Knowledge - Emily Seeber in the TES

Academic & Curriculum, Bedales Senior

The knowledge-rich curriculum is an ideal worth fighting for, but under the current system – further hindered by the selective use of cognitive science – it’s just not plausible, argues Bedales Head of Sciences, Emily Seeber, in an article for TES.

Schools are now experiencing the full force of the policies brought in by Michael Gove. These involved a shift towards traditional methods of education, with their associated focus on propositional (factual) knowledge and rote learning. As a result, says Emily, educational thinkers have focused their attention on how to do this ‘content heavy’ kind of teaching well; the knowledge-rich curriculum, which promotes maximising students’ knowledge base, represents the most sophisticated attempt. 

As part of their efforts, educational thinkers have been stimulated by cognitive research into how students learn, and many of the ideas presented by cognitive scientists have been adopted as part of the knowledge-rich approach to schooling. Cognitive scientists emphasise the importance of students having a strong background knowledge for learning, which is considered by some to benefit disadvantaged students in particular.

Crucially, the knowledge-rich curriculum that we are being sold today combines the best of propositional knowledge and procedural knowledge, which is concerned with the mastery of skills. “It’s great”, says Emily, “but it is undermined by a selective interpretation of the cognitive science research, and the pressures of high-stakes assessment determining pedagogy”.

One of the ways cognitive research has been misused in the knowledge-focused curriculum is an over-emphasis on content delivery, at the expense of knowledge taught to students being meaningful. Emily explains that in some cases the value of propositional content lies most in its leading students to an understanding of the correct conceptual framework. With regard to assessment, it is easier to assess propositional than procedural knowledge – and if testing is skewed towards propositional knowledge, she observes, then teaching will be too.

In high performing international education systems there is an increased focus on depth of learning over breadth. The curriculum is slimmed down in terms of content, and schools often have autonomy over the propositional content taught, so long as students acquire the necessary conceptual understanding.

The failures of the knowledge-focused curriculum impact on disadvantaged students in particular. As procedural knowledge gets squeezed out, disadvantaged students are impoverished further. In particular, they are less likely to engage in co-curricular activities. Emily says: “Playing instruments, the dramatic arts, STEM clubs, creative writing groups all provide participants with a wealth of procedural knowledge – if not part of the curriculum, these become the domain of the privileged”.

Personal knowledge (for example, of people) has also been squeezed out by excessive focus on propositional content. Disadvantaged students are less likely to know a wide range of people, or to access a variety of reading materials. Consequently, schools have a responsibility to provide students with this opportunity.

By way of redress, concludes Emily: “A slimmed-down curriculum would allow teachers to ensure students master the relevant procedural knowledge within the subject’s propositional framework, and high-stakes assessment needs to include procedural and personal knowledge if these are to be valued aspects of the curriculum. The curriculum should explicitly include the development of personal knowledge, with co-curricular activities free, timetabled into the school day, and viewed as an essential aspect of students’ learning”.

The full article can be read on the TES website here (subscription may be required).

TES | Emily Seeber