Curriculum matters: Part 3 – knowledge is power

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in September 2018.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.  

You can access the full archive of my columns for SecEd here

This is the third instalment in a 7-part series. Read part one here and part two here

In the first part of this series on the curriculum, I said that one of the problems of curriculum design and delivery was that no-one really knows what the curriculum is and what content it should include.

The notion of an unplanned curriculum – or a hidden curriculum as it’s often called – is important because pupils learn not solely through their experiences in the classroom, but also from other pupils, and through the accidental juxtaposition of a school’s stated values and its actual practice.

The curriculum, therefore, can be found, not just in a policy statement, but in the subjects and qualifications on the timetable, in the pedagogy and behaviours teachers and other adults use, in the space between lessons when pupils interact with each other, in approaches to managing behaviour, uniform, and attendance and punctuality, in assemblies and extra-curricular activities, and in the pastoral care and support offered to pupils – in short, in the holistic experience every child is afforded in school.

In part one, I attempted to define what makes a curriculum “broad and balanced”. Last week, in part two, I talked about the importance of curriculum vision – a statement which sets out what you regard to be the purpose of education in your school.

We could do worse, I said, than turn to the Renaissance ideal of polymathy – a term which comes from the Greek “having learned much” and refers to a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas, and who is therefore able to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.

This week I want to explain why it is important that pupils learn “complex bodies of knowledge”.

Just Google it

The world is full of education experts, it seems. The people who criticise schools for their outdated pedagogy wouldn’t dream of proselytising their views on medicine or law without having first qualified in these areas, but because they have been to school, they think they know what works and what doesn’t.

Many of the highest profile commentators are what we might call “outliers” – successful entrepreneurs who failed at school. They are the exceptions who think they prove the rule that traditional schooling doesn’t work, is outdated and doesn’t prepare people for the world of work.

Virgin boss Richard Branson, for example, has said that, at school, “children are taught to pass exams rather than understand concepts and expand their minds” and thus schools are failing to teach the skills that are needed in the business world. He said that “many children are set up to fail by a system that only cares about exam results”.

Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, has bemoaned the fact that “every student (has to) sit in a classroom and listen to a teacher explain the same material at the same pace in the same way” and has argued that “students will perform better if they can learn at their own pace, based on their own interests, and in a style that fits them”.

Every exam results day brings with it unhelpful interjections from the likes of Russell Brand who once tweeted: “Good luck today – I didn’t get any

(A levels) and still ended up with a job as a psychedelic bus driver.” And Jeremy Clarkson who tweeted: “If your A level results are disappointing, don’t worry. I got a C and two Us, and I’m currently on a super-yacht in the Med.”

Some of these messages may be well-intentioned, reassuring young people that life is full of second chances. But they also reinforce the message that education doesn’t matter.

I once hosted – at the recommendation of a neighbouring school – a local TV news anchor, hired to give an inspirational speech to pupils as they neared the end of year 11. Rather than encouraging pupils to work hard, she used the opportunity as therapy and recalled her own unhappy school days and how she’d failed, and yet she still had a nice new BMW parked outside. The moral of her story: don’t listen to your teachers, school doesn’t matter. She was later fired for not paying her taxes.

Many of education’s detractors make the mistake of thinking we live in a world where technology has replaced knowledge and we must prepare young people for jobs that haven’t yet been invented, perhaps by developing 21st century skills.

And yet, as ED Hirsch said, skill is content and content is skill. A 21st century skill such as creativity – which, according to Sir Ken Robinson, schools kill off – isn’t really a skill at all, rather creativity is a combination of many different skills which are specific to a particular discipline and require a lot of content knowledge.

Having said this, I do believe that pupils need to be taught traits such as resilience or grit, but not as an isolated “skill” taught out of context, rather resilience needs to be developed as the hallmark of an effective learner who willingly grapples with difficult tasks and finds a way through the quagmire towards clarity. Resilience is best developed in context when pupils face challenges head-on and – through trial and error and learning from their mistakes – find their own light in the darkness.

These “experts” also believe the industrial model of education – whereby pupils sit in rows and are taught facts – is dead because we live in an internet age where you can “just Google it”. Knowledge doesn’t matter, they say, because knowledge is easily accessible on the web. What matters, therefore, are workplace skills such as team-work and problem-solving.

But there’s a fundamental flaw with this argument: you can’t just Google it, because acquiring new knowledge requires existing knowledge and we process new information within the context of what we already know. ED Hirsch argues that: “Those who repudiate a fact-filled curriculum on the grounds that kids can always look things up miss the paradox that de-emphasising factual knowledge actually disables children from looking things up effectively.”

Hirsch goes on to say that: “To stress process at the expense of factual knowledge actually hinders children from learning to learn. Yes, the internet has placed a wealth of information at our fingertips. But to be able to use that information – to absorb it, to add to our knowledge – we must already possess a storehouse of knowledge.”

It may sound paradoxical, but it is a theory easily tested.

Knowledge is power

The cognitive scientist George Miller, for example, conducted an experiment whereby pupils were asked to look up definitions in a dictionary and then use those words in a sentence of their own construction. Miller received back sentences such as “Our family erodes a lot”, meaning they frequently eat out, and “Mrs Morrow stimulated the soup”, meaning she stirred the broth.

Commenting on Miller’s study, Hirsch said: “Miller is in favour of dictionaries in appropriate contexts where they can be used effectively… those contexts turn out to be the somewhat rare occasions when nuances of meaning can be confidently understood.”

In his book Why Don’t Our Students Like School? the cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham says that: “Thinking well requires knowing facts, (and) critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem-solving are intertwined with factual knowledge stored in long-term memory.”

Knowledge really is power

As John Sweller (2011) said: “Novices need to use thinking skills. Experts use knowledge.”

Knowledge in long-term memory is essential in helping make sense of new information because, among other things, it improves reading comprehension and critical thinking.

Knowledge in long-term memory is essential for reading comprehension because, although the ability to decode words is transferable to different texts, pupils are more likely to understand a text if they have prior knowledge about the topic.

Put simply, the more you know about a topic, the more effectively you can read a text on that topic and understand it. If I asked you to read a text on, say, nuclear physics or macro-economics, you would probably struggle to make full sense of it because some of the words would be unfamiliar, and many of the concepts certainly would be. However, if I asked you to read an article on teaching strategies, you would probably fare well, bringing your prior knowledge to bear on the words and meanings contained within the text.

Knowledge in long-term memory is also essential for critical thinking. Critical thinking – often regarded as a transferable skill that can be taught in isolation – cannot occur if a pupil does not have sufficient foundational knowledge on the topic being discussed.

In history, for example, in order for pupils to be able to reason effectively about chronology and cause and effect, they must know enough curriculum content. Teaching pupils about history in an abstract way doesn’t work as well as arming them with lots of knowledge with which to better understand the way the world works.

In maths, pupils need to be taught through worked examples rather than unstructured problems. And in science, pupils need to be taught the knowledge gained through scientific discovery not necessarily how science discovered that knowledge. Facts matter. Put simply, you cannot be critical about something of which you are ignorant.

But not only is factual knowledge essential to reading comprehension and critical thinking, it is also a means of closing the gap between the attainment of disadvantaged learners and their non-disadvantaged peers, and this is the reason our curriculum vision should promote challenge for all, not just the most able…

Building cultural capital

Educational disadvantage starts early – certainly before a child enters formal education. One of the reasons for this is that children born into families who read books, newspapers and magazines, visit museums, art galleries, zoos, and stately homes and gardens, take regular holidays, watch the nightly news and documentaries, and talk – around the dinner table, on weekend walks, in the car – about current affairs and about what they are reading or doing or watching – develop what’s called “cultural capital”.

In other words, they acquire an awareness of the world around them, an understanding of how life works, and – crucially – a language with which to explain it, all of which provides a solid foundation on which these children can build further knowledge, skills and understanding.

Those children not born and raised in such knowledge-rich environments don’t do as well in school because new knowledge and skills have nothing to “stick” to or build upon.

Put simply, the more you know, the easier it is to know more and so the culturally rich will always stay ahead of the impoverished, and the gap between rich and poor will continue to grow as children travel through our education system.

One of the aims of our broad and balanced school curriculum, therefore, must be to help the disadvantaged build their cultural capital, and this takes one tangible form: vocabulary.

The size of a pupil’s vocabulary in their early years of schooling is a significant predictor of academic attainment in later schooling and of success in life. Most children are experienced speakers of the language when they begin school but reading the language requires more complex, abstract vocabulary than that used in everyday conversation.

Young people who develop reading skills early in their lives by reading frequently add to their vocabularies exponentially over time. Department for Education research suggests that, by the age of seven, the gap in the vocabulary known by children in the top and bottom quartiles is something like 4,000 words (children in the top quartile know around 7,000 words).

For this reason, when designing our curriculum, we must recognise the importance of vocabulary and support its development across the curriculum – in lessons and in the space between lessons – so that pupils who do not develop this foundational knowledge before they start school are helped to catch up. Literacy – or “the language of learning” – should permeate our curriculum plan.

Next time I will turn my attention to Shakespeare’s schooling to see what we can learn from his experiences of the curriculum. And I will explore the notion of curriculum planning backwards.


Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley


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