Powerful knowledge: What teachers need to understand

Powerful knowledge can’t be reduced to a list – it's a way of seeing knowledge in terms of its creation and purpose, writes Mark Enser

Mark Enser

How teachers can get to grips with powerful knowledge

Back at the beginning of 2020, I made a prediction that Michael Young’s ideas on Powerful Knowledge in the curriculum would be the next big thing that we in classrooms would be hearing all about. It turns out, I wasn’t wrong. 

In June of this year, schools minister Nick Gibb gave a speech on the importance of the knowledge-rich curriculum in which he cited Michael Young’s work, and Young has also made appearances in speeches from Ofsted’s chief inspector, Amanda Spielman.

As a teacher who is a fan of the concept of powerful knowledge and the potential it offers us, you’d think I’d be happy to see his influence in government thinking, but I have concerns that, as with so much in education, the term "powerful knowledge" is losing all meaning as it gets used and abused by people from different sides of an endless debate.

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The concept of powerful knowledge is firmly rooted in Young and Muller’s Three Futures view of the curriculum. This states that in the past there have been two ways in which the role of knowledge in the curriculum has been seen.

Harnessing powerful knowledge

In the future one view, knowledge is seen as an absolute fact that should be transmitted from the head of the teacher to the head of the pupil. In the future two view, knowledge is subjective and therefore cannot, and should not, be transmitted from one person to another. Instead the teacher’s role is to facilitate learning in the pupil – largely through the development of generic and transferable skills or competencies (like creativity or being compassionate). 

What Young and Muller propose is the third way beyond the dichotomy of the other two futures. A future three view of knowledge in the curriculum is that schools should teach powerful knowledge. This is knowledge that is created by academic disciplines because the function of these disciplines is to search for truth in different ways.

Powerful knowledge isn’t knowledge that pupils would otherwise encounter in their day-to-day lives. It is knowledge that would otherwise be unavailable to them, or at least very hard to access without the prior knowledge taught in schools. This knowledge isn’t a list of facts but a disciplinary way of thinking that applies these facts, and it is the ability to apply this knowledge that makes it powerful.

Alaric Maude identifies a range of different powerful capabilities suggested by Michael Young. Knowledge is powerful if it allows us to:

  • Discover new ways of thinking.
  • Better explain and understand the natural and social worlds.
  • Think about alternative futures and what we could do to influence them.
  • Have some power over our own knowledge.
  • Be able to engage in current debates of significance.
  • Go beyond the limits of their personal experience. 

Powerful knowledge: what works in the classroom?

My concern is that powerful knowledge has found itself caught in the polarised debates between adherents of future one and future two views and this is causing confusion, and work, for us teachers in the classroom. 

Those coming from a future two perspective seem to have a visceral reaction to the word “knowledge” and associate it with a list of facts to be taught and tested, the name Gradgrind never far from their lips. They seem to assume that powerful knowledge must ignore questions of whose knowledge is being taught and to what end, whereas, in reality, it relies on us asking those very questions. The ball, and the power, is very firmly back in our court, as teachers, in deciding what to teach from within the vast body of world knowledge in each of the subject disciplines. 

On the other side, many from the future one camp have tried to claim powerful knowledge as their own. It is notable that Gibb, in the interview above, mentions Young just after Hirsch, with his lists of what every American needs to know. It seems as though they want to use Young’s ideas on how access to knowledge leads to social justice for their own ends but without fully engaging with Young’s ideas on the disciplinary thinking that makes knowledge powerful: not what the knowledge is but what it does. 

As someone who has recently written a book on powerful knowledge and its place in the geography curriculum, I often get messages from teachers that are depressingly similar. They tell me that they have just had a CPD session on powerful knowledge and have now been asked to identify the powerful knowledge in their curriculum. They wonder if I might have such a list as they have no idea how to go about producing one of their own. 

Well, of course they don’t. Powerful knowledge can’t be reduced to a list. It is a way of seeing knowledge both in terms of its creation and its purpose. It should lead to rich conversations between teachers about the nature of knowledge in their subjects, about what they want to teach and why. The problem is that, as with anything that seems to become a favourite in government, it becomes a poorly understood non-negotiable in schools and then work for teachers. I just hope that we can save powerful knowledge before it’s too late. 

Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College, in East Sussex, and author of Powerful Geography: A curriculum with purpose in practice. He tweets @EnserMark

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