Author Archives: Martin Robinson

About Martin Robinson

Author: Trivium 21c; Education consultant with an interest in the Liberal Arts (especially grammar, dialectic and rhetoric), Director Trivium 21c Ltd.

The Narrowing Curriculum


Today’s identity politics has another interesting feature: it teaches students to think in a way antithetical to what a liberal arts education should do. When I was at Yale in the 1980s, I was given so many tools for understanding the world. By the time I graduated, I could think about things as a Utilitarian or a Kantian, as a Freudian or a behaviorist, as a computer scientist or a humanist. I was given many lenses to apply to any one situation. But nowadays, students who major in departments that prioritize social justice over the disinterested pursuit of truth are given just one lens—power—and told to apply it to all situations. Everything is about power. Every situation is to be analyzed in terms of the bad people acting to preserve their power and privilege over the good people. This is not an education. This is induction into a cult, a fundamentalist religion, a paranoid worldview that separates people from each other and sends them down the road to alienation, anxiety, and intellectual impotence.

Jonathan Haidt

A good education doesn’t offer one lens through which to see ourselves and the world, rather it offers a great variety of lenses. Whatever reductive pressures are exerted onto a curriculum or onto the teaching of a subject, those of us who have an interest in what we term, broadly, ‘the liberal arts’, need to ensure we teach and design courses which offer up arguments rather than just presenting narrow answers or a ‘world view’. The pursuit of wisdom is never served by insisting one way of seeing the world has dominion over all others.

This is not to say that all things are relative. Far from it. It is only by engaging in debate, by testing out ideas and hypotheses, with the underlying belief that some things are better than other things can we free up individuals to think for themselves and enable them to add to the great conversation in a way that opens and engages minds rather than closes and disengages them. A relativist can leave all others numb by saying ‘well, it’s my opinion,’ and refuse to engage any further. In other words: ‘truth is an individual construct – so leave me alone…’ relativism is also antithetical to a liberal arts education.

An educational institution should not be a place which suggests it ‘knows’ the truth. The age old adage that the more we know, the more we realise we don’t know should underpin the academy. This gives us great hope in that it has a vested interest in the importance of the voices of those who teach, the voices of those whom they teach about and also the voices of those who are taught and those whose voices will follow. This social contract between the dead, the living and the yet to be born insists on no group having more insight than any other but that by coming together we might find ourselves closer to wisdom than by keeping resolutely apart.

The academy should be notable by its variety of subjects from across the spectrum of knowing and students at school and university should be educated through as many substantial and different lenses we can muster to enable a more thoughtful engagement between themselves and the world. The more perspectives that we can offer the more likely we are to educate successfully. These perspectives need to offer breadth and they also need to be experienced in depth in order to unveil their truths. This means some inevitable compromises are made, but young people should experience learning from as many broad lenses as we can muster.

There is only a perspectival seeing, only a perspectival “knowing”; and the more affects we allow to speak about a matter, the more eyes, different eyes, we know how to bring to bear on one and the same matter, that much more complete will our “concept” of this matter, our “objectivity” be. (Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic. trans. Maudemarie Clarke and Alan J. Swenswen. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1998)

If we narrow or reduce perspectives we are more likely to falter in error than we are to glimpse the truth. Students need to access a full and varied curriculum from an early age and for as long as is possible in such a way so that their thinking and experiencing will not atrophy over time. Subjects should be taught with dialogue, argument and debate at their heart, to ensure that perspectives can clash along nicely throughout the heart of the school’s offer. Pupils should also get a good grounding in philosophy, thought, ethics and aesthetics.

In order to ensure an education that offers a good range of perspectives there needs to be a range of subjects on offer. This means starting specialist subject teaching sometime during primary education, expanding the offer during key stage three and ensuring pupils are able to access a good number of subjects at key stage four. The arts and humanities, languages and social sciences, technology and physical/health education options ought to be kept up as long as is possible alongside English, Maths and Sciences. This means either not worrying about the Ebacc or ensuring other options are available alongside it. It is essential to offer a good extra curricular programme as well, including the traditional, school productions, orchestras, galleries, sports teams, quiz and debating teams etc. At key stage five either the IB or A levels with EPQ, voluntary work and a recognition of involvement in extra curricular activities. A house system helps develop pupil leadership and widens participation in such team events beyond elite inter-school level competition.

For those who study or intend to study more vocational options I would hope an academic/cultural stream of opportunities both for study and extra curricular work is also accessed. All work and no play/reading/writing/thinking about ‘the big questions’ makes Jack and Jill dull…

This is what an expansive curriculum can offer, not dullness, but vibrancy, and the opportunity for young people to flourish.


Nothing Will Come From Nothing


“Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.” Is a quote often attributed to Einstein which is actually from a piece by BF Skinner called “New methods and new aims in teaching”, in New Scientist, 22(392) (21 May 1964). The quote was retweeted into my timeline today accompanied by a tweet saying: ‘Focus on 21st century skills, character-building, and the big ideas of your curriculum. Memorization of large quantities of information is temporary–skills are forever. ‘.

I have come across the quote quite a few times before and always thought that it was saying something around the habits of mind one gets from school are the most important things but then I looked again at the quote

and again…

Now far be it for me to take on the great BF Skinner or pretend Einstein for that matter…


it’s nonsense.

What do we ‘learn’ at school? We learn many things, facts, skills, nuggets of knowledge, habits of mind, ways of behaving, when to laugh, when not to laugh… to cry… to think… all these things are things we learn.

Kirschner, Sweller and Clark define “Learning [as] a change in long-term memory” and if we are to accept this definition, which we might argue with should we wish (see Willingham here), then should all this learning be forgotten we could suggest the education received has been an expensive and monumental failure.

Perhaps Skinner is thinking about conscious recall of all the ‘facts’ we have learned but even many of those that we think we have forgotten sometimes find their way into our consciousness when we’re watching a quiz programme on TV or doing one of those time wasting click bait quizzes that crop up online. So do we ever ‘forget’ what we have learnt at school? Some of it. But if we are taught a lot and taught it well we will remember a lot more than someone who wasn’t. And, as the philosopher Julian Baggini puts it:

“…it can only be a good thing to know as many matters of fact as possible.”

So I would suggest changing the quote to:

Education is what survives when you have learned and not forgotten all of it…

As I was sourcing the quote I came across another one of BF Skinner’s bon mots:

“We shouldn’t teach great books; we should teach a love of reading”

I could go on…

but I won’t.

Drama in Decline


Apparently there are now 1,700 fewer drama teachers teaching in UK schools than there were in 2010. I don’t have any information as to how accurate this figure is and what the figures are in the constituent nations of the United Kingdom nor how it compares to other subjects, suffice to say it adds to a general impression that the arts are in decline in schools.

Many of the various voices who decry the decline use utilitarian arguments to make their points. I think this is a mistake.

If the arts were to be removed from the curriculum, would it be a bad thing? If we take a strictly utilitarian point of view then the bare bones of the curriculum would suffice. Literacy, Maths and Science are the subjects that seem to rise above all others in our hierarchical view of subject worth. Arguments for drama’s inclusion in the examined curriculum that suggest it is important because the entertainment industry generates a lot of wealth for the country are ridiculous. For a start you don’t need a GCSE in drama in order to become an actor; and though I’m sure studying ballet, piano etc. has a more obvious utility I expect most who study these arts don’t end up adding directly to our GDP through their work in the entertainment world.  Some drama teachers don’t even teach drama in schools with the idea of developing actors. Which is where another utilitarian argument comes in, that drama develops the skills that employers want: collaboration, creativity and communication skills. Even if we put aside the notion that skills are not easily transferable, there is a leap of faith to be made that children who have, say, delivered the lines:

All the dead voices.
They make a noise like wings.
Like leaves.
Like sand.
Like leaves.

They all speak at once.
Each one to itself.

Rather they whisper.
They rustle.
They murmur.
They rustle.

What do they say?
They talk about their lives.
To have lived is not enough for them.
They have to talk about it.
To be dead is not enough for them.
It is not sufficient.

They make a noise like feathers.
Like leaves.
Likes ashes.
Like leaves. (2.98-118)

will be better at working for HSBC, McDonalds or at bricklaying than those who haven’t… The very idea is a bit far fetched.

Another argument goes like this – STEM subjects are important (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) so let’s stick an A in there too because arts are important too. This utilitarian approach falls apart very quickly. In the first place engineering hardly features as part of the curriculum in most schools. Technology is also in a parlous state. In fact STEM is all about S&M, but that makes a rather unfortunate acronym. To chuck in an A, seems to add to an already unsteady mix. Call it what you will but STEAM is not about giving the arts a privileged position in the school curriculum, it is about subsuming some shallow arts practices into an ‘integrated approach to learning’. STEAM is a cop out, entirely devoid of art, it is a corporate middle-manager’s idea of art, and is no way to ensure real arts practice remains part of the school experience.

Another utilitarian argument goes that the arts are important to mental health, they might well be, though there are clearly some people involved in the arts who have mental health problems so whether art makes them better than they would have been or adds to their problems I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess.

The arts are important on their own terms. Studying drama might help you become a great director, actor, and/or informed member of the audience. Beyond that the arts are a study on what it is to be human, they tap into our subjective experience of the world and help us to make sense of our lives. This enrichment of the subjective realm is difficult to quantify and by trying we reduce the very art we wish to protect. A school that shrinks the arts provision that its pupils are able to access is making a decision about what they think their priorities should be. If they are guided by utilitarian choices then it is easy for them to cut back on arts programmes because it is far less easy to justify the arts on these terms than, say, Maths. But if they are guided by the desire to educate their pupils as to what is important to them as human beings to make sense of the world and their place within it, then they will do their very best to ensure the arts have a proper and sustainable place in their curriculum.


Social Mobility? Forget It…


The Government wants to unlock talent and fulfil potential with its plan to improve social mobility through education. It intends to do this by: targeting communities that are left behind, closing the ‘word-gap’ in early years, closing the attainment gap in schools between disadvantaged and more affluent children, providing high quality post 16 skills education and access to the best universities, working with businesses to support adult retraining and ‘upskilling’,  building partnerships and identifying and spreading ‘what works’ throughout the system.

Most of this seems to make sense except for one glaring problem – it is extraordinarily difficult, maybe impossible, to improve social mobility through education.

Gregory Clark, Professor of Economics at the University of California points out:

How do we know we cannot change the rate of social mobility? One piece of evidence is what happened to social mobility rates as England moved from the pre-industrial world of squire and servant, to the modern noisy meritocracy of the rude boys of finance. What happened as the political franchise was extended in the early 19th century? What happened as mass public education was introduced later in the century? What happened as education, healthcare and pensions for the poor were financed by taxation of the incomes of the wealthier? The answer is that social mobility remained at its slow pre-industrial pace.

There was a point post second world war when social mobility was on the increase however this was not due to education but due to the changing jobs market:

In 1951, 55% of the male workforce was working class and 11% were in professional and managerial occupations. By 2011, 30% are working class and 40% in the higher classes. The huge level of upward mobility, then, largely reflects that there was ‘more room at the top’ – there were simply more jobs to be upwardly mobile into. 

Despite this, in the long term, there has been very little difference to overall social mobility figures. That there is some evidence of downward mobility now may have resulted in anxious parents worrying about their children’s prospects and governments seeking to respond with solutions focusing on social mobility through education. As Dr. Lindsey Roberts writes here, in a piece for the British Academy:

Education is often held up as the solution to the mobility problem. The idea is that individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds can do well at school and university and work their way into higher class positions by a process of “meritocracy”. Superficially this might sound like a good idea, but it is one that doesn’t hold up well in practice. Availability of graduate jobs (if such a concept still exists) has not kept pace with the increasing supply of university-educated young people entering the labour market, and in relative terms the value of getting a degree may be declining. 

The Institute for Fiscal Studies reports that the: proportion of graduates working in low-skill jobs has increased, from 5.3% in 2008 to 8.1% in 2016. Just ‘being’ a graduate does not automatically mean you will have a well-paid job and if there are to be more graduates this could increase, supply and demand might mean graduates being less rare command lower wages, the jobs market might not be so enamoured by graduates if nearly everyone is one.

The jobs market is changing, more people are in work but wages are stagnant or falling. Productivity per person is relatively low and a number of people report feeling underproductive. More are ‘self employed’, numbers have increased by 50% since the turn of the century, though the nature of self employment is also changing in these ‘uberfication’ days.

The ‘type’ of graduate also effects social mobility, STEM degrees might command better jobs and wages though whether this is due to supply and demand is a moot point. If there were more people with these degrees would social mobility improve?

The Sutton Trust report that:

Despite a large (38%) and increasing proportion of the UK workforce holding a higher education qualification, university graduates still enjoy a large earnings advantage over non- graduates (estimated by previous studies as 28% for men and 53% for women)…

The results show that there are large variations in outcomes for graduates depending on their university and degree subject.

Graduates from Oxford and Cambridge enjoy starting salaries approximately £7,600 (42%) higher per year, on average, than graduates from post-1992 universities. They also earn starting salaries approximately £3,300 higher than graduates from other highly selective Sutton Trust 13 universities.

Differences by subject are even more substantial, with graduates from medicine and dentistry courses (the highest earning subject) earning starting salaries approximately £12,200 higher than those studying design and creative arts (the lowest earning subjects). Engineering and technology (the second highest earning subject) graduates earn on average £8,800 higher than design and creative arts graduates.

If every graduate was studying medicine would there be the jobs for them to go to?  If we want social mobility to increase then we need ‘more room at the top’ – more jobs [and courses] to be upwardly mobile into. If we want to prove we have a socially mobile society we would need to ensure that a substantial part of the increase in courses and jobs was taken up by the children of the poor. No point in having this extra capacity and filling it up with rich kids.

If nothing is done about advantaged children going to Oxford and more of the poor end up going to Oxford and there is no increase in places, parents who are ‘just about managing’, who don’t count as ‘poor’, those who don’t qualify for free school meals, the lower middle classes, might complain that their children can’t get to Oxford as easily as the children who went to private schools and the children of the poor. If social mobility is about leaving the middle where they are, this is not about creating a meritocratic system, it is one where statistics will merely be bandied about. Social mobility has to include the unpalatable idea of downward mobility especially for richer families, if we are to justify our mobility figures by getting more poor children than before to succeed rather than more rich ones. With private school pupils two and half times more likely to join one of the leading universities than state-educated ones and the upper echelons of the jobs market dominated by students from private school backgrounds something would have to give. Abolishing public schools might make a bit of a difference but the influence of affluence would then be felt in different ways.

Degrees make a difference, (though the fact that the number of graduates in low skilled jobs is increasing, might be of concern).Barnardos suggest that there are 3.7 million children living in poverty in the UK, over a quarter of all children. 1.7 million of these children are living in severe poverty. What are the chances of social mobility through education? According to Barnardos: 34% of children entitled to free school meals achieve 5 GCSEs at C or above, including English and Maths, this compares to 61% of pupils who are not eligible for free school meals. How to make a big dent on Oxford admissions from this group?

About 1% of school leavers at 18 go to Oxbridge, and around 8% go to Russell Group Universities. For argument’s sake, if we think of the 3.7 million ‘poor’ children spread out evenly over 18 years that would make 205,556 poor children per ‘cohort’. In 2016 there were 11,728 Undergraduates, studying at Oxford University.  If we were to double poor children attending Oxford there would be hardly a dent on mobility. The same with Russell Group entry. What is Oxford doing to target the poor? According to this publication, Increasing Access to Oxbridge; An exploration of obstacles for under-represented groups and efforts to overcome them:

The University is… targeting candidates from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds, measured by their ACORN (A Classification of Residential Neighbourhoods) postcode, focusing on ACORN postcodes 4 (‘moderate means’) and 5 (‘hard pressed’), the least advantaged areas of the UK. The target is to increase the proportion of candidates from these areas to 9% by 2016-17. The total number of UK applicants matched with ACORN data in 2014 entry was 2,579; 241 students were accepted from ACORN postcodes putting the acceptance rate at 9.3%. The final low participation target category is POLAR 2 (Participation of Local Areas) which looks at the participation of young people in higher education for different geographical areas of the UK, and shows how the chances of young people entering higher education varies depending on where they live. Oxford is focusing on quintiles 1 and 2, which have the lowest participation rates in higher education. In 2014, the total number of accepted UK applicants who matched with POLAR 2 postcode data was 2,560, with 264 students accepted from POLAR 2 quintile 1 and 2 postcodes, putting the percentage of accepted students at 10.3%; the target is to increase this to 13% by 2016-17.

Of course a rich family is free to live in a ‘disadvantaged’ postcode neighbourhood but, casting that aside, these numbers will not make a huge impact on overall social mobility. To make some sort of impact we would have to make much more effort to get substantially more students into ‘top’ universities. By making Oxbridge and Russell Group Universities treble in size and have to take on the increase in numbers entirely from those from a poorer background might make a bit of a difference. Oxford would could have, say, 35,000 graduates –  with 24,000 from poorer backgrounds. Yet still the vast majority of children from poor backgrounds wouldn’t get into Oxford. Oxford would have changed radically. It would need more buildings, more staff, change its admissions criteria, as would all the other universities, if this was to make any impact in the name of ‘mobility’.

Dr. Lindsey Roberts states:

While it is true that those from disadvantaged backgrounds have good chances of getting the higher class jobs if they get good qualifications, such a group remains small in number and is more than offset by advantaged individuals without good qualifications but who are somehow enabled by their backgrounds to do well…

The Sutton Trust reports:

…students from the most highly advantaged backgrounds [are] those who attended private secondary schools. Graduating from the same university, from the same subject, with the same degree classification, students from private school backgrounds tended to have somewhat higher earnings and a greater probability of going on to a professional level job than did their state school counterparts. In terms of starting salary, this difference was around £1,350 per year on average.

Therefore, regardless of qualifications, in order to create more room at the top we would have to legislate in order to counteract the inbuilt advantage children with highly affluent backgrounds seem to get. Maybe we could make sure that the increasing number of low skill jobs that are now being done by graduates are entirely taken up by those from advantaged backgrounds. Inheritance tax could be increased too, maybe to 100%? And, perhaps, rich people should only be allowed no more than three books in their homes in order to ‘de-literate’ their offspring.

Can the Government really make the argument that education is a route to social mobility? The current figures do not justify that belief and in order to make a radical dent in the figures of social mobility the government would have to make far more radical proposals than they are suggesting and these changes would have to go far beyond the narrow remit of education.

Education cannot create social mobility on its own. More room at the top and more pay at the bottom might help but even then will we accept a ‘fair’ meritocratic society where those at the top can be deemed to be successful and those at the bottom can be deemed to have failed? Much better to be at the bottom of society due to unfairness than to be there because you ‘deserve it’. In the meantime what should schools do? I’d suggest they should forget social mobility and, instead, concentrate on ‘cultural mobility’ a term I will explore further in a future blogpost.


In Defence of the Graded Report Card


In a piece for the TES Bernard Trafford wrote that:

Assessment is linked, of course, to the whole question of reporting. Many parents still love nice, simple effort and attainment grades: they feel they know how their child is getting on. The message that such judgements are both arbitrary and unscientific is only now starting to filter through to them. I hope to see a day when no teacher at the end of November feels obliged (generally an internal, self-generated command) to set every class they teach a test: “otherwise, how can they write their end-of-term reports?

Though I am not sure that attainment and effort grades are entirely arbitrary they are most probably unscientific, though what is meant by ‘unscientific’ is open to a certain amount of interpretation. I take it to mean that the judgement that the teacher makes is rather more subjective than Bernard Trafford would like.

A completely arbitrary effort grade would be drawn out of a hat for each child, most teachers do not do this. They assign a grade through an ‘impression’ they have of what the effort a child might have made. It’s a guess, not arbitrary, but not necessarily accurate. In fact it can’t be accurate as no teacher can ever know the effort a child makes nor how that compares to other children. An attainment grade is also an impression and, though a teacher might have more evidence to base their attainment grade on it is also likely to bear a certain amount of subjectivity in its creation.

Yet, Trafford concedes, parents like them. Why? Well, simplicity is helpful, a report card full of As and 9s for attainment and 1s for effort is better than one that has Fs and 1s for attainment and 9s for effort. This can help, though the 1-9 grades at GCSE offer a certain challenge. If the effort was a top grade and the attainment very low it can also help give a quick impression of how your son or daughter is doing. Low effort, high attainment is a singular problem and could lead to other suggestions around how to challenge a child. So these grades have their uses.

What would you replace them with? Completely objective grades? In some subjects this is unachievable – the arts come to mind, and in others subjectivity will be present in varying degrees, but this might be no bad thing. A subjective grade shows how the child is seen by a certain teacher at a certain time and emphasises that this relationship is important. It puts an onus onto the teacher’s expertise, there should be some expectation that they know what they are doing as a teacher. If they value your child or not could make a difference to the effort being made.

Are written reports a better alternative? Often schools do both, but the day of the ‘honest’ written report is long gone. There are acceptable words and unacceptable words, platitudinous offerings are made and bizarre disconnected targets from word banks might be conjured up, again a pretence of objectivity might be sought but through a most subjective art form. This is certainly no more ‘scientific’ and due to it being a lot more work for a teacher – the information given might be no more or less helpful than the at a glance grades.

A comparative progress grade could be produced, how your child is doing compared to the rest of the class. The effort and the attainment could be put into context by the teacher by mapping out how everyone is doing in the class and assigning the grades accordingly. That this is unscientific could be emphasised on the report card and could be simplified by putting children into four categories for attainment: concern, pass, merit, distinction (rather than focusing the language on the performance of others) and three for effort: below or above expectations and expected. It might be useful to drop the effort grade as it might be too subjective but perhaps information on completion of work might take its place, if a lot of work isn’t completed that might be useful for a parent to know.

The desire to have end of term tests is not, necessarily, helpful. Beginning of term tests seem a much better idea as then the teacher knows more about how knowledge is being retained and can then do something about it, rather than rely on a test that might have been taken over eight weeks ago as a good gauge to where a class is now. The test might also be flawed; much better to give a grade based on a number of insights over a term and/or year.

The assessment that really matters is the day to day commentary that your child gets from her teachers, the report card should be a reflection of those relationships an easy insight into that sometimes difficult to fathom world.

An at a glance subjective graded report card has its place. It is unscientific but not necessarily the worse for that. Lots of parents like them because they are an easy glimpse into something far more complex – the day to day reality of schooling that they often hear about through the day to day reactions or grunts of their child.

If there were real concerns or huge congratulations due to their child one would hope that these would be communicated in other ways by a school at times when parental knowledge and involvement might help and/or be welcome. Again, in both cases not scientific, but, in both cases, welcomely human.

A graded report card as part of the communication between a school and a parent is a help as long as it is not the only communication a parent expects to get.

Creativity and Collaboration


“In the popular imagination,” writes Tim Blanning in his wonderful book ‘The Romantic Revolution’, “Beethoven was the romantic hero par excellence: the lonely, afflicted, uncompromising, utterly original genius, ‘a man who treated God as an equal’…” This vision of creative minds echoes down the centuries. The tortured artists in their garret, often poor, wearing black, maybe, ‘in mourning for their lives’…

The great artist, driven, mad eyed, wandering lonely as a cloud, the true artist rises, like poetry for Goethe: ‘like a hot air balloon… and gives us a bird’s eye view of the confused labyrinths of the world’…

But back on earth the ‘four Cs’ of the 21st Century ‘soft’ skills that are paraded before teachers as what is needed for children to succeed in the soon to come world are: communication, critical thinking, collaboration and creativity.

If we look at visions for the 21st century classroom we see primary colours, bean bags, formica topped tables with groups of children engaged with some screens and smiling and laughing as they work on some group activity. The assumption is collaboration = creativity.

The contrast with the tortured artist, alone in his garret, shouting at the falling plaster from the ceiling, couldn’t be more stark. Is ’19th century’ creativity, a joyless lonely affair, that accidentally produced great art…?

It was with little surprise that I read: “…there is substantial scientific evidence that collaboration, rather than sparking creativity, results in group think and mediocrity. What does result in creativity? Simple: solitude.”

The Washington Post reports that:

The more social interactions with close friends a person has, the greater their self-reported happiness. But there was one big exception. For more intelligent people, these correlations were diminished or even reversed. More intelligent individuals were actually less satisfied with life if they socialized with their friends more frequently. 

In an Inc article Geoffrey James reflects that:

being around other people keeps keep creative people from thinking new thoughts. Indeed, there are few experiences more mind-numbing for a creative person than being forced to interact with dullards on a daily basis. 

Even if your office is full of geniuses, they’ll be less creative en-masse than if they can work and think alone. In short, it’s difficult and maybe even impossible to “think out of the box” when you’re literally inside a box (i.e. an open plan office) that’s full of other people.

Isn’t this the problem with the four C’s approach to teaching and learning? It is not modelled on great creativity produced over centuries by our greatest geniuses, rather it is fashioned by a fifth c: the ‘Corporate’ vision and the schools that follow this approach rather than ‘unleashing creativity’ will find themselves producing conventional corporate types who won’t upset any apple carts but will fit into group think activities so beloved of the open plan, group work, trendies that inhabit the world as portrayed so deliciously in the comedy programme W1A.

If you want great creativity, nurture great artists and teach them how to express themselves, rather then flood their minds with group work overkill in every lesson.

Lenin and Rand: Why the Need to Disrupt Our Schools?


When I was growing up a significant number of people on the left were intent on destroying capitalism. They loathed its focus on the individual and extolled the virtue of the collective. They were suspicious of new technology, worried that it would take away jobs. They were protective of their own and were intent on battling the bosses. Some looked to Russia for inspiration.

It has fascinated me for sometime how a significant number of contemporary leftists far from wanting to destroy capitalism seem to want to reshape society in its image. Instead of capitalism making the proletariat who are ready to bring down the bourgeoisie the ‘nouveau leftist’ seems content to throw in their lot with global capitalism; they love the tech companies many of which originated in ‘silicon valley’. Instead of finding common collective ground to resist the Californian dream they want to alter our world to fit in with the silicon vision. For many this seems to begin in our schools, where the technophile leftist believes in individualisation, choice, preparing children for a world of uncertainty and having to follow an uberfication of the workforce, neatly summed up as jobs that haven’t been invented yet and twenty first century skills. The only thing that some of our nouveau technophile leftists have in common with their more luddite comrades from the past is that they still look fondly upon Russia.

How can this be?

The leftist technophile leader in a school who introduces iPads to every classroom or insists on a ‘google has changed everything approach’ might not know it but she has connections to Ayn Rand, Lenin, Julian Assange, Trump, Putin, Steve Bannon and others. Arguably she is the unwitting agent of unfettered capitalism and companies which sometimes seem to belong in the pages of 1984 and Brave New World. Far from wanting to bring down these ‘neo-liberal’ global conglomerates, she has been kite marked as an apple and pears educator, a micro-hard missionary or a googley grandee.

Our technophile seems full of contradictions yet if we go back a few years into pre-Russian revolution times we find the roots of this contradiction and how some leftists of today can extol the virtues of global capitalist brands and insist our entire education system should be disrupted to serve a techno capitalist future. Just like some of the old leftists our nouveau leftist is drawn to the works of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin but also, more surprisingly, it is the thinking of the controversial capitalist thinker Ayn Rand who has influenced many of those who argue for new ways of teaching and learning in our classrooms.

Inspired by the book: What Is to Be Done? by Nikolai Chernyshevsky, Lenin intended to destroy things as they were and to replace them with a Soviet ‘scientific utopia’ which was to be run by rational ‘technical experts’.

That Leninism was inspired by Chernyshevsky’s book is one thing, for it also to inspire Ayn Rand is another… the arch communist and arch selfish capitalist make, at first sight, a bizarre couple, but what united both, apart from their motherland, is Chernyshevsky’s main character, Rakhmetov a revolutionary who believed in ‘rational egoism’. According to Adam Weiner:

Rational egoism, though actually built on an immovable foundation of determinism, indulged its followers with the idea of endless personal freedom, depicting again and again an almost miraculous process of transformation by which socially inept people became like aristocrats, prostitutes became honest workers, hack writers became literary giants.

Dostoevsky wrote ‘Notes from the Underground’ as an attack on rational egoism:

“who was it who first proclaimed that man does nasty things only because he does not know his true interests, and that if he were enlightened, if his eyes were opened to his true, normal interests, then man would immediately stop doing nasty things, would immediately become good and noble, because being enlightened and understanding where his true interest lies, he would see that his own interest lies in goodness, and it’s well known that there is not one man who can act knowingly against his own personal gain, ergo, so to speak, he would be compelled to do good deeds? O, the babe! O, the pure, innocent child!”

Lenin also named his first major publication “What is to be Done?” And Rand seemed to borrow from the same source, her heroes in the Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged share many traits with Rakhmetov and rational egoism had many features in common with her philosophy of ‘objectivism.’

In 1967 Herman Kahn, a foremost nuclear thinker from the Rand corporation, predicted a world in which ‘pocket phones’ and home computers were commonplace in which each user would have a private file space in a central computer and, according to Thomas Rid in his fascinating book the Rise of the Machines: ‘Computer access would be used to reduce crime, as police can check immediately the record of any person stopped for questioning’. He predicted a rise of bionic machines with creative capacities and ‘as the distinction between man and lesser creatures and machines begins to shade off, the uniqueness of man and the rights that are attributed to this uniqueness may begin to attenuate.’

The writer Jonathan Freedland wrote in the Guardian about how Rand influenced the Silicon valley entrepreneurs:

Rand… might just be “the most influential figure in the industry”. When the CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick, had to choose an avatar for his Twitter account in 2015, he opted for the cover of The Fountainhead. Peter Thiel, Facebook’s first major investor and a rare example of a man who straddles both Silicon Valley and Trumpworld, is a Randian. Meanwhile, Steve Jobs is said by his Apple co-founder, Steve Wozniak, to have regarded Atlas Shrugged as one of his “guides in life”

Among these new masters of the universe, the Rand influence is manifest less in party political libertarianism than in a single-minded determination to follow a personal vision, regardless of the impact. No wonder the tech companies don’t mind destroying, say, the taxi business or the traditional news media. Such concerns are beneath the young, powerful men at the top: even to listen to such concerns would be to betray the singularity of their own pure vision. It would be to break Rand’s golden rule, by which the visionary must never sacrifice himself to others.

Seemingly, we find the west coast libertarian children of Rand as the fellow travellers of those who seek to disrupt traditional education with a rational, technical utopia where children are educated by brand new machines.

According to Andrew G Kirk in his extremely interesting book ‘CounterCulture Green: The Whole Earth Catalog and American Environmentalism’, ‘Cyber-libertarianism’ as a philosophy is a hybrid fusion of left and right, it blends:

the individualism and liberal social values of the counterculture with a traditionally western distrust of big government and centralised authority… [it embraces the] technology unique to their generation while rejecting the national orientation and emphasised on collective achievement that characterised the Right and Left… [They value] individual agency over communal action and [champion] the free flow of information and access to tools as the best means of empowerment and change.

The great American technical companies: Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and others have managed to unite libertarian philosophy, green ideology, hippy idealism, into a utopian message of uniting the youth into a sub ‘brave new world’ utopianism where we all choose to indulge our egos in social media bubbles. That they are doing their best to shape schooling around this ego driven individualism should come as no surprise. Technology and schools is a huge market. This market intends to disrupt schools in the same way as UBER disrupt taxi firms.

Perhaps the best example of rational egoism we have today is Julian Assange, described by Hilary Clinton as a ‘kind of nihilistic opportunist’ he is, according to David Aaronovitch:

someone for whom the destruction of existing beliefs and institutions is more important than the question of what replaces them… one man’s disruptor is another man’s innovator…

Aaronovitch goes on to compare this tendency with that of Lenin who represents:

tearing the place up and putting something else there instead…

He adds that Steve Bannon described himself as a Leninist quoting him as having said that:

“Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all today’s establishment.”

Of course Assange, it transpires, tried to angle a job allied with the Trump administration. Yet he is also a hero of many leftists – Chomsky, Ken Loach, Michael Moore, Pilger and others have all supported him. Despite Assange’s rational egoism seemingly to know of no boundaries – he maintains support from the left because he is seen as a disruptor of the tradition.

That Russia is accused of being in cahoots with the spreading of misinformation, alternative facts, and various methods of disruption on social media, the leaking of emails, and having connections to Assange and Trump might come as no surprise to students of how modern politics, beyond left and right, is conducted.

But for others ‘progressive cyber libertarianism’ seems to confuse. In a world where dichotomies between left and right, liberal and conservative, progressive and traditional, no longer seemed to sum up our politics this ‘new’ politics is difficult to come to terms with.

It disrupts us.

Yet if we go back to ‘What is to be Done?’ we can see how some on the left and the right, have come together through a philosophy imbued with a ‘rational’ use of technology, rampant individualism and a Leninist disruption of much that many held dear. Trumpism and Brexit have been mentioned as symptoms of this desire to disrupt, as have new technologies and the global capitalists who make it all possible.

And it is this reach into the political world that has made some people edgy, yet, at the same time, it is this philosophy that reaches into our classrooms.

In today’s education landscape there are many echoes with the idea of rational egoism and disruption in the work of libertarian individualists and technophile lefties who seem to want to achieve many of the aims articulated in the book ‘What is to be Done?’

The rational argument is steeped in language of the workplace and twenty-first century skills. Personalisation of the curriculum is the lead in for the individual focused ‘egoism’ around which all else must be built. These two pursuits seem to require that the school as currently realised is disrupted. Instead of classrooms looking like they do (the (wrong) argument suggests they are based on a 19th century factory model) these classrooms should be replaced by children roaming in a much freer way – though harnessed to the ‘objective’ machine – wired for google… so rational, so technical… so egocentric… And, with it’s connections to the Californian ideology conversant with Randian objectivism and the countercultural thesis born from publications like the Whole Earth Catalog it is the thinking of technophile ex hippies that has become so mainstream for many who extol the uses of technology and regularly use it shape their world view.

At first sight it seemed  bizarre that Alison Peacock the CEO of the College of Teaching found herself talking to a leftist disruptor with an interest in technology, Graham Brown Martin, who works for technology company Pi Top, about the need to disrupt traditional western education models on a programme called ‘Are the Kids Alright?’ ,made by ‘Renegade Inc’. and broadcast on Russia Today, the programme asked:

‘Western education curriculums are still preparing pupils for a standardised world as rising inequality, an ageing population, exploding levels of individual and government debt begin to bite, how does a stagnating education system reinvent itself to equip students to solve these problems and prepare them for a workplace that doesn’t yet exist?’

Our ‘stagnating education system’ needs to be disrupted in the name of future oriented workplaces that don’t yet exist.

Renegade Inc describe themselves as:

…an independent knowledge platform for people who think differently. We find thinkers, writers, leaders and creators in search of the best new ideas, businesses and policies. Many more people are now questioning the conventional wisdom of modern life and asking a simple question: How do I live well during the age of uncertainty? Renegade Inc. was founded to answer some of those questions.

Renegade Inc was co-founded by Megan and Ross Ashcroft, award-winning film producers and co-founders of the advisory and investment business Motherlode.

Megan – was previously the Associate Director of UBS Investment Bank and consultant at Lloyds TSB. 

Ross is a strategic advisor to businesses in different sectors and currently advises Asymmetric Return Capital.

Renegade Inc broadcast their programmes on Russia Today.

This is the new politics, in which, in Marx’s well worn phrase: ‘All that is solid melts into air” takes centre stage. With the need to question the conventional wisdom of modern life    disruption is the order of the day, technical expertise is needed for the soon to come scientific, pragmatic, free individuals who will be connected to ‘the singular cloud’ in some sort of blissful utopia in which all will have their eyes opened to their true interests and man will ‘immediately stop doing nasty things, would immediately become good and noble, because being enlightened and understanding where his true interest lies, he would see that his own interest lies in goodness’ . That many try to propagate this technological individualism in our schools should come as no surprise, imbued with the ‘neutral’ ‘pragmatic’ language of ‘what our businesses need’ and ‘creativity’ allied to ‘whose knowledge?’ ‘who says what is truth?’ the attempt to disrupt the western education, tradition, is clearly within their remit.

Whether you approve of this political turn or not it is interesting to trace its roots back to Rational Egoism and a Russian book which enabled West to meet East and the ‘Leninist’ Left to find itself in cahoots with the Libertarian, ‘Randian’ Right.







A Knowledge Based Liberal Arts and Sciences Curriculum. Curriculum Series Number Seven.


A liberal education is focused on teaching knowledge ‘for its own sake’.

The two words ‘liberal’ and ‘arts’ might stand somewhat awkwardly in our current landscape, the phrase implies freeing the human being through a study of a curriculum exposing pupils to a wide range of influences, arts, ideas, opinions and facts so that they can acquire an understanding of the human condition and reach their own conclusions and judgements. An education for freedom.

Many ‘knowledge-based’ curriculum programmes claim to embrace the ‘liberal arts’ but fail to understand the enormity of teaching knowledge ‘for its own sake’. It has been said that the aims of a liberal education are to have ‘no aims’. And, on occasions when aims are proscribed for the liberal arts they are often wooly enough to encompass all sorts of interpretations, for example  the aim for the liberal arts that Daniel Denicola suggests is: ‘the activity of living as a human being and one’s life as a whole’. Or, in one word, ‘flourishing’.

In the title I have added the word ‘sciences’ as the ‘arts’ in their original meaning covered areas that were to later become ‘science’. However, it is useful in our understanding of knowledge for its own sake to see why the addition of ‘sciences’ to the liberal arts can be problematic. In The Closing of the American Mind,  Allan Bloom writes of the destructive nature of ‘modern’ (enlightenment) science. He paraphrases Jonathan Swift and his idea that modern science has lost the human perspective, and that science should ‘understand man as a man, and not as a geometric figure with flesh on it.’ A liberal arts and sciences education would restore, as Bloom puts it: the ‘self consciousness’ about science that is connected to ‘poetry’. This is echoed by Michael Oakeshott who makes the rather disparaging comment that ‘chemistry has never outgrown its character as a sophisticated kind of cookery.’ He makes this distinction: science that is liberal is science that is taught as ‘one of the great intellectual pursuits of mankind,’ rather than in fulfilling a utilitarian need for more ‘first class surgeons, engineers, chemists, psychologists, social scientists etc…’

This is what sets apart a liberal arts and sciences education. It is resistant to utilitarian, managerial, instrumental, vocational and simple ‘utopian’ arguments as to why we educate. Knowledge for its own sake is anti-utility and training. It is against the idea of knowledge as cultural ‘capital’ or ‘literacy’. It resists the ideas of knowledge for social justice or mobility. This impacts on the choices made for what is ‘in’ the curriculum.

Raymond Williams drew a distinction between the ‘industrial trainers’ who want to train the working classes for jobs, the ‘public educators’ who want a common curriculum for all and the ‘classical humanists’ who want to preserve high culture through a liberal arts education for the elite. These distinctions are salient, we still hear their echoes. The training for jobs that don’t yet exist – soft skills – vocational qualifications; the need for all to have a common core curriculum; and the threat of having to dumb down an education based on the finer things in order to make them accessible for the children of the majority – even a struggle for Matthew Arnold who wished to transform as many people as possible by providing them with access to ‘the best that has been thought and said’.

The liberal arts approach is anti-training because it refuses to leave children with the impression that there is only one way to think, rather it wishes young people to realise they are free to think and reason. The pupil becomes free. As William Deresiewicz describes it:

Creating a self, inventing a life, developing an independent mind…

An independent mind is not developed if your school has trained you in certain skills for the jobs market. An independent person free to ‘invent’ their life cannot do so if their curriculum has reduced their thinking due to a narrow range of subjects. One can’t create a self if one is subject to a daunting regime that wishes to stifle your individuality.

RS Peters identified three different strands in liberal education:

  1. Knowledge for its own sake.
  2. Broad and balanced.
  3. Non-dogmatic – because authoritarianism restricts the reasoning power of the individual.

Any approach to the curriculum that wishes to prepare children for the world of work cannot be described as a ‘liberal arts’ approach. Neither can one that intends to drive children towards certain outcomes such as being socially mobile, or in competing with the outcomes from other countries. An education driven by technological imperative or a diet of knowledge that is to enable school leavers to become high earners cannot said to be liberating. Any outcome which is to improve the lot of the nation economically or socially is not liberal because this reduces the self to a ‘geometric figure with flesh on it’.

Education as commodity, with qualifications as capital to be exchanged for certain vocations is anathema to a true education for its own sake which is a cornerstone of a liberal arts and sciences approach to curriculum. All acronyms such as STEM or STEAM are anathema as they are endowed with economic justifications. Culture as capital leads to children muttering: ‘Why am I doing this, is it in the exam? Why am I doing this it’s not relevant to the job I’m going to get? Will this make me more likely to get a top job?’ In answer to the question: ‘why do this rather than that?’ RS Peters suggests:

It is… the attitude of passionate concern about truth that informed Socrates’ saying that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’.

The focus should be on the curriculum they are being taught, not some far off abstract aim. Pupils are learning to engage fruitfully with knowledge to examine their life, our life, and the expression of those lives.

This is why, in the liberal arts, there is an emphasis on the pursuit of truth. This truth is to be found in ‘great’ books, authentic experiences and a discursive ‘dialectical’ method of teaching. Children learn important knowledge, they have great experiences – cultural, physical, thoughtful. They learn to debate, write, make speeches, play sport and make art, they learn other languages for the joy of having their minds expanded by different ways of seeing and interpreting the world. And they learn sciences to explore the wonder of the world. Through the breadth of curriculum experiences or, as Arnold called it, ‘the whole circle of knowledge,’ they are expected to learn the importance of truth – and that there are different ways to truth – some more objective and logical, and some more subjective, spiritual and emotional.

The central problem for a liberal arts curriculum is the charge that it is only for the leisured elite. James Burke recently suggested on the Radio 4 PM programme that most jobs will be taken by Artificial Intelligence within thirty years – algorithms networked and learning by themselves for themselves. What will education for humans be for if we are all part of the leisured class? He added that it is ‘our open ended self awareness that makes us sentient and creative humans.’ It is this ‘humanist’ echo that reverberates throughout a liberal education.

But I digress.

The liberal arts curriculum has a moral imperative behind its construction. It is taught through direct instruction, through dialogue, debate and discussion and through pupils creating their own responses to drive the conversations forward. The essay form is central as are other means of subject specific communication. The whole curriculum being subject based means there is also a need for ideas to be brought together through, what Christine Counsell refers to as, ‘intelligent inter-disciplinarity’ rather than ‘crazy cross curricularity’.

A liberal arts education is an aesthetic education. As Keats put it:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

It is rooted in the realm of passing on beauty, on truth but not in a way that just admires the ruins of the past. It is a conversational education. What is included in the curriculum are not pieces of work – the ‘best’ as suggested by what might be talked about at a middle class dinner party or broadsheet newspaper – the best here is something that defines us, a pretence to the universal maybe – but it helps us work out who we are – what it is to be human. It is subjective in this sense but is given a moral imperative through its underlying pursuit of wisdom and truth.






Hirsch and Bruner: Two Knowledge-Based Curricula Models. Curriculum Series Number Six


Hirsch’s ‘Communal knowledge’ curriculum and aspects of Bruner’s ‘Spiral Curriculum’ are both predicated on the importance of teaching knowledge. Bruner’s might be a controversial choice as he is sometimes seen as quite a ‘progressive’ figure but, I argue here, there are important aspects of his work that warrant inclusion in the ‘knowledge-based’ category.

Hirsch’s work is currently to the fore in many educational discussions about curriculum in England and therefore I will begin with his work, what is often referred to as a ‘core knowledge’ curriculum. I have referred to it above as ‘communal knowledge’ as it is the term that Hirsch has begun to use himself to describe his approach to what knowledge to include. This term replaces his other description of this, that of ‘cultural literacy’.

Hirsch argues that it is the ‘shared knowledge’ that is essential for all to be able to communicate with each other successfully in a common culture. He sees that a decline in shared knowledge is closely related to a decline in literacy. He places an emphasis on the importance of national knowledge over that of local and that knowing people’s ‘unspoken systems of association’ greatly helps mutual understanding. It is these ‘internalised schemata’ that help one read, write, and by having enough information especially early on in one’s education the mind is not always struggling due to cognitive overload to work out what it is reading, hearing, seeing etc.

It is not problems of cognition that see pupils struggle it is problems of knowledge. A child might be struggling at school because they don’t know enough, and, crucially, though they might know a lot about certain things, it is their lack of access to the ‘shared’ knowledge that is keeping them back.

The breadth of the knowledge taught aids a pupil’s endeavours in acquiring cultural ‘literacy’. If one reads a national newspaper one needs a great deal of breadth in one’s knowledge to understand what is written within. Therefore it is not enough to teach a child to read and restrict their reading to functional books with a limited range of information, a child also needs a wide range of subjects and rich texts to be able to take their part in society. As explained in the Core Knowledge series of books from Civitas, (edited by Hirsch), in the context of teaching a child to read, they need: ‘the systematic teaching of the ‘nuts and bolts’ of written language: phonics and decoding skills… spelling, handwriting, punctuation, grammar… [and] a rich diet of poetry, fiction and non-fiction… and… that children be given frequent opportunities to use language in creative and expressive ways. A balance needs to be found between the nuts and bolts, and the ‘rich diet’ and ‘creative and expressive ways.’

Knowledge is ‘sequenced’ – new knowledge is built on what has already been learned. This sequence needs to be coherent. For example a teacher might teach about Ancient Rome after teaching about Ancient Greece, the sonnet form before looking at Shakespeare’s plays. The wide range of academic disciplines are covered from general knowledge to deeper knowledge.

The pupils need to acquire this carefully sequenced knowledge from a broad curriculum that is experienced right from the beginning of their schooling.


In his book ‘Why Knowledge Matters’ Hirsch refers to Jerome Bruner as the ’eminent research psychologist’ suggesting, based on his work, that teachers might abandon the phrase ‘developmentally inappropriate’ when it comes to deciding what to teach and when.

Bruner argued that:

any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.

The idea that no content is inappropriate due to the age of the child might be considered controversial yet, as Daniel Willingham says of Bruner’s work:

If we accept that students’ failure to understand is not a matter of content, but either of presentation or a lack of back- ground knowledge, then the natural extension is that no content should be off limits for school-age children… Bruner goes on to suggest that children can get an intuitive grasp of a complex concept before they have the background and maturity to deal with the same topic in a formal manner… Without trivialising them, complex ideas can be introduced by making them concrete and through reference to children’s experience.

In his 1996 work ‘the Culture of Education,’ Bruner wrote:

culture shapes the mind… it provides us with the toolkit by which we construct not only our worlds but our very conception of our selves and our powers

This seems to agree with Hirsch’s ideas around cultural literacy. Culture is central to the educative process; it should, therefore, be essential to educate children about the cultural heritage in which they are born. But how to ensure children ‘learn’ this communal knowledge?

For Bruner it isn’t simply about the learning of knowledge in a logical sequence, he goes a step further:

The teaching and learning of structure, rather than simply the mastery of facts and techniques, is at the centre of the classic problem of transfer… If earlier learning is to render later learning easier, it must do so by providing a general picture in terms of which the relations between things encountered earlier and later are made as clear as possible

Bruner proposed a ‘spiral curriculum’. This curriculum focuses on the structure of knowledge, on key ideas and concepts, and the method of adding to that knowledge within the discipline. He proposed that children should first come across a concept or idea in a simple, concrete way and then later return and continue to revisit the concepts in ever more complex ways. He introduced the idea of ‘scaffolding’ to help children to understand the underlying principles and helping them to take the next steps. Sceptical of the mechanistic approach to cognitive psychology as a humanist he wanted to take into account how context matters and also how we can make ourselves. Bruner said:

I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the powers of mind reach their fullness not simply in accumulation – in what we come to know – but rather in what we can do with what we know, how we are enabled to frame possibilities beyond the conventions of the present, to forge possible worlds

Going back over the same concepts and methods in each subject area has knowledge build on knowledge. This knowledge is focused on concepts, ideas and skills, for Hirsch, it could be argued, that knowledge is more content and product based rather than looking at the underlying structure of that knowledge.

For Bruner one cannot just focus on product, process is vital. In this he moves into areas that for many on the ‘knowledge’ side of curriculum design might be controversial. For him children experiencing the ‘structure of disciplines’ was important. How knowledge is learnt is as important as what is learned. Here he ventures into the realm of doing – thinking and working like a mathematician, a historian, an actor etc. he suggested helps one absorb and learn the underlying concepts that go together to make up that discipline. Know how as well as know what.

Knowledge based curricula are not just of one ‘type’. In fact there are many discussions going on as to what a ‘knowledge-based’ education might look like and consist of that make it as fascinating an area to look at in itself. If a school has decided to focus on a knowledge based approach to curriculum design there is still much research to be done.

In my next post I will look at further knowledge based approaches, those ideas that are based firmly in the ‘liberal arts’ category.



What is a Knowledge-Based Curriculum? Curriculum Series Number Five.


In the fourth post of this series I suggested that all curricula teach knowledge and therefore some people think the idea of a ‘knowledge-based’ curriculum is no different as all curricula ‘teach knowledge’. But the term ‘knowledge-based’ does not mean merely the teaching of knowledge, there is much more to it than that.

The first thing to realise is that ‘what’ knowledge is extremely important. Not just ‘any’ knowledge will do. This is what leads people to attack this type of curriculum as elitist or obsessed with the works of ‘dead, male and pale’ people. This is a ‘canonical’ approach which favours some ‘great books’, ideas and artefacts over others, ‘the best that has been thought and said and done’ to paraphrase Arnold. The sequencing of this knowledge is vital – it is about building up an understanding of how different disciplines work. Domains are extremely important in a knowledge-based curriculum. The idea is to introduce children to the culture(s) to which they ostensibly ‘belong’ – locally, nationally and internationally. That these cultures don’t rub along seamlessly is part of what is taught. This is enculturation warts and all. A great history curriculum, for example, is not about brainwashing a child into thinking they belong to a master-race or class.

This approach requires the teacher to be an expert in their field. They are the sage on the stage and they stand on the shoulders of giants who have, over time, made each domain what it is today. It is also central to the knowledge based ideal that the subjects are academic. This can be controversial. In England this controversy is seen most starkly in the subjects that are deemed worthy enough to feature in the ‘EBacc’. Vocational subjects, Design and Technology, and Arts subjects are notable by their absence, as are more controversial ‘academic’ subjects like Film Studies and Sociology.

For me the Arts are central to any education worth its salt and a good liberal arts knowledge-based curriculum offer should recognise this. This is why I understand that the argument about ‘what knowledge?’ can be keenly felt.

‘What knowledge’ to teach is informed by the traditions, arguments and conversations in each domain. That this might be due to the arbitrary practices of time doesn’t matter but a good knowledge based curriculum will recognise these controversies at its heart. For example an economics curriculum ought to include both Adam Smith and Karl Marx, if it didn’t it wouldn’t be introducing students to the great controversies of the subject being studied and thus would disable their ability to take part in the conversations around that domain.

Yet it is the sheer need to leave out far more than to include that leads to problems. A progressive curriculum offer could easily say – follow the child’s interests’ an answer that could end up with the child having a distorted and prejudiced view as to what is really important – what they say is important might not be so.

In some areas the knowledge that is to be taught is less contested than in others. Arguably it is easier to put together a knowledge based subject curriculum in Maths and Science than it is in History and Literature. The recent efforts of English Literature professors at Cambridge University to ‘decolonise’ the curriculum is an example of the difficulties for institutions to justify curricula based on the ‘great tradition’ The question ‘why is my curriculum white?’ is so difficult to answer.

Another problem with a knowledge based curriculum is that human beings keep adding knowledge that could become part of any decent canon. Writers keep writing, painters keep painting and composers keep composing. At least with science new discoveries sometimes, obviously, wipe out older ideas; science tends towards a contemporary feel. (History of science would offer other challenges.) And though discoveries of the past still merit inclusion – think the works of Darwin and Newton as examples, it tends to be the latest iterations that matter. Though history can be revised, it still requires an understanding of the past – whose history? Kings and Queens or the common man? Or woman? In literature books can drop out of the canon but with all these things the perennial question must be ‘what have we lost?’

Along with a desire to create workers for an ever-evolving jobs market and the idea that not all pupils can muster an interest in the intricacies of Algebra, Newton and Beethoven some people think that this sort of curriculum belongs in the dustbin of history. Yet for a teacher wedded to a knowledge based approach this is an anathema – this important knowledge is for all, because it is about ensuring all have a stake in their society. People who argue for this approach are passionate advocates for the rights of the child to know, to understand and to be able to make a difference to themselves and their society.

For all the difficulties about what knowledge to include and why there are noble aims at the heart of this curriculum approach. The desire is to enable a child to grow into a ‘well-educated’ person. To experience the breadth of knowledge that our culture deems to be worthy and uplifting. As RH Tawney put it to ‘imagine the rivers of learning and purity in the world and bathe yourself in their living waters’. 

Maybe it is the image of the Goethe reading, Wagner appreciating, SS officer that did so much damage to the idea that education in the finer things, Matthew Arnold’s pursuit of perfection and ‘sweetness and light’, can make a human being a better person. A well educated person is not necessarily a better one.

Is a person more attuned to the works of Beethoven better educated than one who knows nothing of the composer of the Eroica but is well versed in the collected works of One Direction? Is someone who knows the plays of Shakespeare intimately better educated than one who knows nothing of the Bard and has spent a good deal of their lifetime watching Eastenders? Is someone who understands what the Hadron Collider is doing better educated than someone who knows nothing about the proton-smasher yet plays darts to a good level at their local pub every Saturday night?

Those who believe in a knowledge based approach will tend to say yes in answer to these questions and though this other knowledge is accessible in much of society it is introducing children to, sometimes, this more ‘difficult’ knowledge and, for some, much less accessible knowledge that is at the very heart of what a school must do.

In my next post I will be looking at some of the different types of knowledge based curricula.