Why should knowledge not have a central place in the curriculum? Why has the term 'knowledge-based curriculum' become a derogatory term? These are simple enough questions, but indicate the polarised nature of curriculum debate in England. Skills have become opposed to knowledge; a concern with discipline knowledge has been labelled 'regressive'. Debate has become confrontational, with the different schools of thought exchanging salvos in both the academic and popular press.
One of the key figures in the debate, Professor Michael Young of the Institute of Education, University of London, put forward his views in a seminar hosted by the Cambridge Assessment Network.
An audience of over 100 educationalists, teachers, assessment professionals and policy makers in Cambridge heard Professor Young's theory of 'powerful knowledge' and its relationship with the National Curriculum. He explained that his concept starts by making two assumptions: some forms of knowledge are superior, in every field; and that access to such knowledge is vital not only for the good of individuals but for the good of society as a whole.
"For education, the most basic distinction is between powerful knowledge and the everyday knowledge or experience that pupils bring to school," Professor Young argued.
"Curriculum knowledge is context independent knowledge, unlike experience which is tied to the contexts in which people live."
Professor Young also called for a clear distinction between the concepts of curriculum and pedagogy saying: "The curriculum is a resource for charting the teacher's and the school's goals, whereas pedagogy refers to how the teacher engages with the pupil's prior experience to enable her/him to access concepts of the curriculum and see his or her experience in a new way".
Before the launch of the National Curriculum in 1988, school exams effectively operated as a national curriculum, Professor Young said, arguing that "with a couple of exceptions – girls and science – they did a better job than any of our versions of a national curriculum". He welcomed however the current government’s idea of a common curriculum for all up to 16, saying the Secretary of State for Education in England had "challenged two lynch pins of political thought about education – 'knowledge' is right wing and exclusive and 'learning' is progressive and left wing."
Commenting on the talk, Russell Hobby, General Secretary of National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), supported Professor Young's argument for powerful knowledge: "We have lost track of the role of knowledge within our education system, and I welcome what Michael Young is saying about this," he said. "I support the notion of subject boundaries and I support the role of knowledge as being a key feature in a curriculum. The danger is that that hasn't been sold to the teaching profession."
Professor Young concluded his talk by quoting a headteacher of a large comprehensive school and her take on powerful knowledge: "Knowledge is worthwhile in itself. Tell children this: never apologise that they need to learn things." (A knowledge-driven school - 10 things to remember)
Interviews with Russell Hobby (NAHT), Professor Michael Reiss (University of London), Tim Oates (Cambridge Assessment) and Professor Michael Young (University of London), are available as podcasts below.