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.