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Opinion30th May 2019

Why does knowledge matter?

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.

In this blog series so far I have explored different ways of defining curriculum and explained why the significant one for me is the form and content taught in subject lessons. I now want to deal with the question of why it matters that we be specific about the content actually taught to young people.

As I noted in my first blog, working in school curriculum and explaining what you do to anyone outside of teaching will often lead to bafflement, as most lay people simply assume that what schools teach is a settled and agreed body of knowledge. Those in education know that this is very far from the truth.

In my last blog, I pointed out that there are different “goods” which education produces. The first reason there is argument about what ought to be taught in schools is that some people think some of those goods ought to take up more time in schools than others. So, for example, instead of teaching knowledge in defined subjects, we ought to give over more time in school to teaching life skills—like resilience or team work—which will be used by young people in their adult life. Or we ought to teach generic “thinking skills”, like creativity and problem-solving. Or we ought to teach more workplace skills, like using computers or running a meeting.

This argument is, however, mistaken: as I explored in my last blog, although schools might have some role in the wider provision of educational goods like “resilience” or “political awareness”, there are not the sole or even necessarily the appropriate conduits for this, whereas they are the unique location for inducting young people into the foundational knowledge and modes of thinking in different subjects. And, indeed, the role of schooling in building these more generic skills like creativity is precisely to give the foundational knowledge that provides young people with something to be creative with.

But why does any of this foundational knowledge matter in a computer age in which information is freely available? Most of us carry computers in our pockets more powerful than those that sent humans to the Moon, and via those machines we can access information on almost anything we might be interested in. In such an environment, why bother teaching facts, and why not instead focus on other things (perhaps some of those from the first paragraph, perhaps other things entirely). Or, perhaps, do teach facts, but don’t worry too much about which ones they are, and in general encourage young people to find their own facts through independent research or don’t teach those facts in individual subjects, but as part of cross-curriculum themes, like “The Olympics” or “conflict resolution”.

This is also a mistake. As E.D. Hirsch once said, “Google is not an equal opportunity empowerer”. What he meant by that was that those people with knowledge find it easier to find more: if you already know a fair bit about a subject, you will know where to look on the internet for the knowledge you need, you will be able to identify what might be a useful source as against what might be a nonsense conspiracy theory site.

So, it is not wrong to want young people to seek out knowledge independently or use their knowledge is a cross-curricular manner, just as there is nothing wrong with wanting them to be resilient or creative, it is just that the role of school in helping young people do those things is precisely by giving them an induction in subjects, which is done by providing the necessary foundational knowledge.

But we can’t teach all the knowledge in the world in schools, so who decides what it is important to know and what the best way to sequence it might be. I’ll talk about this in my next blog.

Ark’s curriculum work aims to build high-quality, coherent curriculum programmes, as part of a partnership between schools within Ark’s network and others. This blog series explores that work and the ideas, assumptions and choices which lie behind it. Read more >