All knowledge may be precious, but it’s hard to argue that it’s equally precious. The time children spend in school is strictly finite and so, when deciding what to teach we must must make choices. Often these choices will necessarily be brutal.

I was recently contacted by a marketing company who wanted me to write about some ‘research’ conducted by SellHouseFast which analysed search terms used on UK search engines to find out which queries related to “the real world” are most search for. Here’s the result:

The argument appears to be that if people are searching for these things then schools ought to take responsibility for teaching them. It’s not that I think any of these are unimportant, but there are some questions we ought to ask before we call for schools to teach the items on this list:

If schools are going to teach this stuff, what should they stop doing to clear out the necessary curriculum time?

Do schools currently teach things we don’t value? Arguably, yes. Maybe you can’t see the point in learning algebra? When will students be faced with situations where they need to know about plate techtonics, the causes of the First World War, Romantic poetry or the differences between plant and animal cells? After all, if students want to know these things they can always google them, can’t they? (But hang on, if they did start googling this stuff would it then mean schools would then be responsible for teaching it?)

The trouble with “when will I ever need to know this?” as justification for curriculum content it’s entirely the wrong question to ask. While we may be justified in believing that we’ll never need to know much of the stuff taught in school, we cannot know how knowing something changes us. Everything that makes it into our long-term memory changes us and we mostly unaware of these changes. Even things we think we’ve forgotten – or are unaware of having learned – alter our cognitive architecture; they change the way we think if ways we are unable to see or appreciate.

Added to this, we have no way of knowing what an 11 year-old might be interested in in 40 years time. It may seem seductive to chase the rainbow of current interests when designing curricular content but as the future is unknowable our safest bet is to build a firm foundation of settled knowledge on to which new ideas can find a place to bond.The best justification for teaching anything is to say, “Knowing this will make you are better, more rounded, more interested human being. It will enlarge you mind and make it possible for you to think thoughts that would have otherwise been unthinkable.”

How much curriculum allocation would be required to ensure students understood and remembered these items sufficiently well never to need to look them up on the internet as adults?

Many of the items on the above list are already taught in schools. Children are already taught to write CVs, prepare for job interviews and are given the basics about contraception, so why are they still looking these things up after they’ve left school? Maybe because they weren’t paying attention? Maybe they weren’t interested while they were still at school and only become interested when these things become relevant to them as adults?

But another reason adults look up CV writing despite having been taught it at school is that they were probably not taught it to the point of mastery. To get children to master even relatively small domains of knowledge like times tables requires a significant investment in curriculum time. If we want people to know these things well enough not to need to look them up it’s not enough to simply slot in a single less on gender fluidity or quantity surveying – we’d need to spend many lessons on these topics. Would it be worth the effort? And, more to the point, would it worth the opportunity cost?

If we did choose to teach all the items on this list, would it result in people looking up other, equally important things that weren’t on the list?

If we were to design a curriculum based on what people are interested in as adults we run the risk of teaching children things they aren’t interested in yet. Where does that get us? I supposes at least teachers would be able to say, “One day you’re going to want to Google this!” But then I’m fairly sure students would respond by saying, “So why are you bothering to teach it now?”

It can seem tempting to ask schools to constantly rethink curricular content so that children are getting access to the newest, most relevant, up-to-date information out there, but this is to misunderstand how learning works. We construct meaning by integrating new information into networks of pre-existing knowledge. In order to understand ISAs you have to know a fair amount about finance. To understand stamp duty you have to know about both the housing market and taxation. You also need to know about taxation to understand National Insurance, but you also need to know about pensions, public services, government spending, and probably a bit about the welfare state. And getting your head around CPR is much easier with a solid grounding in human biology. In order to successfully use the internet – or any other reference tool – you have to know enough about the topics you’re researching to make sense of the information you find.

So, what should schools teach?

Unless our curriculum choices are deeply rooted in what’s best for children we’re vulnerable to the McCurriculums offered by the likes of SellHouseFast. To help schools resist the pressure from lobby groups to advocating that we teacher whatever their favourite hobby horse is this week, it’s worth knowing that, in the interests of social justice, disadvantaged children benefit disproportionately from being offered a curriculum that sequentially constructs a narrative through unfamiliar but powerful concepts and takes every opportunity to introduce the most culturally rich content so that children can begin to develop a sense of connoisseurship and to acquire educated opinions. Here then are some questions to ask about the content you plan to teach:

  • Does it add to children’s knowledge of what others in society consider valuable and important?
  • Does it enable children to take part in discussion or debate that they would otherwise be excluded from?
  • Does it enable children to critically evaluate what others have decided is important or true?
  • Does it allow children to think beyond the confines of their experiences and open up new ways of considering the world?
  • Does it make it easier for children to speak to others about abstract concepts?
  • Is it rooted in how to perform a task, or in why the task should be performed?
  • Is part of a thoughtful sequence that builds on prior knowledge and expands out to new and more sophisticated areas of the curriculum?
  • Would it be good enough for my own children?

If the answer to these questions is an unequivocal, yes, then you can be fairly confident that you are doing the best for the children you are responsible for educating.