On Monday Daisy and I made it through the snow to address a group of Headteachers at the annual conference of The Prince’s Teaching Institute (PTI) in Crewe. We had been invited by Chris Pope, the co-director of the PTI, to talk to the group about ‘developing a knowledge curriculum’, and the Pimlico Academy example in particular.
It was refreshing to hear the delegates sum up all that was presented during the ‘knowledge’ session with phrases like “knowledge is intellectual nutrition”, “there is a moral purpose behind knowledge…it enables people to become curious, to question…it develops humility (as the more you know the more you realise you don’t know”. Dame Delia Smith, Head of Ark Academy in Brent, summarised the discussion of those in her group using something I had said, that all pupils should have access to the foundational knowledge to take them to the next steps in their learning.
Dr Gavin Alexander, a Senior Lecturer in English at Cambridge University, opened the session at which Daisy and I spoke. He was charged with discussing epistemology, the academic and philosophical examination of knowledge. Gavin explained how difficult it is to achieve a simple definition of knowledge. He pointed out how even the Oxford English Dictionary’s offering is complex. I’m not sure which edition of the OED he quoted, but it was certainly a complex sentence, and it was tautological in that the words knowledge and know were part of the statement! Gavin supplemented the OED’s rather opaque words with various ‘senses’ in which knowledge can be understood from a philosophical point of view. My favourite, and the one which seems most applicable to the classroom was the sense in which knowledge is that which is justifiably considered true due to evidence. In short, what do I know, and how do I know it?
The ‘what do I know, and how do I know it’ sense of knowledge, in turn, makes sense of both classroom experience and also the teacher’s role as informed questioner and assessor. Teachers demonstrate the validity of the knowledge they expose pupils to by showing them the evidence of it; in History this might be a cuneiform tablet or a document, in English it may be a text. Furthermore, teachers can demonstrate validity indirectly, by enabling their pupils to experience the reality of something through practical work or experimentation, as they might do in the sciences, for example. When teaching is led by knowledge, assessments serve as more than indicators of recall and retention, they can reveal understanding through the pupils’ ability to justify back to the teacher the validity of what they have been taught or experienced, using evidence. This is certainly how we approach assessment here at The Curriculum Centre. We use recall tests to ensure readiness for more complex, analytical tasks, like extended writing. We help teachers measure not simply what pupils recall, but how they use what they know; and it is here that knowledge and skills are inseparable.
While Gavin elucidated some of the complexities of epistemology, I talked about the power of knowledge to transform both classrooms and lives. For me we should spend less time going round in circles with various definitions of knowledge, we should concern ourselves primarily with what knowledge does. Do we need to know the precise composition of the air we breathe to ‘know’ that it gives us energy and life? In the state of Massachusetts in the US, the literacy of children across the state has been boosted by knowledge. A concerted and consistent effort to teach more general knowledge achieved this; not generic reading strategies. The ‘Massachusetts Miracle’ as this has become known, demonstrates what knowledge can do; namely, that knowledge begets knowledge.
So while Gavin is right that for an academic knowledge is complex and ill defined, that does not conflict with teaching pupils in schools about specifics and how to do defined things, things with known outcomes. Indeed, I would argue that it is our job as educators to give pupils as many fixed points, solid foundations, on which further learning can be built. We make choices (and if we don’t they are made for us by the government, or publishers, or the media), not so that we confine pupils to whatever it is that we already know, but so that we empower them to go further than even we can. This is why a coherent, sequenced, content-led curriculum, like TCC’s is important; it continues to give pupils the ‘intellectual nutrition’ they need until such a time as they develop the ability to ask and answer questions which do not undermine all they have learned, but extend it.
An everyday classroom example of the necessity to start with something fixed in school education, even when in academia it is less absolute is measuring. Few would argue that measuring should not be taught; that it isn’t useful for maths, for science, cookery, sewing. It is a basic skill of benefit in education and in life. Measuring is something pupils generally begin to practice formally in Year 1. But can you imagine where we would be if we told our youngest pupils that while the piece of string we have asked them to measure appears to equate to 5cm on the ruler we’ve also given them, that actually no one can ever really know how long the string is, because the more precisely you try to measure it the longer it actually becomes? Oh, and by the way, that ruler won’t really help you achieve an accurate answer because at atomic level it is effectively mobile!
The point of implementing a knowledge-led curriculum is not to create a static education, it is not to fixate on conventional canons; utterly the opposite. What is important, what is empowering to pupils, is that content choices are made. The most effective way to give pupils the chance of one day advancing human understanding, of developing new knowledge themselves, is to introduce them to that which is already known in a consistent, sequenced and cumulative manner. Knowing the extent and limits of existing knowledge is the starting point for innovation. To break the rules, you must first know what the rules are. For too long, the limits of knowledge – be they a politicians, a union’s, an academic’s – have been the reason to avoid teaching it at all. But if you look at the evidence of what knowledge can do you find not that it is limited, but that with knowledge, education has the power to be limitless.