What does a policy response to ‘powerful knowledge’ look like?

English schools are currently going through something of a ‘knowledge turn’, with a renewed emphasis on the curriculum and the learning of substantial subject knowledge. Whilst this may be considered a step in the right direction, we might not yet be heading to the right destination. This ‘work in progress’ post argues for a powerful knowledge-rich curriculum and considers the broader education policy framework which would enable this.

The Gove curriculum reforms of the Coalition government could be viewed as the starting point of the ongoing knowledge turn in English schools. As the debate at the time went though, the new greater levels of subject content, especially at GCSE and A-Level, were not necessarily being introduced with the best rationale. While knowledge was rightly considered important, knowledge was granted as fixed and inert. Very little effort was made to justify why exactly the subject content had been chosen. Learners were just having passed on to them the best that has been thought and said, with Matthew Arnold’s quote included in the National Curriculum document itself.

Gove’s policy changes though were not the only factor behind the knowledge-rich craze now sweeping the land. Arguably of even greater importance has been Ofsted’s renewed focus on the curriculum. With schools scrambling around to ensure they can explain the intent, implementation and impact of their curriculum, this shift from the inspectorate, together with a growing emphasis on cognitive science and in particular the relationship between learning and memory (also a contentious element of Ofsted’s new framework), is why knowledge-rich curriculum is seemingly the number one education buzzword as we enter the 2020s.

So with knowledge organisers wizzing off photocopiers and Amazon being flooded with books on retrieval practice, it appears knowledge is back. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to be treating knowledge in the right way. Knowledge is not fixed and inert. Knowledge is dynamic and open to challenge. That is why knowledge is so important – it allows young people to understand the world and to challenge how the world works. Today’s learners will be tomorrow’s knowledge makers. As such, they need to have a better grasp of where knowledge comes from. Knowledge is more than the facts that can be dredged from a Google search. It is a body of interrelated concepts, expressed through a specialist vocabulary, that is produced and constantly renewed by an established set of disciplinary processes. Be it the library archives for the historian, the laboratories of the chemist or the focus groups of the sociologist, knowledge is produced in a way which makes it knowledge. It gains its identity and status as knowledge as the very result of the processes by which it is made. That isn’t reflected by the way we currently treat knowledge in English schools and as a result we’re missing a trick. If young people understand where knowledge comes from and why experts are worth listening to (not, however, blindly followed) then they need to have a more socialised appreciation of knowledge. Maybe, just maybe, this could tackle those worrying issues like fake news and the souring nature of political discourse, but that is just one of the reasons to do it.

One of the main reasons to shift to this social realist approach to powerful knowledge, is because it addresses deeper questions around why we teach what we do and the very purpose of education. The social realist approach and powerful knowledge was introduced by academic Michael Young who, having long argued that knowledge reflected a power struggle and recreating elites (knowledge of the powerful), actually recognised that the very point of schooling is to give everybody access to powerful knowledge because it is powerful. Powerful knowledge is not everyday knowledge, it cannot be gained easily by other means. To not give some learners powerful knowledge gives a greater chance of social elites being recreated. That is because powerful knowledge is empowering knowledge. It allows young people to not only understand their place in the world but also how to shape their world, starting with understanding and shaping that knowledge itself.

Drawing on Amartya Sen’s work on development, some academics such as David Lambert have discussed powerful knowledge in the terminology of ‘capabilities’ – where people can act and think differently as a result of their powerful knowledge-rich education. This is a more intellectually robust justification to teaching knowledge than we currently have through the National Curriculum and exam specifications. It should also guide educator’s in the selection and teaching of the knowledge.

As teachers are developing their curriculum, they should be thinking about those big questions – why am I teaching this? What will the learner be able to do or think differently if they learn this? By rigorously constructing our curriculum with all the content choices standing up to these questions, we start to move beyond education as an economic conveyor belt or schools as exam factories. We start to think about education as the key to human flourishing.

Another substantial benefit of this approach is that it shifts the selection of content away from political interference. The curriculum choices are taken by teachers, with those questions of educational purpose in mind. As such, the curriculum becomes both intellectually defensible and independent. This would be a significant improvement on the growing politicisation of the curriculum over several decades, where governments adjust the curriculum to suit whichever fad , whim or moral panic is occupying the tabloid front pages.

So that, in a nutshell, is where we’re aiming for. Not just a knowledge-rich curriculum but a powerful knowledge-rich curriculum. If we are going to make this a reality then, what does the education policy framework need to look like? Some thoughts:

  • Schools and teachers are already being expected to be paying more attention to the curriculum due to Ofsted’s new framework. Whilst the motivation is questionable, the activity is essential. Teachers should be thinking about their curriculum and those big questions of purpose. If teachers are to do this though, they need time and training:
  • Quite simply, teachers need more PPA time to have this level of engagement with the curriculum. Far from this being a one-off, the need to constantly be reviewing the curriculum and ensuring the correct pedagogic choices are made to compliment a powerful knowledge-rich approach is a continuous job.
  • Teachers will need training. For too long, the curriculum is something that has largely been done to teachers not done by teachers. Indeed, much of the panic around Ofsted’s new framework is that lots of teachers feel ill-equipped to address those issues of intent, implementation and impact, having for so long been focused on pedagogy and doing whatever the DfE and exam boards have deigned important.
  • Just on this point, where does this leave exam boards? Clearly they can’t go anywhere. They need to be having the same discussions as teachers and actually further enhance the collaboration with the subject specialist communities to ensure that specifications reflect what is considered to be powerful and empowering in each subject.
  • Whilst we’re on the point of boards and qualifications, what about vocational qualifications? They don’t meet the powerful knowledge box do they? Far from it. We mustn’t mistake powerful knowledge with examinable knowledge. Just because it isn’t ‘academic’ doesn’t mean it isn’t a) knowledge or b) powerful. All subjects though, whatever their focus and however they are assessed, should seek to teach what is empowering to young people.
  • Back to training, there is a glut of curriculum-based training however a lot of this can be judged, perhaps unfairly, perhaps cynically, as cashing in on the new fad. We need to make a lasting change. The best way for teachers to feel equipped to make these curriculum choices is to be part of vibrant communities of practice consisting of fellow subject specialists. So encouraging subject associations, with more resources for departments in schools so that all schools and teachers can engage with these communities is one practical suggestion. Again, giving teachers time to engage is crucial. Also, on a slight tangent, though massively relevant, is to ensure subjects are taught by specialists in the vast majority of cases. Sorting out unfair funding will do this to some extent.
  • So far I have been discussing continuous professional development, which must be done properly and is best done by allowing teachers to connect with communities of fellow specialists. We also need to make sure that the subject components of initial teacher training are not further eroded. The shift from university-based to school-based ITT has furthered the focus on pedagogy at the cost of subject specialism and curriculum thinking. New entrants to the profession need to understand the key concepts around curriculum and the debates in their subject around how powerful knowledge is selected, justified and taught in the necessarily critical and reflective way. This is difficult to do where there is no moderating role for subject specialist teacher educators who understand these issues. Whilst this may not require significant university input, it is an obvious role for university education departments to fulfil.
  • How would accountability work in this powerful knowledge-rich world? Going back a step, this entire approach requires a ‘re-professionalisation’ of teachers, both in terms of how teachers are treated and how teachers view themselves as a result. Teachers given the time, training and, yes, inclination to work amongst communities of fellow professionals to ensure that the content they’re teaching is empowering for the young people in their charge. This requires collaboration to be an integral part of the day job, not just within schools but between schools. As part of this collaboration, reflection and peer review should be a natural part. This should be constructively critical, with an emphasis on mutual support and continuous improvement. This would be a far more beneficial, humane and constructive accountability system. For sure, there is a role for some kind of national surveying, to review the state of education, highlight best practice and identify support needs. That should be the role for the government inspectorate, there as a source of support and expertise rather than as a source of stress which has historically done far more to undermine and de-professionalise teachers.

I hope to reflect upon, develop and unpack the thoughts in this quite rambling post. I am very conscious there may be some ideas which need clarifying and there are no doubt plenty of gaps in making this a coherent framework. Some of the points made could be whole posts in themselves, but I don’t want to make myself too much of a hostage to fortune. I’d be very interested to hear any feedback on these ideas. You can e-mail me on ryan@ryanbate.org.

7 thoughts on “What does a policy response to ‘powerful knowledge’ look like?

  1. Very interesting and positive post. Thanks – and as you say, lots to think through further and work out in detail. Clearly, we need to put our faith in teachers. One thing though: you write “ Whilst this may not require significant university input, it is an obvious role for university education departments to fulfil.“ I am not sure I understand or agree with the first bit of this sentence! To fulfil the role you describe requires a VERY significant university input! What are universities for? (I realise this raises yet another slew of contentious questions!).
    Looking forwards to the ensuing discussions!


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