yV4XXIt is difficult not to sense the paradigm shift taking place in relation to the school curriculum. Building on the work of the national curriculum review of several years ago, the growing adoption of evidence-informed practice (drawing on cognitive science and sociology), and the latest Ofsted inspection framework, there is momentum behind what some refer to as the ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum.

The terminology is imperfect; it almost invites criticism from those who, with some justification, are sceptical of what might appear to be the latest educational fad. However, whatever our unease about the label, the evidence supporting the adoption of knowledge-rich practices is not easily dismissed. A good synthesis of which can be found in Dylan Wiliam’s (2018) book ‘Creating The Schools Our Children Need’.

But despite all the blogs, tweets and conferences blossoming with fertile debate about the importance of knowledge, and its foundational relationship with skill, there remain significant blind spots in the system that must be addressed.

Location, location, location

Some of these gaps are locational. For example, one might wonder how many of the audience at educational conferences have not already heard numerous assertions from keynote speakers about the important role played by knowledge in the curriculum. However, while there are undoubtedly many who are ‘in the loop’ in this regard, we must also remember that the curriculum conversation is not evenly distributed.

In part this is because our school system is complex and uneven. People, and thus schools, are not distributed evenly through these isles. There are around 25,000 schools in England, staffed by around 450,000 teachers. Not all enjoy the same access to the curriculum conversation: access to CPD and support can differ according to location. For example, it can be easier to find professional development in London than it is in Cumbria. At a recent conference in Manchester the speaker was shocked to find a group of school leaders from Devon were in attendance. They explained that it was sometimes necessary and more cost effective for them to fly the length of the country to attend CPD.

The implications of this, however, are less about one-off conferences and more about everyday access to the curriculum conversation, without which teachers can easily become isolated. In some cases whole schools can become isolated, which can be a limiting factor in entry to professional discourse and the development of curriculum expertise. Collaboration and partnership is one means of addressing this problem.

What do teachers gain from working in partnership? It’s the subject meeting they can attend on a Wednesday afternoon. It’s the school they can visit so you can observe an expert colleague in action, or perhaps to offer their own expertise and support. As much as anything collaboration provides the opportunity for subject leaders and teachers to discuss, debate and refine how they think about the curriculum and how it is enacted. I was privileged to be a part of a long standing professional subject network and saw first-hand the benefits it brought. So too did Ofsted, who wrote a best practice report on it a few years ago.

Temporal

It’s also important to sustain these conversations over time. A one-day conference event can provide a useful weathervane as to the direction the educational winds are blowing, sometimes serving as a powerful impetus for change or means of checking your thinking. But they don’t always reveal the granular level of detail necessary to put meaningful change into practice. We’ve seen some of that in recent months; there are plenty of us speaking at conferences advocating the importance of knowledge in the curriculum, but what does that mean if you’re a head of maths, as opposed to a head of music? Or if you work in a primary setting, as opposed to a secondary school? This isn’t to say people shouldn’t attend such conferences – they can be vital – but whatever insight is gleaned must be deepened and sustained over time.

Developing deep understanding through professional development takes time. We risk a lamentable irony here if we accept the notion that development of pupils’ understanding requires careful sequencing over time but fail to apply the same logic to the development of teachers and leaders. We know that the most successful CPD is not a one-off (Weston & Clay 2018). It has a temporal quality, chasing key threads over time as we deepen understanding and improve practice. Again, this can be achieved through deliberate networks and partnerships.

Relational

Which brings us to the third of our blind spots: our relationship with knowledge itself. As suggested above, our relationship with knowledge is not identical to one another. In fact, the way we select, discuss and use knowledge is inescapably an expression of what we consider to be the basis of what is/not legitimate (Maton 2014). The scientist who is able to explain how photosynthesis works understands something about how knowledge is deemed to be legitimate in science. The artist who explains why they consider the works of Jackson Pollock to be more than random paint splatter knows something about how knowledge is deemed to be legitimate in art. This is the work of disciplines – the tacit rules through which legitimate knowledge, and legitimate knowers, are established. The way in which knowledge is legitimated within each subject is not necessarily the same. Maths is different to History. RE is different to design & technology, and so on.

This poses possibly the greatest challenge to curriculum development. In order for there to be productivity and accountability it is expedient to have ‘leaders’ – those who establish the practices which should/not exist within the school and are accountable for the impact of such decisions. Where practices and decisions depend on knowledge that is not highly specialized, or where specialized knowledge is required and has been effectively developed, this need not be an issue. However, it can be problematic when those making key decisions lack the specialist knowledge necessary to do so. But is it realistic to expect school leaders to have expert specialist knowledge of every curriculum area? Probably not.

This is why middle leaders play an important role in schools in relation to the curriculum. Indeed, Ofsted (2019) noticed during their curriculum research that in some secondary schools curriculum quality was strong because of highly skilled middle leaders, rather than because of school leaders’ curriculum expertise.

So, does this mean that senior leaders are no longer important in the brave new curriculum-focused world? No, quite the opposite in fact. We know that within-school variation tends to be greater than variation between schools (Thompson 2020). This means that, in curriculum terms, most schools are likely to have subject areas where there are highly skilled teachers and practices are effective, and others that are less so. If left to their own devices this situation is unlikely to rectify itself and variation will continue. Leaders need to lead in order to address this. But what action should be taken?

Leaders can improve or exacerbate the issue, depending on what they do. Given what has already been said about the fundamental differences between subjects in how knowledge is structured and legitimised it is crucial that leaders don’t fall back on unhelpful generic practices if these undermine the subject itself. Clearly there are some issues where practice and pedagogy can be generalised without compromising the integrity of the subject. For example, managing behaviour in the classroom does not necessarily require tailoring to the knowledge-structure of the subject.

However, we might want to think twice about insisting that all subjects in a school share a common scheme of work template, or assessment structure. After all, your maths teachers might prefer to use a highly granular approach detailing the specific and consistent steps all pupils should follow in a given order. This might look different on a page to the geography scheme of work in which teachers may have flexibility over things like the case studies they use to draw out and exemplify particular knowledge. Moreover, a history scheme of work might, for example, feature columns in which particular substantive and disciplinary knowledge is outlined. In technology this distinction might be less useful.

None of this means that subject leaders and teachers should be left to flounder. Rather it means that leaders need to think carefully about where generic intervention should be deployed, and where subject specific support is necessary. It may well be that this sort of awareness is in itself a type of domain-specific knowledge that leaders must develop. As Tom Rees suggests, “An implication of domain-specific leadership is that school leaders should develop deep educational expertise in areas such as curriculum or teacher development” (Rees 2020). My guess is that collaboration and partnership are more likely to yield the development of such knowledge among leaders.

Also, given what’s already been discussed above, notions of ‘support’ and ‘development’ should take into account spatial and temporal factors. E.g where can this subject leader/teacher/department get support? Over what period is this support required and available?

In concrete terms this might be about looking to national subject associations and experts. Equally, it might be about joining or establishing regional subject networks. And it may well be about ensuring such partnerships endure over time so as to support ongoing development and curriculum renewal. Such relationships might also be achieved at whole school level through formal partnerships across schools.

Theoretical

Underpinning all of the above is theory. We should embrace this. Some people mistakenly take the word ‘theory’ to mean mere speculation, as if it is equally likely to be wrong as right. The assertion that knowledge is intrinsic to learning is not dogma or ideology – it’s the product of rational dialogue between theory and data. Ofsted’s research summary captures much of this (Ofsted 2019). Does that mean it’s an immutable fact? No. But it’s not necessarily guesswork either.

The idea that knowledge is not structured the same way across the curriculum, and thus requires some specialist understanding, is not mere supposition either. It’s a theoretical position underpinned by empirical evidence (Bernstein 1996). As such, we ought to have some other compelling theoretical position if we are to ignore this. That’s different to the somewhat tiresome refrain of “in country X they do something different, so the knowledge-rich curriculum must be the wrong approach”. Looking at what’s going elsewhere without understanding the underpinning theory tells us much less than we might think. We end up looking at surface features and missing the foundational thinking (or lack of). It’s a bit like going shopping without a shopping list: you’ll come back with something, but it probably won’t come together too well.

Too often people rail against what they consider to be a ‘knowledge-rich fad’ because they’ve mistaken it to be a matter of pedagogy, reduced to cliches about rote learning or uncritical memorization. Or, they reject ‘powerful knowledge’ because their understanding presupposes power is derived from the origins of knowledge (which is ironic given Young’s thesis is quite the opposite). Or, they advocate strongly for what they consider to be powerful knowledge because of its origins (usually born of a conflation with cultural capital or cultural literacy). Whether rejecting or advocating ‘powerful knowledge’ we ought to understand what it means.

By making theory more explicit we make it easier for us to have meaningful and productive debates about curriculum content and structure. This doesn’t have to be intimidating. As Christine Counsell demonstrates so well, curriculum theory can made accessible and relevant for curriculum planning at macro level as well as within the classroom. I had the pleasure of watching her speak to a group of leaders a week ago. The session was inspirational because she communicated it well, and also because it was built on compelling theory.

We simply have to get better at theorising about the curriculum if we are to talk about it with confidence.

Partnership

Despite the challenges outlined above there is much to be optimistic about. There is fundamental and positive change taking place in our education system, not least of which is the rightful positioning of curriculum as at the forefront of the work schools do for the common good.

However, it is increasingly clear to me that in order to deliver on the promise of this paradigm shift, partnership within and across schools is now the essential condition for success.

The means of developing curriculum expertise outlined here is specialized, it is geographically distributedand it is sustained over time so that the curriculum is constantly debated and renewed to reflect the best that we know. This ongoing dialogue between professionals is democratising in that it is open to all educators, whether a head teacher or an NQT. It is ethical – it is undertaken in the best interests of children, inducting them into ways of seeing the world that are both built on and broader than their own experience of the world. This might resonate with Ofsted’s agenda, but this is not the primary reason for this work.

It is difficult to imagine how such a dialogue can exist without deep and sustained partnerships. More than ever, it is essential that leaders at all levels seek to establish the sorts of collaborative relationships that will allow the curriculum blind spots identified above to be resolved.

If you are in the fortunate position of enjoying a good degree of curriculum expertise in your school or department, spare a thought for the school – perhaps not too far from you – that is not as well placed. Does your responsibility extend only to your pupils, or might we take a collective step forward on behalf of all young people?

What are you doing within your school, or group of schools, to build high quality curriculum collaboration?

How are you leveraging this to do better by the pupils in your school and elsewhere?

 

References:

Bernstein, B. (1996) Pedagogy, Symbolic Control & Identity: theory, research & critique, Chapters 3 and 9. London, Taylor & Francis.

Maton, K. (2014) Knowledge and knowers. Routledge.

Ofsted (2019) Education inspection framework: Overview of research.

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/807641/Research_for_EIF_framework_100619.pdf

Rees, T. (2020). 2020. A new perspective for school leadership? https://www.ambition.org.uk/blog/

Thompson, D. (2020). Are we looking in the right place to improve attainment? https://ffteducationdatalab.org.uk/2020/01/are-we-looking-in-the-wrong-place-to-improve-attainment/

Weston, D. & Clay, B. (2018). Unleashing Great Teaching. Routledge.

Wiliam, D. (2018) Creating the Schools Our Children Need: why what we’re doing right now won’t work, and what we can do instead. West Palm Beach: Learning Sciences International.

Dedication to a problem

What should you teach children?’ might seem a logical starting point for a discussion about the curriculum. After all, decisions about what to teach are among the most important made by curriculum leaders and planners.

The problem when starting curriculum planning from this level is that it can lack a means of ensuring that what is taught is aligned with the underpinning purpose of the curriculum: the ’why’ we teach what we teach.

However, the tendency when we ask the ‘why’ question is to rally around the notion of vision. We saw this in the recent glut of whole school intent statements that swept across the system in response to Ofsted’s new framework.

Vision feels compelling because it speaks to that part of us that wants to solve the ‘wicked problems’ outlined in Ben White and Becky Allen’s awesome recent blog. As Ben and Becky outline, these problems are by definition often too large and complex to solve – however grand and compelling our vision.

In fact I think its worth reflecting on how far vision can really take us on its own. Tom Rees’ excellent blog indicates the potential of thinking differently: dialling down the reliance on persona and vision and focusing more explicitly on the domain knowledge of leadership. Central to Tom’s idea is the suggestion that we pay much more attention to what he and Jen Barker call ‘persistent problems’.

This idea really resonated with me and reminded me of Bernstein’s criticism of the sociology of education in the 1970s, where he called for “less an allegiance to an approach, and more a dedication to a problem.”

It strikes me that this is where some previous curriculum thinking has been a little wonky – too much about the approach and not enough about the problem. I’ve written about the ‘shift happens’ era of the mid-2000s previously so I won’t rehearse it all again here but suffice to say that the problem the curriculum was supposed to be solving tended to be fairly undercooked. The shift happens videos and its advocates told us that the world was changing exponentially and that education needed to be revolutionised somehow. But how does a school swallow and digest such a planet-sized complex problem?

In schools circa-2005 it might have looked a bit like this:

  1. Whole staff INSET day in which one of these videos was played.
  2. Assertion from leaders that something ‘different’ needed to be done in the curriculum.
  3. Some sort of ‘vision’ activity in which staff write ideas on post-it notes. The more innovative the better!
  4. Subsequent development of a new curriculum approach.

Okay, so it’s a bit of a caricature but hopefully you recognise aspects of this set up. Looking back we can see some shortcomings.

  • Was the perceived ‘problem’ real and well understood?
  • Was the problem well defined in educational terms?
  • Was it the same across all subjects?
  • Was it realistic to expect that the curriculum could hold back or divert the tide of global social-economic trends?
  • Was innovation for innovation’s sake prized too highly above evidence of what was most likely to work?
  • Was professional knowledge of the curriculum sufficient to tackle the problem?

Of course, you could argue what White and Allen call the current ‘curriculum wave’ is just another manifestation of the same approach-led phenomenon, and to some extent you’d be right. The blind advocacy of a ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum risks faddism if we don’t properly understand the problem it is trying to solve. So what is that problem?

For some people the knowledge-rich curriculum is about redressing disadvantage by closing the attainment gap, for others its about entitlement to conceptual/cognitive/cultural understanding. For a few people it might be more to do with fitting in with the perceived preference of the new Ofsted framework! Maybe for you it’s something else entirely, or all of the above. What does it mean to you?

Subject-level problem solving

For me the knowledge-rich curriculum is as much about solving smaller-scale but significant educational problems at the subject level as it is about whole school or even societal issues. As many sceptics have been quick to point out, “schools have always taught knowledge.” But this misses the point. It’s not so much the existence or not of knowledge that lies behind the knowledge-rich curriculum but the foregrounding of the importance of its deliberate selection, organisation and accumulation.

In part I think the very existence of ‘knowledge-rich’ is a reaction to the failure of the shift happens era (and what Young more broadly refers to as Future 2) to adequately define and relate its central problem and proposed solutions, with the result being that curriculum content lost coherence. For example, a lot has been written on the likely (unintended) consequence that a skills-based curriculum might have done worse by the very children it was intended to benefit.

If the knowledge-rich agenda is about anything surely it is about recognising that educational knowledge should be coherent in some way. This is, I think, why many people have become very interested in cognitive science and epistemology. In their own way each helps to provide insight into how we make sense of knowledge. For a profession where knowledge is the main currency this is powerful stuff.

Domain knowledge

But it is complicated stuff too. Knowledge is related to other knowledge, and the people that hold it, in different ways. This is manifested differently in different subjects. For example, the systematic and hierarchical way that conceptual knowledge is deepened in science is quite different to how it is accumulated through the development of perspective in art or history. This means that to answer ‘why’, ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions about the curriculum we have to search within our subjects.

So, arguably, grappling with this complexity means less emphasis on whole school ‘vision’ and paying more attention to subject level problems such as:

  • Why should pupils learn subject X or topic Y? (What are the intrinsic and extrinsic reasons for studying it?)
  • Which knowledge matters most? What is our rationale for this?
  • How is knowledge created, structured and acquired in subject X? What are the implications for how we structure the curriculum?

What seems likely – I think – is that finding satisfactory answers to these problems is unlikely to happen without the necessary subject (domain) knowledge. A generic vision is unlikely to bear this burden across the range of different subjects.

I am reminded of a visit I made to Bedford Free School a little while ago where I was struck by Stuart Lock’s commitment to ensuring that subjects would not be broken on the altar of generic leadership. If the integrity of the subject clashed with whole school systems, the subject would triumph, he declared. This didn’t seem to be because of some abstract vision or snazzy statement – it appeared to be that school’s response to the problem of how to construct a coherent curriculum.

This sort of perspective allows us to sidestep the ‘ironic tension’ highlighted by White and Allen that in the rush towards the knowledge-rich curriculum we risk inadvertently drifting towards genericism. Not on Stuart’s watch!

For middle leaders and subject teachers this means developing expert understanding of the subject. In this regard Ofsted’s research summary, published a year ago, is worth a mention for it outlines the evidence that suggests the pedagogical content knowledge of teachers is a vital resource. I’m encouraged that the importance of subject expertise is becoming more widely understood.

What does this mean for senior leaders? If not generic vision, then what? For senior leaders this means becoming expert in how you structure and support the school in order to create the conditions in which teachers can become experts in their fields. It may also require that leaders become students of the curriculum in a sense – that they listen out for the unique tone and rhythm of each subject and seek to preserve this identity. And they’ll need to be able to offer expertise where necessary, or at least signpost where it might be found.

For schools working in collaborative relationships, such as MATs, this means creating the structure and climate across schools in which subject content and expertise can be debated, crafted and brought to bear where it is needed.

If you haven’t yet, you really must read Christine Counsell’s blog.

Life after vision

If it reads like I’m unfairly putting the boot into curriculum ‘vision’ then let me clarify that I’m not dismissing the idea of knowing what you want to achieve and planning accordingly. I’m more challenging the basis on which we do this and gently questioning whether this can be done generically.

Tom’s framework offers something different, an alternative perspective on leadership: one which emphasizes as a starting point the need to define key problems (such as how to develop curriculum coherence within subjects), embrace complexity, and develop the domain knowledge and expertise necessary to make the best bets for success.

As far as it relates to curriculum leadership I think this sounds quite exciting.

 

I recently read that you can’t actually see the Great Wall of China from space with the naked eye. I’m not sure where I first came across that myth, but I’ve spent a good number of years believing it to be true. Fortunately, astronauts have done me a service by venturing into space and returning with this important clarification. You can, though, see where there are dense clusters of habitation, identified by vast expanses of light that are visible from space. Here it is the collective mass of light, rather than any individual lamp, that we observe. Sometimes you have to climb above it all to get the right perspective and see how it all fits together.

Which provides a rather forced link to what I’m writing about in this piece – namely what a zoomed-out view might reveal about what is going on in our education system at the moment. From up close we often see individual instances of change in policy and practice in schools. But, like the earth viewed from space, what does it look like if we observe the whole? What sense might we make of it all if we look at its organising principles and not just its constituent parts in isolation? To help me with this analysis I’ll be drawing on Legitimation Code Theory once again.

What has caught attention in 2019?

This is not an exhaustive list but things that seem to have been particularly prominent in the curriculum and assessment discourse of 2019 include:

  • The new Ofsted framework
  • Focus on the curriculum
  • The Early Career Framework
  • The ITT Framework
  • Cognitive science, including cognitive load theory
  • The importance of memory and building fluency
  • The curriculum as the progression model
  • Powerful knowledge
  • Knowledge organisers
  • Cultural capital
  • Comparative judgement
  • ‘The best that has been thought and said’
  • Subjects
  • Domain knowledge

 

This isn’t to say that any of these things are ‘new’, but it does feel like some of these have picked up more traction in the past 12 months. So, what, if anything, is it that underpins these? Is there a single thing we might point to as the reason why attention has drifted towards these in particular?

You might conclude that it simply illustrates the power of the Ofsted framework to dictate the educational agenda, and in some ways you’d be right. I have no doubt that a good number of schools have picked up on the fact that curriculum now matters a great deal more during inspection. It’s also fair to say that Ofsted’s framework encourages schools to think about how they support pupils to retain knowledge over time – resonating with, or even reflecting, the growing interest in cognitive science.

But I don’t think this explanation is sufficient on its own, in part because Ofsted’s new framework is as much a symptom of the shifting paradigm as it is a cause of it. For example, the removal of Levels in the latest national curriculum set a course towards viewing the curriculum as the progression model (or at least should have done). And its reference to Matthew Arnold’s oft-quoted ‘the best that’s’ been thought and said’ was 5 years before Ofsted adopted it. Moreover, many schools and writers were already beginning to challenge what had become the established practices, bucking the trend towards genericism and a skills-based curriculum in favour of subject specific knowledge and expertise.

What else might be at play? There are those who would characterise it as a resurgence of ‘traditionalist’ teaching in reaction to what had been a dominant ethos of ‘progressivism’. I wouldn’t wish to tell advocates of this debate that this is wrong; a number of people identify their values and approach in these terms.

But I know of many people who say the dichotomy of traditional vs progressive doesn’t resonate with them. For example, Michael Young’s ‘powerful knowledge’ is not easily reduced to one of these, meaning those who have adopted Young’s theory might struggle to see their own philosophy within this binary.

Getting at the underlying principles

I think something more fundamental is taking place. To understand it we have to take a look at where we were a few years ago. In 1999 the government said this:

“The function of education above all is to ensure that all pupils respond as individuals, parents, workers and citizens to the rapid expansion of communication technologies, changing roles of employment and new work and leisure patterns resulting from economic migration and the continual globalization of the economy and society.”

There are two really interesting things here. Firstly, the rationale for education from government was instrumental – it was about creating the means through which people can be economically successful. Secondly, it explicitly positions this as being at the level of the individual, suggesting that education might respond differently to all people as individuals. Together, this creates a philosophy in which education is validated based on how it is useful to the individual.

This was of course the era of PLTS and ‘personalised learning’. In making decisions about what to include in the curriculum teachers were encouraged to place a premium on individual pupils’ preferences and local contexts, adapting the curriculum as necessary to engage pupils. Coherence, content and commonality were, to some extent, less highly prized than the unique contexts, experiences and interests of the individual.

Compare this to what is said in the current national curriculum:

“The national curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the essential knowledge that they need to be educated citizens. It introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said; and helps engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.”

In this rationale we see education recast as being about access to knowledge, not necessarily on the grounds of its economic utility, but in terms of social and cultural entitlement. This has, to some extent, changed the conversation around social justice & education – its conception looks quite different compared to what was written in 1999. The notion of entitlement to knowledge runs through the latest national curriculum, the new ofsted framework and what seems like a growing part of the sector. It was also captured in Ben Newmark’s wonderful blog a few months ago.

What we have here, I tentatively suggest, is a change taking place in the underlying code of education. Or at least, that appears to be the direction of travel – it doesn’t mean everyone is one the same page or that everyone agrees with it, but it is what is happening (I think).

Paradigm change – code shift

“In each social field, actors cooperate and struggle, both for more of what is viewed as signs of success and over what defines success. In other words, actors’ practices embody messages concerning what should be the dominant measures of achievement within a field – they are ‘languages of legitimation’. Put another way, LCT highlights that there is more to what we say or do than what we say or do.” (Maton & Chen 2019)

According to Legitimation Code Theory (LCT), discourses inevitably involve a tussle for legitimacy. LCT uses the notion of ‘codes’ to explore the organising principles through which particular practices gain legitimacy.

The previous paradigm of education, during which many of today’s leaders of schools and policy will have cut their teeth, was primarily based on a ‘knower’ code. In the struggles and decisions that inevitably face teachers and leaders, legitimacy tended to be based on the person. It didn’t necessarily matter which order things were learned, or indeed what was studied, as long as by the end pupils had developed the requisite skills and perspectives (or grades!).

To some extent the same could be said for teachers too. Innovation was encouraged on the basis that in and of itself this was virtuous because it would yield new approaches which may (or may not) be successful but would nonetheless develop the teacher. This is not to say that innovation is bad, just that it’s questionable as to whether it is inherently always the best bet (there may be more effective strategies one could use rather than seeking to do ‘the next big thing’).

For example, teachers were encouraged to do ‘brain gym’ and to consider the ‘learning styles’ of individual pupils and adapt their teaching accordingly. When we look at back now and cringe at how pervasive this unevidenced approach became, we might want to consider not just the lack of evidence of its efficacy but also recognise it as a product of its time: a paradigm which legitimized practices based primarily on the knower. You can see some of the same in the rush that took place towards highly differentiated activities and objectives. Even if learning styles had not been a dud, what exactly was it that we wanted pupils to learn through the various ‘kinaesthetic’ tasks teachers planned, and how did this relate to what was coming next week/month? This typified the tendency towards the search for an ‘approach’ rather than a deeper concern with the ‘what’ of curriculum and how knowledge should be sequenced over time.

In terms of leadership, the dominant narrative was one of leadership attributes. There were certain attitudes and dispositions that successful leaders had, and these formed the basis of much training at both middle and senior leader level. Throughout this period we saw a reduction in the importance placed on subject knowledge, after all the argument often went that ‘a good teacher can teach anything’.

 

The emergent code – knowledge

If we compare all that to where we are now and connect the dots we can begin to see a different picture emerging: a knowledge code. In this new paradigm knowledge itself is seen as being of greater importance. We can see this in the classroom and elsewhere. For example, schools using insights from cognitive science to help pupils remember content over the long term, and the very notion of the ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum.

This means that the subject knowledge of teachers is being given higher status in many schools. A number of leaders have told me they’re now asking more questions at interviews that probe candidates’ subject knowledge.

There is a growing sense, too, that progression through a subject should make sense in terms of the subject itself, and its knowledge structure, not just in relation to generic assessment criteria or competencies. This means ensuring the curriculum is coherent over time and reflective of the knowledge of its root discipline. This requires subject specialists to be given the support and flexibility required to teach their subjects with fidelity. I’m seeing more schools grappling with how best to make this happen. I sense a return to prominence of the subject associations may be one manifestation of this in the years ahead.

The same knowledge code shift seems to be taking place elsewhere too. Tom Rees’ work at The Ambition Institute is exploring the domain knowledge of leaders and challenging the established notion that successful leadership is rooted mainly in particular skills and dispositions.

It’s easy to see how the growing focus on evidence-informed practice fits within the knowledge code. Whereas previously innovation for innovation’ s sake had been lauded, the new paradigm tends to assert that ‘what works’ is more important. Whether ‘what works’ happens to be centuries-old pedagogic practice, or the latest insight from cognitive science, what matters is that which carries the greatest weight of evidence.

This is not to say that the paradigm shift from a knower code to a knowledge code is inherently for the better. The observation I make here is intended as a dispassionate analysis rather than a validation of either position (if this is possible).

Also, it’s important to say that the two positions are relational – a matter of more/less rather than either/or. There is always knowledge, and there are always knowers, so this analysis is not the application of another blunt dichotomy. It is about highlighting a change of emphasis.

 

So what?

I think it’s important to recognise the apparent drift towards a knowledge code. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with it or accept it as some sort of universal truth but being explicit about the changes taking place might help us to consider where we, and our colleagues, are in relation to it. This is essential if we are to reduce unhelpful friction.

“Code shifts can have profound implications, such as rendering previously successful actors unable to continue to succeed.” (Maton & Chen 2019)

There will be people for whom this code change runs counter to their experience, views and instincts. This is not to say that such people simply need ‘educating’ to accept the new paradigm but it’s difficult for teachers, leaders and policy makers to mediate between different perspectives if they don’t understand where people are coming from. And mediate we must. There are crunch points where one can observe a code clash in action. For example, twitter tends to be a battlefield of sorts, strewn with the bloodied 280-character comments of those who displayed a preference for the wrong code in the the wrong thread at the wrong time. I wonder too if the code clash can be seen in some of the reaction to Ofsted’s new framework (which seems firmly rooted in the new paradigm). Thinking about how we and others relate the dominant code might help us to reflect more on the principles and how we might respond constructively.

At system level the code shift is likely to signal specific requirements and repercussions. For example, are all schools sufficiently stocked with subject specialists across the curriculum? We know they’re not, largely as a result of the current recruitment and retention crisis. Policy makers must tackle this, as well as funding, if schools are to receive the resources they need in order to deliver in the new paradigm. One can see how, within this code, the organisational structure of multi academy trusts might be a useful lever to aggregate and direct subject specialist expertise to where it is needed. Or, beyond MATS, how collaborative groups of schools of any structure might achieve the same.

Schools will also need to be wary of how the new paradigm might be interpreted on the ground. In particular, to guard against a reductive enactment of its constituent parts. There are likely to be new problems encountered by a system that drifts too far or too fast in any given direction, with proxies being used in place of deep understanding. For example, I have written previously about my concerns regarding how ‘cultural capital’ has been conflated with other theories and the problems this causes. There is work to do to ensure that ‘knowledge-rich’ does indeed lead to a rich curriculum and not a distorted and reductive reflection of it.

Most importantly, the emergence of a knowledge code need not mean that the knower should not be considered. There may well be aspects of a school’s local context that should inform the curriculum pupils study. Leaders and teachers will need to weigh this up and be explicit about when, how and why this is best done. Plus, it would be odd not to consider how we might develop the skills, attitudes and dispositions of pupils. The evidence on growth mindset and character education suggests development of the knower should continue to be a concern of schools: the knowledge code paradigm need not be the stuff of ‘empty vessels to be filled.’ Greater emphasis on knowledge does not require that we abandon the knower. This means thinking about whose knowledge we are teaching, how pupils locate themselves within the curriculum and where it is appropriate to make links to pupils’ own experiences. There is always knowledge and there are always knowers – we must consider how they intersect.

 

In summary

So, that’s my take on what we’ve seen going on in 2019. I don’t think the direction was set this year but it certainly feels like the code shift has firmed up. If you’ve found yourself wondering what’s been going on in 2019, and how the pieces fit together when viewed at scale, I hope I’ve given you some food for thought. From what I’ve seen in 2019, what you know is becoming more important. I wonder what 2020 holds…

Maton, K. & Chen, R.T-H. (2019) Specialization codes: Knowledge, knowers and student success. In Martin, J.R., Maton, K. & Doran, Y.J. (2019) Accessing Academic Discourse. Routledge, Oxon

The secondary school sector is alive with discussion about shortening of key stage 3, not least because Ofsted’s new framework requires inspectors to take a closer look at this practice than they had previously. However, if we park Ofsted inspection for a moment, this debate is interesting because it gives us a good example of how we might use the work of Bernstein to reflect on the issue of what we include and, by extension, exclude from the curriculum.

As Bernstein explained, “Curriculum defines what counts as valid knowledge.” Furthermore, he said, “how a society selects, classifies, distributes, transmits and evaluates the educational knowledge it considers to be public, reflects both the distribution of power and the principles of social control.”

Bernstein’s analysis was centred on two key elements of power and control: ‘classification’ and ‘framing’. The concept of classification is concerned with boundaries between curriculum contents, for example the extent to which contents might be restricted to particular subjects on the timetable. “Where classification is strong,” Bernstein said, “contents are well insulated from each other by strong boundaries.” Where classification is weak boundaries between contents are blurred.

Framing is about the nature of control of the way knowledge is transmitted, essentially the pedagogy. For example, in some education systems the way knowledge is transmitted is more up for grabs than in others.

An argument you sometimes hear in relation to the key stage 3 debate is that shortening it allows for extra time at GCSE and, therefore, affords more time for pupils to focus on the content they need to learn in order to achieve well in the exam.

As Bernstein noted, debates in education tend to focus on the ‘approach’ rather than on the underlying principles of the problem. I wonder if we might yield insight into something more fundamental if we thought about it slightly differently and use a little theory to help .

In Bernstein’s ‘Class, Codes and Control’ (volume 3) his examples of classification in the school curriculum tend to refer to boundaries between subjects. But I wonder if we might apply the same notion of boundary to explore the demarcation of content within a subject: in this case the boundary between key stages 3 and 4.

For example, it would make sense for the boundary between key stages 3 and 4 to be weak. After all, in most subjects the content in key stage 4 represents some sort of deepening and/or broadening exploration of the same subject studied at key stage 3. However, our system incentivises us to view the contents of each key stage as being bounded in some way. This is interesting because it tends not to flow from the nature of the subject itself but rather from the structure imposed by our macro curriculum and management structures and the exam system.

So, in one sense those people who conclude the notion of key stages is arbitrary are absolutely right. In which case, you might argue, that shortening key stage 3 is of no consequence – it’s the same stuff, right? Only, it’s not quite as simple as that.

The nature of our exam system tends to mean that the pacing and pedagogy at key stage 4 are strongly determined by the course itself. This means that what Bernstein terms ‘framing’ is often stronger at key stage 4 – teachers and pupils have less options available to them in terms of the pace, detailed content and means of transmission. Framing tends to be weaker at key stage 3. So, there is a difference in framing between key stage 3 and key stage 4. This makes key stages 3 and 4 feel rather different from the perspective of pupils.

What I think is particularly interesting here is that many teachers I’ve spoken to have tended to bemoan the highly controlled pacing and prescription at key stage 4 when compared to what feels like the relatively weaker framing of key stage 3.

Moreover, I suggest (admittedly with no evidence) that this difference has become even more marked with growth of what Christine Counsell refers to as the language of ‘markscheme-ese’ at key stage 4, unfortunately reducing the taught and learned experience in some classrooms to a relentless focus on exam question types etc. This is not to say that stronger framing is inherently a bad thing, but in the context of content and pedagogy that has often seemed to be driven by exam practice questions rather than the beauty of the subject, I think the factors that shape framing at key stage 4 can be problematic.

Given this it might, therefore, be expected that the teaching profession would jump at the chance to return to a full and rich key stage 3 where framing is weaker and less driven by external evaluation criteria. But this is not necessarily the case. And that’s interesting, I think.

Is this a reflection of the belief that key stage 4 curriculum content is deemed to be superior in some way? Maybe. But I don’t often hear that argument. The argument I most often hear is the one I mentioned above: that more time at key stage 4 is likely to lead to better GCSE outcomes.

Let’s think about that again, though. What we’ve just done is, to some degree, to draw a boundary and insulate key stage 4 from key stage 3. Is this helpful? I wonder if it’s the imposition of these sorts of boundaries within subjects that sits behind some of the barriers pupils face in the classroom, because they form a disconnect in the logic and narrative flow of the subject (for example, between KS2 and KS3 too).

As an alternative, might it be possible that a full rich key stage 3, which is not strongly bounded from key stage 4, is exactly what pupils need in order to be successful at key stage 4? This is worth thinking about on a subject-by-subject basis. See @MrMountstevens recent twitter thread on this in relation to history.

There’s something else interesting going on too – the implicit assumption that curriculum value is derived from exam results. In our system, content classified as being GCSE is often seen as being of much higher status that that at key stage 3. This is an understandable position for people to take, but it is not without problem. Firstly, until such time as the national reference test dictates otherwise, at pupil level comparable outcomes means that, even if there was a sudden improvement in pupils’ overall standards next year in a given subject, the distribution of GCSE grades would remain broadly the same nationally. Secondly, school level progress 8 is a zero-sum game. For some schools to gain others have to decline. As it stands there is no end-game in which all pupils and schools leave with the top grades.

None of this is to say that results don’t matter – of course they do. But the question we might ask is what else matters too? What about those pupils who don’t leave with the top grades, or those who do not continue with the subject into KS4? Is it all for nought? That’s not to say for a moment that schools or teachers should lower their expectations of pupils.

Rather, it is a collective challenge for us to grapple with what we consider to be the aim(s) of our curriculum. In part this has already been decided by our representatives in government via the national curriculum. And as such we should take seriously what our curriculum choices say about the value we ascribe to those curricular standards. With what degree of reverence do/should we hold the content outlined in the national curriculum?

Whatever the curriculum issue we are grappling with (eg whether or not to shorten key stage 3, how many subjects pupils should study, or how many lessons we allocate to particular subjects in Year 7) we need to unearth and understand the principles that are at play.

The curriculum decisions we make are both structured and structuring. They are shaped by a range of factors, such as the pressures of our accountability and exam systems but in turn the decisions we make can feed back into this system and sustain it. The choices we make say something about the validity of that content. We need to think carefully about the message we want to convey back to the system, back to our pupils.

Bernstein’s notions of classification and framing give us the tools and language to think more deeply about how we structure the curriculum, particularly in terms of how we create boundaries between content.

A theoretical consideration of the boundary between KS3 and KS4 may unlock more meaningful insight than the sometimes superficial approach-based arguments about whether or not a full or short KS3 is preferable. This blog is not so much a pitch for either side of the debate, but a plea to make explicit the underlying principles.

Following on from my previous blog about why it might be problematic to think we can teach and inspect cultural capital as a curriculum outcome, this short blog gives an example to illustrate the issue.

Health warning: this is based on a single anecdote that has not been verified and must, therefore, be treated with much caution. It is not a call for every school to teach lacrosse. It is not the opposite either. Nonetheless, the exemplification within it bears consideration.

To recap my previous blog, I said that:
• Ofsted had somewhat distorted Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital.
• Ofsted did this with the best of intent; their argument being that teaching particular knowledge – ‘cultural capital’ as they termed it – will broaden opportunity for all pupils to access particular discourses they otherwise wouldn’t be able to. This may be beneficial in terms of social justice.
• However, attempting to teach cultural capital privileges the origins of knowledge without necessarily considering the the properties and value of the knowledge itself.
• In terms of Legitimation Code Theory, such a position represents a knower-code rather than a knowledge-code, which is arguably paradoxical given the argument in much of our current knowledge-rich discourse is that it is the knowledge (rather than the knower) that matters.
• An alternative is to consider the knowledge itself more directly, not only where it comes from.
• Michael Young’s ‘Powerful Knowledge’ is being used by what seems to be a growing number of schools in order to analyse forms of knowledge that we should, perhaps, privilege in the curriculum. This is different to notions of teaching cultural capital.

A crass example
As I go about my work I find myself talking to a range of teachers and leaders, often at different stages in their understanding of knowledge as an object of study. Many seem to be developing a growing understanding of it in terms of cognitive science, which is a real boon. However in terms of epistemology, curriculum debates in schools may have been less well explored. I think this may have some undesirable unintended consequences.

I was recently talking to a group of teachers about this whole area, referring to cultural capital, powerful knowledge and LCT and raised my concerns about the potential crass byproducts of schools trying to teach cultural capital (see above). I gave the hypothetical example that a school might try to teach cultural capital by teaching its pupils the rules of polo. The hypothetical argument being that polo might be associated with the upper echelons of society and, therefore, the school might perceive it was teaching cultural capital by giving pupils knowledge of this upper class sport. I made the case that understanding the rules of polo does not necessarily allow pupils to think in deeper conceptual ways and the school might be better off thinking more deeply about the ‘power’ of the knowledge itself, rather than than only where it comes from. (Please note, this is not a dig at polo).

It was a ridiculous caricature designed to illustrate a theoretical problem. Wasn’t it..?

A lesson on lacrosse

Imagine my surprise when one of the group I was talking to told me they had recently been inspected and the inspectors had supposedly been particularly enthusiastic about the fact the school was teaching a comprehensive intake of pupils how to play lacrosse. And the basis of the inspector’s enthusiasm? Yep – you guessed it: cultural capital! In teaching this sport associated with the well-to-do the school was apparently deemed to be developing the cultural capital of its pupils.

I’ll repeat the health warning: This is one example and has not been verified. However, one could well understand how an inspector, or anyone else in the system, might fall foul of this error. Most teachers, leaders and inspectors I speak to are driven by the idea that what they do might make a difference to children’s lives and might broaden the opportunities they have available to them, particularly the most disadvantaged.

This is why DfE and Ofsted’s reference to the “best that’s been thought and said” has been an important rallying call: there is such a thing as better knowledge. It’s just that I’m not necessarily convinced that this is lacrosse. That’s not to say that lacrosse shouldn’t be a staple of the PE curriculum, but doing so on the basis of cultural capital seems a little tenuous to me. That an inspector apparently interpreted the teaching of lacrosse as developing cultural capital suggests, to me at least, how such a standpoint enshrines particular knowledge on the basis of its origin rather than on its own merits.

This is not a dig at Ofsted (or lacrosse). As I outlined at the start, Ofsted’s use of the term ‘cultural capital’ is done with the best of intentions. But we have to be really careful about how this gets interpreted and implemented on the ground.

If the justification for praising the teaching of lacrosse was because it introduced pupils to a new sport and broadened their understanding and experience of sport, or developed specific skills, fair enough. The same could be said about a whole host of other sports too – and it is great that pupils are being exposed to a range of experiences and opportunities. But perceiving the teaching of lacrosse as developing ‘cultural capital’ troubles me. What does it say about the teaching of sports and pursuits not associated with a particular section of society? What does it say about the basis on which we include and exclude material from the curriculum?

Even more interesting was that the school’s reason for teaching lacrosse was actually rather pragmatic – they’d had a good deal on some lacrosse equipment. They didn’t do it on the basis of developing cultural capital, but apparently inspectors were quick to perceive it in those terms.

I just think we need to tread carefully in this whole space of cultural capital. It would be ironic if, in this midst of this knowledge-rich discourse, we were blind to the characteristics of knowledge itself because we were so dazzled by where it came from. To do so would risk an inadvertent return to teaching, and inspecting, the knowledge of the powerful rather than seeing that knowledge itself can have power.

In a previous blog I wrote about the difficulties of using ‘cultural capital’ as a means of selecting curriculum content. Essentially, I hoped to demonstrate that such an approach may, unconsciously or otherwise, venerate particular knowledge and practices solely on the basis of where they come from, and this can be problematic. In attempting to teach ‘cultural capital’ it may be that such highly valued knowledge is held to be so only because it represents the knowledge and practices of particular social classes, rather than because of the knowledge itself. Such a stance privileges the social origins of knowledge, in particular a social class, rather than its own characteristics.

As an alternative I offered Michael Young’s theory of ‘powerful knowledge’ as a means of exploring how the proprieties of knowledge itself might be help us to redraw the relationship between power and knowledge, so that what we teach does not simply reflect the ‘knowledge of the powerful’ but we select knowledge that is itself ‘powerful’ because it allows us to think in new ways and to generalize beyond the immediate context. Such knowledge is likely to be conceptual, meaning we can apply it to new and imagined contexts. For example, it allows us to pose and address meaningful ‘what if’ questions.

Young’s work is helpful because it gives us a means of analysing the characteristics of knowledge and its relation with other knowledge (its epistemic relations). However, does this mean we should ignore the social origins of knowledge? No. Inherent in Young’s work is a recognition that knowledge comes from a particular time/place/person etc. What he helps us to do is to look beyond that origin, not pretend it does not exist.

So, knowledge is both social and real. It reflects aspects of the world that exists in our minds, as well as that which exists independently of us. So perhaps the question is not whether it is one or the other; a better question might be ‘what is the relative importance of these dimensions’?

For me, the problem with cultural capital as a curriculum driver is not that it relates to the social origins of knowledge per se but that it might lead some people to the conclusion that social class is the only aspect of knowledge that confers its legitimacy. This is problematic. Firstly, it does not necessarily require us to consider the knowledge itself. This is why I think powerful knowledge is a useful concept. Secondly, what of other aspects of the social origins of knowledge? How else might this exist? What other forms might it take?

Karl Maton’s Legitimation Code Theory (LCT) has been a game changer in developing my understanding of the underlying organizing principles of knowledge. While the theory can be complex, Maton’s advice to “only use as much theory as you need” is a welcome reminder that LCT is by design a practical theory which, even at its most simple, readily sheds light on questions about knowledge. LCT provides the means of analyzing knowledge both in relation to other knowledge (epistemic relations) and those who know (social relations). The title of his book, ‘Knowledge and Knowers’, sums it up pretty succinctly.

The more you dig into LCT the more you find. Maton’s work on ‘gazes’, which builds on Bernstein’s concept, strikes me as particularly helpful in moving on the recent debate about cultural capital into a much more helpful space.

A cultivated gaze
According to Maton, in educational discourse there is always a hierarchy somewhere. Bernstein tells us that in some fields this ‘verticality’ exists through knowledge which is structured hierarchically: one thing builds on another. Maths is a good example. However, not all fields work this way. For example, progress in the arts can work differently – one thing does not necessarily build on another in the same way. So what is the basis of hierarchization in such horizontally structured fields? How does knowledge build? How does someone get better?

Maton argues in some fields the hierarchy is determined less by the knowledge structure and more by a knower structure. Essentially this means that some fields are characterized by developing a particular sort of knower, someone with a particular ‘gaze’. “One could,” Maton argues, “just as well talk of ‘ear, ‘taste’, ‘touch’, ‘feel’ and so forth.” You can begin to see why this thinking might be important in the arts, where the development of such sensitivities might be considered essential.

So, what sort of ‘gazes’ might there be? Maton outlines 4 types:

  • Trained gaze
  • Cultivated gaze
  • Social gaze
  • Born gaze

The ‘cultivated gaze’ is particularly interesting. Maton says, “the cultivated gaze is based on the belief that knowers are not born but made through the re-formation of their dispositions.” In explaining this he draws on Robert Hughes’ notion of the ‘invisible tribunal’:

“Every writer carries in his or her mind an invisible tribunal of dead writers, whose appointment is an imaginative act and not merely a browbeaten response to some notion of authority. This tribunal sits in judgement one our own work. We intuit standards from it…If the tribunal weren’t there, every first draft would be a final manuscript.” (Robert Hughes)

Maton describes this as a ‘mental library’ built through exposure to the evolving canon in which knowers are immersed. He concludes that in fields such as the arts this notion of a ‘cultivated gaze’ is the knower-based equivalent of the specialized knowledge-based hierarchy of fields such as science. What is important is to understand is that such a gaze is ‘teachable’; it is not dependent, as some other gazes are, on membership of a particular social group or class. In this way it is potentially inclusive.

What Ofsted really meant?
It is my conjecture that this is perhaps what Ofsted really meant in its use of the term ‘cultural capital’. I suspect the inspectorate was advocating an approach to knowledge building that recognizes that particular tastes and dispositions can be cultivated in pupils by immersing them in a broad range of cultural works and experiences. Such understanding legitimizes them as knowers within the field, allowing them to participate in its dialogue and debates.

One hopes this cultivated gaze would, therefore, increase the potential to widen access for pupils to other social groups, without being ignorant to the reality that social hierarchies are established on more than education alone. It is an optimistic stance, but not naïve.

Using the term cultural capital carried with it baggage which implied the roots of progression were based in social class. Viewing progress in fields such as the arts (and humanities?) as being centered on the cultivation of a gaze moves us on from this and in doing so it provides a more inclusive way forward.

This is not some sort of relativist argument that says ‘anything goes’. Actors within the field determine what is considered the legitimate content of the canon. The existence of a cultivated gaze inherently assumes some things – the canon – are more valuable than others. But such a perspective also creates room in the curriculum for exposure to a broad range of cultural works, neither structured or limited by social class.

This points to the way ahead: as learners within the field acquire the cultivated gaze, new and different cultural works can become part of the invisible tribunal and as such integrate these within the dispositions of the ideal knower. The canon can evolve. It is not static.

For my money the notion of a cultivated gaze is more helpful to curriculum planners than cultural capital.

Knowledge matters. But which knowledge and whose knowledge? These are questions we should be grappling with but too often important discussions can become dichotomised and unhelpfully fractious.

This was illustrated by the recent discussions about Ofsted’s use of ‘cultural capital’ in its new framework. Thoughtful people on both sides of the argument were shut down abruptly – too frequently with the blunt assertion they lacked ambition for their disadvantaged pupils. This echoed another recent debate about whether children should study Stormzy or Mozart.

Cultural capital was part of Pierre Bourdieu’s explanation of how the social order is maintained. If all that sounds a little Marxist, well, that’s probably because there are Marxist influences at play in Bourdieu’s work. Cultural capital, in Bourdieu’s work, is not so much a means of liberating the working class but more a means of repressing them; we all have cultural capital but elite culture is given higher status because it serves as way of distinguishing between those who are at the top and those who are not.

I wonder if Bourdieu might have argued that an inspectorate advocating that disadvantaged children be given a diet of elite culture is just another method of advancing such things as being the means of access to high social status, thus entrenching the social hierarchy rather than challenging it.

Now, to be clear, I don’t think this is Ofsted’s ‘intent’, to coin a phrase. Having seen the creation of the new framework up close, I know the inspectorate is genuinely motivated by a desire to create equity in our schools and wider society, and I don’t think Ofsted advocates only the transmission of elite culture. Ofsted has borrowed its definition of ‘knowledge and cultural capital’ from the national curriculum:

‘It is the essential knowledge that pupils need to be educated citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said and helping to engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.’

It seems to me that Ofsted, and the Department for Education, are using the term ‘cultural capital’ in a way not intended by Bourdieu. We can take a view on how far that is a problem – it’s probably something that I should have given more thought during the consultation on the new framework. But what proved most interesting was the debate it provoked last week. What ‘cultural capital’ do we want our pupils to learn? For example, do we think it’s important that working class pupils can explain the rules of polo? Or do we mean something else? Are we talking about the arts? And what are the possibilities for doing so in an education system where many schools have been forced to cut provision in these areas?

Before I am labelled an ‘enemy of promise’, allow me to point out I have not said that certain groups of pupils shouldn’t be introduced to the ‘best that has been thought and said’. What I am doing, I hope, is challenging cultural capital as the means through which we might identify what the ‘best’ looks like.

The social origins of knowledge are one way to determine what we value but, on its own, where does this take us? It could mean we only value something because of who said it, we don’t value it because of where it came from, or we risk not valuing anything at all because we believe it’s all just a matter of perspective – in such a world there is no better knowledge. We reduce it only to where it came from, not what it is. This would be slightly paradoxical in the context of knowledge-rich curriculum design, as we would in fact be foregrounding something other than the knowledge: the knower.

An alternative is to put knowledge itself under the microscope and look more closely. Some are already doing this and I see many teachers engaging with Michael Young’s notion of ‘powerful knowledge’. Young argues that some knowledge opens doors to new ways of seeing and thinking about the world. Such knowledge tends to be specialized (not everyday knowledge) and conceptual. It allows us to generalize, to make links with other concepts and to think beyond particular contexts. Ark’s John Blake has written some excellent pieces on powerful knowledge in the curriculum, so I won’t rehearse the detail here.

Young’s argument is that all children are entitled to ‘powerful knowledge’ as a means of intellectual development. It transcends the people, places and time of its origin. It matters because of what it is, not because of where it came from, although we recognise it has a particular origin.

This is quite different to cultural capital. But how well is this understood? In Young’s work ‘power’ is a property of the knowledge itself – it gives power to think in new ways. In cultural capital ‘power’ is a property of the knower – the knowledge of the powerful. And that’s without throwing ED Hirsch’s notion of cultural literacy into the mix!

Does all this matter? I think it does. In the rush towards curriculum change we ought to think carefully about the basis on which we include and exclude content. We can’t teach it all, so choices have to be made. On what footing do we make those choices? Sensible discussion of this issue, including a critical appraisal of the value of cultural capital as a curriculum driver, need not necessarily be seen as a weakness of curriculum thinking.

As an example, we could return to the Mozart vs Stormzy debate from a few weeks ago. There are compelling reasons why schools might choose to teach Mozart, and not only because some might associate it with the culture of a particular class. What of the music itself and what it reveals about composition, what does it tell us about the eighteenth century? Equally, on what basis might a school include current music, such as Stormzy, in its curriculum? Might analysis of such music also provide meaningful insight into the structure of music and its relationship with society? Does it necessarily lack ambition for our pupils if we decide to carefully integrate contexts pupils are familiar with? Perhaps so if we never stray from the familiar, or if such study is not used to probe and explore the fundamental concepts of the subject, but the Mozart vs Stormzy dichotomy is a false one. It is possible to see how both could have a place in a high-quality music curriculum.

There may also be cultural practices and experiences we want to share with pupils because such knowledge, whether we like it or not, might be considered part of the ‘rules of admission’ to a particular part of society. But this is not straight forward. In consecrating the cultural practices of another group on this basis we might also want to consider our pupils’ own context, how we mediate between the two and what might be lost if this is done badly.

So how do we resolve these issues? Firstly, we should be explicit about the basis of the arguments we make about which knowledge we teach. Although our curriculum might be influenced by notions of cultural capital and powerful knowledge, they are not necessarily the same thing.

Secondly, try to understand the basis of others’ arguments too. You may find more common ground than you expect, or at least better reveal the principles which underlie any disagreement. This should enable richer and more fruitful debate and that’s got to be good for how we think and talk about the curriculum.