The knowledge-based curriculum: self evident, or a Trojan horse for educational regime change?

The purpose of schools is to fill the heads of children with knowledge. Who could argue with that? It’s obvious right?

 ‘Self evident’ has always been a slippery and transient concept.

Ships cannot be made out of iron. Iron sinks, wood floats, so ships have to be made out of wood. It’s obvious, right? Even though iron had been readily available in industrial amounts since 1709, it took another 146 years before Brunel’s SS Great Britain, the world’s first iron passenger ship made its maiden voyage in 1845.

The 18th century theologian, William Paley, famously made the ‘watchmaker’ argument for  the existence of a god. He postulated that if a watch were to be found “on a heath” that we would be forced to conclude that:

the watch must have had a maker: that there must have existed at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually answers, who comprehended its construction, and designed its use.

He then went on to argue that the human eye, and human beings in general, could not have arisen by chance and that the existence of a divine creator was therefore proven. Who could argue with that? It’s obvious right?

The ‘knowledge-based curriculum’ and ‘creationism’ have believers/supporters in high places. The former is the default assumption of the DfE and now apparently, also OfSTED. The latter continue to allow religious schools to sow doubt in the minds of their pupils about the science of evolution, allowing it to be taught as a ‘theory’ that is contrary to their religious belief and scripture. This, despite ‘Evolution by Natural Selection’ now being accepted beyond doubt within the scientifically literate international community through gene science, which reproduces Darwin’s ‘tree of life’ in precise detail complete with the identification of ‘common ancestors’ and the dating of the branching points.

Professor Colin Richards wrote this in the TES of  11 February 2019.

He challenges the ‘self evident’ assumptions of the DfE and OfSTED. Here are some examples (in italics) from his TES article.

Nowhere is it acknowledged that the curriculum could be described and transacted in other terms [than clearly presented subject knowledge] : [eg] as broad areas, as knowledge domains, as areas of experience or whatever.

Nowhere is the possibility raised of interdisciplinary or, dare I say it, “integrated” work. Those who do not share inspectors’ default subject-centred model are likely to have difficulty convincing them of the value of their approaches.

The idea that the curriculum at any level could be co-constructed or even, on occasion, negotiated with students has formed no part of the thinking of the framework’s constructors. Schools that willingly find at least some curriculum time for students pursuing their own enquiries could find that practice questioned and adversely judged.

The curriculum is to be delivered through whole class teaching. Nowhere in the framework is the possibility raised of either group or individual work.

The challenge for those not sharing one or other, or all of the four (OfSTED/DfE) assumptions, is likely to be an existential one, with threats to their professional identity along with a very heavy workload in the short-to-medium term.

Unwittingly, or perhaps not, the OfSTED framework  currently being consulted on embodies a model of curriculum that is far from value-free or uncontroversial. Some may see it as a positive representation of cultural capital; others as exemplifying back-to-the-Ark thinking.

While having personal sympathy with aspects of the default model, I [Professor Richards] believe that its controversial nature needs to be acknowledged, confronted and, if necessary, contested. The chief inspector is wrong in claiming that the proposed inspection framework represents “evolution, not revolution”. Its default position could perhaps be best characterised as “counter-revolution” or even as “counter-reformation”. [My bold]

To what Professor Richards characterises as a possible ‘counter-revolution’, I pose the question: is it in fact state imposed ideological, educational regime change? I suggest that just such a pattern appears to be emerging.

As I am writing this article, this must read blog by ‘Disidealist’ on the same subject has just arrived in my inbox, from which this is an extract.

Do not underestimate the degree to which education policy is being influenced by the same strains of right-wing authoritarianism which have been festering elsewhere over the last decade. The growth of the “No Excuses” or “Zero Tolerance” cultures which cause so much misery to so many children – particularly vulnerable ones – is not divorced from the resurgence of intolerant authoritarianism elsewhere. And just as such intolerance is encouraged and amplified by the Tory Party over Brexit, social security recipients and immigration, so it is in education. Gibb and Spielman increasingly deliver speeches which sound like Daily Mail comment pieces, extolling the virtues of “tough leaders” who should be praised for saving the deserving children from the undeserving rabble. School “leaders”, always looking for protection from the next Ofsted judgment, know exactly how to sound if seeking the approval of an increasingly belligerent and neo-Victorian DFE and HMCI.

So what is the nature of the school curriculum and assumptions that the DfE and Ofsted wish to overthrow?

Take the proverb, You can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. Think of the child as the horse,  factual knowledge as the water, and assume that the absorption of factual knowledge is good for children just as drinking water is good for horses.

The assumption of the ‘knowledge-based curriculum’ is that the problem must lie either with the water (the knowledge) or the way in which it is presented to the horse (the child).

The alternative is to focus on the horse (child). Why would it be disinclined to drink the water? Is it possible to develop the thirst reflex of the horse (child)? I write about this here.

This is rightly referred to as a ‘child centred’ approach and dismissed as such by definition as dangerously radical, subversive and threatening to ‘good order’, discipline and ‘right thinking’.

So what is the historic nature of this educational philosophy that is seen as so threatening to our government? The history is that of ‘Constructivism’ as interpreted by Piaget, Vygotsky, Bruner in the US, and many others, some of whose work is described in Part 5 of my book.

Constructivism is basically a theory — based on observation and scientific study — about how people learn. It says that people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world, through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences. When we encounter something new, we have to reconcile it with our previous ideas and experience, maybe changing what we believe, or maybe discarding the new information as irrelevant. In any case, we are active creators of our own knowledge. To do this, we must ask questions, explore, and assess what we know. Read more here. 

In my book, and in the many articles on my website that discuss theories of learning, I use the term ‘developmentalism’ to describe constructivist approaches, because they all have in common the development of personal ‘schemas’ by means of which individuals remodel and refine their individual cognitive framework so as to make sense of their perceptions of the world and the factual knowledge that they encounter. This leads to both deep understanding and cognitive growth, such that the individual becomes wiser and cleverer, and therefore better equipped to evaluate and challenge. This is presumably why authoritarian governments and education regimes regard such approaches by teachers to be so dangerous.

This issue is addressed in depth in three of my articles. Here are the links together with an extract from each one.

The Growth Mindset misunderstood

Exposing pupils to cognitive conflict is central to all teaching for cognitive development. It essentially comprises presenting pupils with factual evidence that doesn’t consciously or unconsciously make initial sense to them, so creating a state of discomforting mental tension. In order for the conflict to be resolved within the mind of the individual learner a personal conceptual breakthrough is necessary. Cognitive development arises from the accumulation of such conceptual breakthroughs. It is in this context that ‘The Growth Mindset’ defines the learning resilience needed to persevere with the struggle to make sense of facts, phenomena and evidence, with the expectation of failures along the way. ‘Hard work’ is indeed required on the part of learners, but to be useful it has to be directed towards achieving understanding, not ’empty toil’ through repetition, rote learning, revision and testing.

Telling isn’t teaching and listening isn’t learning

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 will be worsened by universal academisation.  The ‘Slow Education‘ movement provides a further explanation of this process. 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.

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.

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

Why mistakes must be celebrated

Note that lessons that ‘cognitively develop’, require pupils to be confronted with cognitive problems ‘just above’ the level at which they can solve them without assistance using their existing mental models (Vygotsky). Teachers within the ‘closed loop’ behaviourist culture penalise (or humiliate)  children who make mistakes because both punishments and rewards are part of that culture. Behaviourist learning is much more likely to be based on repetition and practising problems they can already do, rather than risking failure and cognitive dissonance from presenting students with problems they cannot readily solve.

History is repeating itself

The following is extracted from this article.

The Reverend Richard Dawes graduated from Cambridge, and became a mathematical tutor and bursar. He was something of a radical and upset his academic peers by advocating the admission of dissenters to the university.  In 1837, he left Cambridge to become a country vicar in the parish of King’s Somborne in Hampshire.

He adopted a novel approach to teaching based on engaging pupils through the examples of the ‘common things’ found in their everyday lives, which were used as objects of study and experimentation. In this he was anticipating Piaget and the later constructivists in his emphasis on grounding lessons in practical activities to provide a ‘concrete’ foundation for progression to abstract theorising. Having his pupils enthusiastically undertake practical activities in groups indicates a social approach quite different from the normal punishment driven, authoritarian instruction and repetition typical of the period that is so powerfully described in the contemporary works of Charles Dickens.

In 1847 he published his masterpiece, which is a teachers’ guide to how to implement his methods: ‘Suggestive Hints towards improved Secular Instruction’. Dawes insisted on cheap editions being widely available. Many editions were published. The 1857 7th edition can be viewed on-line:

This book is remarkable, not just for its advanced approach to teaching and learning, but for its vast subject range, from English, through the humanities and the arts, to maths and science, demonstrating great scholarship and eclecticism in every subject area combined with a consistent pedagogic wisdom that pervades every chapter. As a retired teacher I continue to be inspired by it, and would dearly wish to repeat some of his lesson ideas. It should be compulsory reading for every trainee teacher today.

The following is taken from Education in England: a brief history by Derek Gillard, which is highly recommended.

A provision was introduced by the Committee of Council on Education into the Revised Code for 1862 (often called ‘Lowe’s Code’ after the Committee’s vice-president who devised it). The result of this regulation was the organisation of elementary schools on the basis of annual promotion. Classes in the senior department were named standards I to VI, roughly corresponding to ages 7 to 12. Right from the start there was much opposition to these arrangements. Teachers objected partly to the method of testing, but mainly to the principle of ‘payment by results’ because it linked money for schools with the criterion of a minimum standard. Thus the higher primary work  which was beginning to appear before 1861 in the best elementary schools [for example as in Dawes’ school at Kings Somborne] was seriously discouraged by Lowe’s Code. The curriculum became largely restricted to the three Rs, and the only form of practical instruction that survived was needlework.

Furthermore, the standards themselves were defective because they were based not on an experimental enquiry into what children of a given age actually knew, but on an a priori notion of what they ought to know. They largely ignored the wide range of individual capacity, and the detailed formulations for the several ages were not always precise or appropriate. [sounds familiar?]

 The philosophy of this dark period was shockingly close to the ideology of marketisation that now dominates the education systems of England and the US. How can recent government education policy be so ignorant not just of how children learn, but of the history of English education itself?

Fans of Charles Dickens will be reminded of the wretched pupils at the mercy of Thomas Gradgrind in ‘Hard Times’. Although gloriously over the top, Gradgrind exemplifies the absurdity of the ‘knowledge based’ curriculum that is seeing a revival in our Academies and Free Schools. It is also worth comparing Gradgrind’s pure form of ‘bucket filling’ as a theory of learning, with the richness of developmental practice in Richard Dawes’ school in Kings Somborne.

The dates are interesting. Hard Times was first published in 1854. Dawes’ masterpiece, Suggestive Hints towards improved Secular Instruction was first published in 1847. The historical pedagogical tussle between the Dawes and Gradgrind approaches was resolved firmly in favour of Gradgrind.

The darkest aspects of that history are  being repeated 150 years later.

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1 Response to The knowledge-based curriculum: self evident, or a Trojan horse for educational regime change?

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