student and ensure learning related to themselves. The more I equalised the knowledge status of pupil and teacher, the better teacher I would be; the less I spoke, the better teacher I would be, after all, telling is transmission and transmission is imposing a curriculum? Teaching official knowledge was committing to indoctrination therefore, following pupils’ lines of enquires through focusing on skill acquisition would liberate students from this artificial imposition of an external curriculum?

Of course, it was never verbalised in this extreme way, but that was where the ideas about teaching in this country had come from, whether people knew it or not, many didn’t. Lessons with less teacher talk, less teacher intervention in fact, were always considered better.  At one point, teachers were even given a percentage ratio so that any lesson where teacher talk rose above 20% more than pupils’ was considered overly ‘teacher-led,’ and heaven forbid a lesson should ever be that.  To stand at the front of a class of pupils and talk for longer than a few minutes meant you were a traditionalist, ‘old fashioned,’ ‘stuck in your ways’ and not able to ‘move with the times.’ Whether or not your pupils learned more if you taught that way was never ever thought about, let alone researched. The best teachers were invisible. The best lessons were child-led, even if they learnt very little.

Now, I didn’t arrive at school every day with a red bandanna around my head whistling Power to the People. Being a young student teacher running along by the seat of my pants, it was all I could do to get through a day, let alone think about the politics of my role. However, these ideas, that were expounded at university and during teacher training, were prevalent in various intensities across the profession; whether people consciously thought of them like that or not, these concepts drove ideas about teaching and learning, and still do in many instances today.

The consequence was that it was considered good practice to allow pupils to run with projects that were fuelled by their own interests. It didn’t seem to matter that often children from poorer backgrounds had very little to start with so that their projects were, dare I say it, never as good as those children who came with lots to say and full of ideas to put into their projects. It didn’t matter because we were ‘starting with the child’ rather than imposing knowledge upon them. It didn’t seem to matter if some pupils were producing complete rubbish, while others were producing master pieces as long as it was led by the child.

Lessons that were active, full of opportunities for children to naturally discover new ideas were prized, but often these resulted in concepts that were forgotten quite quickly and usually never returned to, resulting in low levels of learning. As well, concepts we wanted children to ‘pick up’, like for example, understanding the effect of the earth rotating around the sun by drawing around their shadows over the course of a day, were never actually discovered at all, but had to be told to pupils at the end of the activity because  the children had thought more about chalk and the funny shapes of their shadows rather than anything to do with the sun.

Somehow these supposed eureka-discovery moments (if they ever actually occurred) were considered irrevocable forms of learning, it being unnecessary to return to them because through the supremacy of discovery they would be forever embedded. Somehow, knowledge realised by the child had a different quality than if the same knowledge had been told to them by the teacher. That was Dewey and Rousseau right there, whispering through the corridors of schools, whether we knew it or not.

Interestingly, it was usually only the more privileged pupils who had rich experiences and conversations outside school who benefited most by consolidating and embedding what they already knew through experimentation.

So now years later, I ask, were we duped by Bourdieu, Freire, Dewey and Rousseau? Did we, have we, in a commendable attempt to support the underdog and upset the status quo, actually held the underprivileged down? Did we ironically only compound the disadvantage of those lacking in access to cultural capital outside school through all that child centeredness?  Has too, our post war obsession with the individual and individualism ignored the value of what Hirsch calls, the ‘communal knowledge’ of a knowledge-based curriculum founded on the best of what is known and said, thus excluding so many from what he calls, ‘the knowledge and language club,’ of which society’s successful have membership (2018:126). This is not to pitch communal knowledge as that of the dusty, old, white men, but the shared knowledge that evolves through community understanding, which must include the sources, interpretations and reactions to the previous, creating continually refreshed shared knowledge.

Now that cognitive science has thrown a light on the roles of long term and working memory and knowledge acquisition, did we let down generations of pupils by undervaluing knowledge acquisition through transmission teaching and emphasising child centeredness as much as we did? Are we still doing this in fact? How many leaders are still advocating practises because they ‘feel right’ politically and even morally, rather than because they have looked at the evidence that they improve learning? There is no doubt that Dewey and Rousseau were great educationalists and made very worthy contributions to the profession, but did we ignore their lack of fit with where we were and how society was? Are we still?

Cognitive psychologists like Bjork, Willingham and Sweller have shown that learning based on projects, problem solving and child-led enquiry before pupils are sufficiently knowledgeable in the subject, most often result in poor levels of learning. Educationalists like Dylan Wiliam and Daisy Christiodolou assert the same. Sweller has also shown that most of what we teach in schools is non-instinctive knowledge which humans cannot just ‘pick up’ naturally like for example, the instinctive knowledge of walking and talking. This is why we have schools, to pass on the communal knowledge of humankind which we have created over thousands of years. True, that has in the past been centered around those dusty, old white men, but are we as humankind not seeking to upgrade this now? Shared knowledge is not fixed.

But, as Hirsch has said, the greatest feats of humankind have come about, not through one person sat alone ‘discovering’, but have actually come about through shared knowledge over time, handed from one generation to another which paved the way for discovery. There was no Einstein without Newton, no Newton without all the shoulders of giants on whom he stood. Same goes for any great and knowledgeable person, male or female – it’s communal, shared knowledge they have arisen from.

At the same time, Hirsch, Willingham, Bjork and Sweller and such like, have not said these child-centred approaches to learning should be banned, or are inherently negative, but they have said that the emphasis on them over knowledge acquisition is not good for learning. So why does child-led, project-based learning remain so popular in many schools? The motivation might be noble, but the reality seems to say something different to me now. I’m not feeling it, as they say.

Currently, the opposition to teaching through a knowledge-rich curriculum seems motivated by the fear that we will slip back into lining up rows of tables and rote learning of unconnected facts, like list of kings and queens, or capital cities. The strength of feeling supporting child-centred learning and the mistrust of a knowledge-rich curriculum taught primarily through direct instruction rather than problem solving and project learning, seems to arise from a worry that we might then not be the emancipatory profession we thought we were. Or worse, that perhaps, as I heard one person say recently, that woolly teachers who hide behind lots of glue and papier mache  might actually have to get up and teach, although this doesn’t sound like any of the teachers I know, or have known.

Ironically, it seems we curtail children’s freedom if we fail to endow them with the knowledge and understanding they need in order to gain an expansive understanding of the world which they can use to become powerful, informed individuals themselves. It just cannot be right if large numbers of children leave school without a basic understanding of  the big ideas we share as humans. As Tim Oates has said, most of these big ideas have not changed for hundreds of years so the argument that knowledge is always changing anyway so why teach it, is just wrong.  What gravity is and how it comes about is not going to change anytime soon. True, pupils might be able to look these facts up on the internet, but missing out on such important everyday knowledge signals wider deficits in knowledge and understanding about the world which excludes many from that ‘knowledge and language club’. Could it be that Hirsch is spot on when he talks about ‘the three disastrous pedagogical theories: naturalism, individualism and skill-centrism?’ (2018:140). I’m beginning to think so.

I also know that I have always been motivated to work hard for my pupils; the people I have worked with over the years have been the same; the people I work with now are the same.  I also know that the more I learn about education through research-based evidence the better teacher I will be. We’ve never had a better opportunity to learn from authentic evidence rather than heart-felt passions or moral intent. And without question, I have learned that blindly accepting things because they ‘feel right’ or because we are told this way is better because it’s more exciting or engaging is no longer acceptable… or indeed emancipatory. If we really want to ‘make a difference’ then the knowledge gained through rigorous evidence must prevail.

And…I’m not burning my red flag, I believe in socialism more than ever, but if knowledge is power, then let there be knowledge all over the place and for everyone…


Reference:  Hirsch. E,D. (2018) Why Knowledge Matters. Rescuing our children from failed educational theories. Harvard Education Press.



Thought for the day…and possible the year…


Cognitive scientists tell us that learning is the  processing of information in the working memory which is then transferred to the long-term memory. In turn, knowledge is stored in the long-term memory within networks of related information called schemas. Under this analysis, in thinking about the difference between the novice and the expert, a distance we are always striving to traverse in education, then the expert is considered to have large amounts of background knowledge, or expansive schemas, stored in their long-term memory. Not only does this mean they know more, but it also enables them to think quicker as their working memory is not taken up processing information; instead information is retrieved automatically from long-term memory for application. The more they know, the faster they seem to become. This is my experience too. The children who know more, think faster and pick up the next things I teach much faster too. Knowledge builds knowledge it seems; skill then manifests through the ability to retrieve the appropriate knowledge and apply it as required.

According to cognitive science then, ‘skills’ are not generic actions that we can carry around from one subject area to another, but rather skills are the application of domain specific knowledge. Because of this, skills like critical thinking for example, are something that cannot be taught in and of themselves as effective critical thinking requires background knowledge – or stuff to think critically about. So far, I can’t find much in my daily experience as a teacher to contradict this, but I’m also aware of jumping onto educational band wagons, although the fact that this has research and evidence to support it, makes it compelling. 

Who would disagree that expertise is about possessing expansive knowledge and applying that skillfully? Yet a doctor cannot transfer her skill of critically thinking through a diagnosis and finding a cure, to for example, diagnosing what’s wrong with her car and fixing it. If she had the same background knowledge of the internal combustion engine as she did the human body then yes, but here she doesn’t so her adept ability to think critically when faced with a sick patient, just doesn’t transfer. This also makes some sense to me, but I also think there are some overarching general skills or competencies that must transfer like staying calm under pressure, being resilient when at first you aren’t successful, recognising when you need help etc. Perhaps these aren’t skills, but they are facets of mental processing that we can talk about, reflect on, cultivate and practise so perhaps they are?

However, this current  idea that education should be based on knowledge acquisition, rather than generic skills, the independent existence of which scholars debate fiercly, makes some sense to me when I think about the children I teach. The children who appear more skilled in an area always seem to know more about that topic. I also recognise that in project work or problem-solving tasks, it is again, the children who know more who fair better, but I’m not a cognitive scientist and this is purely anecdotal.

One area that also makes sense to me is what Hirsch says about reading skills. According to Hirsch, we try to teach children comprehension skills such as ‘finding the main idea,’ or ‘summarising a text’ or ‘scanning to find answers.’ For Hirsch, effective reading skills lie in knowledge acquisition and vocabulary understanding. For him, we can teach children ‘finding the main idea’ until we’re blue in the face, but give them a text about a subject they have no knowledge about and they will struggle to find that main idea. And when this happens, we are not testing their reading skills, but rather their knowledge and understanding.

Put like this, our reading tests in this country, test breadth of knowledge and vocabulary acquisition rather than this thing called ‘reading skills’; this is unless of course we assert that once decoding skills are secure, breadth of knowledge and vocabulary understanding are in fact reading skills? In which case, why try to teach skills like ‘finding the main idea’ or ‘summarising a text’. The teaching focus should then be on knowledge acquisition and vocabulary understanding surely?

And if this is true, then these reading tests aren’t a fair measure of reading skills at all, because rather than measure what we have supposedly taught, ‘the skill of reading,’ they instead measure the background knowledge children might possess in a range of random topics which may or may not have been taught, or they may or may not have come across in life. As more affluent children tend to have a wider range of knowledge acquiring experiences and vocabulary understanding through, not least, all those holidays, visits to zoos and museums and clubs etc, then they tend to do better at reading tests, despite being taught the same skills in schools, such as ‘finding the main idea,’ ‘summarising’, ‘predicting’ and all those other generic reading skills we have thought make the effective reader.

Again, I’m drawn to this idea, but I’m not completely convinced yet. It does have resonance with my experience, but I’d still like more evidence, although anecdotally I feel I have my own. Take last year’s KS1 reading test. On paper 1, there was a fictional story about a boy who has his cousin coming to visit. It turns out the cousin is a baby and so can’t play with him so he’s disappointed.  Most children who could decode effectively and read fluently did well on this section. Most children have cousins and have had them to come and play. They also know about babies and that they can’t play with trucks etc. Essentially the knowledge base for this section was simply common knowledge for 6 and 7 years old. Fine.

Then there was the non-fiction section on paper 1. This is where things started to change. This section started off being about pack lunches – great, children know about pack lunches.  But it soon changed to being about bread making. The main vocabulary was familiar only to those children who had perhaps made bread before or been out to the countryside and seen grain harvested, or who had learnt about how grain is harvested and turned into flour at some point at home. This is not specific to anything required in the national curriculum, and even though we had done some pizza making that year, we hadn’t talked about how flour was made – damn!

Admittedly, we were allowed to introduce the specialised vocabulary and establish the meaning before the test, but if what we know about working memory is true, being told the meaning of five brand new words just before a large amount of cognitive load is put upon the working memory in the form of a test, means that for most children that information would have been lost the minute the children started reading the first questions and trying to work out what to do.   The children who knew about bread making were at an advantage from the start. The children who knew nothing about turning wheat into flour then bread would have had to work harder in the test.

It is no surprise to me that children did better on the first part of paper 1. This experience could support what scholars like Willingham, Bjork and Christodoulou are saying about generic skills, and in particular what Hirsch says about reading.  The question I ask myself is, how different would the results of that test have been if we had completed a project on farming and bread making that year so that they were familiar with words like dough and yeast? If the class next door had done that project and not us, would it have been a fair reading test for us both or  would it have been simply testing  whether the class next door learned the content in their bread making project?

At the same time, I am acutely aware that in education we pick up new ideas and get over excited far too easily. I know I have in the past. All of this current research does have randomised control trials behind it and robust evidence if I am to believe what I read, but education has suffered from pendulums swinging so far they other way that everything slides to the end of the deck and we start tripping up on everything.  We have to be wary. We cannot go back to learning lists of facts that will never be any use to anyone, but no one has suggested that, not once in fact. Certainly, acquiring a breadth of knowledge in order to apply that to problems and investigations makes sense in the light of what we now know. We have nothing to lose if we stick with bringing theory and practice together. My hope is that we all try hard to use evidence rather than feelings, or attachments to the ways we have always done things. We might think and feel something is right, but we might be completely wrong. If we accept this as a profession, we will help ourselves a great deal. A head teacher I respect a great deal said to me recently, ‘ we need to challenge ourselves and sometimes that’s uncomfortable’.  I agree.

The evidence from cognitive science is compelling and should prompt leaders and teachers to think about how they teach and what they teach and the impact this has on learners. So many times, new things have come along, but little has changed. Poor children haven’t done any better; the attainment gap continues, like a line draw in concrete, hard to shift. This research on learning, memory and knowledge acquisition suggests that a knowledge rich curriculum could be a better way to address this, rather than through the generic skills route that we have tried for a long time without much change.  I think it’s worth going further with this, mindful of the mistakes of the distant past of course and with a close eye on the kind of knowledge that will help ALL children really fly forward.

And lastly, why not purposely base  reading tests on age appropriate curricular knowledge instead of topics like bread making, juice pressing or bee keeping or adventures on safari?   Let’s give the kids who learn most of their knowledge of the world in school a fighting chance! 


Reflecting on the best that we know so far: thoughts on this season’s Journal of the Chartered College of Teaching.


On reading a number of articles focusing on curriculum in the latest issue of the Journal of the Charted College of Teaching, I felt compelled to blog a response in an attempt to interpret some of the highly pertinent ideas and assertions. I would urge all readers to try to read the original articles in the autumn Impact journal, as here is only a brief distillation, and without the breadth of knowledge of the original authors, who to my mind, reflect the best of what we know so far about these topics as an educational community.

So here we are, four years after negotiating the change in the national curriculum and adapting to assessment without levels, and schools are now turning towards those parts of the curriculum beyond reading, writing and maths.

Now that the dust has settled after the turbulence of curriculum change and assessment transformation, everyone’s eyes have turned to the other curricular areas of our knowledge rich curriculum.  Concern has arisen about the over emphasis on the three Rs, and to an extent picking up the reins of the progressive, child-led movement, with many schools advocating more focus on things like problem-solving, skills and discovery learning.  However, as educators we must take great care that we understand the possible effects of our reaction towards what feels like the imposition of what is essentially a private school, knowledge-based curriculum on state education.

To add to this, there is a growing debate on just how far we have all been side tracked by the separation of knowledge and skills, when growing evidence from cognitive science by psychologists like Daniel Willingham suggest that there are no skills without bodies of knowledge to underpin them (2009). Therefore, an over emphasis on skill-based and problem- solving learning for children without adequate background knowledge most often results in poor levels of attainment and achievement.

Importantly, as Prof. Michael Young suggests (Impact, Autumn 2018), the progressive, knee-jerk reaction to the imposition of a seemingly elite, knowledge-based curriculum on state schools has ironically put underprivileged pupils at more of a disadvantage. This is because affluent, middle class children already come to school with wider a knowledge base, thus an emphasis on skills and discovery learning means that these children literally hit the ground running, while those children with deficits in cultural capital, narrower foundations of knowledge and experience, are immediately trumped because they are without the basic knowledge required in order to apply skills effectively. And as Willingham has found, ‘background knowledge is necessary for cognitive skills’ (2009:37), or as I see it, without sufficient know, there is no, know-how.

As Young asserts, ‘as a result, far too many working-class children are denied access to the knowledge that middle-class children take for granted, and an emphasis on ‘knowledge’ is easily interpreted as a form of control and not as a source of emancipation – when of course it is potentially both, (Impact, Autumn, 2018:4).

In others words, ‘they’ might be pouring a lot of elite, middle class knowledge from on high, but let’s use it, own it and make it a tool for the knowledge creators of the future.

For me too, the argument that knowledge is transient, ever changing and always at hand anyway through search engines, only acts as a smoke screen here, as supporters of this argument have missed the fact that knowledge or ‘facts’ never stand alone; new knowledge is born from old knowledge. It is impossible to know what to look for or enquire about, unless you have some knowledge to start with. 

In addition, as Tim Oates rightly points out, ‘talk of constantly changing human knowledge fails to recognise that fundamental paradigm shifts appear very infrequently in disciplines,’ (Impact, Autumn 2018: 17). In other words, the fact that Earth rotates around the Sun is a fact that has been established for hundreds of years, if we treat it as ‘just temporary’ and therefore not necessary to remember, we will run into trouble when we try to understand how time works and how seasons change, plus a whole lot of other bother, I’m sure! For this reason, we need to think clearly when thinking about our curricula. If we down grade knowledge learning in place of allowing kids to ‘follow their own leads’ or ‘just discover,’ are we doing a disservice to those children who have very little with which to start their own self-led learning?

This is not to say that fuelling children’s engagement with content that is rich and interesting should not dominate the curriculum, but as Christine Counsell points out in her article for the Impact journal, we ‘lose our moorings’ when ‘content is chosen for being engaging or deemed ‘relevant by the pupil.’  For me, this highlights the danger of child-led learning trumping those disadvantaged children. After all, if Jonny-Parker Smith has spent the summer on Safari in Kenya, while Danny Jones spent his summer kicking a ball against a wall on a council estate, then starting our new topic on ‘animals’ means that starting with what is ‘relevant to the child,’ will preclude a wealth of knowledge for Danny and pit Jonny far, far ahead from the start. Of course, I have chosen stark stereotypes here, not all poor children live lives that lack richness and interest; equally, not all affluent children have double-barrel names and lead stimulating, erudite lives outside school. However, the fact remains that children arrive at school with varying amounts of background knowledge in subjects and more affluent children tend to have more background knowledge because they have the means to access a wider set of experiences.

So, while we can’t fly Danny to Africa and give him a safari experience, and we can’t blame Jonny for his experiences, nor disregard what he knows, he has as much right learn new and significant things in school, we can feed Danny with an adequate amount of background knowledge so that his project on animals takes him beyond his usual experience and moves him closer to a level playing field– which is as Robbie Burns suggests in his article, what a curriculum should do. 

In Burns’s view, ‘knowledge-led curricula attempt to provide young people with a school experience that enables them to be socially mobile, for this is the core of what social justice is: enabling young people, regardless of socio-economic background, to be provided with the opportunities to succeed, (Autumn, Impact 2018:11).

This is not to say that everything must start and end with fact filled lessons with pupils having no chance to experience the freedom of play and discovering new things on their own; however, if we make this the basis of our curriculum, it seems likely that far from emancipating less affluent children from the knowledge-based curriculum imposed by the ‘elite,’ we could instead be helping to reproduce social inequalities, maintaining and even widening the achievement gap.

One approach that curriculum leaders could use to provide more perspective on these bodies of curricula knowledge is to, as Christine Counsell describes, understand the distinction between substantive and disciplinary knowledge in order to shine a light on ‘powerful knowledge.’ As Christine explains, ‘substantive knowledge is the knowledge that teachers establish as fact’ (Impact, Autumn, 2018:7), such as the subject knowledge lists we find in the national curriculum. While ‘disciplinary knowledge, by contrast, is a curricular term by which pupils learn about how that knowledge was established, its degree of certainty, and how it continues to be revised by scholars, artists, or professional practice,’ (2018:7). When these two types of knowledge are taught, then we give pupils the means to understand what and how ‘powerful knowledge’ comes about; we make them critical thinkers and handlers of knowledge, rather than passive collectors of facts. As Christine asserts, … ‘for pupils learn how knowledge is formed and changed distinguishes a knowledge-rich curriculum grounded in “powerful knowledge” from one merely ossifying a canon.’ In other words, we need to empower all children not only by ensuring they have a breadth of background knowledge in subjects, but also teach them how to be critical, questioning interpreters of that knowledge. This will not happen for children lacking background knowledge if curricula are based on skills or discovery learning.

It is in this way that I would urge curriculum leaders to embrace our knowledge-based curriculum, recognising the opportunities it has to offer less advantaged children by elucidating substantive alongside disciplinary knowledge in subject areas. It is important that we assess both these aspects of knowledge, then it will give all children the freedom to use that breadth of knowledge skilfully. We should also remember that if we want all children to engage in higher order thinking, the thinking that leads to better educational outcomes and life-long learning skills, then this begins with knowledge, while application and synthesis of that knowledge is what follows rather than precedes.


Impact: Journal of the Chartered College of Teaching, Issue 4, Autumn 2018.

Willingham, D.T. (2009) Why don’t children like school, Jossey-Bass.