In part 1 of this blog series I discussed the importance of cultural capital, where we might be getting it wrong, what it consists of, and how to resolve the problem of ‘dead white men’.

Where we’re getting ‘powerful knowledge’ wrong

While we can make a case that all knowledge is precious, not all knowledge is equally precious. In Bringing Knowledge Back In, education professor Michael Young advanced the idea of ‘powerful knowledge’. In Young’s view, knowledge is powerful if it fulfils a number of characteristics. It should:

  • provide reliable explanations and a sound basis for making judgements and generalisations about the world beyond the narrow limits of experiences
  • be developed systematically by specialists within subject disciplines
  • provide a language for engaging in political, moral, and other kinds of debates
  • allow us to “think the unthinkable and the not yet thought”[1].

It is important to distinguish between powerful knowledge and the knowledge of the powerful. The first invites us to consider what sort of knowledge has the greatest potential to explain the world and provide new ways for thinking about it while the second positions knowledge in terms of its power relations. Knowledge can be said to be powerful if it changes children’s perceptions, values or understanding. If knowing something causes you to ask new questions and explore different explanations, then that knowledge is powerful.

Young also draws a distinction between ‘school knowledge’ and ‘everyday knowledge’. Everyday knowledge is very useful in navigating the familiar landscape of our day-to-day experiences, but it’s less useful at school. Likewise, school knowledge will be really useful in maths or science lessons but of little use in working out what to do when confronted by a tearful friend or an irate bus driver. Everyday knowledge is dependent on the context in which it was learned, whereas school knowledge can help children to move beyond the confines of their personal experiences and open up new ways of thinking about aspects of the world which would otherwise be unknown.

A common misconception is that for knowledge to be powerful it must be widely shared and used. But knowledge isn’t powerful because we use it a lot or because it’s commonly discussed, but because it transforms our conceptual understanding of the world. In this way it is quite distinct from the culturally rich knowledge discussed in Part 1.

But all this is rather abstract and difficult to get a handle on. I’ve found that when talking to teachers about the need for powerful knowledge in a curriculum they are often uncertain about what exactly this means. So, here’s a list for us to consider:

  • The germ theory of disease
  • How to write PEE paragraphs
  • Coastal erosion
  • Trigonometry
  • Cognates
  • Perspective in visual art
  • The rise of Nazi Germany
  • Roman numerals
  • Conservation of mass

Which of these items could be said to be examples of powerful knowledge? And how much power might they contain? Let’s take each in turn.

The germ theory of disease – The idea that diseases are caused by micro-organisms is a commonplace these day, but not so long ago it was dismissed as absurd. Even though Arab physicians had proposed versions of germ theory as early as the 11th century, it was dismissed by most Western doctors until the late 19th century, where ‘miasma theory’ was considered the best explanation of how disease was transmitted and infections caused. Miasma theory suggested disease was transmitted by ‘bad air’ emanating from rotting organic matter. Diseases were assumed to be the product of environmental factors such as contaminated water, foul air, and poor hygienic conditions. Such infections, according to the theory, were not passed between individuals but would affect all those within an area contaminated by a miasma. This made a sense because you could smell the rot whereas believe in organisms so small they were invisible to the human eye seemed absurd. Doctors disdained the idea of washing their hands considering it beneath them because, as Charles Meigs, a prominent American obstetrician put it, “Doctors are gentlemen, and gentlemen’s hands are clean”. From Ignaz Sammelweiss to John Snow to Louis Pasteur, various scientists presented evidence supporting germ theory but it wasn’t until the 1880s when Robert Koch developed his four basic criteria for demonstrating that a disease is caused by a particular organism, that germ theory began to become widely accepted. Germ theory has utterly changed medicine. It is the foundation on which Flemming’s discovery of penicillin depended, and it is the root of parents’ insistence that children should wash their hands after going to the toilet. It transformed biology and few discoveries could be said to possess as much power as the knowledge that micro-organisms have the power of life and death over us.

How to write PEE paragraphs – One of the most widely used devices for scaffolding academic writing in schools is the PEE (Point Evidence Explain) paragraph, and its many variants. As such, I’ve heard it argued that the PEE paragraph does, in fact, contain powerful knowledge because it echoes the ways we reason and exchange ideas: we present an opinion; we provide some sort of evidence in support of this opinion; we explain how such evidence proves our opinion is valid. Q.E.D. Except, this is nonsense. It may be that people give opinions, provide supporting evidence and explain why this evidence is relevant, but we don’t do it systematically or sequentially. We just say stuff. When an interlocutor questions us, we offer support. When they query the quality of our evidence we attempt to justify it. All this takes place organically, instinctively and, for the most part, beneath our conscious notice. No one needs to train us to argue, we just do it. Writing essays is hard because they’re formal, rigidly constrained and contain difficult to master, abstract ideas. Children are happy to give their thoughts verbally, but when asked to write them down flounder because they don’t possess the language to express themselves in a way which would makes sense out of the context of speech. So, to help children get their thoughts down on paper we’ve developed writing scaffolds to give them sentence stems to prompt and break down their thoughts. As such, the PEE paragraph may be a useful staging post in the journey to mastering the academic essay, but it is limiting and clunky. If students don’t learn to do without it they become dependent on it. When they practise using it without careful attention to the specific content they’re trying to discuss, they end up producing something that looks vaguely like an essay if you don’t look too closely, but, on closer inspection is empty and meaningless. It teaches children how to perform a specific task. It provides a strategy for doing better in a a test. It is the opposite of powerful knowledge.

Coastal erosion – As every geography teacher knows, GCSE exam specifications require that children know about coastal erosion. They need to be taught about cliffs, different types of rock, redistribution of sediment, fissures, fractures, the abrasive effects of waves, the effects of weather, human activity and a whole host of other, very specific concepts. All this is highly specialised knowledge, but is it powerful? A more powerful concept is erosion (of which coastal erosion is just a subset) and an even more powerful underlying concept is that of geological change. The knowledge that the Earth has changed and continues to change as a result of natural and human activity is powerful. If children can ask, “How did this get this way?” when looking at any geological feature, they have a insight into the mutability of their environment. We’re used to imagining the world without specific man made structures, but the idea that the natural environment wasn’t always – and won’t always be – thus requires us to know something about geological time; something hard to observe in our everyday environment, but, when we know about it, changes the way we see the word and provides new tools for explaining why it is the way it is. So, coastal erosion may but be particularly powerful knowledge, but geological change definitely is.

Trigonometry – It’s tempting to dismiss trigonometry as something that has no practical use outside a maths classroom. Many adults may be unclear about what it is, and even those who know it’s about the relationships between side lengths and angles of triangles might have little idea what practical use it might be. And so, if might seem that perhaps it’s not that important to know about. It’s certainly true that huge numbers of adults get by without the slightest notion of what trigonometry might be, but every time they cross a bridge they rely, knowingly or otherwise, of someone‘s knowledge of trigonometry. Astronomy, navigation and surveying all depend on a working knowledge of this branch of mathematics. It is used to describe sound and light waves, and it has applications in fields as diverse as computer graphics, seismology, medical imaging, meteorology and electronics. Knowing how to manipulate sines, cosines and tangents is not something children are likely to ever pick up without years of patient, carefully sequenced instruction. Sadly, most of us only ever apply our knowledge of trigonometry in a maths exam and then promptly forget it, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t possess enormous power for understanding and manipulating the world.

Cognates – It may well be that many educated adults are unfamiliar with cognates, but they are bread and butter for language teachers. Cognates are words that have a common etymological origin and demonstrate that different languages are related to each other. When I was taught French at school I was told that if didn’t know the French word I should try saying the English word in a French accent. Surprisingly, this can often work, although, comically, it often doesn’t. (The word ‘préservatif’ is a case in point!) If you have a sense of English words with a Latinate origin, then you can guess that such words might be the same (or have related meanings) in French. For instance, the words ‘absence’, ‘impression’ and ‘horrible’ are the same in both languages. Sometimes this goes awry: the word ‘formidable’ has the same root but is used very differently in English and French. The English word ‘magnificent’ and the French word ‘magnifique’ have the same root but a different suffix. Sometimes cognates are buried beneath a layer of mystery. I remember my delight in discovering that the French word for stone is ‘pierre’. Pierre is also the French for Peter, and the chief apostle was sometimes referred to as The Rock. More broadly, we can find examples of words which are very similar in many languages (‘night’ and ‘star’ are good examples). So knowing about cognates is defintely useful, but is it powerful? Knowledge of individual cognates isn’t powerful, but the broader concept that languages are related and can share common roots is. Sometimes, in our efforts to enable children to perform a skill, we miss out on the powerful underlying concepts that help unify what they’re learning and provide them with a firmer footing for thinking about what’s out there.

Perspective in visual art – The idea that it is possible to represent, on a flat surface, the word as we perceive it with our eyes is something that seems natural and obvious, but it took an awful long time for us to work out. Prehistoric art is uniformly flat. Objects and characters were sized according to their importance not their relationship with the viewer. In ancient Egypt, for instance, the most important figure was placed at the top. The ancient Greeks had an understanding of depth and worked out mathematical formula for calculating perspective, but their art used flat panels of different thickness to provide the illusion of depth. When we look at Medieval art it tends to appear lifeless and unrealistic; even though artists used shading to provide depth it seems naive to our modern eye. It wasn’t until the Renaissance that artists began to use a mathematical basis for thinking about geometrical perspective. Vanishing points and foreshortening began to proliferate and artists used their knowledge of perspective to compose images that were more emotionally and intellectually satisfying. This made possible artist innovations like trompe l’oeil, where artists tried to fool the viewer into seeing their representation of reality as reality itself. Something so ubiquitous can hardly seem worth mentioning, let alone explicitly teaching, and yet young children’s art shows no understanding of what we, as adults, take for granted. In order for students to learn to represent the world realistically, they need to be taught about and master perspective. As such, this knowledge is powerful indeed. 

The rise of Nazi Germany – I’ve met a number of historians who want to argue that the rise of Naziism is so fundamental to understanding the modern world that it must represent the most powerful of knowledge. Whilst there’s no denying that this period of history possesses profound cultural importance, it is not, in itself, powerful. You can certainly teach powerful knowledge through the rise of Nazi Germany, but the same powerful concepts could equally be taught in other contexts. It’s often argued that this is an especially important topic – especially now – because it allows to think more critically about the modern world. But this is because we understand the idea of similarities and differences. When we look at how Hitler came to power we don’t (or shouldn’t) fool ourselves into thinking things are exactly the same now, instead we look for similarities which suggest patterns. If we want to teach children about the dangers of dictatorship the this is a good context, but there are plenty of other historical examples we could choose. None of this is to argue that teaching about the rise of fascism isn’t of huge social importance. Clearly it’s desirable that children today know about major events in modern European history, but powerful knowledge lies beneath specific historical contexts and is more likely to be found in disciplinary ways of thinking about the past: chronology, cause and effect, change and continuity etc.

Roman numerals – If we want children to understand and manipulate our number system then it’s essential they master place value. If they don’t, most of mathematics will make little sense. Roman numerals, on the other hand, are far less important. They’re certainly interesting and as a child I really enjoyed learning about them. Sometimes teachers argue that you can teach place value through Roman numerals and that therefore they have power. But, while you can teach place value this way, there are much more effective and less confusing options. Roman numerals definitely posses cultural currency, but they don’t really unlock anything. So, whilst I’d be sad if they didn’t have some sort of place in the curriculum, it ought to be a small one.

Conservation of mass – Not only is this a veritable knowledge powerhouse, it’s deeply counter-intuitive. While we might happily agree that ‘nothing comes from nothing’, the idea that if you reduce a pile of logs to a pile of ash that mass will be conserved seems a bit… silly. It took careful observation to understand that we have to factor in the gases released during burning as well as the ash pile to see reality as it actually is rather than it appears to be through naive interaction. The formulation of the law of the conservation of mass was of crucial importance in the progress from alchemy to the modern natural science of chemistry.  Once chemists understood that chemical substances never disappeared but were only transformed into other substances with the same weight, they could for the first time embark on quantitative studies of the transformations of substances. The idea of mass conservation and the realisation  that certain ‘elemental substances’ also could not be transformed into others by chemical reactions (i.e. you can’t turn base metals into gold) led to an understanding of the chemical elements, as well as the idea that all chemical processes and transformations (such as burning and metabolic reactions) are reactions between invariant amounts or weights of these chemical elements. If you don’t understand this, you won’t get very far in your study of chemistry.

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When thinking about the different subjects that form the curriculum, we should not only consider the cultural richness of the contexts we select to foreground, but also the underlying power of the underpinning contexts. It’s a useful exercise for subject teachers to work together to create lists of the most powerful knowledge in their domains and then to make plans for how best to teach it.

The time schools have to teach a curriculum is strictly finite; there isn’t time to teach everything. We have to make choices and so Young suggests that it is the responsibility of schools to “transmit shared and powerful knowledge on behalf of society”. This, plus an understanding of how to think productively and cultural capital, should inform the choices we make about what to teach. A knowledge-rich curriculum is one which both confers cultural capital and provides the powerful conceptual equipment to think and ask questions.

In Part 3 of this series I will consider the role of practice and mastery of foundational knowledge.

[1] Attributed to Basil Bernstein by Michael Young, in ‘The Curriculum and the Entitlement to Knowledge’ 

This post is adapted from Chapter 8 ‘What Knowledge?’ of Making Kids Cleverer.