Knowledge is power...or is it?

23rd May 2014 at 01:00
Education reforms causing confusion around the globe

Teachers are receiving mixed messages about the importance of knowledge in Curriculum for Excellence, which is leading to a "pervasive sense of confusion" in schools, according to a new study.

Analysis of CfE documentation finds some signs that knowledge has been "downgraded", but others that suggest "a continued emphasis", academics said.

The study, by Mark Priestley of Scotland's University of Stirling and Claire Sinnema of New Zealand's University of Auckland, looks at new curricula in the two countries. Both are examples of the shift away from "prescriptive specification of knowledge content", with teachers becoming "facilitators of learning" rather than founts of information, it says.

But the new approaches are also "characterised by a lack of coherence and mixed messages about the place of knowledge", the researchers say in an article for The Curriculum Journal.

The report, which looks at high-level policy statements as well as working documents aimed at teachers, says that "inconsistencies create a subtle, but pervasive sense of confusion about the purpose of the curriculum". Views about what matters most are "unlikely to be shared" among staff because of time constraints and the complexities of schools and classrooms.

"School leaders and teachers are potentially left.uncertain about what is most important and whether they should or should not prioritise attention to developing their students' knowledge," it continues.

The study finds a "misalignment" between the CfE document Building the Curriculum 1, in which knowledge comes first in a list of aspirations, and another, where knowledge is absent from a description of appropriate learning experiences.

Dr Priestley and Dr Sinnema note that some critics of curricular reform believe that knowledge has been "downgraded", but the pair believe that the situation is not clear-cut. The researchers say that curricular reform in Scotland and New Zealand "might signal a shift towards higher levels of professional trust" in teachers, whereas calls to prescribe specific content, such as in England's national curriculum, are "not conducive to the increasing professionalisation of teaching".

The report also highlights an issue in both countries relating to a lack of guidance for teachers on how to decide what knowledge should be prioritised in lessons. "In terms of curricular practice, there remain at least two risks," it says. "One is that schools might downgrade knowledge. The other is the risk of content being specified for the wrong reasons: purely to meet the demands of assessment, to fit with existing resources or simply to follow tradition, rather than through thoughtful decisions about content that fits curricular purposes."

Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, said it was "interesting" to read the researchers' ideas, but added: "In this instance, the proof will very much be reflected in the hopefully successful outcomes for our current generation of young people.

"Are they indeed more resilient in a fast-changing world, ready to take a constructive place in society and with the skills to learn and adapt to the ever diverse workplace? The challenge is that essential knowledge has indeed been gained and the skills to use it and expand it are securely in place."

Graham Norris, assistant director for school years at Education Scotland, said the essential knowledge base of CfE was "clearly defined" through national advice and courses leading to qualifications for senior pupils.

"This important balance of skills and knowledge ensures that children and young people can be well equipped for today and for the future," he added.

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