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Opinion6th June 2019

Who decides what knowledge should be taught?

John Blake is Ark’s Curriculum Design Lead. Before joining Ark, he was an education policy researcher for a leading think-tank and before that a history teacher for ten years in both comprehensive and selective schools within both the local authority maintained system and academy trusts. This blog is part of a series on Ark’s approach to curriculum.

As this blog series has explored, it is not simple to even get people who work in and around education to agree that children learning subject-specific knowledge ought to be the major aim of schools.

But even if that is agreed, it is not the end of the matter—because, even if we want our children to know lots of specific things about Science, History or Music, we still have to decide what those things ought to be.

Matthew Arnold, the great Victorian school reformer, famously remarked that schools ought to teach “the best that has been thought and said”, which is very neat but one of the reasons for the ferocity of argument about the curriculum is that it can be very difficult to agree on “the best”

Certainly, in a diverse and liberal society, it can be uncomfortable to have opinions about what is best—is it better for children to learn about British history, to better understand the society they live in, or is this unhelpfully solipsistic and better replaced by more global history? Is Jane Eyre a better book than Wuthering Heights, and are either sufficiently representative of our communities today to be useful for young people to read, or ought they to be replaced by more consciously diverse literature?

This last question is particularly fraught, since traditional answers to the curriculum question tend to be that we ought to teach what our forebears were taught in the days before knowledge ceased to be a prime driver of the curriculum. But one of the reasons those curricula were challenged was because the knowledge was seen as exclusionary and elitist, created by the powerful for their own ends and ignoring the needs, desires and interests of those without power. The wealthy have the money to buy themselves the time to indulge an inclination for learning in a way the disadvantaged do not. Power dynamics determine how and by whom knowledge is created and curated.

The most powerful riposte to this for me is the work of Michael Young. He accepts that knowledge is powerful, and that in general, in the past, it was the powerful who decided what counted as “the best that has been thought or said”. This is summed up in the idea that knowledge is “socially constructed”—it reflects the structure of the society that came up with it.

Crucially, however, knowledge so created is not arbitrary and nor are the rules by which subsequent amendments or additions to that knowledge is curated. That, for example, the Royal Society was a gathering of rich men who could afford scientific equipment does not necessarily mean that the information about the world so derived was wrong. And, even more importantly, whether it was right or wrong, there existed a process to decide the validity of such information and to correct errors. The rules and processes for this hold regardless of the social status of those making the correction (and are themselves open to the same form of evidence-based challenge and change).

It is the existence of rules and rituals for the delineation of knowledge, the validation (or invalidation) of it and the communication of it to succeeding generations of scholars which gives knowledge an existence distinct from the social structure in which it was created. The body of knowledge and the rules for its control are what we call “disciplines”, and the subjects taught in school should reflect these disciplines and permit young people to both know about their world and go a long way along the journey of engaging with these disciplines.

So, a key feature of curriculum work is building a disciplinary community that can reflect on all the knowledge created and curated within that discipline and make sensible, reasoned decisions about what from that discipline ought to be part of the induction of a young person into that discipline, via a school subject.

For some, this will seem overly complicated: after all, doesn’t the National Curriculum already tell us what children should be learning? I’ll cover why it doesn’t quite work like that in my next blog.