Lockdown Notes #3 – sport, newsprint, Disney Plus and David Bowie

As has become the norm during lockdown, we chat (virtually) and one of the questions that inevitably pops up is how we’re spending our time. The phrase ‘intellectual pottering’ sprang to mind the other day. It sounds very grandiose. Really it just means pottering but not doing anything practical, such as a bit of weeding in the garden or tidying up the kitchen. It might also be called mental flossing. One of the pleasures of having more time has been doing a bit more reading, going down a few more of those Wikipedia rabbit warrens and scribbling notes down.

One of the reasons for having more time on my hands has been the absence of sport. Watching Warrington Town at home (and sometimes away) and catching Arsenal when they were on the telly filled a fair chunk of the weekend, plus the occasional weekday evening. Then of course there is reading about sport. Checking the BBC Football gossip column is pretty much a daily ritual. Like many people I’m missing sport, though I’m sure not as much as some. I imagine Liverpool fans are a lot more frustrated than I am.

We can tell how big a role sport plays in many of our lives that, even in its absence, we find ways to talk about it, read about and even watch it. Several friends avidly followed the BBC’s re-run of the Ben Stokes Ashes test. If I had to put my finger on it, I guess following sport is like following a story being told live – similar to a soap or the latest political goings on. We’re hardwired as a species to love stories and the drama, emotion and belonging associated with sport make for very powerful stories.

A previous edition of Lockdown Notes looked at ‘content’ and how the way we access it has changed as a result of technology. One of the adverts which keeps popping up on my Facebook feed is for the sports subscription site The Athletic. They have quite an impressive set of writers. I was tempted but I eventually came to the conclusion that I wouldn’t get value for money. If I didn’t have a paper copy, like a magazine or newspaper, I’d probably forget to read it. Price wise though, there was no difference to paying for FourFourTwo or getting The Sunday Times. The number of times I’ve bought a physical paper of magazine to end up not having time to read it. Just strikes me as odd that we apportion different value to physical and digital and the reasons we use to justify the difference don’t necessarily stack up.

On the subject of content, I read an interesting media column on The Guardian suggesting that newsprint editions of newspapers may not survive the coronavirus pandemic. Falling advertising revenues as businesses adjust their expenditure is one factor, but there is also the lack of sales as many shops close and people limit their visits to those shops that remain open. I have wondered whether going to the shop everyday to buy a paper (I have the time to read it after all) is acceptable, but I am erring on the side that it probably isn’t. Seeing national titles and, more likely, local titles falter will be a huge problem. As the columnist Roy Greenslade observes: ‘the biggest news story in a lifetime is killing off the very industry that exists to report it’. There is some solace that there has been an upturn in digital subscriptions, but the shifts in the industry will likely leave our media landscape changed for the worse.

Another ‘content’-related story which has amused be is the uncanny timing of the UK launch of Disney Plus. While there will doubtless be many people who allow their subscriptions to lapse post-lockdown, the global uptake figures exceed what Disney were aiming for by the end of 2024. Disney’s pursuit of streaming was driven by their CEO Bob Iger, who has also announced that he is deferring his semi-retirement until after the pandemic has passed. Only a month or so ago, The Economist profiled Iger at the time he announced that he was stepping down as CEO. As well as his ability to question his judgement and change tack, as he did over streaming, the profile also highlighted two other qualities to which Disney’s success under Iger can be attributed. One of these was Iger’s trust in talent. When Disney acquired Pixar, rather than interfering with their new studio, Iger did almost the opposite and allowed Pixar to ‘acquire’ relevant divisions within Disney and make an even better animation studio. The other quality is all about content – Iger believed in the Hollywood maxim that ‘content is king’. While some thought it was all about owning the power of distributing content, Iger realised that content creation was still key. This drove Iger’s plans to acquire not only Pixar but also Marvel and Lucasfilm, making Disney what The Economist described as a ‘content-and-technology powerhouse’ which makes and, through Disney Plus (and Hulu) distributes content.

All of these references I keep coming across regarding content, creators, distributors and technology remind me of an awesome interview which David Bowie did on Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman. In the interview which is well worth watching as my words cannot do it justice, Bowie (speaking in 1999) explains to a sceptical Jeremy Paxman how the Internet will completely change the relationship between media and the audience, disrupting not only the media industry but our very ideas of how we think about and relate to content. It shows Bowie’s prescience and genius, though this isn’t surprising given his reading interests. Another link I keep going back to is the reading list of Bowie’s which formed part of an art exhibition about him. The list can be found here (although a Google search for David Bowie’s reading list throws up some intriguing and occasionally bizarre takes on the musician’s literary tastes).

And it would be impossible for almost anyone to follow David Bowie, so I’ll leave it there for these notes.

Coronavirus to a geographer: an example of how subject disciplines give us powerful knowledge and why that matters

Why having some expertise isn’t a bad thing and what on earth does ‘thinking like a geographer’ mean?

While enjoying my daily exercise, despite the rain, I was again using the time to indulge my newfound taste for podcasts. Listening to The Intelligence (26th March edition, by The Economist) there was a piece about how the coronavirus pandemic may affect Africa. As I have often thought over my years of reading The Economist on and off, it might as well be called ‘The Geographer’, such is the level of geographical content present in so many of the issues it covers. I was also struck by what a clear example of powerful knowledge this was. My ability to understand the issues being discussed so deeply was absolutely because of the knowledge I had, in particular my knowledge as a geographer. Of course, people with deep knowledge in other disciplines would have their own take and while a geographer might have a head start on this article about the pandemic in Africa, I’ve no doubt that other disciplines would offer an advantage on articles about other topics. I was so struck by the example though, that I wanted to unpack it.

I have found myself commenting to classes a number of times over the past few months about how many geographical news stories I hear when listening to the radio on my journey to work. I try to make the links between the news stories and the geographical ideas they’ve been learning about. Amidst the blank faces and expressions of ‘what is he on about’, there is the occasional nod of appreciation, or rather there is a neutral expression which I interpret to be a kid who would be nodding but has a thought for their reputation amongst their peers.

‘When are we ever going to need to know about squatter settlements?’

Teachers of all subjects have at some point or other encountered this query: ‘when are we ever going to need to know about [INSERT TOPIC HERE]?’ Occasionally it’s about one of your favourite topics as a teacher, which makes it all the more tragic when you desperately try to share that spark of enthusiasm that you have. Creating a need to know and instilling a joy of learning are really important and the ability to do these are hallmarks of great teachers. As a novice, I was very frustrated when I felt that I’d fallen short, not least because of the importance of these for the process of geographical enquiry which was so central to my teacher training and my pedagogic understanding.

With time, experience and reading though, I realised that those questions should be treated, by and large, with a pinch of salt. For sure we should point out a topic’s relevance, it’s contemporary links, it’s importance, any potential career pathways related to the learning and such like. We should also recognise that we are the experts in the room, both as teachers and as subject specialists. Just, as David Didau points out, the interests and whims of an 11, 14 or 16 year old should not be considered as binding for the path of their life and career, because they don’t yet know just what is available to them (which makes me think of Donald Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns), we also shouldn’t worry too much if they don’t see the point, there and then, of understanding the characteristics and complexities of squatter settlements.

When I was at school, geography was unsurprisingly a passion of mine, but only really from Year 9 (third year in old money). Only then, my interest was largely driven by having a teacher I liked and by being one of those academic types (read ‘geek’) who pretty much enjoyed any subjects as long as there wasn’t a practical element which required physical co-ordination or exertion. Over those years I remember learning about Kenya, rivers, coasts, economic change, tectonics, etc. By the time I got to A-Level and committed to studying Geography at university, the benefit of maturity and a bit more awareness of how the world worked meant that I increasingly saw the links between what I was studying and how I might end up using it (not that this is the sole reason why you should learn something).

In a way which is entirely understandable and predictable in hindsight, that awareness and appreciation grew. As you know more, you see the connections. As you are exposed to more of life, you see more opportunities to apply your learning. During two years working for BP, the generalist platform that a balanced Geography degree gave me meant I could have a (in my opinion at least) reasonably intelligible discussion with geologists about seismic surveys and commercial analysts about the contractual niceties of hydrocarbon production sharing agreements. Some of this was undoubtedly what is referred to as the ’soft skills’ which learning a subject gives you. It is all borne out of learning and knowledge; borne out of my ability to think and act like a geographer.

Rolling forward to my teacher training at Manchester Metropolitan University and my PGCE tutor tried to get us all excited about the Geographical Association’s manifesto A Different View. I can’t speak for my colleagues but I actually did (see previous comment on being a geek). One strand of the manifesto was ’thinking like a geographer’, which was the concept that studying geography permitted people to think about the world in a unique geographical way. Geographers and in particular geography educators may have sought to explicitly identify this and give it a title, but this is essentially true of all academic disciplines – it is disciplinary thought. Historians, economists, anthropologists, chemists, ecologists, etc will all see the world and approach issues from a particular perspective. Nobody, of course, is limited to a single disciplinary perspective, but we all will naturally draw on our knowledge, our expertise, when approaching a problem.

’Thinking like a geographer’ is not a PR catchphrase – it describes using expertise in a way which adds value by offering a perspective grounded in knowledge and practice which has been developed over time by a community of experts. In some cases, you might be applying this perspective when approaching a problem with a view to influence decisions or even taking decisions. Sometimes though, you are simply able to understand the world around you to a higher degree and in doing so are able to be an active and informed citizen.

Which brings me back to listening to that podcast and all the other things I’ve heard, watched and read over the past few weeks and months as the coronavirus pandemic has spread around the world. What follows is a vignette to exemplify how thinking like a geographer is helping me to make sense of the pandemic.

In a nutshell the segment of the podcast was about how the coronavirus would affect Africa. I won’t seek to summarise it, but rather look at some of the ideas raised and unpack them as a series of bullet points. Each bullet point addresses a key idea or concept which is studied in geography and in most cases on the school curriculum in some guise:

  • Development: the major concern for Africa is driven by it’s comparatively low-level of development. My students should be able to tell you that a majority of Africa’s 53 countries are low income countries (LICs). As a result the ability of Africa to cope – at all scales from the continental to the national to the individual – is going to make it challenging.
  • Climatic: there is some cause of optimism though, in that the spread of coronavirus so far appears to be faster in temperate climates like Europe’s, rather than the hotter climates found in Africa. This must be tempered with the lack of data on this new disease though (hence the term ’novel coronavirus’ being used – a piece of vocab I will make sure my kids understand!)
  • Demographic: another, probably more significant cause for hope is Africa’s demographics. We know from the UK’s categorisation of vulnerable people that older age groups are at higher risk from coronavirus. Less than 10% of Africa’s population is over 65. Maybe the younger population will help African countries avoid the death tolls we’ve seen elsewhere.
  • Health: while the African continent has a younger population though, many African countries, such as South Africa, also have a higher proportion of their populations who have suppressed immune systems due to HIV and tuberculosis.
  • Health systems: it also comes as no surprise that Africa’s lower levels of wealth and development mean that most countries’ health systems will not cope with the pandemic if it affects similar numbers to what we’ve seen in the northern hemisphere. The podcast gave some shocking statistics. The journalist estimated that there was roughly one ventilator per million people and that many American and European hospitals would have greater intensive care capacities than entire African countries.
  • Previous diseases: there was however mention that African governments and health systems have more recent experience of significant disease outbreaks (such as the 2014/15 Ebola epidemics in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone) than most of the nations which have been hit by Covid-19. Whether this will help or not remains to be seen.
  • Government: again it comes as no surprise to say that most African governments do not have the resources or infrastructure to respond in a similar way to what we’ve seen elsewhere, especially in terms of the financial responses seen in Europe. Such as welfare states exist, we’ve seen enough of the issues which more developed countries’ governments have had in ramping up their welfare systems to realise that in Africa the creation or expansion of a social safety net will be challenging. Many governments already have issues with debt and affordable borrowing. There are also questions around effectiveness, practicality and trust. Reaching all communities, especially in rural areas, and being trusted are going to be challenges for African governments. In some countries, spurious advice from religious and tribal authorities may add to these challenges facing government.
  • Rurality and remoteness: while the remoteness of rural populations may make government communication and response difficult, it will also help slow the spread of the disease. It is interesting that in India, there has been much criticism of the botched lockdown where one of the key issues was the number of people trying to head back out of urban areas to their rural places of origin, potentially taking the virus with them. In China, the lockdown on movement between regions has been seen as one of their key achievements in restricting the disease. It will be important for African governments to try and get this right, not least because rural areas will be even less able to cope with the disease if, or more likely when, it arrives.
  • Urbanisation: Africa is the least urbanised continent (only 40% of Africa’s population lived in urban areas in 2015), which must be seen as an advantage, but it is urbanising rapidly, so urban areas are often even more densely populated than we’d see in more developed countries. This population density is one of the main worries around coronavirus. As we’ve also seen in India, there is a conundrum around how socially distancing can be enforced when people live in such large numbers in such close proximity. (There are significant differences in urbanisation rates between African countries and some, especially though not exclusively in North Africa, have higher urban populations – Libya for example has an 88% urban population).
  • Squatter settlements: aha, that is why we’re learning about squatter settlements. Destination for many rural-urban migrants, these poorly built, densely populated areas with poor sanitation and a lack of clean water are incredibly risky places to live should coronavirus reach them.
  • Informal economy: common to less developed countries everywhere and closely linked to those squatter – or informal – settlements, the vast majority, around 85%, of Africans work in the informal economy. This means no regular salaries. Connected with the lack of formal address which life in a squatter settlement entails, many Africans also have no access to bank accounts and this is one of the reasons for many Africans to have a lack of savings which might help during a lockdown.
  • Aid and international help: countries which depend on international aid, especially for their health systems, will find that this won’t go far enough to help them deal with coronavirus. Unlike in previous health crises, such as the ebola outbreak, it is also going to be more challenging for African countries to get international help with so many of their usual donor countries dealing with their own health crises. Other countries however shouldn’t see their own crisis as a justification not to help. Just as the coronavirus has spread internationally, there is a real concern that as the virus continues to spread and spend time in different populations, it will not only survive but could well mutate. So it is shortsighted for those countries ‘further along the curve’ of the pandemic to ignore Africa and developing countries elsewhere. It could well be that we get over the first phase of the pandemic only for the coronavirus to return, this time from a developing country which has struggled to cope with and contain the virus. As well as this pragmatic, realpolitik approach, it is also worth discussing the moral aspect of helping countries in need.
  • Globalisation: the increasing interconnectedness of the world, not just economically, should definitely be considered in understanding the coronavirus pandemic. The movement of people around the world has absolutely caused the global spread of the virus. The patterns of movement, with greater volumes of people moving between richer parts of the world no doubt helps to explain why Europe and North America were amongst the first places outside China to be hit by the virus. The lower flows of people between the ‘global north’ and the ‘global south’ also helps to explain why African countries are further behind on the curve of cases and deaths. Other interesting angles are the global shutdown on flights and the implications of this. Mass air travel is of course seen as one of the key reasons for the acceleration of globalisation in the late 20th century. The environmental advantages of people not travelling have also been noted. It is also interesting how technology, one of the key drivers of globalisation, is helping to keep people connected when we can’t travel. For many years, the virtual option for meetings has still failed to trump the so-called agglomeration advantages which see businesses and people flocking to big cities. Whether the proven-by-crisis ability of large numbers of people to work and for businesses to function with the help of technology might change locational decisions and travel volumes in  future will be something to watch.
  • Diversity and avoidance of the ’single story’: throughout these notes I have been very conscious of repeatedly referring to Africa and Africans. While much of what I have said will apply to most African countries, there are of course many differences in wealth, society and culture. The Economist’s podcast highlights examples from different countries which demonstrate this. One of those ‘common misconceptions’ which must drive all geography teachers to distraction is the reference to Africa as a country, failing to appreciate either the terminology or the diversity. Liz Taylor, I think, has done some wonderful writing on diversity and how we must balance the need for accessibility and comprehension with a recognition of diversity and the complexity which comes with that. It is important to avoid the ’single story’ which masks too much of the reality – I think this applies to learning and communication about any topic, anywhere and is equally true of media coverage of events here in the UK.

These are all thoughts which occurred to me when listening to the podcast or reflecting upon it later. While some of it is recounting the content of the episode, much of it is the expansion, explanation and application made possible by the geographical knowledge which I have learned over the years. Someone without that knowledge simply would not have understood that podcast. Take, as an extreme example, somebody who, let alone think Africa is a country, might not know where it is. Often taken for granted, especially by subject specialists, but just knowing where somewhere is located is empowering. Is it closer or further away? That might tell us how likely people are to travel to and from there to the UK, possibly carrying the disease. Where is it compared to the Equator? That will give us some idea of temperatures, which as I said is one of the causes for optimism. These are just a couple of examples of how a lack of knowledge, or to put it another way – perhaps not having been given access to knowledge – leads to a lack of understanding. On the other hand, with knowledge and understanding comes the confidence to have an informed opinion and possibly to do something about it.

So when we talk about teaching knowledge, we are doing far more than rote learning of facts or ’teaching to the test’, we are inducting people into disciplinary thinking. Giving them a powerful set of concepts and ideas to understand the world. They might not appreciate it at the time, they probably won’t – they haven’t encountered enough of the world yet to see the applications. It isn’t done with a career in mind or because of a particular contemporary relevance, it’s far deeper than that. There’s also lots of research and writing about the importance of learners identifying as geographers, historians or whatever discipline they’re learning. Becoming an expert, or at least developing expertise, rightly comes with a social badge of honour (despite what Michael Gove or Donald Trump might say). It gives us confidence and quite rightly, because we have the knowledge to understand the world and make informed and responsible decisions and maybe positive contributions to society. By understanding the world, we have the power to change it, hopefully for the better.

Knowledge = power = (positive) change. That is why we should teach a curriculum rich in powerful knowledge.

Lockdown Notes #2 – coronavirus, time and relationships

The coronavirus, or rather our response to it, has had an impact on all aspects of life. Fundamentally it has had an impact on time: how (and where) we spend time, our routines, and the ‘cost’ of time. It has also had an impact on relationships: who we interact with and how we conduct those interactions. Such are these dramatic changes to our lives, many people are questioning what the ‘return to normal’ could look like.

Lockdown has forced us to rip up our usual routines. What we do, how we do it and where we do things – all of these have changed. We are spending more time at home. We are relishing the brief opportunities we have to spend outside the house. I chuckled at a comment I saw on social media, referring to Britons taking their daily exercise. The comment observed that seemingly the best way to encourage more people to take up regular outdoor exercise is to tell people to stay at home.

Spending more time at home comes with its plusses and minuses. Some people are enjoying the flexibility of time they have. Others are missing routine. For those spending more time with their family at home, this comes with rewards and pitfalls. Some of course are spending lockdown by themselves, also a combination of blessing and curse. The other side of the coin is of course the family, friends and colleagues who we don’t see – or don’t see face-to-face – which is taxing many people psychologically.

Some people are of course looking at the economic ‘cost’ of time. The old adage ’time is money’ is of course correct in that we do, in many activities, ascribe time with a monetary value – the hourly wage, the day-rate, etc. There is a nexus of relationships between time, money and productivity. With people working differently, or not at all, time is not being used productively in an economic sense. Or rather, it is not being used as productively as it might be under ’normal’ circumstances. More people are working at home. For some people this isn’t new, it is standard or perhaps just an increase in the proportion of their working week where they’re at home. For others this is new territory. Regardless of whether working from home is a new experience, this isn’t of course working from home as most people usually do it. Many people don’t normally juggle working from home with the childcare obligations that school closures currently require. There is much speculation about whether the increased working from home and greater use of technology to keep organisations ticking might lead to long-term shifts in how we work. This might well be the case, but those making decisions need to remember that current working from home habits and productivity isn’t in any way representative, for a host of reasons, childcare being just one.

Having been forced to spend our time differently many of us are probably going to reflect, if we haven’t already, on how we spend out time usually and whether we’re getting it right. While not perfect, I think the notion of ‘spending’ time is very appropriate. Not because of the monetary value mentioned earlier, but because it recognises that time is the most valuable resource which anyone has.

One aspect of that reflection will be how we might conduct our relationships – family, friends, etc – differently. Many have flocked to Skype, Zoom and the like to continue social contact. This is great where possible. For lots of people though, this enforced virtual contact might make them think again about spending some of that valuable time seeing people face to face. Or it might be that the people we’re calling, texting or messaging online with greater frequency than normal (‘because we can’) don’t get relegated down our daily or weekly priorities as soon as normal life resumes (no more ‘I never find the time’).

Humans are social animals and we all share a truth that time is our most valuable, finite resource. Decisions we take on how we spend our time and who with are fundamental to our happiness and the meaning we find in life. I hope that the lockdown makes us realise this more clearly and take some time to think about those decisions we make.

Lockdown Notes #1 – thoughts about content, the media, knowledge, power and the humble pub quiz

Next to my bed is a permanent yet dynamic pile of ‘content’ – books, magazines, etc – an iPad too sometimes, my phone a stretch across to the dressing table. I seem to have a pathological dislike for empty surfaces. Why leave them empty when you could have stuff to hand?

I’ll normally have something to write with to. My preference varies a little. Sometimes its a Moleskine (or cheap imitation). At the moment I seem to have settled on a reporter’s notepad. Spiral-bound. Something about the uncertainty and unsettled nature of the lockdown makes it seem fitting to use a reporters’s notepad. Not so much that I am reporting on events, but rather than it seems less permanent than a leather-bound journal.

One of the things I have been scribbling about, just an assortment of jumbled thoughts, is that very idea of ‘content’. Call it information, knowledge or entertainment. We all consume content to varying degrees. Many pay for access to it. We buy it in print or pay to get behind a paywall. Others are happy with access to the plethora of free content out there, available in ever-increasing amounts and with ever-increasing ease thanks to technology.

Today of course, media institutions find themselves in a scramble to reassess their value chain. Where does their income come from? Where can they extract value from? How are they justifying that value? In the fascinating world of intellectual property, we are given yet more examples of value creators and value extractors.

For me having content, just possessing it, even if I don’t have enough time to read and digest it, is a comfort, even if irrational. During the current lockdown, one of the many pleasures I have found is the increased time I have to read, to digest and to think. The educator in me likens this to how we conceptualise the purpose of education  or more specifically the purpose of a curriculum: it is about the journey you are taken on. A journey from point A, before you read the content, and point B after you have read. That of course takes us to the purpose of content – to influence, to change people in some way.

Content is made to influence, to educate, to entertain. The media, after all, exists to influence and shape society. In a technological age where anybody can produce and distribute knowledge, this democratisation is a huge positive, but should stir some thoughts of caution. The media, the institutions who commission, edit, publish and distribute content, who act as gatekeepers, also offer a brand which might (or might not) be trusted.

Events like the Hay Festival, or TED Talks, SXSW or ResearchEd conferences in education are ‘content hubs’. They offer a way of sharing content; an opportunity for people seeking to influence. People of course also want to act content providers (hat tip to Stewart Lee and his wonderful book title) for the kudos and, in some cases, the income this brings. In some cases, content is produced for the benefit of the producer rather than necessarily that of the audience. There is nothing wrong with that. The pleasure of writing, making or creating is real regardless of an audience.

Content can also of course be seen as intellectual history. Thinking of libraries and archives, especially national such institutions. They are not just guardians but gatekeepers of that intellectual history. They grapple with questions of what to keep and based on what system of valuation. The content they maintain offers a snapshot, not just on what has been thought and said, but the social structures which fostered and permitted that intellectual activity. It also offers insight into the values and structures which determined what was worth keeping and what wasn’t.

For some reason, over the years, one of my many fascinations has also been the losses to our intellectual history. The British burning of the Library of Congress and the subsequent fire in the 1850s when much of the replenished library was also lost. The burning of the Library of Alexandria. Also the routine dynastic sackings of knowledge littered throughout history. China has a wonderful history of building encyclopaedia. Yet with almost every power shift came the destruction of those repositories of knowledge. An acknowledgement that, as with all forms of text, those repositories reflected the views and values of the previous regime but also yet another reminder that knowledge is powerful and power over knowledge has always been important.

I have sometimes pondered when was it theoretically possible for somebody to have read all the books available (in their language at least)? The possession of broad knowledge and the existence of polymaths has shifted with changes to our society and economy.

Economic changes, in particular the principle of the division of labour, have contributed to a shift from generalists to specialists. While generalists still of course exist (and according to some are often very successful), specialism is an idea which has pervaded all aspects of society, not least our education system. Despite recent suggestions that the British and American publics have had enough of experts, we still socially (and economically) value expertise to some extent.

So where are generalists left? One of my lockdown contributions has been hosting regular ‘non-pub quizzes’ via Zoom (do get in touch if you’re interested). The humble act of quizzing may be one of the last bastions of the generalist, in Britain at least where our love of trivia is something of an outlier.

Knowledge, or content, changes people though. Even if by the simple act of helping them answer a question in my virtual pub quiz. Knowledge takes people on the journey from A to B, before encountering the knowledge to after. While I’m not physically in school, one of the things I’m still reading, thinking and enthusing about is the return of knowledge and curriculum thinking to the foreground of educational debates. By giving young people knowledge we take them on a journey. What power. What a responsibility. No wonder the great Ted Wragg said there was no higher calling.

That’s enough of my lockdown ramblings for now. These started as (very) rough notes. I’ve tried to format into some kind of coherence, but not tried too hard. I hope you have enjoyed reading this ‘content’ and that it has maybe sparked a few thoughts.

The Joy of Curriculum

As I (willingly) slave away over my department’s geography curriculum, it has occurred to me that this latest shift in education has done a huge amount to rejuvenate my own passion for teaching. In what was going to be a blog reflecting on the practical steps involved in building a knowledge-rich curriculum, I have actually written a more personal post which brings curriculum change and my own career journey together to serve as a sign that a change in context, whether that be the national policy context or the local context of the school we find ourselves forging a career in, has a huge impact on our daily working life.

A decade ago I was still working for BP. I had been thinking for some time about moving into education. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy working in the oil industry. As I’ve said ‘context is king’ and I loved the context of oil and gas; the geopolitics of the industry and the essential role in plays in our lives. In part I was a frustrated by the disconnect between the excitement of the industry and my part in it. Somewhat linked to that frustration, I suffered from a kind of impostor syndrome. I was convinced that, having never studied business or management in my life, I was going to be ‘found out’ and asked to clear my desk. This lack of confidence in my ability compounded with the frustration with my role as I didn’t see myself rising sufficiently to play a more exciting role in the industry. If nothing else, the experience and maturity I have gained since finally deciding to leave BP, aged 23, in the summer of 2010, has often made me wonder what might have been had I stayed working in the energy sector. That of course is one of those counter-factual, hypotheticals. Teaching training beckoned.

When I trained to teach in 2010/11, pedagogy ruled though even then the work of the Geographical Association with its manifesto for geography – A Different View – showed that at least some educators working in the geography subject community were interested in what we teach as well as why we teach it. After completing my training, another disconnect emerged in my career. By day I was getting to grips with being a geography teacher. By and large, I was told what to teach and my main focus was on getting the kids to behave and make progress. By night, I had chosen to continue my studies into geography education with an MA at the Institute of Education. Through my studies at the IoE, I first encountered the ideas of Michael Young and was an active follower of the debates around knowledge in the curriculum which revolved, in part, around Michael Gove’s curriculum reforms which were taking shape.

I became a Head of Department in 2016, a moment of ‘peak’ curriculum change: a new GCSE and a new A-Level to be developed at the same time. Plus a Key Stage 3 which needed a significant overhaul if we were going to prepare our learners for the new, more demanding exam courses. Even this was curriculum change, the focus was still on how we taught the content – the structure of the lesson, incorporating extended writing, embedding exam technique, etc. The need to provide challenge and evidence progress in every lesson dominated all of our planning. Trying to reconcile these pedagogic expectations with the content of the new specifications was a real struggle. I was (and remain) incredibly lucky that I had a small but incredibly hard-working team alongside me. Three years into leading my own department, we’d changed everything we did. There was no doubt in my mind that the quality of what we were (and are) doing far supersedes what went before it. Sadly this improvement in quality of curriculum and pedagogy hasn’t always translated into exam outcomes (yet), but that is a different frustration and a different story. Amongst the annual churn of the school calendar, my team and I would often comment that we would be done with change this year and next year will be easier. So writing this midway through my fourth year, where we’re in the middle of another perhaps even more radical overhaul, why I am not at all downhearted?

Knowledge is the answer. Although I was very familiar with the arguments around knowledge and in particular Michael Young’s concept of ‘powerful knowledge’, completing my MA and moving onto other concerns like being a middle leader meant that I’d lost touch with the debate and as a result didn’t see the opportunities of powerful knowledge to drive our curriculum development. A new headteacher at my school, with a vision for a knowledge-rich curriculum, together with the national shift triggered by Ofsted’s new obsession with curriculum, has re-sparked my interest in powerful-knowledge and this has helped to rekindle my passion for curriculum development. Yes, we’re producing knowledge organisers and doing retrieval practice, but this pedagogy is driven by the curriculum being knowledge-rich and underpinned by a view that it is important for children to learn subject knowledge. We’ve reviewed every aspect of our curriculum with a view to being more ambitious with our expectations over what we want young people to learn. We start with the ‘what’ and ‘why’ and then think ‘how’ we will teach it. Developing deep and broad subject knowledge over time is the source of challenge in our geography curriculum. Teaching lessons with this ambitious content, discussing demanding concepts and using questioning to tease out and develop learners’ understanding has helped teaching become a joy for me again. For sure, challenges remain. So far we have made, or rather are in the process of making, a structural shift to a knowledge-rich curriculum with appropriate pedagogy. What has to follow is a cultural shift where learners see the value of this knowledge and want to learn it and do well. This is absolutely the harder part, but when the purpose and potential impact is so clear, it makes the effort worthwhile.

Developing a knowledge-rich curriculum has re-energised me as a teacher. It is intellectually demanding. It also feeds my passion for my subject. It requires me to use my ability as a geographer and I have read and watched all kinds of material to boost my own subject knowledge. It also requires me to engage with research on how to best teach a knowledge-rich curriculum in the classroom. Bridging those identities as a geographer and a teacher, to be a professional subject expert is stimulating and rewarding. These changes are a challenge though. For so many teachers, myself included, we have gone for many years without having to address our subject expertise, instead often focused on transferable pedagogies. Going forward, we will need time, space and resources to develop our subject knowledge, our curriculum-making expertise and our research-informed pedagogic abilities. This is a different kind of professional identity to what has dominated for a decade or so. It is an exciting opportunity though and one which we must work hard, as subject and teaching communities not to squander.

Knowledge organisers, retrieval practice and the knowledge-rich curriculum

As teachers swept up in the latest winds of change hitting UK schools and fans of early-era Soccer AM will tell you: knowledge is the bomb. Like many teachers (and Saturday morning telly fans), I wholeheartedly subscribe to the importance of knowledge. Unfortunately, amidst the clamour to become knowledge-rich, some teachers and schools may be missing the point.

Take a look around Edu-twitter and teaching blogs together with an increasing slew of books and articles and it is very clear that teachers and schools and adapting to the ‘knowledge turn’. I have spent a previous blog post looking at exactly how we approach knowledge. The fact that it isn’t exactly clear what we mean by ‘knowledge’ and therefore how we select what to teach and justify why we should teach kind of feeds my motivation for this post. I am worried that, in our efforts to become knowledge-rich, we might be successful at getting learners to remember more, we might not have thought a great deal about what we think it is important for learners to remember.

I am one of those saddos who has thought about the importance of knowledge in education quite a lot. As a case in point, I spent many a happy hour on a sun-lounger during a New Year trip to Lanzarote reading Richard Bustin’s wonderful book Geography Education’s Potential and the Capabilities Approach (which I review here), which offers an intellectually and morally coherent framework for selecting and justifying powerful knowledge to teach to young people. Off the back of this, and whilst developing a curriculum vision for my department, I read Ofsted’s inspection framework, handbook and research overview. I don’t like to be driven by Ofsted, but seeing as they’re one of the key drivers of the knowledge turn, I was interested to see what their view was. Quite frankly, the more I read, the more a little niggle started to grow in my mind.

One teaching strategy which we’re developing at my school, like so many others, is the use of knowledge organisers together with retrieval practice. A quick search on TES resources (other resource depositories of highly-varying quality are available) shows that these are very much in vogue. I would contest however that using knowledge organisers does not automatically make a knowledge-rich curriculum.

As these thoughts were gestating in my head, I read the chapter on knowledge organisers in Mary Myatt’s rather wonderful book on the curriculum. Myatt identifies that ‘the real power of knowledge organisers is that they make us think hard about what we are going to teach’ (p89). As Bustin and others have observed, this hasn’t been a given for many teachers for some time. For a long time and for some teachers for their entire careers, we have been driven by the ‘cult of pedagogy’ (I wish I could remember where I read that – apologies). We have obsessed about how we teach and the what and the why has received disproportionately little time. In order to construct a knowledge organiser (and I agree with Myatt that these really should be done from scratch, or at least carefully adapted from existing versions), teachers have to think about what they want learners to know. This also requires teachers to have really high standards of subject knowledge; something which arguably has also been neglected for too long in initial teacher training and CPD. (One of the wonderful aspects of Mary’s book is the wealth of references you can dip into. Durrington School’s ‘subject planning and development sessions’ which Mary describes sound like an incredibly powerful idea).

Myatt is very clear that knowledge organisers are one element – a sensible pedagogical tool – when trying to implement a knowledge-rich curriculum. As Myatt observes though: ‘the downside to organisers is when they are used as ends in themselves’ (p91). Unless teachers have thought carefully about the curriculum content, which is then articulated in a knowledge organiser, then the curriculum doesn’t automatically become knowledge-rich.

I haven’t done a systematic study, but I do fear that so much of the guidance around knowledge organisers and the associated technique of retrieval practice focuses on the process of making and using these resources, the curriculum thinking is happening separately, if it is happening at all. Whether the motivation is Ofsted’s focus on curriculum ‘intent’, or broader thinking around how we justify the selection  and teaching of knowledge, such as Michael Young’s ‘powerful knowledge’, teachers should be engaging with the what and the why of curriculum.

I would argue – and I think Myatt’s explanation of knowledge organisers shows this – that producing knowledge organisers can be an integral part of the curriculum thinking process. The starting point though needs to be questions like ‘what is it important for young people to know’, ‘why do they need to know this’ and ‘what will this allow them to know, understand or do’. We almost need to start with a blank canvass, using our expertise as subject-specialists to think deeply about what our subjects offer young people.

Without the curriculum thinking behind or alongside them, knowledge organisers are just the ‘cult of pedagogy’ masquerading as curriculum thinking. In fact, unless this thinking has already taken place, then just shoehorning our existing schemes of work onto a knowledge organiser is in my opinion the very antithesis of planning a knowledge-rich curriculum. My only criticism of Myatt’s chapter, which I have unfairly treated in isolation, is that she doesn’t make this point strongly enough. In her closing comments of the chapter, she draws on the same cognitive science which underpins knowledge organisers and retrieval practice. She says ‘knowledge builds on knowledge’ – you know more, then you can learn more and ‘our students become more intelligent when they know more’ (p92). All true. That is the intellectual and moral rationale for teaching knowledge, but unless we think deeply about what that knowledge is, then cognitive science alone doesn’t make a powerful curriculum. Quite frankly – as Mary points out throughout her book – there are no quick fixes to a powerful knowledge curriculum. We only get there by giving professionals the time, headspace and respect to think.

Geography Education’s Potential and the Capability Approach – a review

Richard Bustin has written an excellent book. As well as thoroughly explaining how powerful knowledge and capabilities can be combined, he makes a persuasive case for how this approach could underpin a brighter future for education in the UK.

Powerful knowledge is a concept originated by Professor Michael Young, a physics teacher turned sociologist, who having made something of a volte-face now argues that skilfully selected and re-contextualised disciplinary knowledge should form the basis of the school curriculum. Importantly, this approach does not simply follow Matthew Arnold’s approach of the best that has been thought and said. It takes a more intellectually robust view of knowledge. For knowledge to be powerful, it has been created by disciplinary communities based on accepted social practices which lead to it being classed as ‘knowledge’. This considers knowledge to be dynamic and contestable. Teachers draw from subject disciplines on the basis that teaching powerful knowledge will empower young people by helping them to understand how the world works and how they can change it.

Academics working in geography education, including David Lambert, have developed the concept of powerful knowledge alongside applying the capabilities approach from development studies to education. As Bustin wonderfully explains, the capabilities framework, stemming from the work of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, considers what people are able to think and do as a result of an intervention, in this case their education. A capabilities approach shifts the emphasis from the ‘outputs’ of education, such as exam grades, to the ‘outcomes’ of education, in terms of what an education system allows people to do in life. Bustin makes a convincing case that powerful knowledge and the capabilities approach should be interwoven. It is through learning powerful knowledge that people are able to think and do more.

At the moment, these concepts remain largely in the academic realm and are only just starting to permeate into the real world of schools and classrooms. Bustin explores how this has been done, not least through his own practitioner research. The starting point is for subject communities to reflect and agree upon what the powerful knowledge of their subjects is. This is not an atomised list but rather the key reasons or concepts that make the subject powerful. In the case of geography for example, the powerful knowledge is the:

  • Detailed descriptive and explanatory world knowledge, such as place knowledge and the processes of how the world works such as the carbon cycle.
  • Relational thinking, such as the interdependence between various human and physical systems and processes.
  • Futures thinking, whereby learners are encouraged to consider the various alternative future scenarios for how the world will change socially, economically, politically and environmentally.

Having established what makes each subject powerful, those elements of powerful knowledge should form a framework to allow teachers to plan their curriculum to select content which is powerful. Looking at how this has worked for teachers involved in Bustin’s research, I think this could be fertile territory. I am however something of a convert. Ever since coming across the concept of powerful knowledge back in around 2011 as part of my Masters, I have been increasingly convinced that the concept provides a robust intellectual and moral justification for the future of a (powerful) knowledge-rich curriculum at the heart of an education system with human empowerment at its core.

The next steps are critical in terms of how powerful knowledge may shape policy and practice. Bustin provides some helpful thoughts on the structural and cultural changes needed and there is some overlap with my own thoughts on this which I wrote about in a previous post.

Overall this is a wonderful book which gave me a great deal of hope for the future. My interest as both an educator and a politico make me think that powerful knowledge and capabilities provide an independent and robust framework for our education system. It is now a case of making it a reality. Hopefully by reading this book you’ll want to be part of that.

A few key quotes to takeaway…

  • ‘Studying geography is about learning to think like a geographer, understand how geographical knowledge is created, debated and argued over and not simply about learning geographical facts. The same is true for other subjects, learning to think like a mathematician, historian or linguist rather than simply learning a set of facts associated with the subject’ (p58)
  • ’Young (2008) realised that what was needed to reduce inequality was not the complete removal of knowledge of knowledge from all school curricula, but a way for all children to access what had in the past been as the preserve of the elite’ (p61)
  • ‘Capabilities could provide a broader framework that links all these subjects and gives a reason for a subject-based curriculum beyond the simple instrumental notion of exam grades’ (p99)
  • ‘Radical changes are occurring in what democratic societies teach the young, and these changes have not been well thought through. Thirsty for national profit, nations, and their systems of education, are heedlessly discarding skills that are needed to keep democracies alive.’ (Nussbaum, 2016, p2 on p110)
  • ‘This top down competitive nature of curriculum, a feature of the contemporary education system dominated by league tables, could be seen as a form of capability deprivation as the idea of freedoms and choice as a result of education is removed in the quest for examination grades’ (p114)
  • ‘Powerful subject knowledge can enable choice of careers. It is subject knowledge that enables young people to be able to engage in debate and discussion, to think in new ways, to be able to discern fact from fiction, and these qualities develop capabilities that are of value not only in the adult world but in any workplace’ (p116)
  • ‘What the capability approach enables is a consideration of the choices that are available to pupils as a result of their education. With a capability set, a young person is able to make choices about how to live, and it is these choices that determine their future.’ (p148)
  • ‘The capability approach is empowering for teachers. It is trusting of their professional abilities and their understanding of both their subject and education’ (p152)
  • ‘A capabilities perspective can be used as a means for schools to be explicit about the value of a knowledge-led curriculum. Schools can claim proudly that an aim of education in their school is to introduce young people to the best thoughts and ideas that humanity has ever discovered rather than trying to express it implicitly through examination outputs’ (p166)
  • ‘It is teachers who enable the curriculum in the classroom for the pupils they teach. The aspirations of the capabilities approach give the power and control to teachers and not to examination criteria, or other curricular needs. Teachers must be given freedom to design and implement exciting and engaging lessons. To achieve this, teachers need to be fully trained subject specialists and trusted by leadership teams to enact an enticing curriculum. Yet many teachers do not have the level of confidence in their own abilities, nor the experience, to think creatively about the curriculum’ (p187)
  • ‘A means for teachers to realise the academic potential of their subjects. By focusing on the powerful knowledge of their subjects, young people from all backgrounds can develop capabilities to think about the world and make positive choices about how to live. This has the potential to envisage a world class education’ (p188)

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.

Bridging the gap

For several years I have sensed a coming together of several previously disparate strands. Both in education and in politics more widely, new thinking is galvanising around what the future of liberal-progressive thought might look like. Despite this emerging thinking, there also seems to be a disconnect between the possible future and the status quo. Here are a few thoughts, again very much a ‘work in progress’…

In education, there has been a renewed focus on the evidence from cognitive science to inform teaching and learning. There has also been a return of knowledge and the curriculum to the forefront of educational discussions. Beyond education, the drastic changes in the political landscape over the past five or so years on both sides of the Atlantic have seen a revitalised discussion around the future of liberal and progressive thought.

To some degree, this post builds on my earlier posts in 2015 (Progress) and 2016 (Good life, good politics). Those strands which I saw converging have continued to do so. There seems to be a greater consensus around what I would label liberal/progressive thinking which applies not only to education but to society and politics more widely. When this liberal/progressive offer is viewed, it can sometimes seem like ‘motherhood and apple pie’ – common sense, reasonable, moderate, centre-ground – how could anybody disagree? And yet, there is a disconnect between this possible future and the current direction of travel. A disconnect between what evidence and rational thinking tells us is possible and the choices we are actually making into a reality.

Disparate strands

When I was researching my Masters between 2011 and 2013, I focused on the ideas of social realism and powerful knowledge (See my previous post for more on this). Around this time, the related idea of a capabilities approach to (geography) education was also being developed (See the work of David Lambert and Richard Bustin for more on this). These ideas were very much about adopting what was, to me, a (small ‘L’) liberal attitude to education, where the principal aim of schooling is around human empowerment. As a liberal I believe that education is the most powerful tool which a society has for improvement. Ideas around powerful knowledge and capabilities seemed to fulfil this.

Alongside this work on education, I also came across a growing number of pieces around what progressive politics and policy-making looked like (see those earlier blog posts mentioned above). With the advent of Corbynism and the leftward lurch of the Labour Party, I think that debate around what progressive politics looks like is especially relevant now after Labour’s 2019 General Election defeat. I was also very interested to see some of the analysis of why some US Democrats felt they lost so much ground, and of course the Presidential election in 2016. A growing emphasis on ‘identity politics’ was held up as a potential problem. I appreciate this is a vague term, but I have some sympathy with the argument. Whilst identity issues are clearly incredibly important, their importance varies to different sections of the electorate. This is not simply a communication and campaigning issue, it also poses a wider political issue. What are the big ideas? And to link back to communication: what is the big narrative? Unfortunately the political right, be it US Republicans or the Tories here in the UK, seem to be very effective at finding winning big narratives: ‘Make America Great Again’ or ‘Get Brexit Done’.

As I also mentioned in one of those earlier posts, some commentators including philosopher John Gray, suggest that liberals have lost touch with where the broad majority of their countries public are. The results of the 2019 General Election may be considered evidence of this.

A question of purpose

To start reflecting on how liberals/progressives may have lost ground, or lost touch, it makes sense to go back to the starting point. As Simon Sinek would say: start with why? Go back and re-evaluate purpose.

To look at the area I am most familiar with, consider education. A common and not unfair criticism of education (at least in the UK, but elsewhere too) is that it has become too focused on public examination results. This partly can be attributed to the growing obsession over the last three decades or so, with focusing on measuring outcomes. This obsession is not limited to education. It stems from Thatcherite reforms and the introduction of market forces into public services which has led to ‘performativity’ across education, health and other sectors. We have become obsessed with measuring outcomes and this has in turn shaped us to focus only on what is measurable and quantifiable. We can measure exam outcomes and turn them into statistics and league tables. Unfortunately this may be one of the major reasons why our education system doesn’t look more at wellbeing and other possible aims of schooling which cannot be easily quantified.

This goes beyond our obsession with measuring though. As a society, have we lost a sense or adopted a misguided sense of the purpose of schools, the NHS or the state as a whole? When have we gone back to first principles to ensure that the current operation of the state and its many institutions is actually fulfilling the right principles and aims? There has been some interesting work in recent years around our global obsession with GDP and economic growth (for example David Pilling’s Growth Delusion). Somewhat linked back to my previous point around measurement, government’s slavishly design and adjust policy to deliver economic growth, reporting GDP figures as a sign of success. Is this still the right guiding star?

This is about more than the obsession with quantification though. It is clearly ideological and it also reflects vested interests in society. I don’t think I am straying too far from moderate thinking, let alone anywhere near radical Marxism, to suggest that the apparatus of the state has been subservient to the needs of the economy for some time. Indeed, I was delighted to see that my party, the Liberal Democrats, argued that the government’s prime focus should shift from economic growth to wellbeing as part of their 2019 manifesto. As I will return to later though, the electoral failure of this manifesto points to the disconnect between a possible future which surely appeals to the ‘moderate middle majority’ of the electorate, but doesn’t cut through for whatever reason.

Shifting the focus of the government and the state to wellbeing shouldn’t be a hard sell. It needn’t mean a drastic shift in policy at all. All it means is that we are putting people’s wellbeing, their opportunities and futures at the heart of policy-making. It little bit like a broader, more fundamental version of David Cameron’s ‘family test’ for policy. So whilst more investment in local government might require some increased taxation, which may not be the best option from a growth perspective, it is the right thing to do from a wellbeing perspective. Of course, wellbeing relies on economic success. We need a strong economy to generate taxes and, equally importantly, people need good jobs, with good salaries and actually just a quality work experience as part of a fulfilling life (Howard Gardner, amongst others, has done some interesting work around the notion of ‘good work’). So shifting the focus to wellbeing is not left-wing nor socialist. It isn’t going to cripple the economy. It just requires policy-making to be more balanced, so that social, economic, cultural and environmental outcomes are considered together. Actually, this kind of policy-making is likely to be economically beneficial in the long-term as it generates better educated people, healthier workers, attractive communities for people to live and work in, all of which make it easier for businesses to thrive and to do so across the whole of the country, with no ‘left behind’ places.

Obsessions are distractions, principles need a story

Our obsessions with quantification and economic growth have stopped us delivering a state and institutions which could be better for people. The frustration is that we know this. We can see how these obsessions are holding us back – exam factories failing young people, hospitals not able to meet care needs, local government not providing quality services. We also know how we can improve our institutions for the betterment of society. This is far from just increasing investment though. So much policy-making is driven by quantification, economic growth or other irrelevant ideologies. I say irrelevant because they lead to policy choices which fly in the face of evidence. When we go against evidence, we go against common sense. A fairly uncontroversial aspect of liberal politics is to go with evidence and common sense.

To return to education for an example. The curriculum reforms instigated by Michael Gove had some laudable motivations, such as an appreciation that schools needed to provide knowledge to everyone as knowledge is empowering. Gove didn’t quite put it like that, but the ‘knowledge turn’ wasn’t the problem. The devil was in the detail, or rather the amount of detail. GCSE reforms in particular saw far too much subject content being detailed. Teachers and schools complain about the time pressure of getting learners to master the content required in the time available. This isn’t to say teachers are not ambitious. Far from it. Teachers are just aware that the content demands and time constraints fly in the face of the cognitive science which tells us how the brain learns. We understand more now than ever before about how we learn, including the speed with which people can assimilate given volumes of knowledge. Chunking, spaced learning, retrieval practice, working memory, long-term memory, recall. We know how the brain works. Unfortunately, what we know about how the brain works suggests that it is very difficult for the majority of learners to memorise the huge amounts of content now required of them by new GCSEs. There is only so much we can transfer into long-term memory at a time (note, transfer into not store – once its there, we can store lots, this is about the speed with which people can do the storing). This is a huge barrier, not aided by the social factors around education performance in terms of the conditions which young people need to optimise learning and memorising.

And just as an aside, in case you’re wondering why I’m talking about memory and you think I’m reducing education to rote learning, I am not. In order to understand concepts and perform higher-order skills (e.g. analysis, evaluation, prediction, etc) we need to have a body of knowledge with which to embed that understanding and practice those higher-order skills. Quite simply, we need to remember stuff in order to learn, understand and do even more.

Anyway, back to the disconnect between curriculum content and cognitive science. The fact that we can identify this disconnect should be all that needs to be said. Why, in the face of evidence, do we then introduce curriculum content which we know will be problematic for teaching and learning?

This is just one example of the disconnect (if you want to know my thoughts on what the alternative would look like in terms of curriculum, to avoid this disconnect and far more besides, see that previous blog of mine). Measurement, economy and ideology – or just an ignorance of evidence – is stopping our state and society from being better and surely that shouldn’t be a hard sell.

(I don’t mention short-term thinking here, which is also a major concern – one problem I’m particularly interested in is how policy-makers and especially politicians have ignored obvious problems looming on the horizon, leaving others to carry the can. For example, creating an NHS but not recognising and responding appropriately to the consequential challenges to pensions, social care and the transition from treating acute to chronic health conditions flies in the face of the common sense that providing free healthcare would lead to those challenges. Maybe that could be a future blog).

Would it be a hard sell to voters – who ultimately are asked to choose between the status quo and alternative possible futures – to say we’re going to have less content because cognitive science suggests its not working for many young people. Or would it be a hard sell to argue for the principle of a more holistic education which empowers people, rather than just based on exam performance. Again, just as with wellbeing, a broader more holistic education by definition has to include economic empowerment. It is no good educating people if that education doesn’t enable people to have a fulfilling working life. This isn’t asking ‘the economy’ to make sacrifices. Education just wouldn’t stop with economic concerns.

Is this kind of holistic education a better narrative than the status quo? Think about it – exam factories, stress, one-size fits all, lack of vocational and creative opportunities, etc. The problems of the status quo in education (read also health, benefits system, etc) are clear and obvious. They are also known to a sizeable chunk of the public. So why are alternative narratives not being chosen over the status quo?

As the 2019 General Election showed, people voted for (almost) the status quo. (Amazingly, Boris Johnson pulled off the feat of campaigning against his own party’s record in government over the past nine years). Some people suggest this reflects where the British public resides politically/ideologically: that we are a small ‘c’ conservative country. I think this may apply more broadly to the human race, as conservatism does appeal to basic human instincts – looking after yourself and your family, providing shelter and security. Whether you agree that there is an element of truth to this, the suggestions I’ve discussed above don’t propose swinging the pendulum to some statist or socialist alternative that seems too far from the natural comfort zone of our national political culture. They are moderate, centrist and evidence-based policy suggestions. Radical only insofar as to challenge vested interests and ideologies which don’t actually empower ordinary people to take more control over their lives (Anand Giridharadas put together a fantastic work on how global elites have become masters of virtue signalling and nominally tackling social and environmental issues, whilst not changing the power structures or vested interests which cause those issues to persist).

One mistake we shouldn’t fall into, which is often the stance taken by ideologues and idealists (Momentum take note…), is to work on the assumption that you are correct and the electorate will eventually wake up to that fact and change their mind. You have to see where the middle of the electorate is – that determines the centre ground in my opinion, rather than the mid-point between the left- and right-parties. Look for the ‘middle ground majority’. It is self-evident truth that the majority lies between the extremes. In a democracy, we must govern with the will of the majority and it seems the best way to find that majority is to govern from the centre, for the centre. I am not suggesting a complete capitulation of principles, but without power to enact those principles, they become a matter for philosophical debate not making a difference. By interpreting your principles in a way which appeals to the electorate (a la John Precott’s description of New Labour as ‘traditional values in a modern setting’), perhaps even ‘meeting them halfway’, then you can win the power and influence you need to shape policy and the future of the country.

As well as having a narrative, it is also in part a problem with communicating that narrative. As I said at the beginning, conservatives often do a fantastic job of selling their narrative, often with a resonant slogan (although ‘Strong and Stable’ was a rarer flop). I don’t think liberals and progressives do a very good job of packaging all the good things they have to say about empowering people, creating and spreading opportunity or scrapping vested interests. Sadly, the language which should be the cornerstone of the liberal lexicon is actually hijacked by conservatives, who then talk about ‘equalling up’ or social mobility as though they’ve been concerned about those problems all along or that they’re ever going to truly solve them. There is an issue over who controls communication channels, but I think the first challenge liberals and progressives have to deal with is that which they can control, namely what their big narrative is and how that narrative is better than the conservative alternative. As I’ve just scratched the surface of in this blog, there is lots of good thinking out there about where we are as a society and where we could be. This could add to a compelling narrative. Is it a winning narrative? Who knows. That is for us to communicate and for the electorate to decide.

A big narrative needs a simple but powerful message at its heart, that can be repeated ad nauseam and will thread together all aspects of the story. To me, the idea around empowering people and human flourishing is the key to a liberal narrative. That isn’t rebranding class politics (For The Many, Not The Few) and isn’t a token nod to an inequality which you were responsible for creating and don’t really want to fully solve (One Nation). It isn’t taking a scatter gun approach of having distinct policies for each group which the electorate can be split into, which can often lead to incoherence with no unifying thread. It’s the message which sums up, in a nutshell, what you stand for and which allows people to realise how you tick and how you’re going to change their lives. I won’t suggest a slogan, I haven’t got one (yet). I know this needs more work, but as with most of my posts it is a ‘work in progress’ (and a work about progress! – how clever).

As always, I’d be very interested to hear people’s thoughts on this.

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.