Are all curriculums knowledge based?
The potential for mischief
Back in the day, I was a baby teacher with a difficult science class. Don’t get me wrong, they were lovely kids, just not particularly motivated by the compulsory GCSE science course I was teaching them. On reflection, they had been failed by the system long before I took them on in Year 10, but there we were — some bored minor god had brought us together for the LOLs.
That same god thought it would deepen their amusement to arrange it so that I taught this class for a double period on a Friday afternoon. So I struck a deal with my students. I blocked booked the science computer room — remember computer rooms? — for the second half of this double period. If all went well in the first 40 minutes, we would go to the computer room where I would give them a science topic to research and make a poster about. The posters invariably consisted of a few cut-and-paste sentences with an emphasis on WordArt and colourful graphics.
Now, I would take a different approach, but at the time, it was the best I could think up. I don’t recall anyone criticising me — if anything, I think it was considered a good idea.
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Was this activity knowledge-based? Undoubtedly. The posters were about some topic or other and students had to find information relevant to that topic. However, the acquisition of knowledge was not the objective of this activity. Overall, it was a motivational strategy but I reconciled with a higher purpose because it was set in a science context and I believed the students were developing research skills or IT skills. That was probably not true, but it’s what I thought at the time.
This is why I wince a little when I hear people talk about a ‘knowledge-based’ curriculum. I know what they mean — they are signaling that they are aware of the debate over the importance of knowledge and they are picking a side — my side. However, it invites mischief makers to correctly argue that all curriculums are knowledge-based. Even the most progressivist teaching imaginable is about something, even if that something is individual to each student and subject to their whims.
The real difference is between those see knowledge as incidental, with domains of knowledge operating as interchangeable sandboxes within which to practise generic skills, and those who reject the knowledge-skills binary, viewing skills as automated forms of knowledge that are usually specific to particular subjects. To the latter group, there are no widely applicable generic skills of critical thinking or creativity, but we can develop such capacities in areas where we have a lot of knowledge.
My understanding of the mind places me in the latter group. Knowledge is what we think with. However, the implications of skills-as-knowledge are profound. Simply learning lists of dates, names and facts is insufficient and offers a poor caricature of our position. In fact, such an approach essentially accepts the knowledge-skills binary on the same terms as progressivists assert it — it just preferences a different side of that binary.
This is why, although a small point, I currently prefer ‘knowledge-rich’ to ‘knowledge-based’.