Do teachers want powerful knowledge?

As education in the United Kingdom undertakes a ‘knowledge turn’, a growing body of research and practice around powerful knowledge potentially offers an intellectually and morally convincing framework to underpin a knowledge-rich curriculum. If a powerful knowledge-rich approach is going to work though, then teachers need to buy in. So a key question is: do teachers want powerful knowledge?

I’ll start with a disclaimer about powerful knowledge: I’m a convert. I have been since researching powerful knowledge as part of a Masters dissertation. In the seven years since my research, the work around powerful knowledge has continued to be developed. As far as I’m concerned as an educator and a political activist, I think it could make a positive contribution to our education system in future. My interest is how it could become a reality and I appreciate that this is very much a work in progress.

On the one hand powerful knowledge and capabilities offers a really exciting future for teachers as well as learners and society at large. It firms up a role for subject specialists. Those of us who enter the profession because we enjoy our subjects and want others to share that enjoyment can be buoyed by that. It offers an intellectual and moral justification for teaching knowledge, especially to disadvantaged learners. It provides exciting opportunities for us to reconnect with our disciplines and to collaborate in the selection and recontextualisation of knowledge for our classrooms. It empowers teachers as curriculum makers rather than curriculum takers. It offers a route to political independence for the curriculum. It offers a justification for better pay, conditions, professional development and respect as a profession. In short, it is a route to re-professionalising teachers and reestablishing a broader more holistic purpose for education.

That route isn’t straightforward though. It would require structural changes as I have detailed in a previous blog post.

The powerful knowledge route also works on the premise that teachers want it as it fundamentally relies on teachers. Whilst it may bring teachers benefits, the most obvious and immediate are primarily intellectual and will involve a different kind of working if not more potentially more work.

Do teachers want to reconnect with their discipline? Or are they teachers of children, rather than teachers of maths or geography?

Do they want the freedom to influence their curriculum? Or are they happy to be provided with a curriculum outline as this means they can focus on pedagogy, or perhaps just not have to worry about doing the intellectual legwork,

Do teachers want to be public intellectuals who are recontextualising and teaching knowledge? Or are they happy being pedagogy-focused technocrats.

How many teachers engage already with their subject communities? Reading blogs (which may of course be pedagogy based, or general rather than subject specific). Reading journals, for teaching let alone for subject disciplines. Participating in subject specific CPD. Engaging with subject associations. These acts will be more important if not essential if we are to create a system based around powerful knowledge. These acts though require time and money, from teachers and institutions. While this is a wider point, in part it comes back to people’s motivation for becoming a teacher, their priorities as professionals and of course how teaching fits into their wider lives and identities.

Look at where unions are on this. They generally have reservations over knowledge-rich curricula. Partly perhaps because of the workload this entails. Also because of wider ideological issues around knowledge, privilege and social mobility. This doesn’t consider powerful knowledge correctly of course. It adopts what Michael Young labels as a ‘Future 1’ view of knowledge, treating knowledge as inert and unquestionable. Powerful knowledge of course is at the heart of a ‘Future 3’ curriculum, which treats knowledge as dynamic, socially produced and open to challenge. From my perspective, unions don’t have the curriculum at the top of their agenda, or if they do it is normally as ‘curriculum change’ and often through a lens of teacher workload. This is a shame, as powerful knowledge may justify a better future for the teaching profession as well as being routed in social justice, in stark contrast to the ‘Future 2’ aims and skills based curriculum-approach which unions seem to favour.

The Chartered College of Teaching seems to be focusing more on the pedagogical and cognitive research aspects of education’s knowledge turn, rather than the curriculum aspects. Not only does this ignore the significant professional role in curriculum design, it also misses the potential of powerful knowledge as a case for ‘re-professionalising’ teaching.

Ofsted may be focusing on knowledge and the curriculum and whilst powerful knowledge may well provide an approach which pleases Ofsted, this probably hasn’t been tested against the new Ofsted framework. There isn’t much mention of Michael Young in Ofsted’s research overview.

The DfE arguably stand to lose from a powerful knowledge approach. Well, they would lose curriculum influence, although they will probably create a better education system. Look at DfE adverts for teaching and you don’t see teachers pouring over books and journals, or collaborating with colleagues in curriculum discussions. You see them in front of the classroom and it isn’t obvious that they’re teaching powerful knowledge. And of course, it would require money to provide the time and resources to teachers (as well as more teachers!) to create a working structure for powerful knowledge-based schools.

So perhaps the most profound question to be asked about powerful knowledge is whether teachers actually want it? Ultimately powerful knowledge relies on teachers functioning in quite a different way to how they currently work. That comes with benefits but many changes if not costs. Would the current workforce be happy with this? Are the current workforce capable of this? How might the workforce and in particular future recruits have to change? Without addressing these fundamental issues, powerful knowledge may be a non-starter.

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