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.


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  1. Janet Downs

    The possibility of introducing children to ‘The best that has been thought and said in the world’ sounds inspirational. But logically it’s impossible. The sheer amount of material which can be described as ‘best’ has ballooned since Arnold wrote these words. The ‘world’ has also expanded and the ‘best’ will encompass areas of the globe that weren’t even considered civilised in 1869.
    So what do they mean, these people who with shining eyes talk of ‘The best that has been thought and said’? It’s actually quite narrow – pre 20th Century English literature from the canon; history which focuses on ‘This Island Story’ (taught chronologically) and a hierarchy of languages which assumes Latin (or Ancient Greek) is the pinnacle of language learning.
    It’s the job of teachers, as the author says, to help children find their own voice and not just to speak in the language which some politicians think is ‘best’. And learning is life-long – we all need to sew our own patchwork of knowledge interwoven with the skills that holds it together.
    Schools should prepare pupils for this – education doesn’t end when formal schooling ends.
    Arnold said culture was seeking after perfection. A tall order – and only a fool would say they had achieved it. But the journey’s a good one just as long as the route isn’t pre-determined and prejudged by someone else. My patchwork – velvet and rags, full of holes and with some of the stitching undone – will be unique to me. Everyone should be encouraged to stitch their own.

  2. Tom Triller

    I have no doubt you are a wonderful teacher with all the best intentions for students. However, I really think you’re misrepresenting the positions of Hirsch and others who emphasize the role of content knowledge in learning. To take just one example, you raise concerns about the effects of knowledge-oriented curricula on suppressed voices (“women, minorities, the poor”), but many of those who support such curricula (very much including Hirsch himself) do so out of a concern for underprivileged groups. In fact, Hirsch claims that one of the key influences to his educational approach is the Italian Marxist (!) thinker Antonio Gramsci, who argued that excluded groups need to acquire knowledge of the ambient culture, as well as relevant skills, as a basis for gaining inclusion and driving social, cultural and political change. You can argue that he and Hirsch are wrong about this (Paolo Freire, for instance, was a leftist with very different ideas from Gramsci about how education should be shaped to help the disadvantaged) but it’s hard to argue that elitist intentions are what make them wrong.
    To take another example, the Core Knowledge Foundation itself claims that mastering its content standards takes up “about half of any school’s curriculum” and “is compatible with a variety of instructional methods.” This sounds at least somewhat like the balance you advocate in your first paragraph. Maybe if you took a deeper look at the reasoning and research behind calls for more a more coherent and comprehensive approach to content you would surprise yourself by encountering areas of agreement with your own educational philosophy (and even some arguments or evidence which might prod you to reconsider aspects of that philosophy). Then again, maybe not, but at least you would know you had dismissed actual positions rather than imagined ones.
    It’s great to see dedicated educators like you taking the time to contribute to the ongoing discussion of how best to help all students learn and grow, but let’s ensure the quality of that discussion by becoming as informed as we can about the positions of our supposed opponents and then evaluating their strongest arguments. Just like we would expect of our students.

  3. Chris Culpin

    Jane, this is such a brilliant piece!
    As a secondary History teacher I really enjoyed reading a Primary perspective on this stifling “Knowledge-porn.” I’m fed up with hearing about a “knowledge-based curriculum”. Is this as opposed to an ignorance-based curriculum? But our textbooks and schemes of work are, and have always been, full of historical knowledge.
    There are two problems here: who decides what this ‘Core Knowledge’ is?
    And what do students do with a knowledge-based curriculum: learn it? Get tested on how many dates they can recall?
    Already our new GCSEs and new mark-schemes have been stuffed full of ‘more history’. We expect our students to have good historical knowledge, but we want them to be able to use it to answer questions, seek explanations, argue about significance, make comparisons: these activities are what makes sense of otherwise inert (and soon forgotten) factual knowledge. That’s why History is on the curriculum, not to shore up some government minister’s view of ‘Our island Story’.