Below is an abbridged transcript of a webinar with Christine Counsell on the importance of a knowledge-rich curriculum. The webinar explores the research and ideas underpinning Christine’s current work with Opening Worlds, which is a knowledge-rich humanities programme for teaching history, geography and religion in Years 3 to 6.
The text below is taken verbatim from the webinar with a few minor grammatical tweaks.
Knowledge and literacy
Teaching subjects in a really, really thorough and systematic way, with not only the intention of teaching those subjects well, because of course they matter in their own right, but also with a view to transforming literacy. So, this is very much about teaching 7- to 11-year-olds in a way that builds on their basic training in phonics, which we consider absolutely essential as a foundation. But assuming that the phonics work has been done properly, the decoding is unfolding as it should with intense thoroughness, you then need to do a great deal to make sure that children have rich, broad knowledge. And in fact, the challenge of making sure that a curriculum is diverse, which we would all want in the modern world, in line with modern scholarship, becomes one and the same thing, actually, is making them literate, because the sheer range, complexity, and coherence of that knowledge is supporting their ability to recognize words, phrases, idiomatic phrases, and to thoroughly enjoy text.
What and why can an educated person read?
What would you want students to be able to read at the end of their compulsory education? I think is always a good question to ask. And I think it’s a good question to ask internationally in this kind of situation, because I think there are goals here which transcend all our countries, all the concerns of our various jurisdictions. And I like to think in terms of the kind of book that we, perhaps as educated people, would comfortably read. We would read it for improvement of our understanding of the world, our ability to describe and explain the world, and we would read such a book for our ability to improve ourselves, to be better at making sense of the world’s challenges. And we might read such a book for pleasure. And indeed, none of us really gets far with any book in our own time unless we are loving it.
The importance of school in building the knowledge to understand the world
There’s something here about what is the role of a general education, a general secondary academic education in giving us access to discourse and giving us access, allowing us to be included in conversations about the world, whether that’s watching the news, discussing climate change or whatever, there is a kind of assumption, isn’t there, in educated people that these things will be known. And the sorts of things you see there are all the sorts of things that many children will only learn in school. We can’t rely on them getting them anywhere else. If they’re going to have access, they’re only going to gain them in school
Do not confuse a knowledge-rich curriculum with an information-focused curriculum
There’s a real art to building a curriculum shaped around knowledge. It’s not a case of flinging definitional stuff at children. If we do that, we forget what is really sitting underneath these words, particularly in the humanities and arts where we’re not dealing in those fixed regularities.
We do not want to pack their schooling with lots and lots of information, to chuck information at them. The moment you do that, you end up with an information-rich curriculum, which is not a lot of use. What one might prefer would be a knowledge-rich curriculum. And the distinction I draw there between information and knowledge, I think, is always very helpful. Knowledge has a structure. It has a shape. It has direction. It has systems and it has patterns that can be learned over time systematically. Information is just free-floating facts. And information, anyway, if we need extra bits of information, we can get that from the internet. But we cannot get knowledge from the internet. Knowledge is structures and systems in our head that we can take for granted.
Why knowledge is an equity issue
Many students leaving school, particularly students from deprived backgrounds, would not be able to read this [a book that requires a degree of knowledge across numerous domains]. I think we probably all agree. They’d not be able to read it at speed. It would not give them pleasure. It would not give them edification. And this is really alarming. They are therefore left out. We are condemning them to stand outside the community of educated people forever. And if they can’t describe the world, they can’t explain the world, they can’t analyse the world, and nor can they play their part in changing the world. So for me, this is a fundamental justice issue, an equity issue for these children …. How much more beautiful and rounded will it be by the time children are 14, 15, 16 if the curriculum stays systematic. So, these are words which are abstract, which give the child power, power to describe the world, to explain the world, to analyse the world and ultimately to change the world are known to them. And in that, I’m summing up why I see this as such a justice issue and such an inclusion issue. We’re not equipping children if we’re not giving them the opportunity to have an argument with you and me. And they can only have an argument with you and me if they have this power that allows them to say the unsaid and think the unthought
Knowledge itself as the progression model
So there’s something so powerful and liberating there, isn’t there, about a knowledge-rich curriculum because of the way each piece just unlocks the next. And what we have found so helpful is we’ve got right away from these sort of skill hierarchies, I can describe, I can evaluate, which people have so often in the past used to measure progress, because they’re meaningless. You know, I can evaluate, I can do that at postdoc level and for it to be fiendishly difficult, or I can do it at age nine with I’m given some simple tools. These are not measures of progress. The curriculum itself is the progression model. The curriculum itself with its knowledge and by knowledge its techniques and skills as well, its knowledge itself is the progression model. Mastery of the curriculum changes what we subsequently access.
The importance of the disciplines
We emphasise very strongly in our curriculum the disciplinary dimension of the subject, which is the origin of the subject, where the knowledge comes from, who owns this knowledge, how did it become knowledge. We focus on the disciplines, these long-standing traditions of inquiry, debate. These long-standing traditions of inquiry and debate. In the past we might have called that skills, but it’s not helpful because it’s not like the skill of riding a bicycle. We need to learn what archaeologists do, what geologists do, what historians do, what scientists do. It’s a vital part. We are learning about the fact that each subject refers to a discipline or practice which lives outside of school is where the subject is renewed.
So there’s a glorious dimension alongside learning the stuff where we also learn the kinds of questions that each subject asks and the kinds of tools that we need to access those questions. And this is something I always use to point to those who say that a knowledge-rich curriculum means that we’re not learning critical thinking. No, you’re actually really doing critical thinking so thoroughly because part of studying a subject well is understanding where that knowledge came from, understanding its provisionality, its revisability, and gaining the humility before that, the awe before that, of the fact that these experts out there who labour away in the interests of everybody’s knowledge, the scientists, the historians and so on, these experts there are not only renewing the knowledge, but they’re renewing the very tools of inquiry.
You’re thinking about what is the role of the subject in unlocking the world? How do you want science, history, geography, art, music to unlock things for children? How do you want it to enable them to thrive in the world? How do you want it to enable them to contribute to the world, to build their sense of responsibility and service to the world? And that’s not difficult because each of these subjects is an ethical pursuit. It’s an ethical pursuit by experts, by practitioners, by scholars, by a range of people that nurture and renew the subject. And I think when you stand back and say, right, what do I actually want the children to do here? If I take the subject that was originally my specialism, history, you know, I want children who are not going to be historians, they’re the ones who matter the most, the children who are not going to be specialist historians, who are going to drop the subject, age 14, 16, or whatever. I want them to go out into the world with enough reference points to make meaning from what they see, with a self-running curiosity about what they see. I want them to have enough diverse examples to, A, allow them to never homogenize phenomena that they see, so they see possibilities for it, but secondly, to not be tokenistic. And where a curriculum often goes wrong is we think, oh, God, I have a bit of this, bit of that, bit of the other, touch on this. And all you’ve done then is you’ve applied an audit mentality to your curriculum. Is this present? Is this present? Is this present? An audit mentality is disastrous for a curriculum. A curriculum must have a narrative mentality. So how does this thing I plant here transform their access to that later.
You can listen to Christine’s full presentation here.