Whose Knowledge is best?

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By Frits Ahlefeldt (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Recently, Nick Gibb MP gave a speech in which he advocated a ‘rigorous knowledge -based curriculum’



Gibb was addressing the launch of a new organisation, Parents and Teachers for Excellence (PATE).

There’s a narrative, mostly found on Twitter, but also evident in other social media and education commentary in the press, that teachers somehow eschew teaching ‘knowledge’. That knowledge is almost incidental to ‘better’ ways of teaching like group work, problem solving etc. On top of this, teacher training, we are told by others, teach theory like ‘Bloom’s taxonomy’ which is also ‘anti’ knowledge.

Such attacks are convenient sticks with which to beat the ‘progressives’ who, themselves, it is claimed, are anti-knowledge. To be honest, I’m getting quite tired of this obviously flawed logic and rhetoric.

Teachers are teaching ‘knowledge’ all the time – regardless of the methods they use. Even in group work knowledge is being delivered. I’ve yet to see any curriculum document that does not contain some form of knowledge. I’ve yet to see a lesson where a child has never engaged with any knowledge at all.

To imply that teachers – any teacher – does not deliver knowledge in teaching is frankly silly.

So what is the argument really about?

The argument is about ‘what’ knowledge is delivered and to whom it is delivered. Even Nick Gibb had to imply that there was something special about what he called for. It wasn’t just a knowledge based curriculum, oh no, this is a Conservative rigorous knowledge based curriculum and so the absurdity continues. Now, it’s not just knowledge that has to be taught, but rigorous knowledge.

What is the difference between knowledge and rigorous knowledge?

By NBC Television (ebay item front back) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Is my knowledge of Star Trek rigorous? Does the fact that I know Captain James T. Kirk’s middle name is Tiberius, after his grandfather who admired the Roman Emperor Tiberius, make my knowledge of Star Trek rigorous, or would people say that no knowledge of Star Trek is worthy or rigorous, as it is just a TV/film science fiction franchise and so unimportant in knowledge terms?

Knowing or not knowing facts about Star Trek is for the most part irrelevant. Though the science of Star Trek is worthy of note as they employ real astrophysicists while writing their scripts and bring real scientists into their narratives.

For example, is Star Trek frivolous when they go to the trouble of name checking Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of the theory of evolution with Charles Darwin, correctly describing his view of the likelihood and probability of alien life existing in the Universe?

What it all boils down to is a value judgement and the power of a ruling elite to control what is taught (and therefore, by definition, what should be learned) by our children.

Gove was a control freak on this aspect of education – he wanted to define what history was taught and how, and  strip our curriculum of American literature in favour of more British literature.

What we teach our children is not what is always useful or important.

By W.J. Morgan & Co. Lith. of Cleveland, Ohio. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Somebody, somewhere, decides that teaching Shakespeare, Dickens etc. is a necessary part of a good English education. As a scientist I ask why do we not study Newton’s Principia or Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle instead of Shakespeare and Dickens? We can learn as much, if not more, from these two classic science texts as we can from the literary classics.

The answer is that someone somewhere, who probably didn’t study the history of science, deemed them unimportant, perhaps too difficult, or boring – whatever, they didn’t make the cut into any ‘rigorous knowledge’ curriculum. Shakespeare and Dickens did.

Poetry corner

Byron, By Richard Westall (died 1836) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I also saw a tweet that recommended children should learn poems off by heart as this was good for them.

Why is this good for them?

I am now going to show my abject ignorance. I don’t know a single poem by heart. I have fragments of lines of poems. I can do a few bits of random Shakespeare – but not because I learned it in school for English literature, but because I acted in Shakespeare as a youth.

I also fail miserably to identify songs correctly and music from the era of my youth – the 70s and 80s – some may say this is a good thing. But I’m pretty good on show tunes from musicals.

This is what puzzles me. Why is being able to identify Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto in B flat minor opus No. 23 a sign of a good education?

Correctly naming “La Cage aux Folles” as the musical which contains the song ‘I am what I am’ or knowing that ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ started life, not as  a football song, but in the musical Carousel  is not, it seems, the sign of a ‘good education’. Why?

Why is knowing key quotations come from the Bible or Hamlet a sign of a good education and perhaps rigour, yet being unable to correctly identify the man who gave us one of the most important phrases in science, the ‘survival of the fittest’ unimportant? By the way, it wasn’t Charles Darwin though many people think it is. The phrase finds its way into everything, from t-shirt slogans to the clarion call to arms of those who take part in TV shows like Gladiator and Ninja warrior.

Whose curriculum is it anyway?

Gather 100 teachers and ask them to construct a whole-school curriculum and what they insist ‘must be taught’ will result in a set of knowledge requirements that cannot be met.

We first did this in the 1980s with the National Curriculum (NC). Look at the various drafts and track its evolution from its inception through the various iterations and you will see the problem revealed. There is just too much knowledge for us to teach.

In the 16th Century, a Natural Philosopher (scientist) would have a good grasp of the entirety of scientific knowledge of the day. By the 19th Century, the exponential growth in our knowledge (which carries on to this day) didn’t just outstrip the mental capacity of the natural philosophers (by this time now being separated into the various disciplines we see today) but it began to overwhelm all major disciplines.

During the twentieth Century – starting from a baseline of a relatively stable unchanging corpus of knowledge within the different disciplines – we encountered issues over diversity of knowledge in the various examination syllabuses.

Surprisingly, it took until 1976 and Jim Callaghan’s Ruskin College speech to initiate the ‘great debate’ over what we should teach. This was the conception, though the gestation and birth took another 12 years, of the NC. The idea that we should have a core set of subjects with specified content that all children should be taught.

It was Kenneth Baker who acted as the midwife and brought into the education world ‘The National Curriculum’. Baker’s baby, however, went much further than his boss,the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, wanted. She envisaged a small core curriculum of maths, English, Science. Baker was much more ambitious and wanted every subject covered. He got his way when he threatened to resign as Secretary of State for Education unless the NC was implemented in full. Such a resignation, so close to the launch of this major curriculum reform, some say the most important education initiative since the 1944 Education act, would have seriously embarrassed the government, Thatcher’s government.

Since that day the curriculum has undergone numerous reforms and, in my own subject area, science, has been both concentrated, diluted and re-ordered to such an extent that, to use an evolutionary analogy it could be deemed to be ‘not fit for purpose’ and doomed to become extinct. The difference between the initial document and the present day ‘animal’ is much like the relationship between the early mammals and current Homo sapiens. I can see commonalities and links, but the fundamental differences make us very different species.

I have no objection to the teaching of ‘knowledge’. Even in Bloom’s Cognitive domain, if you think about what it is actually saying, rather than what you might think it is saying, things like synthesis, evaluation, application (higher up the domain) cannot be achieved without the foundation of knowledge. Yes, knowledge is ‘at the bottom’ because it recognizes that without knowledge there is nothing to synthesize, or apply, or even evaluate. When it comes to those, oh so despised (by evangelical traditionalists), activities like group work, problem solving etc. none of that can happen without knowledge.

Knowledge is vital in any teaching and learning. The debate is not about whether we have a ‘knowledge based curriculum (even a rigorous one) or not’ knowledge in teaching should be a given foundation.

The debate must be on what knowledge we teach, whose knowledge deserves to be foremost in our various subjects and why that knowledge, above all the other knowledge that could be included, should be prized.


2 thoughts on “Whose Knowledge is best?

    Tim A said:
    December 7, 2016 at 5:34 pm

    Alfie Kohn has a brilliant article on this called “What does it mean to be well educated?” which I recommend whenever I read about knowledge hierarchies.
    The obsession with “cultural literacy” annoys me. Whose culture? I’m from a solid middle class background and it isn’t our culture – yes we’d go to the odd museum or trip to the theatre but we weren’t discussing greek mythology or the latest happenings at the opera company around the dinner table. I’ve never discussed these things – why would I – they are a fairly niche interest.
    If you were educating for actual cultural participation you’d teach people about football. I don’t think anyone would say we should do that so why is war poetry compulsory when it is far more of a niche interest?

    Paul Braterman said:
    December 7, 2016 at 6:41 pm

    I think there really is a kind of educational rigor (rigor as in rigor mortis) that appeals specifically the Conservative cast of mind when contemplating education. Thus conservatives in the States push for the teaching of reading via phonics, the last (?) education secretary thought children should learn multiplication tables up to times 20, and Gove, whom you refer to, famously said that physics students should learn Newton’s Laws of Thermodynamics, and that Boyle’s Law was a fundamental principle (I discussed these solecisms at https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2013/06/19/newton-thermodynamics-boyles-law-and-the-basics-a-lesson-for-michael-gove/ and https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2013/06/17/uk-education-secretary-says-students-need-to-know-how-newton-invented-thermodynamics/

    Of course, fluent reading means ignoring phonic details (which is why proofreading is so difficult), there is no possible application for multiplication tables past 9×9, Boyle’s Law is an excellent example of a result that is not fundamental but needs to be explained at a more fundamental level, and Newton belongs to the age of sail whereas the development of thermodynamics belongs to the age of steam. But I’m afraid that all the arguments I put forward in that last sentence are *not rigorous*.

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