Many in the education commentariat are talking and writing about the future of schooling in England. These arguments, situated in the context of the global pandemic, are subject to an extraordinary amount of confirmation bias. This is the tendency to search for and present information in a way that confirms or supports one's prior beliefs or values. We unconsciously select information that supports our views but ignore information that does not. This is having a polarising effect.
On the one hand there are those who argue that our schools should return to traditional models, both in terms of classroom organisation and curriculum practice. Advocates of this position frame knowledge as ‘fixed’ – to be transmitted to pupils.
I believe knowledge itself is expansive. It is joyful. It helps us to imagine alternatives.
On the other
hand, there are those who want a return to forms of schooling which are
organised around the child, where the curriculum is ‘child-centred.’
Supporters of this argument reduce knowledge to
its historical and social roots and suggest that it is constructed in
response to particular needs and interests.
These deeply contested positions often result in a febrile debate, especially on social media. I worry that the trap of oppositional debate caught in this hard binary leads to entrenched thought.
This has brought me back to the work of Michael Young. Young describes three futures. It is his third future of schooling that has most potential and helps us move out of our somewhat fixed binary positions. Of course knowledge is not a given – it has social and historical roots, but it does not follow that because knowledge has social roots, that there is not ‘better knowledge.’
In his ‘future three,’ Young argues that knowledge is the creation of specialist communities, bound by epistemic rules. Subjects are the most reliable tools we have for enabling students to acquire knowledge. Rather than treating knowledge as a given, it is understood as fallible, contestable and provisional.
The curriculum should be the best knowledge we have – the most powerful knowledge.
Powerful knowledge and knowledge of the powerful
Young distinguishes between powerful knowledge and knowledge of the powerful. He says:
"Simply put, ‘knowledge of the powerful’ focuses on those people or groups with power in society or organisation to define what knowledge is. In the case of the school curriculum, the concept of the ‘knowledge of the powerful’ refers to what knowledge is included and what is not and by whom” (Young, 2015 p. 72).
Whereas disciplinary knowledge is that created by specialist communities. Young says that this knowledge: "is not concerned with who defines or creates knowledge. Knowledge is ‘powerful’ if it predicts, if it explains, if it enables you to envisage alternatives” (ibid, p. 74).
Young goes on to describe powerful knowledge as:
- Distinct from the ‘common-sense’ knowledge we acquire through our everyday experience.
- Systematic in that its concepts are systematically related to each other, which we refer to as subjects.
- Specialised, in that it is developed by specialist communities.
Powerful knowledge and the culture wars
In recent months, curriculum content has itself become highly contested. The argument has become about those who create and define knowledge.
I do not think
it is particularly contentious to say that the knowledge on which maths as a
GCSE subject is based is not a ‘cultural arbitrary.’ However, this may be more
contentious to claim for history. Young’s view is that that the criteria for
powerful knowledge are concerned with epistemology and truth. This goes both
ways – history cannot be reduced to a convenient story serving the interests of
any particular group. As Jonathan Mountstevens has recently argued, we need to
make our arguments on the basis of historical rigour. Or as Christine Counsell
puts it, we must keep returning to the scholarship within our subject domain in
order to make good curricular decisions.
Knowledge and skills
analysis, skills are the application of knowledge – it is a serious error to
assume that skills can be taught independently of knowledge. One cannot be
‘creative’ in the absence of thinking about something. For example personally,
I am very unlikely to be able to be creative in mathematics - my mathematical
knowledge is simply not secure enough.
In any case, as Irenka Suto has shown, a focus on so-called ‘21st century skills’ is entirely misjudged – for a start many of the ‘skills’ identified are in fact ancient, ubiquitous and enigmatic.
Powerful knowledge and social justice
In an uncertain world, it is essential that we equip our young people with the best knowledge we have. Of course, we need our young people to be literate and numerate. But this cannot be the sole purpose of education. Education must engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.
This entitlement should not be limited on grounds of perceived ability, ethnicity, class or gender. We must not exclude pupils from discipline-based knowledge because, as Basil Bernstein argues, 'disciplinary knowledge is a public form of understanding through which society has conversations about itself and its future’ (cited in Young, 2015, p. 30). In this aspect, knowledge has a purpose beyond education. And access to it is an entitlement – a first principle of social justice.
This kind of schooling liberates – it enables pupils to think beyond their lived experiences. It is not mechanistic or utilitarian, or the rote learning of facts – or indeed, joyless.
I believe knowledge itself is expansive. It is joyful. It helps us to imagine alternatives. It is not just an intellectual endeavour but, as Peter Hyman argues, it is also about the heart. He cites Maya Angelou: "You can only become truly accomplished at something you love.” And Peter goes on to say, it is also about the ‘hand’ or the skill exercised from deep disciplinary knowledge – he cites Michelangelo: "I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”
It is also about creating a sense of belonging. As Ben Newmark says so beautifully: "Our curriculum should whisper to our children, ‘you belong. You did not come from nowhere. You are one of us. All this came before you, and one day you too might add to it’.”
All our children need to hear that whisper.
This is the future schooling I want to be a part of creating.
Hyman, P. (2019) ‘What is a big education? Building a curriculum of head, heart and hand,’ 23rd February 2019 available at: https://www.peterhyman.co.uk/post/why-we-need-a-big-education-a-curriculum-of-head-heart-and-hand(Accessed on: 23rd November 2020)
Mountstevens, J. (2020) ‘The government’s culture war is chilling for curriculum rigour,’ TES article, 22nd November 2020 available at: Government's culture war is chilling for curriculum rigour (schoolsweek.co.uk) (Accessed on: 23rd November 2020)
Newmark, B. (2019) ‘Why Teach?’ Bennewmark Blogpost, 10th February, available at: https://bennewmark.wordpress.com/ (Accessed on: 1st August 2019).
Suto, I. (2013) ‘21st Century skills: Ancient, ubiquitous, enigmatic?’ Cambridge Assessment, January, available at: https://www.cambridgeassessment.org.uk/Images/130437-21st-century-skills-ancient-ubiquitous-enigmatic-.pdf (Accessed on: 1st August 2019).
Young, M.; D. Lambert and C. Roberts (2015) Knowledge and
the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice, Bloomsbury.