The next 'big thing' in teaching? It's all about you

The 2020s will bring a 'powerful knowledge' curriculum that will give teachers more control, predicts Mark Enser

Mark Enser

How will education change in the 2020s? We'll see a curriculum shift towards 'powerful knowledge', says Mark Enser

Being a full-time teacher as well as someone who writes regularly about education is an odd experience. 

I have found that, over the years, I have become hyper-aware of the trends, fads and fashions that bedevil our profession; those “must-do” activities and processes that appear on the whim of each consultant who visits the school or member of the leadership team who goes on a course. 

These fads and fashions come and go, as all fads and fashions must. 

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When I started teaching 16 years ago, these fads tended to be related to teaching things termed transferable skills (“This term we are going to be making our kids creative”, “OK everyone, lets teach in a way that encourages critical thinking!”) and often involved changes to the way we taught, with a greater emphasis on “discovery learning” and attempts to limit the amount of teacher instruction.

A lot of time and energy went into promoting activities that pupils could do with the minimum of teacher input. 

This has given way over time to a new wave of fashionable activities and thoughts, now often attempting to make pupils remember what they have been taught, to be able to retain it and use it in the future.

This has led to a proliferation of increasingly tatty knowledge organisers stuck in the back of pupil’s books and endless retrieval quizzes. 

A new kind of curriculum

These shifting approaches reflect a larger trend in education – a move between different ideas around the nature of knowledge and how it should be taught. 

These trends are discussed by sociologist professor Michael Young and professor of geography education David Lambert in Knowledge and the Future School (2014). 

My early experiences of teaching in the first decade of the 21st century were heavily influenced by what they call a "Future 2" approach to education, where knowledge is seen as contested, with no such thing as “better knowledge”. 

In this approach, the interests of pupils is paramount and these interests should be reflected in the curriculum. This leads to a belief that what we teach (the subject content) doesn’t really matter. It is just a vehicle to develop generic traits. 

As we moved into the second decade of this century, there was a return to some ideas of education that predated Future 2, what Young terms "Future 1". 

Here, knowledge is fixed (“The best that has been thought and said” as Matthew Arnold put it in 1869) and the role of teachers is to transmit it to the next generation. 

Here, what we teach does matter, but it is largely out of the hands of the teacher and the curriculum is set and handed to them to deliver. 

Putting teachers centre stage

In my first column of the 2020s, I would like to make a prediction – this decade is going to be the decade of "Future 3" in education and the phrase we should all be looking out for is “powerful knowledge”. 

In the Future 3 curriculum, knowledge isn’t inert and fixed, as in Future 1, but is contested and changed by those working in subject communities in academia. 

We can’t simply teach “the best that has been thought and said”, as our understanding of what this is shifts and changes, so instead we teach “the best knowledge we have now” and also teach pupils how our subject communities arrived at these decisions about what this is. 

This knowledge is what Michael Young calls “powerful knowledge” and he suggests that this is knowledge that predicts, explains and enables you to envisage alternatives. 

Powerful knowledge should take pupils beyond their immediate experiences and interests (as promoted in a Future 2 curriculum) and open up new ways of thinking about the world, ways of thinking established by different subjects. 

A geographer looks at the world in a different way to a historian who looks at it in a different way to a mathematician.

In this Future 3 approach, the teacher once again takes centre stage as their role becomes one of selecting and recontextualising academic ideas about their subject and introducing their pupils to them.

They are also the ones best placed to model the disciplinary thinking of their subject and show their pupils how knowledge is debated and contested within this subject. 

I have no doubt that as this decade progresses we will see the same kinds of issues with weird fads and fashions rise out of a Future 3 curriculum as we did with Future 1 and Future 2. 

My hope is that if teachers are able to regain control of their classrooms and of their curriculum we will see fewer of them being imposed from outside and increasingly be left alone to just teach.

That will truly be a powerful future for education. 

Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College, East Sussex. His latest book, Teach Like Nobody’s Watching, is out now. He tweets @EnserMark 

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