What you need to know about powerful knowledge

In this week’s Tes Podagogy podcast, Professor Michael Young discusses the concept of ‘powerful knowledge’ and how schools can embed it in their curriculum
13th April 2022, 1:00pm


What you need to know about powerful knowledge

Podcast, Powerful, Knowledge

In education, the concept of “powerful knowledge” is well-established, even if not everyone is using the term on a daily basis.

It is connected to ideas about the “knowledge-rich curriculum”a concept that underpins the current Ofsted framework and much of the work that takes place in schools.

But what, exactly, is powerful knowledge and how can schools embed it in their curriculum?

In 2020, the architect of the concept, Professor Michael Young, sociologist and emeritus professor of education at the Institute of Education, University of London, took part in Tes Podagogy to answer these questions, and discuss the application of powerful knowledge in classrooms.

Put simply, powerful knowledge is knowledge that would otherwise be unavailable to students, or at least very hard to access without the prior knowledge taught in schools.

It’s not a list of facts but a disciplinary way of thinking that applies these facts. The ability to apply the knowledge is what makes it powerful.

Listen to more Tes Podagogy:

When asked about his views on pedagogy, Young says application in the classroom did not actually feature in his thinking when he first wrote about powerful knowledge. Instead, he was engaged in sociological research.

Many who use his work “probably haven’t read it”, he adds - and actually, powerful knowledge has two limitations that teachers would do well to take note of.

“The first is that it implies that there is a sharp separation in curriculum and pedagogy, which is actually false.

“The second is that having a curriculum based on powerful knowledge is not just about getting the concepts and subjects right, it’s having the resources to do it,” he says.

“A powerful knowledge curriculum is a highly resourced curriculum, and that’s why, in a sense, the private schools and grammar schools can do it [more easily]... [We must] not imagine that if you’ve relatively low resources, that you’re going to succeed with a high-resource curriculum.

“It’s a rather more uncomfortable issue. And also, it’s an issue that blurs the educational debate and the political debate.”

Despite the challenges around resources, many state schools have, since this podcast was first recorded, built and implemented curricula centred on ideas about powerful knowledge. But what advice would Young have for others who are embarking on this journey?

“I would start by trying to make sure that subject teachers really felt involved and knowledgeable about their subjects, and actually got a kick out of those subjects, as something that really interests them,” he says.

“This is difficult: you also want them to take kids seriously, even those who don’t get excited by their subjects. You’ve got to believe, for example, that any kid who comes to your school can, at the very least, get something out of chemistry, up till the age of 16, even if they may not go on doing it afterwards.

“I’d be stressing the task of bringing on all the kids, and having the respect for the subject that you’re teaching them.”

In the podcast, Young also discusses the purpose of schools, the value of knowledge and why he thinks GCSEs should be scrapped. 

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