Opinion – Knowledge is the Road to Joy

The work of E D Hirsch and many others has been cited as pivotal in the recent interest – particularly in the UK and the US – of ‘knowledge-based curriculums’. That’s great, says Will Orr-Ewing – as long as we don’t forget joy.

A knowledge-based approach is on the march in UK schools. For any traditionalist who was working in the early 2000s – when a knowledge-based approach would have been dismissed as boring, reactionary and (thanks to Google) redundant – this must feel like an unexpected victory. It is a mark of how far we have come from the days of the 2007 National Curriculum and the RSA Open Minds Curriculum that the majority of the UK’s most prominent schools and educationalists now publicly favour a knowledge-based (or knowledge-rich) approach and the education minister can proudly call himself a ‘Hirschian’.

With the battle won (in theory if not quite yet in practice) and the victors sweeping the battlefield, finishing off dead and wounded progressives, many educationalists are now moving on from philosophy to implementation. Before they do, it is worth pausing to stake a philosophical claim that might determine the forms this implementation might take. This claim, neglected in debates over the last decade but treasured by older thinkers, is that knowledge – whatever its other educational benefits – brings joy. That knowledge gained is not just a means to other ends but is its own reward, and that this is one of its most important features and benefits. It is understandable that, in the fierce heat of contemporary squabbles, heads and educationalists prefer to talk up the more empirical benefits of a knowledge approach; but, by doing so, they leave the implementation of a knowledge-based approach open to those who would happily squander its joy for its effectiveness. In order to illustrate the way that a knowledge approach is currently advocated, it is necessary to summarise the arguments of its defenders very briefly. There are three main strands, all interrelated and often evoked as one.

1. Knowledge = access. Children need a secure knowledge base to access, firstly, texts of increasing complexity (cf. E D Hirsch, Daniel Willingham, Doug Lemov et al.) and, secondly, higher-order skills such as creativity, interdisciplinary thinking, critical thinking etc. (cf. Dylan Wiliam, Daisy Christodoulou, David Didau, Joe Kirby et al.). Here is a representative quote from Carl Hendrick: ‘The extent to which we can think critically about something is directly related to how much we “know” about that specific domain and “knowing” means changes in long-term memory.’ This contention is sometimes summarised as ‘the Matthew effect’ based on the passage from Matthew’s Gospel: ‘For all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.’

2. Knowledge = success. Because higher-order skills, including exam skills, cannot be accessed without knowledge, the best way to prepare for long-term exam success is via a knowledge-rich curriculum. The work of schools such as Michaela and those in the Inspiration Trust exemplify this approach. Christine Counsell, Director of Education for the latter, says: ‘I feel quite passionate about the broad curriculum in key stage 3 serving attainment in GCSE.’

3. Knowledge = power. Building on the two positions above, if schools do not teach knowledge, only those children from more privileged backgrounds whose parents pass on their own knowledge (even if obliviously) will be able to read well, access higher- order skills and achieve exam success. This is the social justice case for a knowledge approach advanced by all of the above, as well as the likes of the West London Free School. See also Michael Young’s concept of ‘powerful knowledge’.

These arguments, prosecuted on Twitter, blogs and at conferences, have generally and rightly won out – remarkably so, given the headwinds of a progressive teaching establishment. And yet, despite the fact that such arguments are often labelled ‘traditional’, they feel rather too bound within late modernity’s norms and values. As you have read in the above, knowledge is almost exclusively presented as a means rather than an end. The search for empirical benefits, able to justify approaches in only instrumentalist terms, has missed the marrow at the heart of knowledge and so risks erecting an educational project as thin and dreary as the orthodoxy it correctly seeks to replace.

Perhaps we need older perspectives – from an Aristotle or a C S Lewis or anyone who might be said to defend a liberal education in the old sense of that phrase – to remind us of just how much we are selling knowledge short. This older view of what knowledge can do is perhaps best encapsulated in the writing of Charlotte Mason, who saw herself both as the inheritor of this ‘liberal education’ tradition and as being charged with spreading its fruits to children of every background in late Victorian and Edwardian England. Here is what a knowledge-based approach meant to her:

‘We launch children upon too arid and confined a life. Personal delight and joy in living is a chief object of education … It is for their own sakes that children should get knowledge. The power to take a generous view of men and their motives, to see where the greatness of a given character lies, to have one’s judgment of a present event illustrated and corrected by historic and literary parallels … these are admirable assets within the power of every one according to the measure of his mind; and these are not the only gains which knowledge affords. The person who can live upon his own intellectual resources and never know a dull hour (though anxious and sad hours will come) is indeed enviable in these days of intellectual inanition, when we depend upon spectacular entertainments pour passer le temps.’

In her writing and in her schools, knowledge was never presented as a means to something else.

She talked of a child’s ‘knowledge-hunger’, an appetite of the mind akin to the appetite of the body for food. Knowledge was inherently ‘delightful’, ‘enlivening’, ‘vitalising’, helping children to see a world that pulsated with meaning. It required no further justification. Beyond the philosophical differences, she also contrasts with today’s defenders of knowledge in the implementation of her vision. There are many interesting ways in which the approaches diverge (and, naturally, converge) but the three summaries below will stand as illustrations:

1. Role of the teacher. It seems fair to say that those that promote knowledge today also tend to favour a heightened role for the teacher than the ‘guide on the side’ proposed by progressives. Many knowledge-rich schools make much of their teachers’ subject knowledge for instance. Mason would not have had a problem with this per se but she worried that a charismatic teacher could get in the way between a child and knowledge. There is an interesting piece by one of her followers on her views on Vygotsky’s ‘scaffolding’, which shows her dislike of the way teachers would often unwittingly come between children and ‘the mountain’ (or what she elsewhere called ‘the feast’) of knowledge through excessive talking. Teachers of course have their role to play in elucidating meaning but their role was one of ‘masterly inactivity’, something which is unlikely to find any favour in contemporary knowledge advocates, who tend to favour direct instruction and other ‘sage on the stage’ roles for the teacher, sometimes going as far as prescribing scripts for teachers.

2. Books vs textbooks. Because Mason feared that teachers often got in the way between children and knowledge, her lessons were rooted in reading. She condemned the way that educationalists ‘wrote down’ to children in ‘dry as dust’ textbooks, diluting the delightful aspects of knowledge, and would have disapproved of the generally pro-textbook stance of knowledge’s defenders today, not to mention the printable worksheets, précis and simplified versions that are still so common across all classrooms today.
She placed her trust not in all books but in certain well- chosen books, especially those with lively narratives and the right expressions, which expertly conveyed meaning from the mind of the author to the mind of the child. The teacher’s role is to elucidate the meaning in the books but not to be the main purveyor of the knowledge itself.

3. Knowledge demonstrated vs teaching to the test. Today’s defenders of knowledge seem to see the UK’s examination system as being a worthy demonstration of their pupils’ knowledge, boasting of high attainment in GCSE or, in the case of private schools, of places won at top senior schools or universities. Mason, on the other hand, worried that any teaching to the test, any academic marks or prizes, winnowed the innate desire within children for knowledge for its own sake. She favoured a method called narration, whereby children told back (either written or out loud) what they had heard or read. Now that schools can boast of their pupils’ knowledge via social media, YouTube etc., where are the demonstrations of that joyful knowledge that Mason would surely have used if she was still alive today? (Her equivalent was to publish a list of substantive nouns and proper nouns written in a typical exam in her schools – e.g. Africa, Alsace- Lorraine, Antigonus, Abdomen, Antennae, Aphis, Antwerp, Alder, etc.) The closest that comes to it are Michaela’s moving videos of their children chanting great poetry, but where are the others?

By aligning a knowledge approach with textbooks, charismatic teaching and excellent examination prep, amongst many other implementations, there is a danger that today’s defenders of knowledge are dampening exactly that aspect of knowledge that makes it so genuinely ‘rich’, ‘powerful’ and delightful. It is time to reclaim joy as the rightful aim of a knowledge-based approach (could it even be hoped that a knowledge approach implemented on Mason’s grounds could go some way to pushing back at the awful incidence of childhood unhappiness we see about us?) and time to experiment with other methods that protect and uphold this worthy goal for a great and liberal education.