What is powerful knowledge?

Knoweldge and the future schoolIn Knowledge and the Future School (2014) the sociologist of education Michael Young proposes a ‘return to knowledge’ following what he regards as the ‘turn away from knowledge’ taken by some progressives including Young himself in his earlier work. This book, co-authored with David Lambert, Carolyn Roberts and Martin Roberts, makes a powerful case for a curriculum and a pedagogy based on what the authors call ‘powerful knowledge’. This is part of a kind of ‘third way’ approach; a synthesis of two clashing perspectives on the school curriculum which can be characterised broadly as ‘traditionalist’ and ‘progressive’.

The authors distinguish between three alternative futures or ways of thinking about the school curriculum:

A Future 1 curriculum is the curriculum inherited from the 19th century which assumes that knowledge is a given and is beyond debate. The future is seen as an extension of the past.

A Future 2 approach acknowledges that knowledge has social and historical roots. It is defined in terms of particular needs and interests, often those which are dominant in society. It was a response to the rigidity and elitism of the Future 1 model but it was based on a misguided theory of knowledge. The fact that knowledge is socially constructed does not necessarily mean that it is inherently biased or that some knowledge is not better; more valuable, more truthful or more universally applicable.

Future 3 already exists in parts of the curriculum despite the pressure to lean towards Futures 1 or 2. In contrast to Future 1, it locates knowledge as the creation of specialist communities of researchers rather than simply treating it as given. It acknowledges that knowledge is fallible, contestable, provisional and subject to change. But in contrast to Future 2 it does not see it as an arbitrary response to a particular challenge; it is bound by epistemic rules about what makes things likely to be true.

Future 3 treats subjects as the most reliable tools we have to help students acquire powerful knowledge and make sense of the world. Subjects are a resource to take students beyond their experience, to challenge their existing ideas.

“We want schools to give children access to knowledge that takes them beyond their experience in a way that their parents can trust and value, they they will find challenging and which prepares them for the next step in their education.”

Powerful knowledge starts from the idea of equal citizens with an equal entitlement to knowledge; an entitlement which should not be limited on grounds of assumed ability or motivation, ethnicity, class or gender. The curriculum should be seen as a guarantor of equality based on the best knowledge we have, or at least a staged approach towards acquiring it.

According to Young, skills cannot be an adequate basis for a curriculum:

“Skills have their place in the curriculum but skills on their own limit the student to tackling ‘how’ questions and not ‘what’ questions. It is only ‘what’ questions that take students beyond their experience and enable them to engage with and grasp alternatives.”

The authors propose 3 criteria for defining powerful knowledge:

  1. It is distinct from ‘common sense’ knowledge acquired through everyday experience and therefore context-specific and limited.
  2. It is systematic. Its concepts are related to each as part of a discipline with its specific rules and conventions. It can be the basis for generalisations and predictions beyond specific cases or contexts.
  3. It is specialized; developed by specialists within defined fields of expertise and enquiry.

Powerful knowledge embodies values of objectivity, openness to challenge, rationalism and respect for all humans. These criteria are concerned with truth rather than with valuing different belief systems people may hold to.

What would a shift to a powerful knowledge curriculum mean?

It would require a major reassessment of all curriculum programmes as well as changes to pedagogy. The approach advocated in this book requires schools to see a knowledge-led curriculum as an entitlement for all and as a starting point for a more equal, fair and just society. It would set us on a path of pretty radical pedagogic and curriculum innovation.

“Our approach is not to start by assuming different ‘types’ of children but by wanting to give all children access to the foundations of powerful knowledge.”

“There is no good argument for comprehensive secondary schools if they are not based on a comprehensive curriculum…If we are serious about educational equality we have to be serious about curricular justice.”

The authors have no time for a traditional, old-fashioned, backward-looking view of knowledge but they do agree with a strong emphasis on knowledge:

“Denying access to some in the name of diversity, however linked to a concern for the welfare of students, is not about promoting equality or social justice.”

In conclusion

This is an important contribution to contemporary debates about educational equality and entitlement as well as the central place of knowledge in the curriculum. It is a useful starting point for those of us who support a broad non-elitist knowledge-rich ‘Future 3’ type of curriculum for all young people.

Following on from this, I would want us to have a more thorough discussion of the place of skills and skill-development in the curriculum as well as of the concept of ‘usefulness’. Skill acquisition plays a big part in helping students go beyond their experience and surely those ‘how’ and ‘what’ questions are in constant dialogue with each other, neither of them necessarily more or less challenging than the other.

The book doesn’t explicitly address the idea of ‘useful education’, although at one point, the ‘power’ in ‘powerful knowledge’ is described as referring to ‘what it can do’ for those who have access to it; a fairly major, and welcome, concession to the notion of utility. Question: Is there any difference between what knowledge can do for us and what we can do with it…?

I think there is also a need for more consideration of how academic disciplines change and evolve over time and how they translate into taught subjects. What are the benefits of interdisciplinarity as well as disciplinarity?

And finally, the authors seem to assume that a curriculum entitlement only applies up to 16. I’m not sure that there is any good reason for such an early or sudden cut-off point. I think the idea of a broad liberal studies curriculum with room for specialisation and interdisciplinarity can extend fruitfully into further and higher education.

The book does not claim to be the last word on any of these questions and it should be seen as a solid and clear basis for further exploration. As such it deserves to be widely read and widely discussed.

See also:

Progs and trads: is a synthesis possible? (March 2014)

Gramsci’s grammar and Dewey’s dialectic (December 2014)

Learning to love liberal education (October 2014)

Debating the liberal arts (October 2014)

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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6 Responses to What is powerful knowledge?

  1. John says:

    Thanks for the blog, Eddie (received via John Fowler of NVG). It takes me back to the days when Paul Hirst’s ‘forms of knowledge’ theory of the curriculum was under intense scrutiny (late 1960s onwards). These ‘forms’ were also based, like PK, on academic disciplines with their own networks of concepts peculiar to the field. (See criterion 2 above). H is a mathematician, just as MY is a chemist. Their theory fits their subjects hand in glove. The problems with Hirst’s came with history among other things. Does history have a systematic network of historical concepts? Or does it use ordinary concepts, supplemented occasionally by specialised ones, e.g. in economics)? H has long given up his theory partly in the light of all the problems it faced.

    There’s also the question: what priority should be given in the curriculum to theoretical knowledge of a systematic sort? Knowledge of one’s society does not fit the model, although again it draws on specialisms like science and economics. Neither does history, see above. Geography is also doubtful if we are thinking of human geography. Then there are other candidates not centrally to do with factual knowledge like a love of art and natural beauty, practical knowledge of various sorts, civic awareness etc.


    • Many thanks for this, John. I am really interested in these questions and I’m aware of the debate between you and Michael Young which I haven’t yet been able to do justice to.
      Michael’s book touches on disciplines and subjects but I want to give more thought to some of the key questions:
      How do disciplines and subjects evolve? What gives them particular credibility and power in society and among policymakers?
      (eg: why are some ‘facilitating A-level subjects deemed to be of greater value when others also represent highly respected academic disciplines? I wrote about this here:https://eddieplayfair.com/2014/10/12/hindering-subjects-and-bad-universities/ )
      To what extent are the concepts and practices of disciplines and subjects really distinct?
      Where do vocational ‘communities of practice’ fit in all this?
      Lots of questions…you might have some suggestions about where one might start to find some answers?


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