Heavy weather requires something to cling to so I’m returning to my moutons in the woolly shape of some principles I wrote 11 years ago. These have developed a edu-zeitgeist half-life as well as being inflicted on every group of people I’ve ever met. They are a sort-of answer to the perennial question of ‘what are schools for?’ and I wrote them at the time of the coalition government and to help make sense of Gove’s curriculum reforms. Here they are:
- Knowledge is worthwhile in itself. Tell children this unapologetically: it’s what childhood and adolescence is for
- Schools teach shared and powerful knowledge on behalf of society.We teach what they need to make sense of and improve the world.
- Shared and powerful knowledge is verified through learned communities.We are model learners, in touch with research and subject associations
- Children need powerful knowledge to understand and interpret the world.Without it they remain dependent upon those who have it or misuse it
- Powerful knowledge is cognitively superior to that needed for daily life. It transcends and liberates children from their daily experience
- Shared and powerful knowledge enables children to grow into useful citizens. As adults they can understand, cooperate and shape the world together
- Shared knowledge is a foundation for a just and sustainable democracy. Citizens educated together share an understanding of the common good
- It is fair and just that all children should have access to this knowledge. Powerful knowledge opens doors: it must be available to all children
- Accepted adult authority is required for shared knowledge transmission.The teacher’s authority to transmit or broker knowledge is given and valued by society
- Pedagogy links adult authority, powerful knowledge and its transmission. Quality professionals enable children to make a relationship with ideas to change the world.
At the time I was collaborating with Prof Michael Young of the Institute on a book that was published in 2014 and is still being read, called Knowledge and the Future School. Michael and I are chums, so he won’t mind me observing that he’s roughly 200 years old but nonetheless keeps thoughtful tabs on what schools are doing, and why. He’s concerned that schools leap from one two-dimensional solution to another without sufficient mental scrutiny, without thought and without reflection.
In 2011 it was important to conceptualise and reassert the primacy of knowledge in learning – but now we’re in danger again. Post-Covid, people are lurching towards off-the-peg curricula, like the Oak National Academy that sprang up to assist in desperate times but is now set to take over the thinking of a generation of teachers, a Japanese Knotweed of curriculum development. And perhaps schools can’t find space to see that or worry about it in the context of the unfunded pay award, the energy crisis, the fact that families can’t afford to eat and the missing of teacher recruitment targets in eight of the last nine years. By a mile. (Not that we’ll be able to measure anything in a future without maths or geography teachers.)
So what principles might we cling to in this particularly prolonged storm, with buckets of hail being thrown from each side and the siren call of off-the-peg answers sounding through the surge? Here’s my thinking so far:
- Knowledge is powerful: it can change the world, person by person.
- Children need knowledge to interpret the world and broaden their possibilities.
- Knowledge and understanding bring freedom and requires us to choose how to live
- Knowledge is real but provisional: it endures and changes.
- Knowledge gives people the power to think and act in new and better ways
- Knowledge is social, produced in history: good communities are built on shared knowledge
- Inequitable distribution of shared and powerful knowledge undermines democracy
- Schools give unique access to knowledge, skilfully tailored to the growing human
- Learners volunteer to acquire knowledge when enabled by skilled teachers
- Good education is not inevitable. It must not be withheld, misused or devalued.
Comments welcome, of course.
I was watching a staircase last week and found a youth walking up it backwards, with one hand for the ship, the better to lecture his comrades. This caused significant embouteillage upstream so I issued a cease and desist. He apologised nicely, but I couldn’t tell if it was incipient demagoguery or a concern for safety that inspired him.
When I visited the Capitol in 1999 the guides walked backward in front of us to prevent anyone slipping off to install Communism. It does feel as though we’re being led backwards at the moment, without reason or rationale.
Pitch, roll, sway, heave, surge and yaw are only good to look back on if you didn’t go under. Here’s hoping, for us all.