When did ‘knowledge-rich’ and ‘enquiry-based’ learning become mutually exclusive?

1 Aug 2018, 9:30

‘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.

Read more: Only ‘knowledge-rich’ schools eligible for £2.4 million fund to reduce workload

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.


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  1. The author makes important points.

    This is because while assimilation of facts and knowledge is an essential part of learning it is not enough to secure deep understanding. The decline of teaching for deep understanding is a serious cumulative weakness in the English education system that has been worsened by academisation.

    This is what Vygotsky wrote.

    As we know from investigations of concept formation, a concept is more than the sum of certain associative bonds formed by memory, more than a mere mental habit; it is a genuine and complex act of thought that cannot be taught by drilling, but can only be accomplished when the child’s mental development has itself reached the requisite level.

    This was a major plank of mainstream learning theory prior to the marketisation paradigm’s increasing rejection of such ‘complicated theorising’ in favour of ‘common sense’ behaviourism.

    Vygotsky argues that in schools, knowledge is first presented to learners ‘on the social plane’, which at the most basic level could indeed just mean listening to the teacher. For students to acquire understanding they have to individually ‘internalise’ this knowledge. This requires assimilating the new ideas in a way that makes sense to them.

    This implies that talk is the essential currency of deep understanding and therefore effective lessons should encourage and provide opportunities for pupil-pupil discussion.

    During 1981 and 1982 I carried out some postgraduate educational research at Leicester University where I was heavily influenced by the work of former Leicester postgraduate students Michael Shayer and Philip Adey. These educationalists progressed to Kings College, London where they set up and developed programmes of teaching for enhancing cognitive development based on the learning theories of Piaget and Vygotsky. Their book, ‘Learning Intelligence‘, sets out classroom-based examples of how these approaches can be made to work in practice.

    A key point is that developmental learning, as opposed to skills training, involves personal cognitive conflict as pupils struggle to assimilate new facts and knowledge in a way that makes sense to them. In schools and other important learning contexts the resolution of cognitive conflict is a social process essential to deep learning.

    The implication for schools is that a special quality in the social relationships of the classroom is needed. I was lucky enough early in my career to work in a comprehensive school where such quality relationships existed, and it became a career goal to eventually achieve this in my eventual headship school.

    Pupils have to trust and not fear the teacher if they are to risk revealing the true depth of their misunderstandings. Peer relationships in classrooms have to be good enough for all pupils, organised in groups, to be comfortable with revealing their own lack of understanding to each other, as well as collectively and individually to the teacher, without fear or shame. This is a major pedagogic issue and a big ask not to be underestimated. Is it high on MAT leadership agendas? Has the Secretary of State got the faintest idea what I am talking about? I suspect not.

    The increasingly common, popular with parents, school culture of behaviourist authoritarianism is unlikely to provide sufficient personal psychological security for the teacher or the pupils for the necessary social interactions to constructively engage. This is precisely the school culture promoted by the academisation movement because it is based on the behaviourist ‘training’ paradigm where, telling IS teaching and listening IS learning.

    Read more in this subject here.


  2. Sandra

    What a breath of fresh air to read a common sense, balanced and useful summary of this issue. I have taught for 20 years in the UK / Middle East and completed 2 ITT full time 1 year teaching courses. The first was for FE/HE and the second was a standard secondary ITT.

    Over my teaching career, which followed a successful career in industry, I have been told that I have to develop my own style using my own choice of methods. I have always been urged to use research evidence to support my choices.

    I have always seen the value of “knowledge” as the basis of all problem solving and the foundation of all that I do. I balance this approach with one that passes agency as appropriate to learners who gradually develop autodidaxy skills.

    I do not need formal research to tell me that sometimes explicit instruction is the best approach at times and enquiry best at others. I have recently returned from teaching the IB MYP and IB Diploma in Qatar . Both of these are knowledge rich and heavily dependent on enquiry. I saw students continually achieve extraordinary levels of knowledge, understanding and problem solving. The courses and outcomes were streets above anything I have seen in GCSE or A levels.

    The majority of teachers in Qatar are not from the UK and have no idea that knowledge and enquiry are mutually exclusive. My experience in the UK has been that teachers do not see knowledge and enquiry as mutually exclusive.

    Too many teachers refuse to take any responsibility for the choices they make saying” thats what ITT told me to do” or “thats what SLT told me to do”. I think those who favour explicit instruction often need explicit instruction themselves and show little initiatve or imagination. Anyone who has been teaching for more than 6 months has no right to blame ITT for any of their choices and those in their first 6 months can only pass on part of the buck.

    We have a few influential bloggers/tweeters and Dfe types who in my experience have little understanding of what “knowledge” actually is, what “understanding” actually is and what “enquiry learning” might be, pushing their preferences and a Hirsch based model. We in the UK are already falling behind other systems which are more flexible, creative and adaptable
    and I have a feeling unless people start to listen to others like yourself the gap is going to get larger not smaller.