What should we teach?


A new book is seeking to reclaim the question of what we teach on behalf of the profession and argues for a focus on ‘powerful knowledge’. Co-authors, Professors Michael Young and David Lambert explain.


There is a new set of possibilities based upon a fresh way of thinking about the school curriculum. 

Important though politics is, especially for those involved in education, the point we start from is that much education debate has become too narrowly political and increasingly sterile. Perhaps the fact that the previous secretary of state was so combative (or “toxic” according to some) in his approach did not help.

What we would like to do is focus on educational rather than political issues and reclaim what is – or should be – the core concern of all teachers, including headteachers. This is the question of what to teach.

The theme of our new book  is that access to what we refer to as “powerful knowledge” is the principle on which the school curriculum for all pupils should be based. 

Expressed in the school curriculum through subjects, derived (or to use the more technical term “re-contextualised”) from academic disciplines, powerful knowledge bears little relationship to the Gradgrind return to a “curriculum of the dead” that critics tend to assume such a subject-based curriculum implies.

“Powerful knowledge” is precious. It is not made up of accumulated lists of “facts”. In the form of subjects, powerful knowledge is continually evolving as new and tested concepts and explanations are introduced. 

Schools are the special places where a growing but still too small a proportion of young people are (among other things) inducted into subjects and the possibilities they offer.

Thus, far from discriminating against disadvantaged pupils, as many educationists claim, a subject-based curriculum, beginning in the primary school and continuing for all pupils at least up to the age of 16, is the only basis for a more socially just education system. 

In a modern knowledge economy – which will never again employ more than a tiny number of younger school-leavers – there is no moral or educational case for a curriculum pre-16 that differentiates the academic from the personal or the vocational. It is discriminatory to decide (on their behalf) that young people who learn more slowly or who lose the motivation to learn do not need access to powerful knowledge – the best knowledge we have in the sciences, the humanities and the social sciences.

At a time of acute political uncertainty and with a general election less than a year way, our book lays down challenges to both major political parties and to the educational community as a whole. 

The Conservatives endorse both a subject-based curriculum and “equal opportunities for young people, no matter what their background or family circumstances”. In 2014, we imagine few teachers would disagree with this, at least in principle, unless they have been captured by the wilder reaches of “critical pedagogy” or political correctness. 

However, as long as a significant proportion of schools lack qualified graduate teachers in all the main subjects (and not just the “core” of English, mathematics and science) and therefore cannot enable all pupils to engage with powerful knowledge, such an endorsement remains little more than empty rhetoric.

For the Labour Party, on the other hand, the challenge is whether it can move from its hesitant defence of comprehensive schools and fully accept the logic of the principle of comprehensive education: namely that it implies the curriculum goal of “powerful knowledge for all”.

But the biggest challenge of all is to the education community as a whole. The book asks teachers and school leaders to reclaim their professionalism and express it in terms the knowledge-led school – and thus occupy the void that has in effect allowed political meddling and indeed various forms of non-professional enterprise to exert too much influence. 

A re-thought Royal College of Teaching, modelled in the medical Colleges, might well be the appropriate way forward. 

However, some of the circumstances now exist anyway. Freed from the heavy hand of the former Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency and (for many) the perceived constraints of the existing national curriculum, the senior staff of schools, including both heads and subject specialists, in association with subject associations, have the opportunity to assert their new professionalism as curriculum leaders. 

In writing the book, we have sought to capture a modern version of the vision which in various forms has long been part of educational thought. It can be traced back to such politically diverse figures as Edward Boyle, Antonio Gramsci and Matthew Arnold. 

However, our vision will not succeed unless we win the hearts and minds of those who can make such a vision a reality. 

The book therefore is primarily directed to those senior staff in schools, the subject leaders, indeed all teachers, who bear the main responsibility for what we hope will be “the future school” and its knowledge-led curriculum. And of course it is also directed to all who train, mentor and support new teachers.

  • Michael Young and David Lambert are professors of education at the Institute of Education, University of London.

Further information
Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and social justice is written by Michael Young and David Lambert, with Carolyn Roberts and Martin Roberts, current and former headteachers respectively. It is published by Bloomsbury.


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