Does a knowledge-based curriculum need to restrict how we teach?


Read time: 10 mins

Comparing teaching to other sectors

After university, I worked for an investment bank. It turned out that working to make the rich even richer didn’t motivate me. Now I’ve found what does – helping others – making comparisons to my previous career is interesting.

For 4 years, I worked on a project merging the operations and services of national banks into a shared international system. It was exciting work, but it ultimately failed. The separate banks didn’t like the loss of control and missed what their old systems enabled them to do.

Speaking to more experienced colleagues, I learnt that there was a long-term oscillation between shared and local solutions going back many years in the industry. I’m interested in whether long-term oscillations in educational philosophy also exist, which drive the adoption of poorly planned changes.

Is the Knowledge-based curriculum king?

One ‘oscillation’ in Education appears to be between Knowledge and Skills. Gove’s curriculum reforms are firmly from the ‘knowledge trumps skills’ camp, influenced by ED Hirsch. Such thinking seems dominant in high-level circles currently: see for example the Chief Inspector’s recent blogs and speeches. You could argue that the pendulum between knowledge and skills has swung several times. Will it stick on Knowledge, or swing back to Skills/Creativity? You might enjoy these two TedTalks if you haven’t already watched them:

Arguments in favour of a Knowledge-based Curriculum

One rather compelling argument in favour of a Knowledge-based curriculum is the link to Cognitive load theory. A Knowledge-based curriculum focuses on getting a well-defined, relevant schema of knowledge into learners’ long-term memories. By growing Germane Cognitive Load, the Extraneous Cognitive Load on learners is reduced, enabling them to subsequently master more complex tasks.

I welcome a focus on what knowledge is taught, and when. Many school leaders avoid engaging with the details of the curriculum, instead focusing on timetabling and other (important but) logistical matters.

I would also support the idea that planning a curriculum based on skills over knowledge is flawed. As a science teacher, I remember vividly how painful I found it to teach the previous ’21st Century Science’ GCSE course, with its fluffy emphasis on skills.

So what’s my beef with a Knowledge-based curriculum?

The idea of a Knowledge-based curriculum seems to be linked by some to an interpretation of Willingham’s work in ‘Why don’t students like school?’. The interpretation goes something like this: ‘we need to focus heavily on learning by rote and direct instruction, whilst avoiding student-led or problem-based learning’.

Yes, Discovery-style learning appears to be ineffective. More generally, designing lessons around ‘engaging’ activities rather than learning outcomes is problematic, as illustrated very effectively in this recent blog (for example).

However, Collaborative Learning , whilst tricky to implement well, appears to have reliable impact for low cost (see EEF toolkit summary). My concern is that Collaborative Learning (and group work more generally) may become a casualty in schools lead by strong advocates of a Knowledge-based curriculum. Rigid pedagogical leadership may encourage teachers to deliver lessons dominated by teacher talk,  with teachers sticking to a script and not experimenting (see Appendix*) to the benefit of their learners.

In summary

In defining their curriculum, I think schools should be cautious about adopting a knowledge-based curriculum if it is accompanied by excessive prescription on how teachers can choose to deliver content.

Firstly, Wiliam argues that pedagogy trumps curriculum. He also argues that ‘teachers create the implemented curriculum’: I would interpret this as meaning that excessive prescription is hard / impossible to realise, even if desirable. My own experience as a Head of Science taught me the importance of a balance in the level of detail used in schemes of work. Too little detail resulted in excessive planning time and variation in quality, whilst too much detail resulted in some teachers delivering content without adapting it for the needs of their students.

Secondly, Willingham does not dismiss the idea of “making the material “relevant” to students” or using activities where “the goal is to puzzle students, to make them curious”. He recommends instead that such things are done judiciously, and at the right stage of learning. A skilled teacher needs to be empowered to ‘do what works’ for their students. They should take controlled risks informed by research evidence. A curriculum model which dictates pedagogy is likely to inhibit this.


*Appendix: an example of Collaborative learning: how would this be viewed in your school?

[The following example is provided to illustrate the kind of teacher experimentation which I’m concerned might be at risk in schools which overly prescriptive pedagogical leadership]

I recently read ‘Outstanding Teaching: Teaching Backwards’ (Burns and Griffiths). It contains lots of concise and easy to practice techniques designed to challenge learners. Here’s a specific technique: Mystery tasks. 

Mystery tasks are where you provide learners with jumbled up information, which they have to use in groups to solve a ‘real-life’ problem. The real gain from the teacher’s POV is the quality of peer-peer dialogue which results.

Below is an example from my school, taken from a Year 10 Physics lesson.

Mystery 1

Mystery 1a.JPG

Mystery 2.JPG

Mystery 3.JPG

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