As discussed in Part 1 of this series of posts, it seems probable that the best way to use education to increase children’s cognitive capacities is to increase the quantity and the quality of what they know. In Part 2 I discussed ways we might increase the quantity of what of what children know about the world, and in this post I want to explore how we might go about selecting what to teach with an eye for quality.

Any attempt to discuss improving the quality of children’s knowledge will be, inevitably, subjective and partial, but every effort ought to be made to reduce this partiality and subjectivity. To this end, here are three intuition pumps that can help us.

Opportunity cost

I am a great believer in AE Housman’s aphorism that “All knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use.” In a perfect world it would be wonderful if we were all able to endlessly bask in what we found interesting or delightful. Sadly though, curriculum time is finite. Children attend school for a set number of hours every year and, while we can seek to direct them beyond these hours (with homework) our only opportunity for directly influencing the quality of what they know is when they are in our lessons. What we teach is a choice. It may not always feel like it’s a choice we have made, but it is, nevertheless, a choice. Even where content is heavily specified, individual teachers select – sometimes unconsciously – what to emphasise and what to gloss over.

One of the mechanisms at our disposal for making decisions about what to teach is the subject domain. We have arrived at a reasonably broad consensus of what we mean by mathematics, modern foreign languages and geography (although it’s no doubt true that the content of some domains is a lot more settled than others – there is, for instance, very wide debate about what a subject such as drama should consist of.) There are some domains, such as history, or English literature, where the breadth of content is so impossibly wide that we are forced into making very brutal choices, and others, like maths and science, where the content of what ought to be taught in schools is more settled*.

When we make a choice about what to teach, our natural tendency is to evaluate that choice on its own merits. We might ask questions like: Did students enjoy learning it? Did it enable them to make progress within the subject? Does it connect to other aspects of what they have studied? Did they find it easy or hard? What we very rarely ask is: Would we have been better to have taught them something else? It’s much harder to evaluate the potential impact of the choice not taken, but unless we try we will have far less understanding about the power of the choices we make.

Consider an example. A maths teacher decides to spend a few lessons on Roman numerals. She figures that students will encounter them in real life, that they demonstrate how mathematics has developed through history, as well as providing another way to represent numbers, and that they might help to reinforce other concepts such as place value or addition and subtraction. They might also conclude that it will be fun. All these ways of evaluating the teaching of Roman numerals are perfectly valid; they might well achieve all these aims, but would they achieve them as well as doing something else? The justification that learning about Roman numerals might reinforce other mathematical concepts is the least persuasive reason; maybe it would but, arguably, the best way to understand place value is by being taught about and practising using place value. I’m not saying that Roman numerals shouldn’t be taught – maybe they should – but if so then they should be taught because they are worth knowing about in their own right. The point of this example is help us to recognise that while children are being taught x they cannot also be taught y. The argument that x might somehow shed a bit of tangential light on y is a poor one.

Cultural capital

The French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu extended the idea of capital to encompass knowledge of culture. He argued that while we all occupy a position within society, we are not defined only by membership of a social class. More important is the ‘capital’ we can amass through social relations and education. Needless to say, this can, and often does, result in inequity.

If some people know something and others don’t, those who don’t will find themselves excluded from or marginalised by the group that does. If, as is the case in every society human beings have ever developed, those in the more knowledgable group have more power and influence, those excluded from this group find themselves on the fringes of society. Whether we like it or not, the powerful routinely decide that what they value is a marker of access into the elite. If the children of the elite are the only ones to be given access to this powerful cultural pool of knowledge, then they will perpetuate the divisions and inequalities between the haves and the have-nots. But, if the children of those on the margins are taught the same stuff as the wealthy and powerful, then they can gain access to opportunities and possibilities denied to their parents.

But this isn’t just about gate crashing some old boys’ club. Knowing some things will be more useful to children in school. The more they know about the world beyond their immediate horizons, the more likely they will be make sense of the new stuff they encounter. Some children – often those from more advantaged backgrounds – seem to possess a sort of intellectual Velcro which means school stuff sticks more easily. Other children seem perpetually baffled by academic abstractions and what they know seems to act more like intellectual Teflon. What’s considered culturally rich is rarely arbitrary. It tends to be the product of generations of people agreeing that certain things are inherently good. That’s not to claim that this process is not enormously culturally biased, but neither is it entirely subjective. Even if you’re utterly unmoved by Darwin’s contribution to science, you still probably recognise that phrases like “survival of the fittest” have permeated social discourse, and that even if you don’t really understand it, the Theory of Evolution has changed the way we think about ourselves and our place in the universe.

When we express our righteous indignation that some knowledge is valued over other knowledge and decide to teach this ‘other’ knowledge in the name of liberty and social justice what we’re actually doing is denying our students choice. Much better to teach the knowledge with the most cultural capital and then learn to critique it. After all, you can’t really criticise something you don’t know. No one should be taught to unthinkingly agree that the British Empire was a glorious thing, or that Shakespeare is the best writer ever, but without learning about these culturally important aspects of history and literature we won’t know enough to understand the effects of colonialism and that the legacy of the bard is as much to do with cultural imperialism as it is to do with literary merit. Ignorance benefits no one.

Powerful knowledge

In a 2014 speech, another sociologist, Michael Young, argued that, “education should be an entitlement to knowledge,” but explains that by this he doesn’t mean that students should be compelled to memorise endless lists of facts or axioms. Instead he suggests we should give students “access to a ‘relation to knowledge'”. This access is based on accruing what Young has termed ‘powerful knowledge’.

The idea of ‘powerful knowledge’ starts by making two assumptions. (i) that there is ‘better knowledge’ in every field, and (ii) that at the root of all decisions about knowledge in the curriculum is the idea of differentiation; that there are different types of knowledge.

Young distinguishes between ‘school knowledge’ and the ‘everyday knowledge’ that students acquire from their lived experiences, and suggests that both have different structures and purposes. The main distinction is that school knowledge is independent of the context in which it was learned, whereas everyday knowledge is dependent on the context of its acquisition. The purpose then of school is to enable students to move beyond the limiting confines of their own experience.

This is, I think, the very essence of what it is to be cleverer. Certain types of knowledge are liberating. They enable us to, in the words of Basil Bernstein, “think the unthinkable and the not yet thought.” If we’re not providing students with this type of knowledge we are, in a very real sense, curtailing their intellectual development.

Young asks us to consider these 10 points:

(1) Knowledge is worthwhile in itself. Tell children this: never apologize that they need to learn things.

(2) Schools transmit shared and powerful knowledge on behalf of society. We teach what they need to make sense of and improve the world.

(3) Shared and powerful knowledge is verified through learned communities. We need to keep in touch with universities, research and subject associations.

(4) Children need powerful knowledge to understand and interpret the world. Without it they remain dependent upon those who have it.

(5) Powerful knowledge is cognitively superior to that needed for daily life. It transcends and liberates children from their daily experience.

(6) Shared and powerful knowledge enables children to grow into useful citizens. As adults they can understand, cooperate and shape the world together.

(7) Shared knowledge is a foundation for a just and sustainable democracy. Citizens educated together share an understanding of the common good.

(8) It is fair and just that all children should have access to this knowledge. Powerful knowledge opens doors: it must be available to all children.

(9) Accepted adult authority is required for shared knowledge transmission. The teacher’s authority to transmit knowledge is given and valued by society.

(10) Pedagogy links adult authority, powerful knowledge and its transmission. We need quality professionals to achieve all this for all our children.

The Curriculum and the Entitlement to Knowledge, p. 10

There may often be a crossover between what has cultural capital and what is powerful, but not always. For instance, studying Richard Lovelace’s poem To Althea, From Prison has cultural capital, but pointing out that it contains a series of metaphors, or drilling students in how to use PEE to write about the poem does not provide much in the way of powerful knowledge. In this case the powerful knowledge is that metaphor is about substitution of meaning and that this is a fundamental way in which we think about the world but only usually notice when the metaphor is fresh and startling. Cultural capital without powerful knowledge is impoverishing, but equally, so is powerful knowledge without cultural capital.

The problem with utility

One of the biggest sticks we’ve made to beat ourselves with as teachers is the narrowing concept of functionality. The regular refrains of “When will I ever need to use this?” or “Why do I need to know this?” are often only ever answered by, “Because it’s in the exam.” This is a terribly limiting way to think about education.

But, if our aim is make children cleverer, then we can can talk in those terms: “The reason you should know this is because it will make you cleverer.” What we know is far more than those things we think about. It might be true that the only time many students will actively think about trigonometry, or plate techtonics is in an exam, but in reality we forget a lot of what we’ve learned and struggle to actively recall huge swathes of what we learned at school. Often we cannot think about school subjects directly, but just because we can’t recognise how this knowledge has changed us doesn’t mean that it hasn’t. Almost no one who can read would be able to name all 44 phonemes or the 170 plus graphemes of the English language, but if you didn’t ‘know’ them you wouldn’t be able to read. The real power of knowledge is that it is what we think with. And the more powerful and culturally rich that knowledge is, the better the quality of that knowledge.

Here then is a list of questions for us to consider whenever we make a choice about what to teach?

  1. Does this choice add to my students knowledge of what others in society consider to be valuable?
  2. Does this choice enable my students to take part in discussion or debate that they would otherwise be excluded from?
  3. Does this choice enable my students to critique what others have decided is important or true?
  4. Does it allow students to think beyond the confines of their experiences outside of school?
  5. Does it open up new ways of considering the world?
  6. Does it allow students to better critically evaluate what they have already been taught?
  7. Does it make it easier to speak to others about abstract concepts?
  8. Is it rooted in how to perform a task, or in why the task should be performed?
  9. Would this be good enough for my own children?
  10. How do I know this choice is better than an alternative?

* “More settled” does not, of course, mean there isn’t fierce debate.