This post is part of a series of chapter summaries of the arguments made in my new book, Making Kids ClevererThe rest of the series can be found here.

Having made the case that by teaching children more knowledge we are likely to make them cleverer, it’s important to address the question of what knowledge ought to be taught.

The case made in this chapter is that we should inoculate children against by trapped in a bubble of the present by teaching them that which that allows them to think new thoughts and make startling connections. The first point to make is that while all knowledge might be precious, it is not equally valued or valuable. But this is difficult for some to accept and the idea that all opinions are equally valid has become mainstream. If you believe all opinions and perspectives are equally valid, what makes a teacher’s understanding of their subject more important than whatever the students currently reckon? This view has eroded the very idea that teachers ought to be authority figures. After all, why should a teacher be in charge just because they know more than their students? And why should we prioritise what a teacher thinks should be studied over a child’s preferences? I argue that this perspective, well-intentioned though it may be, is responsible for widening the gap between the most and least advantaged. 

If our aim is to narrow this gap then we should focus on knowledge that is powerful and culturally rich.

Powerful knowledge is distinct from the knowledge of the powerful. For every field of human endeavour there are more useful things to know that improve our ability to think about these subjects. We can distinguish 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. Knowledge can be said to be powerful if it changes children’s perceptions, values or understandings. If knowing something causes you to ask new questions and explore different explanations, then that knowledge is powerful.

Knowledge is also more valuable if it is culturally rich and the richer it is the more it will enable children to follow and participate in debates on significant local, national and global issues. Being able to quote Shakespeare or knowing Pythagoras’ theorem may seem like trivia, but it enables us to access society in a way which would be impossible if we didn’t know any of this. It’s  important because other people know it. Even if you’re utterly unmoved by Darwin’s contribution to science or Smith’s to economics, you still prob-ably recognise that phrases like ‘survival of the fittest’ and ‘the invisible hand’ have permeated social discourse, and that even if you don’t really understand them, the theories of evolution and market forces have changed the way we think about ourselves and our place in the universe. The more children know about their cultural inheritance, the more they can question, critique and respond to what has gone before.

But what of the criticism that this sort of knowledge derives from dead white men? Teachers who believe in social justice will want to find ways to deprivilege the currently privileged in favour of the more marginalised. This is entirely laudable but it comes with a cost. If we refuse to teach children the most culturally rich knowledge then they are merely ignorant of it. This is certainly not to say that we should expect children to accept the status quo as right and proper, instead it is to give them the foundations on which to base a more meaningful critique of the way things are.

To help us think better about the choices available to schools and teachers I discuss the concept of opportunity cost and suggest that weighing options in terms of what choices offer the most in terms of powerful knowledge and cultural richness might allow us to make optimal choices that will offer children the greatest choice and better prepare them to play a meaningful part in society.

Finally, I explore the idea of a broad and balanced curriculum and suggest that subject disciplines offer important and distinct toolkits for thinking about the world. Subjects are particularly coherent ways of categorising knowledge and by inducting children into these disciplines we offer them a ready made guide for assembling and making sense of what they learn.

The knowledge children experience should be:

  • Broad. (How much of the domain will pupils experience?)
  • Culturally rich. (Does the selected content conform to shared cultural agreements of what is considered valuable to know?)
  • Powerful. (Does the selected content allow pupils to think in new and unexpected ways?)
  • Coherent. (Does the content link together in a way which builds schemas and allows children to think increasingly effortlessly?)

If it is all these things then they will be well on their way to being cleverer.