The Trouble with Knowledge

“Who controls the past controls the future:
who controls the present controls the past.”
George Orwell, 1984

When I was a child, I believed in two things that later on (to my complete astonishment) turned out to be incorrect. I believed that the name for the food you ate at lunchtimes or on picnics, which consisted of a filling between two slices of bread, was a “sandwitch”. And I believed that there was a giant country on the maps that I saw of the world, which was known as “Africa”. As far as I’m concerned, the first of these might as well be true – as both a spelling and a concept, “sandwitch” makes a lot more sense to me than “sandwich”. As far as the latter is concerned, in later life I found out where my misconception came from. A geography teacher told me that there was a textbook, back in the seventies, in which the countries of Europe were labelled and coloured individually, but the entire continent of Africa was shown in one colour, with a big “Africa” label slapped across it. Whoever wrote the textbook had clearly decided that the astonishing range of countries, landscapes, peoples, languages and histories in this continent were not worth detailing. The way information was presented in that textbook not only led me to an embarrassing error of thinking that stuck with me for years, but also shone a light on the knowledge that the authors of the textbook felt it was important for me to know.

Of course, we might reassure ourselves, there’s no way that such a thing would happen these days. After all, surely we have experts to write our curricula and our textbooks now, to create scripted lessons so that we can teach children ‘the truth’ about their world. Plus there’s always the Internet, should we need to check up on our facts (so long as we can avoid the perils of tree octopus style fake news). But then I came across a series of tweets from Kym Scott this morning, about Civitas, their ‘Core Knowledge’ materials, and links to what is currently happening to early years. A representative of Civitas is on the advisory review group, helping the DfE to rewrite the early learning goals that sit at the end of the Early Years Foundation Stage, as the things that our youngest children should know and be able to do. (The goals were due for publication in May, and the delay in sharing them suggests that there may be some controversy about their contents.) Civitas publish the ‘Core Knowledge’ curriculum, a set of lesson materials and resources inspired by E.D. Hirsch and his idea that children need ‘cultural literacy’. (For the uninitiated, this is, in its most basic terms, the idea that children should learn the knowledge that would allow them to read and understand a broadsheet newspaper.)

For anyone who works in early years, who is a parent, or who has even just met a four year old in living memory, the first thing that jumps out of these tweets is the strange idea that they could conceptualise “the signing of the Magna Carta”* well enough to get anything out of a role play of it being signed. This reminds me of a painful moment in my teacher training where I tried to teach Reception age children about ‘the world’ using a globe, only to discover that many of them had never left the town where they lived, and couldn’t even conceptualise where London was, let alone anywhere so far outside their immediate experience. Of course, we can teach children this information as a set of facts to recall, but it just won’t go in like it does later on – they simply cannot place it within their mental maps of the world. As Carol Webb rightly pointed out, a fair few of the children role playing the Magna Carta would probably remember learning about something weird called a “Magma Crater” when they were at school, in exactly the same vein as my “sandwitch” misconception.

But a more worrying narrative also emerges from these tweets, and that is the problem that by codifying and presenting knowledge in this way, rather than encouraging children to play an active role in exploring, finding and evaluating it for themselves, we might inadvertently be teaching children things that aren’t actually true and not giving them the tools they need to assess whether or not to believe it. This is especially so if we follow the line of thinking in which the teacher is always the ‘expert’ and the children condemned to being ‘novices’ forever more. The Core Knowledge materials for the Reception year suggest that our four year olds need “to know Shackleton explored the South Pole”. But he didn’t. Yes, he explored Antarctica, and yes, he made it to within 97 geographical miles of the South Pole, but it was Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott who actually got to the pole. I’d imagine this is just sloppy wording, rather a genuine attempt to rewrite history, but whatever your take on any knowledge versus skills debate, I’m pretty sure we’d all agree that it’s definitely not good to teach children something that isn’t true.

The idea that ‘knowledge must come first’ has become so firmly embedded in the educational narrative, that it seems akin to heresy to question it. Skills have been sidelined so extensively that people have started to claim that you can become creative just by loading up on more and more knowledge, apparently without ever practising the very act of being creative. Education has a habit of doing this – of swinging from a fervent belief in one thing, to an equally fervent rejection of that one thing in favour of a fervent belief in another. Round and round and round we go, in a cycle that you begin to notice more and more, the older you get. The trouble with knowledge, though, is that it is not, and can never be, value free. It is incredibly slippery, hard to define, prone to misunderstandings, misinterpretations and mistakes. What we know and understand about our world changes over time, and a lot of what we claim to know is pretty subjective, especially if we’re throwing around terms like “the best”. It’s really important that we help children to understand this, and the only way to do that is to give them some agency in their learning.

Today, Nick Gibb is speaking at an International Summit on Textbooks. According to a source, there is a representative of Civitas at this event as well. My feeling is that the push to get textbooks into schools is not just about profit for publishers and saving on workload and photocopying for teachers, nor is it just about getting more knowledge into schools (where there has always seemed to be plenty of knowledge to me). There is more to it than that. As well as sharing information, the authors of a textbook control what information we receive, and the way it is interpreted, through the way in which they present it. They basically get to decide what is important. If we focus on a narrow definition of “the best that has been thought and said”, we end up with a curriculum that is pale, male and stale – preserved in aspic but without the ability to change and develop as our society does. As Orwell said, “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought” – what we are told and the way that we are told it shapes our views of the world. Just as the entire continent of Africa was redefined in my childhood mind by the way that it was presented to me, so the things that we believe are defined by the curricula that we are taught. And it is perhaps in what goes missing, even more than in what is shared, that the real story lies.


* Thanks to someone on Twitter for letting me know that this is another misconception in the resource materials – the Magna Carta was sealed not signed.

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7 Responses to The Trouble with Knowledge

  1. Joshua says:

    he criticisms here of the Civitas curriculum are perfectly correct; clearly the Magna Carta isn’t age-appropriate for EYFS children. But I don’t think this is a criticism of a knowledge-based education per se.

    I think, in fact, there are couple of problems with your arguments against knowledge as the focus of education.

    First, many traditionalist-minded teachers argue that most skills aren’t general and transferable, but specific to domains of knowledge. It’s impossible for me to think critically about an argument in quantum mechanics, for example, because I don’t know the first thing about the subject.

    Secondly, ‘skills’ is hardly a value-neutral concept. Which skills we seek to promote inevitably will depend on what we value. Indeed, your objection to a ‘pale, male and stale’ curriculum is rather value-laden.

    Thirdly, the possibility that our current body of knowledge may be wrong is just something we have to put up with as fallible creatures. In most areas of life, we have to proceed on certain assumptions about the world around us, otherwise we wouldn’t act at all.


    • suecowley says:

      Thank you for your comment. Yes, I’d agree that the skills we choose to teach are as full of our values as the knowledge we choose, everything starts with our values, really.


  2. Facts and Skills,
    Knowledge and Understanding,
    Skills and Knowledge,
    Understanding and Facts,
    21st Century,
    So 20th Century,
    Past and Future,
    The Present:
    Who Decides?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As someone who found representations of himself disturbingly censored from his own education, I feel this concern about what is selected very keenly. I also suspect Michel Foucault would be spinning elegantly in his grave to see what is becoming of state education.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Anonymous says:

    And to further support your argument. In a secondary school frighteningly dedicated to endless Knowledge Testing rather than creative thinking or inventive skills practising even more vital for checks and balances as to the voracity of the knowledge being tested.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Designing a knowledge rich curriculum? A discussion around knowledge… – Peer Reviewed Education Blog

  6. john foggin says:

    We are currently living in the Sleep of Reason. The narratives of the the ruling class has shifted violently away from a British empirical tradition to a a strange a priori mode of thinking which is the basis, in practice, of ideology against sense or reason. Concepts like ‘skill’ and ‘knowledge ‘ are casually misused…as in a phrase like “social skills”. This lazily implies that the wonderful and complex messy business of getting on with people can be reduced to a set of skills, like handwriting or driving a car. I’ve never met any of the skills-pedlars recognising factors like imagination and empathy, without which no one could understand that none of us is an island. Because I was a professional for 40+ years, working with children and learners from Reception to University level, writing extensively about the teaching of writing and learning through drama (and having ten grandchildren) it’s obvious that no one will be asking my advice on Early Years and how children learn. I once told a conference of English Advisers who were telling each other that they would see off the the proposed excesses of a National Curriculum that they shouldn’t kid themselves. A government that defeated the NUM wasn’t going to lose sleep over ‘experts’ just because they knew what they were talking about. I despair for my great grandchildren when they arrive.


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