Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: Why a Knowledge-Based Curriculum Could be the Future

Last November at Durrington, we dedicated some of our INSET day to thinking about knowledge organisers: what they are; why they should play a major role in teaching and learning; how to create them; and how to use them most effectively to maximise students’ learning. Since then, departments have been working collaboratively to produce and implement knowledge organisers, and this in turn has brought to light some complex questions and many hours of deliberation. In particular, the process of creating knowledge organisers has meant that teachers have had to consciously justify what knowledge should be incorporated, and inevitably what gets left out. This is proving to be no mean feat.

A golden thread through the labyrinth is offered in a recent addition to the Durrington Research School library. Knowledge and The Future School is a collection of papers written by head teachers and curriculum theorists in which they argue for the merits of a Future 3 curriculum. The Future 3 curriculum rejects the traditional Future 1 knowledge-as-a-given model associated with grammar and public schools, and often cited as a more academic route for higher-achieving students. Likewise, the Future 3 model veers away sharply from the Future 2 instrumentalist curriculum in which the knowledge taught in schools is based on learners’ interests, contexts and future employment. This approach is closely associated with vocational and thematic-based curriculums. Instead, the Future 3 model promotes a curriculum based on teaching powerful knowledge.

The principle tenet of the Future 3 curriculum is the belief that all students have an entitlement to knowledge that takes them beyond their own experience. This means that knowledge is seen as an end in itself rather than a means to solving social or economic issues. Consequently, the primary purpose of schools is to ensure that every student, irrespective of background or starting point, receive their entitlement to this knowledge. The school’s curriculum is the body of knowledge that the school has agreed it wants all of their students to acquire, and pedagogy is how teachers enable students to access that knowledge and make it meaningful. Furthermore, the knowledge that makes up a school’s curriculum must be based on the ‘best’ knowledge that we have, or what the authors term ‘powerful knowledge’.

Powerful knowledge comprises three features that make it distinct from the knowledge taught in Future 1 and Future 2 curriculums:

  1.  ‘It is distinct from the ‘common-sense’ knowledge we acquire through our everyday experience’. Common-sense knowledge develops in our daily lives, and is therefore tied to specific contexts.
  2. Powerful knowledge is ‘systematic‘ in that it is based on concepts that are related to each other in groups we call disciplines, rather than rooted in real-life experience. This is important as it means that powerful knowledge can be used to make generalisations beyond our own experience.
  3. Powerful knowledge is specialised as it is developed by experts in clearly defined subject groups who work within fields of enquiry with socially and historically fixed boundaries. This is what makes powerful knowledge reliable, but also difficult to acquire, and why we need specialised teachers to help students with the acquisition process.

A frequent opposition the Future 3 curriculum is the claim that this model further entrenches social divides by privileging a fixed canon of knowledge that supports the inequitable social structures that are already in place. However, advocates of Future 3 argue that, far from embedding social injustice, this model levels the playing field for two main reasons. Firstly, by insisting that all students learn powerful knowledge that is rooted in subject-based concepts rather than experience, those students who come to school with limited experience are not restricted in what they learn – the knowledge enables them to go beyond their starting points. Secondly, powerful knowledge is not a continuation of the fixed past: discipline specialists working in subject communities are always developing and adding to the subject knowledge, and so the content is contextually shaped but still the best knowledge to be had. Furthermore, as powerful knowledge is not dependent on experiential knowledge but theoretical concepts, there is nothing to stop any student becoming a subject specialist – an identity-forming opportunity that is particularly critical for those who come from disadvantaged homes.

Further Thoughts and Questions

Where does this leave us in terms of knowledge organisers? As ever, the research does not provide clear-cut solutions to the manifold questions that surround decisions about what to teach, and how. For now, these are just three thoughts to take away and ponder next time the knowledge organiser boxes need filling.

  1. What should be the agreed ‘powerful knowledge’ in your subject that all students are entitled to access? For the sake of parity, this should be conceptually based rather than using referents from real-life experience.
  2. How can teachers use pedagogy to enable all students to access the ‘powerful knowledge’ that appear on the knowledge organisers? Pedagogy uses the student’s own world to engage in knowledge and concepts, but pedagogy must not be conflated with curriculum – it is only when the two remain distinct that students can go beyond their own experiences.
  3. Subject specialism means that ‘powerful knowledge’ is the best of its kind. How are teachers ensuring that they are part of their subject communities, and thereby enabling their students to access the most reliable and up-to-date knowledge available in the field?

Fran Haynes



 

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2 Responses to Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: Why a Knowledge-Based Curriculum Could be the Future

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this.
    I have read a lot about secondary schools putting this sort of curriculum in place however not much for primary schools.
    Could you direct me anywhere for this?
    I’m currently responsible for implementing curriculum change.
    Best
    R

  2. Reblogged this on DT & Engineering Teaching Resources and commented:
    Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: Why a Knowledge-Based Curriculum Could be the Future

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