‘Knowledge-rich’ and ‘enquiry-based’ learning are not mutually exclusive – the government is pursuing a high-risk strategy by allowing ideology to trump research, argues Sandra Leaton Gray

Perusing the Department for Education’s latest curriculum-fund tender specifications, I find myself wondering when “knowledge-rich” and “enquiry-based” learning became mutually exclusive.

Curriculum materials that are “knowledge-rich, and have teacher-led instruction and whole-class teaching at their core” are the desired end-product of this this £7.7 million curriculum fund. But the document fails to clarify three things that will need to be addressed if it is not going to go the way of the Blair government’s National Grid for Learning: namely, how these concepts will be defined, whether the evidence really supports their exclusive prioritisation and most importantly, how this will all be evaluated.

Before I fall foul of some kind of ideological bun fight, I should start by saying that there are one or two useful things in this plan: namely the scope for supporting weaker or less experienced teachers with high quality curriculum materials, leaning on schools to share resources, and avoiding scenarios where children keep circling the same topics repeatedly throughout their entire school lives (another helping of World War 2, anyone?)

However, the Department’s justification for its noble triumvirate of curriculum offerings is sketchy at best, and is based on selective, possibly even inappropriate use of research.

Any list of ‘powerful’ knowledge is going to date very quickly

E D Hirsh is quoted as the unique authority justifying a “knowledge-rich” curriculum – and it is hard to deny his assertion that cultural literacy is needed in order to get on in life. However any list of “powerful” knowledge is going to date very quickly, and needs to be constantly refreshed if it is to have value. This process needs to be led by teachers (who should be curriculum thinkers, not just deliverers) but also influenced by wider society, otherwise we’d all still be sitting in classrooms like the one Shakespeare encountered, declining our Latin verbs out loud in the name of accomplishments rather than contemporary learning.

Likewise, “teacher-led instruction” needs to be clearly defined. Everyone thinks they know what it means, but it can cover a broad spectrum of activity, from the proverbial chalk and talk to close supervision of structured group activities. In fact, in some ways, high quality enquiry-based learning is not as far removed from teacher-led instruction as one might think, and they can even be seen as complementary.

Take a practical science lesson. You are not going to point pupils randomly towards a laboratory and tell them to get on with learning anything they feel like. You frame the task and safety aspects and guide them through the experiment. The foundation is direct instruction of the scientific method, but it is often the enquiry-based part of the exercise that develops both motivation and deeper understanding. The International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme recognises this in encouraging both approaches within its curriculum and assessment framework. They appreciate that the way forward is not to create a false dichotomy, but to understand which pedagogical approach is best for different types of content.

Is this really an educational model we want to emulate?

Similarly whole-class teaching is one of a number of very useful pedagogical tools. But to imply that this is the best, unique and only way of teaching, based on the rationale that it is the method of choice of “jurisdictions in the Far East”, is overly simplistic. The government’s curriculum benchmarking fails to take into account some very important points, including whether other jurisdictions have selective or comprehensive secondary education, and whether they are even comparable.

For example is benchmarking against Shanghai, a system that comprises comparatively privileged urban Chinese families, really equivalent? What about after-hours cram schools in countries such as Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Singapore? Mainstream teachers there complain frequently about overtired pupils snoozing in class as they have been attending supplementary education sessions late into the night. So in many cases their primary learning takes place away from the formal school setting, funded at additional cost by parents who may not really be able to afford it. Is this really an educational model we want to emulate?

Even if all this were clearly defined, there still remains a significant elephant in the room. The tender is most problematic on the topic of independent evaluation. If I were forking out £7.7m I’d want this to be foregrounded, otherwise there’s a very real risk that teachers without a professional background in educational research and evaluation simply end up creating a kind of Hawthorne effect, seeing what they want to see, and tweaking practice without rigorous analysis. That’s a very real danger unless the DfE gets an appropriate steering group in place as fast as possible.

On the other hand, if they rise to the challenge, perhaps we’ll get some grass-roots practitioner research that’s worth taking seriously, with or without the ideological jargon.