We are entering an era of knowledge-porn. But while children need certain knowledge to take part in the “cultural conversation”, they also must be handed a way in to culture, and the ability to challenge it. This cannot be done with draconian authority, under-skilled teachers and cookie-cutter curriculums
The introduction of a core knowledge curriculum in England inspired by E.D Hirsch, author of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, seems a real possibility in our schools. Prescription and standardisation have become commonplace in an incessant drive to raise standards, to such an extent that teachers may barely blink: we already have a national curriculum, what’s new?
But the rationale behind a “core knowledge” curriculum is different. Knowledge-heavy means fact-heavy; it also means meticulously ordered and prescriptive. A curriculum requiring not creative designers who utilise a myriad of pedagogical styles autonomously, but rather consistent deliverers of content. Deliverers that academy chains can rely on to get the job done. That job being, of course, to raise test scores. It is not merely a happy coincidence that this type of teaching can also be achieved by scripted lessons. The dwindling numbers of experienced teachers in our system are making this a necessity.
It is the job of teachers to help children find their own place and voice
As with most educational reforms in Britain, I look to the US to see its genesis among charter schools that are the mother of a certain brand of (politically favoured) school on this side of the pond. The changes have come with increased use of supercharged language by a government describing the “systemic game changers” — that is, the artists and makers of this movement — and the latest new dawn: the era of “knowledge-porn”. Logical, systematic, rigorous: a movement imbibed with hubris and machismo, it paints all opposing it as its binary opposite: self-centred, overly emotional and destructive. Such linguistic shenanigans have resulted in progressive ideologies being associated with sloppy incoherence.
Clever and successful as this onslaught has been, it is precariously balanced on a jumble of damaging assumptions concerning the nature of learning and knowledge. Its coherence falls apart upon examination.
Do children have to understand plants before they are introduced to farming? Or kings and queens before Columbus? Curriculum-wise this means no Farmer Duck or Old Macdonald until children can describe photosynthesis and seed dispersal.
On a recent visit to Amsterdam I was told on a boat tour that there were 5,000 bikes in the enormous bike park near the central station. On a bike tour the next day I was told there were 10,000. Who was right? It didn’t matter to me; probably not to anyone that day. On the tour I wanted to see if I could manage two hours of cycling without passing out (I could). That was the knowledge I wanted. I really didn’t really care about the number of bikes; in fact, it was rather more interesting to me that the two tour guides disagreed. We choose which facts are important to us. Children also come to knowledge with their own agenda, like tourists on a bike tour.
Since the cultural conversation began there have been suppressed voices; those of women, of minorities, of the poor. The knowledge of these sections of the population may not be easy to find, but their stories can be heard through the cracks. What is missing in the canonical texts and the privileged facts of Hirsch’s core knowledge curriculum is an issue for our classrooms. Perhaps the most important issue of all.
Once upon a carpet, children were taught that who they were and what they thought really mattered. Today we are in grave danger of forgetting this essential component. There is only so much knowledge we can force feed a child through threats or “high aspirations”. We cannot simply “do” education to them.
“The best that has been thought and said” is an elitist concept. It is a glittering sword that will cut into the fabric of your being and limit, negate or reshape those not fitting in its image. It is the job of teachers to help children find their own place and voice. This can only be done by pedagogies of empowerment., with techniques that are dialogical and fluid. This is the job I went into 19 years ago, but it is a job which this government wants to change. And we are certainly not doing the poorest children in society any favours by telling them the way to achieve is to put up and shut up.