Knowledge-rich: what are we really talking about?

Last week we thought about the curriculum as a narrative. A novel with an interrelated web of themes, plots and places. The analogy helps because it allows us to see the role that every piece of knowledge must play within the curriculum at large. What it doesn’t do is illustrate the central role that knowledge (as a philosophy, as the building blocks, and as the end in itself) must play in a curriculum. The aim of this week’s post is to dig into this idea of knowledge within the curriculum. What do we really mean by a knowledge-rich curriculum, and why does it matter?

KNOWLEDGE-RICH: WHAT DO WE MEAN?

The term ‘powerful knowledge’ first entered into educational discourse in 2011. At the time of its inception, Michael Young used it as a point of distinction with a related concept – ‘knowledge of the powerful’. The latter was a reference to the knowledge that existed in elite institutions and among academics. The former was a vision for radical educational and social upheaval. Fundamentally, powerful knowledge is the idea that there exists knowledge – the best knowledge available – that all students should be granted access to, regardless of background or ability.

Since then, curriculum and knowledge have entered into the mainstream. The changes to the GCSE brought about by Gove and the new Ofsted framework both place central importance on curriculum. In the case of Ofsted, research published only last month reaffirms the position that knowledge-rich curricula (this is distinct from, but related to, Young’s concept of powerful knowledge) should lie at the heart of a school. And the very same research would suggests that many schools believe they do this.

But what do we really mean by a ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum? Sadly, I think the term has become confused over the past few years. As Ofsted shifted their focus in favour of a knowledge-rich approach, school leaders desperately scrabbled to make meaning of it all. In many cases, the (well-intentioned) whole-school approaches taken by these leaders led to the emergence of deceptive proxies. Knowledge organisers were produced by the thousand. The creation of these led both senior leaders and some head of department to feel that curriculum had been ‘done.’ The job was complete. The curriculum was one of knowledge. The organisers were proof!

There was an obvious problem with this. To reduce an entire curriculum to a collection of facts on a piece of paper is to fundamentally miss the point of curriculum. Let alone of a knowledge-rich curriculum. And to contort teaching into the repeated memorisation of these facts is to reduce knowledge to something that is simply given and received. Something fixed. Students fail to understand not only the wider subject that this knowledge is attached to, but also lose the capacity to apply these pieces of new information. Their knowledge remains shallow. And with it their chance of academic success, limited.

In recent times, knowledge organisers have somewhat gone out of vogue. It shouldn’t surprise us that a knowledge organiser tethered to a poor curriculum was a resource of fairly narrow use. As leaders’ eyes were opened to the reality that their knowledge journey had stalled, many of those who had pushed so fervently for the mass adoption of knowledge organisers in schools turned their back on them. And in some cases they also turned their back on a knowledge-rich approach. The failure of the organisers, it was deemed, was proof enough that knowledge-rich curricula were not the answer.

But the failure was one of execution, not of principle. And the failure was not everywhere. There are ample cases of schools who got knowledge-rich curricula right. It is in these schools and settings that students have begun to flourish. And the success of schools like Reach Feltham Academy has only strengthened the resolve of myself and others that a knowledge-rich approach is the right path forward.

Which of course leaves us once again in a familiar predicament:

WHAT IS A KNOWLEDGE-RICH CURRICULUM?

Trying to find a single definition of a knowledge-rich curriculum is difficult. I think this is why the term has been misunderstood in some quarters. But finding a common language and understanding of knowledge-rich curricula has never been more important. If we want to see teachers and leaders engage with the concept (in a meaningful, non-generic way), then clarity must be given in terms of what we are talking about. Not least because, in the words of Alex Quigleywithout a clear definition of ‘knowledge-rich,’ a “huge opportunity could be missed.”

So let’s start with the basics. A knowledge-rich curriculum is based on the idea that knowledge is an end in itself. This is important. It is what makes it distinct from a curriculum that is endlessly attempting to move students towards some form of shallow evaluation or analysis. This may seem different to what you were taught as a trainee teacher. If, like me, you were exposed to Bloom’s Taxonomy, then you will recall being told that knowledge is a ‘lower order’ skill. In this sense, and in certain school curricula, knowing stuff is a means to quickly progress towards something more exciting – synthesis, perhaps.

I’ve always enjoyed Clare Sealey’s suggestion that the knowledge-rich crew want to liberate knowledge from “its imprisonment in the dungeon at the base of Bloom’s taxonomy.”

But we know enough by now to be able to poke holes in this theory. Complex evaluation and synthesis are not simply things that children ‘do’ in a lesson. Nor are they things that can be explicitly taught. They are built on a bedrock of secure knowledge. And they are the hallmark of subject expertise, not of the generic teaching of skills. A university academic does not partake in abstract theorising because they are particularly good at ‘evaluation,’ but because their knowledge allows for this process to take place. Trying to ‘evaluate’ something you know nothing about is absurd.

Beyond this, the idea that such skills are uniform and transferrable across subjects is equally suspicious. As Christine Counsell has pointed out, a causal explanation in history is not only an exceptionally difficult thing, but it is also a very different thing to an explanation in, for instance, science. To think a causal explanation can be mastered in one lesson as we chaotically hurtle towards evaluation is madness. This type of complex thinking is built on rock-solid knowledge. And if we want to take this a step further (I do), then I would argue that this type of thinking is governed by knowledge. It is a function of knowledge. Entirely dependent on knowledge.

So knowledge in a knowledge-rich curriculum is an end in itself. It provides a foundational principle on which the rest of the curriculum lies. With this in mind, it becomes largely self-evident that knowledge within the curriculum planning process is detailed and specified. The choices of what knowledge all students should learn are not left up to chance. And knowledge is taught to be remembered.

There is good reason for this. We know, for instance, that our long term memory is a possibly infinite store of knowledge and information. But we also know that new information can get lost in our long term memory if we fail to make it ‘stick.’ We have probably experienced this ourselves many times over. Trying to remember random, disparate pieces of information is not easy. Trying to recall these weeks after you have heard them is even more difficult. The knowledge has not been made sticky. It has slipped down the walls of our long term memory past the point of no return.

So how do we make knowledge ‘stick’? Well, one way to achieve this is by attaching it to existing knowledge. Better yet, we could connect it to a network of familiar knowledge. Our long term memory is made up of such interconnected webs. They are known as schema, and our ability to build deep, wide schema is at the heart of learning. These webs of knowledge ease the acquisition of new, related information (by making knowledge ‘sticky’) and increase the ability to rapidly recall information. They allow our processing to become automatic. In this sense, knowledge gives us fluency.

Perhaps the best example of knowledge and schema at work come from (unsurprisingly) Daniel Willingham. In an article which expertly lays out why critical thought is the product of knowledge, Willingham gives us the example of Sherlock Holmes.

In the case of Sherlock Holmes, it is the countless sub-surface associations of knowledge that make him a critical thinker, not the explicit teaching of critical thought. And it is the acquisition of relevant knowledge that has allowed such rapid recall and fluency to occur. When applied to the school curriculum, the value of knowledge becomes self-evident.

If our capacity to learn is increased by the creation of ever-stronger, wider and more secure schema, then knowledge must clearly be given value within the curriculum. Taken further still, if we accept that learning is in fact the building of these schema so that we effortlessly and automatically recall information (like Sherlock Holmes!), then the acquisition of knowledge isn’t just important, but it is the game itself. The knowledge is the foundation and the substance.

WHAT ABOUT A DEFINITION?

This still leaves us wanting in terms of a definition. But once we have established the above I think we can start turning to the concrete. I like Tom Sherrington’s suggestion that a knowledge-rich curriculum comprises four criteria. According to Tom, knowledge in a knowledge-rich curriculum should:

  • Provide an underpinning philosophy
  • Be specified in detail
  • Be built upon sequentially
  • Be taught to be remembered.

This now makes total sense given we understand that knowledge is a pre-requisite for almost all future learning. And when we take these ideas and apply them to a practical setting, we see that adopting knowledge-rich principles requires thinking at all levels of planning.

At a long term level, choices must be made about what knowledge and where (I will be tackling both of these issues in the next two posts). The selection and sequencing of knowledge is critical if we are to develop robust schemata. Knowledge won’t just build organically. We must be deliberate. Moving to a medium term level, we should now see that units of work must have clearly specified knowledge and takeaways that all children should learn. Vague units which cater to a largely exploratory style of learning won’t do. How could they? This would leave the acquisition of precise knowledge up to chance. And so at a classroom level, strategies must be employed to ensure that the specific knowledge we want students to remember, is indeed remembered.

In this sense, the pedagogy serves the curriculum. Retrieval, direct instruction, and precise modelling are powerful teaching tools. But they are only important insofar as they allow students to remember more of the curriculum. If tethered to a knowledge-poor curriculum, then do not expect these pedagogical tools to yield deep and robust schemata (and so do not expect students to be thinking critically). There is no shortcut. There is no single schema-building activity. There is simply the curriculum.

So to a definition. I would tentatively propose that a knowledge rich curriculum is one in which knowledge is given primacy, and is sequenced and taught in a manner that allows for this knowledge to be retained and built upon. But I am also wary of attempting to provide a catch-all phrase. The point is that this is a philosophy that dictates the participation of teachers at all levels. To reduce it a single sentence is to run the risk of leaders paying lip service to this and failing to adequately engage. Like the many failed experiments with knowledge-organisers, this will not do.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I hope that this post has done two things. Firstly, I hope it has clarified the importance of knowledge within a curriculum. Secondly, I hope it has made you think about how you may begin to build a curriculum on the principles of knowledge-rich curriculum design. There are countless practical examples out there of schools doing this well, and I would recommend this post by Tom Sherrington as a useful starting point.

Beyond this, however, it may be useful to finish where we began. If we accept Michael Young’s suggestion that there exists powerful knowledge, that all children should be entitled to, we see that to pursue anything less than a knowledge-rich approach is to deprive our students of access to a life-changing discourse. In my view, this would be reckless in the extreme.

Next week, we will wade further into the murky waters of knowledge. Specifically, what knowledge? I’ll attempt to draw some key distinctions between different types of knowledge, before offering practical suggestions on what this might look like in a curricular sense.

Further Reading

The aim of this series is not just to offer an accessible introduction to curriculum, but to concentrate much of the brilliant work of others in one place. With that in mind, below is a short reading list to accompany this week’s post. I will be posting similar lists each week. This list also functions as a set of references for the above post.

Alex Quigley, What do we mean by knowledge-rich anyway? https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/news/eef-blog-what-do-we-mean-by-knowledge-rich-anyway/

Christine Counsell, Taking Curriculum Seriously. https://impact.chartered.college/article/taking-curriculum-seriously/

Clare Sealey, Memory not memories – teaching for long term learning. https://primarytimery.com/2017/09/16/memory-not-memories-teaching-for-long-term-learning/

Clare Sealey, What’s all the fuss about a knowledge-rich curriculum? Part one. https://primarytimery.com/2018/09/09/whats-all-the-fuss-about-a-knowledge-rich-curriculum-part-one/

Daniel Willingham, Critical thinking: why is it so hard to teach? https://eduq.info/xmlui/bitstream/handle/11515/19710/Crit_Thinking.pdf

Jon Hutchinson, The three best arguments against a knowledge-rich curriculum (and why I think they’re wrong). https://pedfed.wordpress.com/2018/11/11/the-three-best-arguments-against-a-knowledge-rich-curriculum-and-why-i-think-theyre-wrong/

Summer Turner, Pub quiz or published? What are the aims of a knowledge-rich curriculum? https://ragazzainglese.wordpress.com/2018/02/14/pub-quiz-or-published-what-are-the-aims-of-a-knowledge-rich-curriculum/

Tom Sherrington, What is a knowledge-rich curriculum? Principle and practice. https://teacherhead.com/2018/06/06/what-is-a-knowledge-rich-curriculum-principle-and-practice/

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