Why what you teach matters

I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that within the next two years Ofsted will stop grading the quality of teaching, learning and assessment as part of their overall judgement on schools’ effectiveness. This will probably be replaced with a judgement on a school’s curriculum and assessment policies and practices. If I’m right, how a teacher teaches will become less and less important, instead, schools will be increasingly held to account for what they teach.

Even if I’m wrong, I think it’s still very important to think carefully about what we teach. Judgements on how teachers teach are primarily  concerned with whether children are learning. As Ofsted have recognised in the last few years,  judging learning in lessons is a practical impossibility. I’ve made the point on numerous occasions that although we know it happens, learning is not something you can see.

I’ve also suggested previously that the expectation that lessons contain learning is a trivially low bar. Here’s a brief summary of this ideas in this post:

  • Learning is never neutral – students are always learning something although not necessarily what teachers want or expect them to learn.
  • Learning is an evolutionary adaptation – if we found learning hard, we would not have survived the process of natural selection. Learning new things is something we have evolved to find quite easy.
  • Learning some things is harder than learning others – just because we find it easy to learn the rules of social groups and the likely behaviours of organic and inanimate objects this does not mean we find it easy to learn everything. Abstractions are hard for us to learn and to be successful in an academic setting, you need to understand abstract concepts.

Whether or not students are learning is, largely, irrelevant. The important question to ask is, what are they learning?

There are, I reckon, three main reasons why what we teach matters. These are reasons are cognitive, sociocultural and economic.

Probably the most important reason for teaching a knowledge rich curriculum is the effects it has on cognition. The most important individual difference between students is the quantity and quality of their prior knowledge; the more you know, the better you can think. It’s self-evident that no one can think about what they don’t know. This argument is sometimes dismissed by those who suggest that teaching knowledge about the world in the 21st century is unnecessary because we can easily look everything we need to know up on the internet. Persuasive as this argument can seem, it ignores the fact that background knowledge – stuff we’re not consciously aware of thinking about – is what we think with.* Our minds are full of different kinds of knowledge and it’s what we know that, as much as anything else, makes us who we are. Our ability to think, reason, problem-solve, create and collaborate all entirely dependent on what we know. In order to think we have to have something to both think with and about. If a curriculum is not full of useful, powerful and interesting stuff then we’ll struggle to be useful, powerful or interesting.

This leads us to the second, sociocultural reason why we should teach a knowledge rich curriculum. If some people know something and others don’t, those who don’t will find themselves excluded or marginalised from the group who does. If, as is the case in every society human beings have ever developed, those in the more knowledgable group have more power and influence, those excluded from this group find themselves on the fringes of society. Whether we like it or not, the powerful routinely decide that what they value is a marker of access into the elite. If the children of the elite are given access to this powerful cultural pool of knowledge, then they will perpetuate the divisions and inequalities between the haves and the have-nots. But, if the children of those on the margins are taught the same stuff as the wealthy and powerful, then they can gain access to opportunities and possibilities denied to their parents. When we express our indignation that some knowledge is valued over other knowledge and decide to teach this ‘other’ knowledge in the name of liberty and social justice we actually deny our students choice. Much better to teach knowledge with the most cultural capital and then learn to critique it. After all,  you can’t really criticise something you don’t know. Ignorance benefits no one.

The last of my reasons in support of a knowledge rich curriculum is an economic one. It’s very useful to consider teaching as a form of economic problem: how can we maximise outputs from a finite set of inputs?  We have a strictly finite number of hours with students so we have to make choices. It might be nice to ‘do a bit of both’ and give curriculum time to generic problem-solving or creativity but this would be time we could not then spend developing students’ understanding of academic subjects. This is what economists call an ‘opportunity cost’. I’ve argued before that so-called ’21st century skills’ are in fact the kinds of things we’ve always known about and have evolved to learn naturally. There might be some benefit to doing a spot of collaborative work in the hope it makes students better able to collaborate with colleagues in a career they might begin several years down the line, but not much. If however we spend our finite resources giving students more to think about and lots of practice of thinking about these things, then we’re more likely to end up with students who can collaborate on something useful and solve problems that are difficult to solve.

*If you’ve not read it before, I recommend ED Hirsch’s article, You Can Always Look It Up – Or Can You?

34 Responses to Why what you teach matters

  1. Tom Burkard says:

    I like the little drawing at the top–except it understates the case. New information cannot even be understood–let alone retained– except in relation to existing knowledge, so all those little circles cannot in fact exist in our brains. The Ken Robinsons of this world who deride the teaching of knowledge don’t understand that they can benefit from search engines because their own teachers imparted a substantial amount of knowledge through rather more conventional means. By contrast, a victim of our knowledge-lite classrooms will not have enough knowledge to frame a useful question–or even any motive for doing so.

  2. You know a lot, David, but are you powerful? You’re not as powerful as Alan Sugar. Does he know more than you? And you’re definitely not as powerful as George Soros. Does he know more than you? I suspect that you’re not as powerful as Alex Ferguson – or at least as he was for a long time. Does he know more than you? Some great thinkers haven’t been very powerful at all – Bertand Russell, Albert Einstein, Jean-Paul Sartre?

    When you say ‘better’ at thinking – does this include a moral component. By all accounts Goebbels was the brightest of the Nazis, but he didn’t wield the most power. But was he a ‘better’ thinker. Eichmann seems to have been quite a scholar. Was he a good thinker?

    One of my children did philosophy A level, a degree and then a masters in it. Was he learning knowledge, was he learning about knowledge, or was he learning both at the same time? As he did very well at these things, is he powerful?

    My brother knows an enormous amount about geology, paleontology, geography, industrial archaeology, music, literature, gardening, model trains, transport, photography. And I really mean an enormous amount – a whole lifetime based on studying these things in a scholarly way, and doing research in marine biology, ecology, evolution, and Darwinian studies. Does this mean that he is inevitably a ‘good thinker’? Is he a ‘better thinker’ than Judi Dench?

    • fish64 says:

      Don’t know about Judi Dench, but your brother sounds like an interesting person who, if he so desired, would be able to converse and strike up a rapport with lots of different people with diverse interests. If I was at a social function and someone started talking to me about geology as one of their interests, all I would be able to do is ask questions. I probably would have difficulty understanding the answers as I do not bring any background knowledge to the topic. Wide ranging knowledge and interests open up tremendous opportunities for collaboration and “empathy”.

    • David Didau says:

      You have to think about this at scale. Of course you can cite an individual and say, here’s someone who doesn’t fit. So what? It’s true that some people are successful without much in the way of education, but this is not at all true for the vast majority of people who are uneducated.

      I think ‘power’ in the way you’re using it is too limiting an idea, better to think about power in terms of agency and the ability to self-determine. Einstein, Russell and Sartre would, I think, have thought of themselves as having power in this respect. As for me, your philosopher child and Goebbels, what we have in common is choice. The more we know the greater the range of opportunities we can choose to access. Obviously enough, one consequence of having this kind of power is being able to choose not to pursue the other kind.

      I can’t speak as to whether your brother is a good thinker per se, but I can say with some confidence that he will be a much better thinker than Judi Dench on those areas in which he is an expert. Dench likewise will probably be a better thinker about theatre.

      And no, this does not include a moral component.

  3. Pat Stone says:

    What do the ‘elite’ know that ordinary people do not and that perpetuates their eliteness?
    ‘Each other’ would be my answer of choice.

    • David Didau says:

      Well, of course: that was my point. The more interesting avenue of exploration is, why?

      • Pat Stone says:

        But you are saying knowledge will make us all elite.
        I say being elite can have more to do with where one buys one’s cufflinks. We should probably teach this if we want our kids to really get on.
        Let’s all be elite.

        • David Didau says:

          No, I’m really not saying that Pat. I’m saying this: “if the children of those on the margins are taught the same stuff as the wealthy and powerful, then they can gain access to opportunities and possibilities denied to their parents.”

          • Pat Stone says:

            What are you saying?
            My Dad used to say, “Knowledge is power”, the MCS slogan, at least once a day. Where do they get it from?I think my Dad’s came from his youth in the pre-war Weslyan chapel tradition. Interestingly, Thatcher enjoyed a similar religious education, that she turned away from once she’d ‘made it.’
            My Dad left school at 14, as many, most, did. He was up to his eyes in all sorts of knowledge – he knew everything, but never had a smidgeon of power. He didn’t have the right cufflinks.
            I like knowledge. I like to teach knowledge. I like my kids to have knowledge. But so they can occupy a higher echelon than others? No.

          • Pat Stone says:

            What is this same stuff that the wealthy and powerful know? Give us a list.
            I think everyone should know everything. But this knowing will not, in and of itself, let them “gain access to opportunities and possibilities denied to their parents.”
            Tackle the British class system – this is at the real bottom of our inequalities.

          • David Didau says:

            If you really want a list you can start here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Cultural-Literacy-Every-American-Needs/dp/0394758439/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1478309962&sr=1-3&keywords=e+d+hirsch. But I don’t think you do want a list, I think you just want to prove me wrong.

            *Of course* knowing stuff on it’s own is not enough. The point is that knowing stuff gives you options. If you want to tackle the class system you you’ll find it easier from within.

            And even outsider revolutionaries have always been knowledgeable. Where would Robespierre, Lenin and Mao have been without knowledge?

            But what’s your solution? If I am wrong and you believe in social justice, what would you teach?

  4. julietgreen says:

    I totally agree with this and I also agree with Pat. A useful knowledge domain, which is sadly neglected in most realms, is the understanding of how humans behave as social animals – primates, specifically. That gives us considerable perspective on how the likes of Alan Sugar get and maintain ‘power’ and why the winners of University Challenge don’t always.

  5. Before I retired, I taught ‘Gifted and Talented’ children, – and no, I didn’t like the label: they were all Mrs 23711’s groups. In Y6nthe classroom syllabus included Ancient Greece, so my kids learnt Greek geometry (Euclid) and Greek philosophies. Both classes were cut because the important thing was to get L6 at KS2. So I’m retired.

  6. Pat Stone says:

    No reply option on your last reply to me, so I have to put it here, out of synch.

    I have no problem with knowledge. Who has? I take issue with the notion that if everyone has the ‘right’ knowledge they will somehow infiltrate the elite. You get anywhere near that and you’ll soon be back in your box, no matter how much you know.
    There is also the question of what you mean by elite?
    Several years ago I wrote somewhere that Gove – up to both ears in knowledge – is not a Tory top table toff, that the establishment elite would use him to do their dirty work, chew him up and spit him out.
    I think we’ll find this is exactly what’s happened.
    Why does Boris – also full of knowledge of a particular sort – still have a top job, after all he’s done? Because he is the quintessential Tory top table toff!

    Let’s have all the knowledge, yes, and enjoy it amongst ourselves and use it to build our lives and our society, not just so we can be let through the big oak door from time to time to sit in a corner and wait for crumbs from the top table.

    I’d like knowledge and learning promoted to our children as having intrinsic value, to do what they want with as they grow up, not as passports to the aristocracy, the Phantom City of Chinese mythology.

  7. I was educated in a system that was ‘knowledge-based’ (I began informal schooling in 1949 (nurseries) formal schooling in 1951 and finished secondary school in 1964. It was also a system that streamed us in 1956-1957, selected 25% of us to go to a ‘knowledge-based’ school, where we were setted from the age of 13 for Maths and French, and at 14/15, about a third of us left. At 16 over half our year left school. In fact, the knowledge-based curriculum was a means by which a lot of this selection was enabled. The tests and exams tested the knowledge.

    People who were not included in the selection, starting with the streaming in year 6 (‘4th year juniors’) the setting, the early school leaving, the non-progression to the sixth form – all got much less or hardly any knowledge-based learning. That was the point. They had showed themselves, it was said, at each of these stages to be less able to cope with it.

    This was a long time ago.

    Can you say why and how the system is different? There are – and by all accounts there will be more – forms of selection, grading and failing, starting from an early age. Since 2000, my children have been setted in their primary schools from the age of 5. SATs at 7 and 11 – and predictions on how well they will or won’t do, have also been means by which the children are given different curricula. This has followed on into their secondary schools. They’ve all been (and are still) at comprehensives. As we know, many kinds of overt and covert selection is going on. The recent report on headteacher-types that came out of Harvard suggested that the ‘surgeon-type’ heads were able to dump (ie drop from the roll) as much as 25% of their cohort before they took their GCSEs. No one has denied this.

    So, how does the knowledge-based curriculum fit on to this ‘substrate’ ie into this system? Where is the empowerment to the disadvantaged? Is the knowledge-based curriculum being used in order to engineer the selection? What happens to those not selected as they progress through the system?

    • David Didau says:

      It’s easy to conflate the idea of a knowledge-rich curriculum with academic selection and other perceived social ills. In fact, the decision to teach this kind of curriculum has nothing whatsoever to do with academic selection.

      If our concern is about an estimated 25% of students who fail in the current system the difference would be that in the system I propose, they might not fail. Why? Because the construct of intelligence is made up of fluid and crystallised intelligence. Fluid intelligence correlates well with working memory capacity. Various studies have shown that a subject’s ability to pay attention to multiple ideas at once is a very good predictor of reasoning as measured by a standard IQ test. The bad news is that fluid intelligence can’t really be improved: you get what you get. Crystallised intelligence is different in that it maps pretty well to the quality and quantity of facts we’ve stored in long-term memory (LTM): the more we know the greater our crystallised intelligence. While we can’t improve fluid intelligence, what we can do is ‘hack’ it. There are two ways we can cheat the limitations of working memory:
      1. Extended networks of ideas and information (schemas) take up the same amount of space in working memory as single isolated facts so the more we know about a subject the more space we have to pay attention to novel ideas and interesting combinations of ideas.
      2. Through practice we can automatise various procedural knowledge so that it becomes background knowledge. When a skill or a fact has been automatised, we are no longer consciously aware of it and it takes up very little space in working memory allowing us to concentrate on things we haven’t yet mastered.

      Much of teachers’ efforts in the current system is spent trying (and failing) to improve fluid intelligence by drilling students in ‘skills’ like analysis, evaluation etc. Unfortunately, writing essays isn’t really a skill that we ever automatise – in order to write thoughtfully we have to think. In this system, those with greater working memory capacity do well and those who don’t struggle.

      If instead teachers prioritised knowledge then all children would see an increase in crystallised intelligence. Instead of practising skills that don’t really automatise we could spend time automatising the component parts and on factual recall. In this system, the entire bell curve is more likely to move to the right. Admittedly those with higher fluid intelligence would still do better but there wouldn’t the long tail of underachievement we currently have. Everyone would see themselves get cleverer as they passed through the system.

      If you think I’m wrong about this, that’s fair enough. But what would you propose instead?

      • I’ll leave this analysis of intelligence to one side for the moment as you deal with this in another post, if I may. I wasn’t ‘conflating’ the knowledge-rich curriculum with selection, I was doing something different. Education always takes place in the context of a given structure of education. There is no theoretical abstract thing called ‘education’ which exists over or above or separate from the structure of schools, the daily, monthly, yearly attendance at different kinds of schools etc etc. So, the knowledge-rich curriculum has landed. It is going on in the present system of testing, in the patchwork of different kinds of ruling bodies for schools, different kinds of schools and in some cases and places overt selection and in plenty of others covert selection. All this is is inseparable from the knowledge-rich curriculum – or indeed any kind of curriculum.

        If you say that this knowledge-rich curriculum could enable us to eradicate failure, then that has to be addressed to a system in place which is designed to produce top success, medium success, pass and fail. That’s what setting, streaming, high stakes testing and public exams are for. They select and segregate – ultimately for the labour market and ‘society’.

        Your posts often raise the question (implicitly or explicitly) ‘what is education for?’ One answer is that it’s to deliver a workforce clearly marked with suitability for different kinds of work. A system of setting, streaming, testing and examining does this very well. In the last 20 years, the use of multiple choice questions and highly specific knowledge-based questions has aided in the process of getting easily measurable questions into the tests and back into the education process leading up to the tests. The classic example of this is how ‘language work’ in primary schools has become a matter of ‘right and wrong’ answers about what they call ‘grammar’, along with punctuation and spelling, rolled into one very important test.

        We are on the verge of what seems to be a key shift in the amount of selection at 11 years old – a whole load more. A knowledge-rich education in primary schools is going to aid this process. It really doesn’t matter how theoretical (or correct or incorrect) one is about this curriculum if we consider it in a theoretical way. I mean, it might well be interesting if not fascinating, but it is entirely abstract. The real situation is the one I’ve described. It’s ‘real’ because it’s the one that pupils and teachers experience or will experience.

        • David Didau says:

          Although I think the concept of education can certainly be discussed separately from a specific school system, I take your point that a curriculum, no matter the intentions involved in its design, can be misused, misapplied and poorly assessed.

          To the extent that I would like to see systemic change my approach is to try to work from the inside out. To that end it seems sensible to change the things that are in a school’s control first. While curricula are in large part aligned to the specifications of specific examinations, there is still plenty of room to decide exactly what to cover and how to cover it. This is where I think a curriculum designed to make all children cleverer is a good thing.

          It’s probably impossible to “eradicate failure” – there will always be those for whom a system doesn’t work (that seems to be the nature of systems) – but if our endeavour is to make all children cleverer, then all children will benefit regardless of the assessment regime.

          I’d dispute claim that “the last 20 years [has seen a rise in] the use of multiple choice questions and highly specific knowledge-based questions” – t GCSE and A level the opposite has tended to be the case. I agree however that the poor implementation of the Spag test has served to undermine its intentions – but that does not negate the value of systematic grammar teaching – it just calls for a better understanding of assessment concepts within the system.

          You’re right that we do appear to be “on the verge of what seems to be a key shift in the amount of selection at 11 years old “. This is a bad thing. But I can’t agree that a knowledge-rich curriculum aids the process. What it would do would be make an unfair system a little less unfair.

          And that’s the point: despite all the societal ills which surrounds and even though our education system is flawed in many important respects, prioritising knowledge would still be a good thing.

          • From personal experience, a knowledge-based curriculum was used very successfully to select and segregate me and my cohort in the 1950s and 1960s. One consequence of that was to restrict access to knowledge for those selected out (as opposed to those selected in). As I’ve said, this was repeated from the age of about 9 to about 16. At each stage, another slice was taken off the cohort.

            An ‘intentionalist’ view of this would say that this was a coherent system. The knowledge was being apportioned and the selection process did the apportioning. And it was successful. I’ve also suggested that it’s possible to say that this was its purpose. It was welcomed by employers because it made life simple for them in terms of who to slot where in the workforce: schools delivered up its unskilled workers, skilled workers, potential foremen, middle managers, senior managers, professionals, and high flyers. The knowledge curriculum (and access to it) did the job.

            Can you explain how, in a system that seems to be moving more and more towards a selective one, (often covert but selective nevertheless) the knowledge-based curriculum will also be about restricting access to it as, at each stage, children and school students are sliced off?

          • David Didau says:

            I’m not sure this a productive avenue of debate but I would argue that the curriculum and the assessment of the curriculum while connected are clearly very different things. What kind of curriculum you feel you experienced has nothing per se to do with the fact that you underwent selection. Conceivably, you could have been selected for poetic ability, cooking ability or draughtsmanship. If that had been the case then you would probably have been puzzled as to why the curriculum didn’t seem to match what was being selected, but still doesn’t mean that one kind of curriculum presupposes selection any more than any other kind of curriculum.

    • Apologies, I’ve asked you a ‘when did you stop beating your..’ question. I intended it to be a ‘not’ question. ie ‘Can you explain how in a system that seems to be moving more and more towards a selective one, the knowledge based curriculum will NOT also be about restricting access to it..?’

      • David Didau says:

        I see your point. All I can say is the following:
        1. I am against selection at 11.
        2. Anything can be misused and just because a school decided to implement the kind of curriculum I propose does not mean that the government (or anyone else) couldn’t design an assessment to select how well students could apply the knowledge they’d learned.
        3. I think that in some ways this is a least worst situation: all curricula are vulnerable to selection but some exacerbate differences between the most and least advantaged whereas I see my proposal as acting to close some of this divide.

    • You’ve got yourself screwed in the dance/dancer argument. Of course we can all talk about a ‘dance’ in the abstract but a dance only exists when it’s being danced. Same goes for a curriculum. We can talk endlessly about curricula but they only exist in actual situations. The situation is the curriculum and the curriculum is the situation. It’s the totality of the lived school experience. Likewise, you can invent all sorts of selection systems, but in actual fact – in reality- there was only one for me and there are now actual ones in operation now. I’ve told you before, my children go to a comp where they do various kind of testing at the rate of about one a week – sometimes little spot tests, sometimes bigger ones, sometimes mocks. As a direct result of these the students are setted, and their progress is of course mapped on to various kinds of progress charts. Can you separate these processes from ‘curriculum’? I can’t.

      • David Didau says:

        Once again with feeling: I think my suggestion that we embrace a knowledge-rich curriculum might make all this a bit better.

        But seeing as you don’t object to my suggestions, I’m not sure what we’re actually discussing.

        • I think if you go back through the thread, the issue I’ve raised is that a knowledge-rich curriculum enacted in a highly selective environment is one that excludes in stages from 3-18. So, perhaps what happens – it was a query – that we’re back to where we were with some children and school students getting the knowledge-rich curriculum and some actively excluded from it.

  8. […] The other point to make is that we all have an innate capacity to do many of these things already. We’re born with the ability to organise environmental stimuli into schemas which then form concepts etc. We do this unconsciously without the need for thought. Other things like planning and evaluating also happen unconsciously but we can also decide to pay additional attention when our experience is such that we’re not sure as to outcomes. It might be useful to prompt children to do these things and briefly demonstrate how to do them, but I’d suggest investing any more time than that will run into a considerable opportunity cost. […]

  9. […] Three reasons to teach a knowledge-rich curriculum: cognitive, socio-cultural, and economic. […]

  10. […] 21st Century skills are in fact biologically primary evolutionary adaptations. As I explained here, we are innately creative. We solve problems as a matter of course and collaboration comes to us […]

  11. […] but what’s the point in teachers doing a fabulous job of teaching something rubbish? I’ve argued before that what we teach trumps how we teach. Charitably, we should probably conclude that by ‘quality of teaching’ John means to […]

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