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  • Writer's pictureRuth Ashbee

Powerful Knowledge: What it is, why it’s important, and how to make it happen in your school

 In his book of 1971 “Knowledge and Control”, Michael Young saw knowledge as a tool of oppression and an expression of hegemony of the ruling elite but then by 2008 he’s dramatically changed his mind and says that knowledge is crucial for social justice, we should be teaching it in schools, etc. etc. He develops this into the model of “Powerful Knowledge” in 2014 in Knowledge and the Future School – and then further in Curriculum and the Specialisation of Knowledge.

To understand Powerful Knowledge it’s easiest to look at what it’s a response to. Young describes 3 models of curriculum, which he calls Future 1, Future 2 and Future 3. Future 1 is seen as the traditional, private school and grammar school curriculum, and it has two distinct components that we need to draw out: its approach to knowledge and the social enactment of the curriculum. In future 1, knowledge is treated as fixed, given and unchanging, and students study traditional subjects like literature and history as a participation in something from the past. Socially, and historically, this curriculum was only available to children of the elite. Initially this was because only very advantaged children went to school at all, then as time went on there were various reforms and acts of parliament that meant that all children went to school but the more disadvantaged ones tended to leave school earlier, and then as schooling up to 16 was made compulsory, this traditional curriculum was seen to not be accessible to children from disadvantage. Future 2 is the 1970s onwards so-called progressive reaction against Future 1. This model was a response to two things. Firstly, it was a rejection of the perceived “shutting out” of children from disadvantage that took place under Future 1. And secondly, it was a reaction to the treatment of knowledge-as-fixed that lies at the heart of Future 1. – and this begins with a very worthwhile philosophical issue, which we’ll look at now. The truth is, knowledge is not fixed. Knowledge is not a given. Knowledge is something we pursue, fight for – and yes, construct. In philosophy there are two broad groups regarding knowledge and truth: the realists and the anti-realists. If you’re a realist, you believe that truth is a thing, an objective thing, it exists independently of the individual, it’s “out-there”. This is the natural position to take, almost all laypeople are realists even if they don’t know the term, we believe in objective truth. The problem is, it’s ridiculously difficult to justify! Descartes realised this back in 1641 – are you sure this table exists? It could be just a dream. Everything could be just a dream -we actually can’t be certain of anything beyond our own existence – this is what he meant when he said “I think therefore I am.” – at least if everything is just a dream then there has to be someone who is having the dream! Hume discussed a related problem in 1739 when he discussed the problem of induction – we think that the Sun will rise tomorrow because it has risen every day until now, you know we feel like that’s good grounds for believing in it as a truth– but the then you’ve got the turkey who wakes up on the 25th December cheerfully expecting to be fed like he has every morning up until now – so actually past experience isn’t good enough to justify belief in truth either… So then what happened in the 20th century was that anti-realism really began to be a big thing, with philosophers like Foucault and Derrida really going to town and saying things like there is no truth, my truth is just as good as yours, the truth of tribal medicine is just as good as the truth of science… And this obviously has problems because it’s just incredibly annoying! Of course science is better! You’re not going off to see a witch doctor if you’re having a heart attack. But it’s actually very difficult to give a sound argument that, to quote philosopher of science Hasok Chang, takes realism beyond foot-stamping. And then kind of alongside this was a lot of political philosophy, a lot of talk about power, and hegemony, and ruling elites. And out of this background grew a politically progressive, anti-realism and anti-knowledge movement, and it became big not only amongst philosophers, but also historians, sociologists, and teacher-educators.

So you can see how Future 2 came about. There is a problem with the treatment of knowledge in Future 1. Proponents of Future 2 took the realisation that all knowledge is created by people – scientists create scientific knowledge, historians create historical knowledge… and it took it to what we might call an extreme post-modernist or constructivist conclusion: that there is no “best knowledge” or that the criteria for “best knowledge” are highly variable and context-dependent: thus the curriculum should be defined by pupils’ interests or situation, or by relevance to future employment. In future 2 we saw students studying rap music in English, making paper mache solar systems in science, and woodwork and hairdressing instead of languages and triple science, especially in areas of high social disadvantage. I find myself foot-stamping again. I feel like I know that Shakespeare and atomic theory should be in the curriculum, and not Eminem and hairdressing– and I feel like this is the case for all students, regardless of their background, but how can I justify that given the philosophical problems I’ve discussed? The answer lies in social realism. Social realism says that it’s precisely because knowledge is constructed that we can identify best knowledge: the best knowledge in a subject is defined by the subject community. Shakespeare is the best because our subject communities, our wonderful professors who have given their lives to studying the subject, who have apprenticed themselves to the great minds before them, and through them to a great chain of thinkers reaching back really to the ancients – they agree that it is the best. Social realism is the arbiter of Powerful Knowledge– your realism is derived from the sociological phenomenon of subject communities.

So Young proposes Future 3, where Powerful Knowledge, best knowledge as defined by the subject community, is taught and it is taught to all children, regardless of their background. This is an alternative to both Future 1 and Future 2.    Powerful knowledge is the entitlement of all, regardless of background. Because the other thing is this. When Future 1 was created, there was no cognitive science. There is now. We know now about cognitive load theory. We know now how to manage the input to students to avoid overloading working memory. We know about using retrieval practice. We know, that there are no known limits to what can be stored in the long term memory. And this is for everyone. Your class, your social background, don’t determine whether these things work for you or not. These are universals. We’ve got schools up and down the country, teaching powerful knowledge to children from the most challenging backgrounds and starting points. It’s possible. Future 3 says that there is best knowledge, that all children are entitled to it, and it is our duty to teach it and to teach it well.

Powerful knowledge is knowledge that opens things up to students: opportunities, further knowledge, and transcendance of the every day. Powerful Knowledge is typically abstract or rarefied, and will not be picked up by students from their everyday life. It requires expert teaching. It’s ambitious, empowering, and beautiful.

 Powerful Knowledge is the substantive content, the facts, claims and narratives, the givens in a discipline, that are broadly agreed by the subject community as being the best knowledge in the discipline. Obviously that’s not entirely straightforward a lot of the time but it does give us a clear guiding principle that articulates why we must reject things like “make a paper mache solar system” or “create a rap about decline of local industry”. And then the second key aspect of Powerful Knowledge is this acute awareness of the social, the disciplinary element. How is knowledge produced and approved in a discipline? What are the rules and procedures that we follow in order to have our work validated? How does the conversation progress? It is in this social dimension that Powerful Knowledge locates its claim to “best knowledge” and it is through this dimension too, that students gain more power than they could have from Future 1. Students who are taught the disciplinary element understand the subject to be evolving, and to be something that they could contribute to, should they pursue it. Now – what we can’t have here is people thinking ooh the disciplinary element is what gives power, let’s do lots of disciplinary, let’s cut down on the substantive because that doesn’t give power – NO. I just want to make sure I’m completely clear. For Powerful Knowledge, you have to have all the substantive, all the content, all the best content. Without this there is no power. What the disciplinary does is only powerful when it’s coupled with the substantive. You have to have both. So what that means is you don’t have any curriculum time to mess about: every second counts.

At my school our motto is “Powerful knowledge for global citizens”. First of all we make sure every child could read and we make sure they read challenging stuff every day. The ability and habit of reading is the most powerful thing of Subject leaders choose ambitious content designed to take students beyond their own experience and to open up “the great conversations” for them. What do we mean by ambitious content? We think very carefully about the knowledge you want children to learn over the course of their 5 years or whatever in your school, taking the specification as a starting point and adding in extra knowledge where it makes sense to do so. And then it means working backwards from that, planning a sequence of units that give students the knowledge they really need to access later stuff. Whenever I talk about sequencing I feel like it sounds ridiculously obvious, like why wouldn’t you teach something before you need it for something else, but every single specification, scheme and textbook I have looked at has serious problems with its sequencing. And like, our plan isn’t just that we’re going to cover all this stuff, it means we’re going to teach it as close to perfectly as we can – we plan our sequencing, and our explanations, and our practice questions meticulously so that very challenging content makes sense to all our students, they can understand it and use it, and we plan things to make sure they remember it and can use it later, like retrieval practice and cumulative assessments, and we’re going to be monitoring our students success over time and supporting them with long-term memory where we need to. We use booklets so we can quality assure the content, sequencing, explanations and practice questions from the outset. What does ambitious content look like in our subjects? In art, it means students study the formal elements of art from day 1 in year 7. In English it means studying texts like The Odyssey and Frankenstein instead of Holes and Harry Potter. In general, it means we stop messing around handing out exercise books for 5 minutes every lesson, or waiting for quiet, or spending time moving around into groups when we could do something much more quickly as a whole class – we make every second count because our students only get one go at this!

How can leaders make this happen in a school? I have three main pieces of advice: First of all: You have to get behaviour right. You have to. You have to have high expectations of conduct in all areas of the school and at all times of the day. Teachers need to be able to teach without interruption. You have to make this happen. In nearly all schools this means centralised detentions so that there is no disincentive, not even an unconscious one, for staff to overlook behaviour that does not meet your high standards. But centralised detentions aren’t enough – your policy needs to be absolutely crystal clear so that staff are confident in applying it. This means you need to specify what is and is not permitted in every place and at every time of the school day. Now of course you can’t specify every possible behaviour, so you need principles that staff can apply to situations. You need to discuss examples of these principles in practice and you need to do this often. It’s not enough to be clear – you need to be clearer than clear because I guarantee staff will have been told to do stuff in the past that then just sort of faded away. Your staff need to know that everything stipulated in the behaviour policy is not one of those things – just saying them, even saying them extremely clearly, isn’t enough. You need to make them lived. You need to thank staff for using the policy to ensure high standards, because a lot of the time it’s easier to ignore things. You need to spot occasions when staff didn’t apply the policy, and you need to speak to them to make sure they know they are backed up, and indeed have a duty, to use it in that situation next time. I think you need to put it in people’s performance management that they need to apply the policy all day, every day, everywhere in the school. Look – without brilliant behaviour, anything else you try to do will just be a waste. Our students deserve the best. We have to get it right.

The second thing you need is to intellectualise your workforce. Why is this controversial? I don’t get so many eyebrows raised nowadays when I’m banging on about behaviour but I do for this. Why? Is it so outrageous? Knowledge is the peak of human endeavour and teachers are the treasurers, we keep it safe and pass it on to the next generation. If that’s not an intellectual profession then I don’t know what is. If you’re leading on Powerful Knowledge in your school then you need to articulate a vision and you need to share it with your staff, and you need to intellectualise your staff if you want them to share your vision and carry it to success. And listen to this. Your staff are already intellectuals. At least they were. At university, everyone reads, and learns, and is a servant to their subject. Everyone who became a teacher of a subject did so because it interested them. Now after 5, 10, 20 years of graded lesson observations, poundland pedagogy and pointless pyramids, lots of those intellectuals will have buried that passion, because it’s very painful to see your beautiful subject pushed around and corrupted by faulty ideas like Blooms taxonomy and Kagan structures – but that love is still there. I promise you. Every one of your teachers has a tiny flame burning in them. You have to feed the flames! How do we grow intellectuals? Well of course it’s very simple. We read. You have to get your staff reading. Books, blogs, Twitter – switch them on and watch them take off. It’s the most rewarding thing to see in a staff. At my school we’ve got a staff CPD library, a staff research blog that include directories to blogs on subject areas among other things, and we’ve got a school research Twitter account. We’ve made videos for how to join Twitter and how to go blog-hopping. And one of the things I want to look at doing as we move forward is to give staff time to read. CPD – directed time – here are some subject-specific blogs – off you go. I should add, there are a couple of other things you need to do. You need to remove or change any policies that are anti-intellectual. There is often a tension here because leaders want accountability, consistency and figures for reports, and the policies that deliver these are often anti-intellectual. Let me give you an example. Graded lesson observations are very useful for a lot of leadership type things. They give you numbers so you can track all staff and create reports for governors, to show that progress is being made. They allow you to target your support to staff. But they are anti-intellectual because they have been comprehensively proven to be utterly unreliable (Prof Rob Coe, University of Durham) and what’s more you inevitably have non-specialists issuing judgements. There is nothing more disappointing for an intellectual subject specialist than to be given generic feedback that their lesson wasn’t good enough, by someone without the subject knowledge to tell you how to make it better. Flightpaths is another one – no intellectual with an understanding of statistics will tolerate being told that a student “should be on a grade 3 by the end of Year 8”. Underlining titles with a ruler. You need to be asking yourself, if the cleverest scientist/historian/mathematician in the world decided to become a teacher, and they learned all about teaching, the cognitive load theory, all the science and the techniques, behaviour management and everything – would they think this was good use of their time? Now I’m not saying that teachers should dictate policy and I get the challenges leaders face, I really do – but we have to critically examine our policies and ask if they are anti-intellectual. You need an intellectual workforce and you need to model that in your leadership, wherever you can.

Thirdly: This is the most important project you’ll ever lead and you need to treat it as such. It’s terrifying, how big a job it is to reform your curriculum, and your culture, towards powerful knowledge, but once you know about Powerful Knowledge you feel like don’t really have a choice I’ve found! At my school we’ve got the deputy head and myself leading the project, we’ve got a working group, we’ve started with a vision, we’ve made links with subject specialists in other schools to keep us outward-looking, we’ve analysed the risks and planned out a timeline, we’ve recognised the scale of the task and that however much we want to, we can’t do it all at once so we’re just starting with Year 7, we’ve agreed to use booklets like I described before to make sure we standardise the quality that every child gets – these are all the standard project-management things but I just think it’s important to highlight that you have to be disciplined about them, it’s easy to get caught up in kind of heady idealism but we can’t let that happen, we have to run a, not a military campaign but it needs to be tight because this is really big and it’s really important.

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