Knowledge-rich curriculum

‘Knowledge Rich Curriculum’ and direct modes of instruction are a bit of a fashionable trend in education at the moment. A range of books, podcasts and blog posts wax-lyrical about the benefits of knowledge and more ‘traditional’ pedagogical approaches in the classroom. A central and hugely popular text in this argument is the highly provocatively titled article “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching”. The place for knowledge and direct instruction is also argued for emphatically in Daisy Christodoulou’s “7 Myths about Education”, a hugely influential and popular book. There are several other texts that argue similar points, a helpful summary has been put together by Tom Sherrington on his great blog, the themes central to the arguments from many of the contributing authors are that there is a more effective way of teaching than we are currently adopting in our more progressive, liberal, left-leaning, social-justice obsessed, child-centred educational landscape currently. In-fact, the division of what side of this debate you support often comes down to what side of the political spectrum you find your support lying also. This “more efficient” (note my passive aggressive speech marks) approach which focuses on direct instruction and knowledge will lead to better learning, it will reduce the attainment gap and will improve reading and writing results at the same time (all the “evidence” says so, therefore it must be right). The arguments are persuasive and very difficult to argue with. Try arguing against raising attainment in a more robust and efficient way that is easy to measure. However, that’s what I intend to do. I want to look closely at the claims and argue that we have to be careful accepting these claims without interrogating what we see to be the purpose of education.

I subscribe to a belief about education that it is a liberating and democratising endeavour. The purpose of education for me should be to allow children to flourish as human beings, to realise their power to change the world, not simply become skilled at remembering the way the world has always been. As an educator I want to challenge the uneven power hierarchy that exists in education and chip away at status quo and all the social ills that exist in society today. So engaging in a pedagogical and curricular approach that appears to remove freedom or power from children is something I will avoid. However, the arguments are so alluring and persuasive that it is challenging the very foundational beliefs I hold dear. In fact, it is the arguments that are put forward which are seemingly in favour of these beliefs that are challenging me most. I am struggling to see how it adds up. I will now outline some of the most persuasive arguments put forward for a knowledge rich curriculum and direct instruction. Please forgive the simplification and reductionism, I urge you to explore the research and writing for yourself. I want to write in broad general terms here first, before discussing my reservations and concerns in more depth.

The Importance of knowledge in the development of literacy is often cited as a key reason for a focus in knowledge rich curriculum approaches. A famous study by Recht and Leslie (1988) argued that children who read at a lower level but understand more about the content of the text they are reading can show greater comprehension than readers of a higher level with no understanding. The argument is clear, the more you know about a text, the easier it will be to read. They put forward that specific knowledge of the content helps more than a focus on transferable ‘reading skills’ like summarisation or finding the main idea. It is often this instrumental approach to reading that I have had experience with. Knowledge of a reading skill rather than content knowledge is how reading is taught in schools in my experience. This study has had a significant impact on advocates of a knowledge rich curriculum.
Continuing on this line of debate, it is often argued by knowledge-rich advocates that the best way to improve vocabulary of children is to increase knowledge through direct instruction. In the case of vocabulary development, the ‘Matthew Effect’ is often referred to. This biblical reference can basically be summed up as “the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer”. In educational terms, the argument for knowledge-rich curriculum here is that children who are facing financial hardship do not have exposure to as wide a range of knowledge and vocabulary as those children from more affluent homes. Therefore, school should be the great leveller, where all children have access to the best that has ever been said and written. Knowledge of vocabulary belongs to everyone, and the less focus placed on knowledge and vocabulary acquisition in schools, the greater the gap between the wealthiest and poorest. See what I mean? Who can argue with this?

So, what is the alternative, what are we doing in Scottish education currently that means we are not giving a knowledge-rich curriculum and consequently enhancing the Matthew Effect (as above) in increasing inequity. Nobody can argue that there is not an attainment gap in Scottish Education, it is one of the most significant areas of discussion in policy currently. The curriculum for excellence focuses more on outcomes than input – by this I mean we have more regulation of what children should be able to do at the end of a series of learning experiences and practicing of skills, than we do on the input – the ‘what’ children should be learning.

Mark Priestly writes about how the curriculum in Scotland is an intended rather than an implemented curriculum. The curriculum in Scotland was designed to be child centred, experiential, led by teachers who understand the needs of the community. This flies in the face of a knowledge rich curriculum that is teacher proof – a set of facts, dates and abstract knowledge to be delivered, a technicians job rather than a job for a professional. This view of curriculum development was that teachers, with their vast local knowledge and understanding of the children and the community they serve should be best placed to create the relevant curriculum. However, Knowledge still plays an important part in the curriculum. For example, we still use the disciplines (Literacy, Maths and Numeracy, Science, Religion etc.) to organise the curriculum. There are also multiple reference to ‘knowledge’ in key areas of policy documents. The difference is, that the specific knowledge to be taught has not been prescribed in the curriculum documents. This is why CFE and other skills based curricula are not seen as a knowledge rich curriculum, but has been described as technical-instrumentalist by Moore and Young, who see it as a sinister shift of focus to accountability and developing ‘skilled workers’. It has also been criticised as underplaying the complex relationship between knowledge and skills. Can generic skills even be developed free of contextual knowledge?

Part of my problem with knowledge rich curriculum is that is linked to assessable outcomes, it is something to be ‘delivered’, a teacher proof endeavour that pays little cognisance to the complex range of social variables that inevitably make up the nuanced procedure of translating policy to practice, which teachers do every day up and down the country. The curriculum for excellence is not concerned with micro-managing the input level of the curriculum, the autonomy for this is with teachers and schools. Teachers do not have the time and rely on recreating units of learning from previous years or finding what is easily accessible online. This is why CfE has been dubbed an ‘intended but not implemented’ curriculum. It may be utopian, but the curriculum we have should allow us to genuinely meet the children where they are, fully exploring their interests and passions and allowing them the time and freedom to interact with competing knowledge bases to better understand the world around them and their place in it. It feels through discussion with other colleagues, reading stories on social media and reflecting on my own experience that this is not common practice every day in Scotland.

This presents another reason for the appeal of knowledge rich curriculum in my eyes. Because in Scotland we have a curriculum that focuses on skills and experience more so than specific knowledge, and because teachers have autonomy in regards to content, a child’s learning journey in terms of the knowledge they explore is often fragmented and disparate, making connection building and awareness of relevance difficult. Knowledge-rich advocates argue for well sequenced, progressive units of work that build upon the last, developing vocabulary and understanding, with the teacher poised to help connect knowledge from one step to the next making the process memorable and inherently useful. The children in this model who are learning about a unit in history, or studying a classical text will be (it is assumed) thinking about the knowledge they are learning about. With the knowledge being the end goal, it should be front and centre in the lesson, and knowledge-rich pedagogy is designed to be making the children actually think about the knowledge in question. The quote from Daniel Willingham always comes to the fore here “memory is the residue of thought” children will remember what they are thinking about. So in a Scottish P3 class studying Egyptians, where knowledge is not the main objective, a child could be making ancient Egyptian flat breads with a generic skill of comparing peoples lives in the past with their own. But the memorable experience, or the thing the child will inevitably be thinking about here would be making bread with friends, not abstract facts about the Egyptians.

So for me, this forces a question of purpose. What is it that we want our education system to do? What is more important, the recall of facts and a secure knowledge base or something broader, something more difficult to measure, something fluid and flexible?

In her fantastic blog post on the subject, Debra Kidd questions what she wants her teaching to do:

“how is my teaching going to impact on the future of the world? To make it a more compassionate and responsible place? How am I ensuring that children leave here able to form healthy relationships so that they don’t become lonely? How do I teach them to believe that they have the power to change the world, not just to recount what it used to be?”

There are several critics of the knowledge rich approach who see it purely as a means to metricise our education system. To increase accountability, and create a system in which the most valuable outcomes are those which are most easily measured. Measuring compassion, social justice, kindness, friendship, self-worth and integrity is not a straightforward task. Measuring students knowledge is a slightly easier pursuit through the use of high stakes assessments. The influence of neo-liberalism is at play here, as it is seen in many aspects of our education system (and society in general) at present. Efficiency, competition and accountability trumps slow, complex nuanced progress towards shifting and fluid goals designed to challenge status quo and bring about and end to injustice.

For me the central argument against the knowledge-rich, direct instruction debate comes from Paolo Freire’s critique of the ‘banking’ model of education where students are viewed as empty vessels to be filled by the teacher, with learning seen as the act of depositing. In this model of learning, students are seen as the outcome of the teacher’s actions, and they are not viewed as subjects in their own right. As mentioned above, I think this debate is around the question of purpose. What do you see as the purpose of education? Your answer to this will dictate your position in this debate. I feel drawn to a more inclusive or progressive model of education that defines purpose in terms of democratic principles, developing critical thought with the goal of tackling injustice and inequality to disrupt status quo. I do not feel this can be done with the more passive, product-orientated model put forward by most knowledge-rich advocates.

However, I am constantly mindful of Dewey’s criticism of an ‘either, or’ philosophy. I am intrigued by the place of knowledge in our curriculum for all of the benefits mentioned above. I feel that knowledge should belong to everyone, and that in order to be able to challenge status quo, everyone should be entitled to the best of what has been said and written. There is an excellent chapter by Aurora Reid in the ReaserchED book on Curriculum (short version of the argument here) which acknowledges the working class struggle and critical pedagogy theory, whilst making a strong argument for the need for knowledge to provide an understanding of the way of things are and were, before being able to make things better.

And so, I find it hard to make any genuine conclusions in this debate. I think it is clear through my discussion above how conflicted I am. Ironically I think I need more knowledge and understanding to be able to make more of an informed decision on this. However, it is clear that knowledge alone will not help me here. What I am doing is engaging in critical thought and challenging the way things are, which I will continue to do as long as I am an educator. Ultimately, Knowledge-rich curricula and direct instruction, for me, are currently presented as another silver bullet that will cure all issues in education and lead to high performance. But, I just don’t believe in the existence of quick-fix, cure-all, universal saviours in education. Therein lies the struggle.

This argument and discussion is by no means complete. There are several areas that are under-developed or not touched on at all. I think I will come back to this discussion over the coming weeks and make this more of a series of posts as I read and understand more.

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