Knowledge-rich teaching brings us all together

A curriculum drawn up by teachers and community leaders can enable subjects to mesh and empower students later in life, writes Mark Lehain
20th October 2017, 12:00am
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Knowledge-rich teaching brings us all together

Amanda Spielman wants one. Michael Gove created one. And teachers are beginning to understand why we need one.

The fight for a “knowledge-rich curriculum” has arguably been won. But there’s a problem: does anyone really know exactly what one is?

The phrase is bandied about so much these days that there’s a risk it becomes misapplied in the same way that “mindset” and “mastery” have been before it.

Let’s be clear: we all teach kids knowledge already. In his latest book, ED Hirsch - who coined the phrase - says that he’s begun to use “communal knowledge” instead, because it better captures what we should be covering: the taken-for-granted knowledge of a society.

The debate is really around the why, what and how of the curriculum: its purpose, its content and its structure.

Hirsch argues that “the unifying aim of early schooling is autonomy and equality of opportunity: to impart to every child the enabling knowledge that is possessed by the most successful adults in the wider society”.

To achieve this aim, we need to carefully specify the cultural knowledge that the most successful adults have and then deliver this over time in a way that new content builds on what children already know.

It is these two aspects that differentiate a proper knowledge-rich curriculum from what many schools have typically delivered - including, until a few years back, my own.

Making connections

All too often, schools teach pupils great stuff in isolation, but when you look across subjects and over time, the topics covered don’t mesh together into a coherent, unified whole.

Students find they have learned a lot about the Romans, rainforests, and the (English) Reformation, but know little about how these relate to and draw from the ancient Greeks, meteorology and biblical theology.

Losing sight of what’s important, teachers sacrifice fundamentals on the altar of relevance. Spending too little time on the communal knowledge that matters, and too much on random topics and flaky concepts such as critical thinking, our students leave school with little deep understanding of the wider world, unable to engage with and influence wider society as a result.

A curriculum designed to teach communal knowledge differs from others in specific ways. It will be very deliberate about what is - and, as importantly, isn’t - included. Being clear from the start about what isn’t covered - and efficient in what is - means that schools adopting this approach tend to find they have more time to enjoy the learning, take their time to wallow in it. In short, things don’t feel so rushed.

In a school successfully using such an approach - as well as separate subjects and a harder emphasis on literary greats, poetry, science and humanities - you’ll find much more music, art and cultural touchstones. Knowledge-rich doesn’t mean dry and dull. You can’t be culturally literate if you haven’t been exposed to your cultural heritage.

Such a curriculum is delivered in a carefully constructed sequence, so students learn concepts in an order that supports others. This makes the most of genuine interdisciplinary connections, frees up time because students’ prior knowledge is better understood and more reliable, and allows for spaced and retrieval practice.

And who gets to decide what makes it into the canon? This is also key. Because it is about communal knowledge, I would argue that such a curriculum should come from the community of teachers in a school or group of schools, in conversation with wider society, including the local community and national government.

None of this is to claim that a particular culture is superior, or that there is one, fixed, universal canon that children should be taught. Hirsch is clear that the list he drew up in 1987 - based on an analysis of the knowledge that readers of US broadsheet newspapers would have to draw upon to make sense of articles - would be different nowadays, and would vary from country to country, too.

This isn’t to say that things are in a state of permanent revolution. Communal knowledge builds and changes slowly over time. A curriculum reflecting this will do so, too, in a manageable fashion.

Whether we call it knowledge-rich, cultural literacy, or whatever, providing our kids with an arsenal of communal knowledge in a systematic fashion is the way to empower them. It puts our profession back at the heart of the education process, and enables everyone - students, their families and teachers - to focus on learning the things that matter and will continue to make a difference over time.

All this hard work is worth it for our kids. It cannot be denied that societal elites have a wide and deep network of cultural facts, concepts and rules to draw upon as they exercise their power and shape society for everyone else.

We need to give our students access to that canon. Given this, why wouldn’t we teach it to our students?

Mark Lehain is director of Parents and Teachers for Excellence, which this week launched “A Question of Knowledge” in collaboration with the Association of School and College Leaders

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