As history teachers and key stage leaders in an East London comprehensive secondary school, we have been working with subject leaders to introduce a version of the knowledge-rich curriculum over the past two years. Our starting point has been Michael Young’s argument that our curriculum should enable students to acquire knowledge that takes them beyond their own experience (Young and Muller, 2015) and provides a lever for social justice. But how does this unfold in practice? In what ways can a knowledge-rich curriculum be implemented in schools? How should curriculum leaders approach this? We set out the journey that one school has been on. It has not been a straightforward one – full of meanders, bumpy patches and, at times, full blown U-turns – but we hope that others can benefit from some of the lessons learnt so far.
As well as carefully considering what knowledge is for the subjects we teach, we believe that educators should approach the implementation phase with an appreciation of the contexts we work in – that pupils will enter our classrooms with an existing knowledge base for us to build upon, connect and sometimes dismantle. Most importantly, the student experience of education should be enriched by these reforms and not reduced to a partial one, because we need our young people to emerge from schools with wisdom, so that they can think critically and creatively, with the ability to analyse the world around them and contribute to society.
Our school journey: What we teach and why we teach it
We began with an INSET centred around the rationale behind changing our curriculum, drawing on research from Young and Muller (2015) and Rata (2016). Staff responded well and adapted their curricula. However, initial feedback from several teachers across different departments surprised us – they reported students claiming that ‘it’s just loads of stuff isn’t it? It’s bare boring.’ Despite all our wrestling over what counts as skill rather than knowledge, all the hours spent reshaping schemes of learning, our students didn’t seem to understand or enjoy it. It was time to reflect.
We conducted lesson observations, attended department meetings and reviewed schemes of learning across departments. We noticed that more explicit teaching of knowledge had been put into lessons without really considering why it was there. There were plenty of people, texts and artists who would unquestionably appear on most lists of ‘the best that has been thought and said’ but when subject leads were asked why they were there, a rationale was sometimes lacking. This was a surprise to us – as historians, we have long, sometimes heated debates about what we teach. On one occasion, a vociferous argument ensued about whether we should spend more time in Year 9 on decolonisation, or extend our Russian Revolution enquiry to spend longer on the impact that Bolshevik rule had on the peasantry. The ‘what’ mattered so much because ‘knowledge-rich’ for us does not just revolve around the substantive. As historians, we’ve always been aware of our discipline and the disciplinary knowledge that our students need to get better at history. Therefore, selecting what to teach has always been a process of engaging with the latest historical scholarship to uncover the debate around a particular topic first. We are lucky to have such a strong tradition in the history teaching community of devising learning in this way.
Our school journey: Does it matter whose knowledge we are teaching?
We decided to tackle some of these issues at another INSET so that justification of why certain topics were being taught could be explored by all teachers. After debates about ‘relevance’ and ‘the best that had been thought and said’, a consensus emerged on the need to ensure that a diverse range of knowledge creators were alive and well in our curriculum. We were pleased that staff seemed to agree with us that if we are to represent our subject in its fullest sense, we ought to show that knowledge evolves and changes, and can be derived from different places. So alongside Smith’s ‘Rational Economic Man’ (1982), pupils need to know about Raworth’s (2017) solutions to 21st-century problems in Doughnut Economics. Interpretations of the British Empire may come from Ferguson’s (2018) perspective, as well as that of Tharoor (2018). In science lessons, pupils learn not just atom structure and radioactivity but also how that was built upon by Chien-Shiung Wu’s (1961) discovery into beta-decay. Teachers wanted to teach the English novel well but also enable pupils to make connections between the text and the modern #MeToo movement. There was a strong feeling among teachers that what pupils are taught should also help them to understand the world around us today. There should be no reason to narrow the range of knowledge creators if we are committed to providing our young people with a rich, broad and balanced curriculum.
Our journey as school leaders driving the implementation of a knowledge-rich curriculum now enters another phase – how do we select what we teach? In the words of Counsell (Impact, 2018), ‘What we choose to teach confers or denies power… The contentious questions – Which works of literature? Which historical stories? Which art? – cannot be resolved by some optimal blend of diversity.’ The third stage of our INSET series is being planned. The central objective is for teachers to be secure about subject disciplinary knowledge – the ways in which truth is claimed within them, and how they evolve and change all the time so that our teaching reflects this.
We have been asking big questions in our school, and we haven’t got all the answers yet. What knowledge we teach the next generation is not a straightforward question, but we have an enormous responsibility to get this right.
Counsell C (2018) Taking curriculum seriously. Impact, Issue 4: Designing a Curriculum. Available at: https://impact.chartered.college/article/taking-curriculum-seriously/ (accessed 27 March 2019)
Fergsuon N, (2018) Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. London: Penguin
Rata E (2016) A pedagogy of conceptual progression and the case for academic knowledge. British Educational Research Journal 42(1): 168–184.
Raworth K (2017) Doughnut Economics. London: Random House Business
Smith, A The Wealth of Nations: Books I-III (1982) London: Penguin Classics
Tharoor, S (2018) Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India. London: Penguin
Young M and Muller J (2015) Curriculum and the Specialisation of Knowledge. London: Routledge
Luke Cl, Y & Chien-Shiung, W, (1961) Methods Of Experimental Physics. Volume 5, Part A: Nuclear Physics, Academic Press