Don’t mistake knowledge for an enemy of creativity

6th April 2018 at 00:00
Critics of a ‘knowledge curriculum’ claim it takes us back to Gradgrindian learning by rote – but, in fact, it liberates pupils to make connections, says Leora Cruddas

I was very pleased to be invited to last month’s splendid Association of School and College Leaders’ conference. Most of the media attention was on workload, funding and accountability. But, for me, there was another area of discussion that was of the most interest: curriculum.

Although most mainstream journalists would have missed it, what we should teach and how was the subject of much conversation and debate – and that is to be welcomed.

I became, however, increasingly concerned about possible confusion arising over a knowledge-rich curriculum. More than once, this was conflated with a curriculum inherited from the 19th century – a Gradgrindian assumption that knowledge is a “given” in the form of facts that simply need to be learned, preferably by rote.

This could not be further from my understanding of a knowledge-rich curriculum. I am an impenitent apologist for such a curriculum.

A knowledge-rich curriculum cannot be reduced to facts. As the excellent teacher-blogger Clio et cetera puts it: “No fact exists in a vacuum: everything we learn is connected to something else we know. And the more things we know, the more connections there are. People who have extensive knowledge bases have significantly more possible connections available to them. Rather than inhibiting creativity, a knowledge-rich curriculum makes creativity possible.”

Or, alternatively, as EM Forster wrote in the novel Howards End: “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”

A knowledge-rich curriculum is not about the fragments of “facts” – it is quite the opposite. It allows us to help the children and young people we teach to make deep connections – to live their lives “in fragments no longer.”

And a knowledge-rich curriculum is not one that excludes skills. It argues simply that skills do not exist – and cannot be taught – in a vacuum. Skills depend on the domain specificity of knowledge. By that I mean, for example, that it is difficult to imagine teaching the skill of critical thinking without something to think critically about.

Most definitions of knowledge refer to understanding. It is possible to learn a fact – or several facts – by rote. It is not possible to gain an understanding in this way. A knowledge-rich curriculum seeks to create deep subject knowledge, and deep understanding.

There are those who argue that all knowledge is rooted in particular social, historical, political and economic contexts. Therefore, according to their argument, all knowledge is socially constructed. It falls to the conqueror to determine history.

So when we adopt a knowledge-rich curriculum, are we simply offering our children and young people the conqueror’s view of history? In other words, are we simply reproducing endemic power relations by teaching children and young people the knowledge “owned” by those in power? Surely our curricula should challenge this, and create the conditions for a more equal society?

As an English teacher, I am only too aware of how the English literary canon is dominated by white – mostly Western – men. Should we, therefore, reject the canon?

I am not sure. Michael Young, professor of education at the UCL Institute of Education, argues that knowledge is the creation of specialist communities, but does not treat knowledge as “given”.

Knowledge is not arbitrary – it is bound by social and epistemic rules. And it is powerful. If we want to change the social and epistemic rules, we must first know them. To deny children access to knowledge, or to suggest that there are some for whom knowledge is inherently inaccessible, is in my eyes, an injustice.

Young argues for the right of all children and young people to be taught what he terms “powerful knowledge”. This is not knowledge of the powerful; rather powerful knowledge comes from specialist communities and centuries of learning, and it does change, but much more slowly than people believe. It is context-independent. It can lift children and young people out of their lived experience. And this is not to decry that experience. It is the job of the teacher to engage with the prior experience of pupils and to give them access to the powerful knowledge.

Why? Because in the words that Carolyn Roberts, head of Thomas Tallis School in south-east London, wrote to her staff: “We are the people who offer powerful and shared knowledge to the nation’s children. It is powerful because it enables children to interpret and control the world: it is shared because all our children should be exposed to it. It is fair and just that this should be so.

“It is unfair and unjust when children are offered poor quality knowledge which fails to lift them out of their experience.”

In the final argument, I am proposing that, once and for all, we do away with the terrible binary argument that we seem to be caught up in – knowledge or skills. And we should also refuse the argument that there are two types of pupils – those who can access a knowledge-rich curriculum and those who cannot.

A knowledge-rich curriculum is not a curriculum inherited from the 19th century. In a world in which we cannot determine what work will look like in the next 10 years, we owe it to our children to give them access to the specialist knowledge communities that will ultimately define and create that world.

“Only connect.” That is the whole of my homily.

Leora Cruddas is the chief executive officer at Freedom and Autonomy for Schools – National Association (Fasna)

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