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Why is a knowledge based curriculum no longer fit for purpose?

What is a knowledge based curriculum?

I was in a school recently that described itself as having a 'knowledge-based curriculum'. Walking round the school with the head the key elements of this, which seem to be common across most secondary schools that I have visited, were:

  • a focus on content that had to be covered (learnt)
  • an emphasis on high academic achievement in national exams
  • traditional, teacher focused pedagogy (as evidenced for example by the organisation of desks in the classroom so that all the children are facing the teacher 'at the front' )
  • the teacher (and teacher selected resources) being the only valid sources of expertise (as evidenced for example by most of the permitted talk being by the teacher or between the teacher and individual children)
  • a lack of digital technology use by children - even where mobile devices are present children predominantly write on paper (the Digital Technology Impact Framework does not consider looking at a digital display/interactive whiteboard that is being controlled by the teacher as children using digital technology)

This focus on a knowledge based curriculum, which lends itself to traditional teacher focused pedagogical practices, reflects the 'new' English National Curriculum which is underpinned by a view that we need to "ensure that every child has a firm grasp of the basics and a good grounding in general knowledge” (Schools minister Nick Gibb 7 June 2010). Thus, for example, in the specification for history "there is a strong emphasis on chronology which represents a move away from the practices of doing history towards the facts of history" (Twining et al 2017 p.6).

The focus of a knowledge based curriculum is on knowing in the sense of being able to recall and explain information.

Why isn't this fit for purpose?

I'd suggest that there are two key reasons why a knowledge based curriculum is no longer fit for purpose: one to do with how people learn and thus what effective teaching looks like (the pedagogical reason); and the other to do with the ways in which digital technology, especially AI, is impacting on our lives and in particular the world of work (the pragmatic explanation) .

The pedagogical explanation

As I have argued previously we need to distinguish between formal learning and what I have called 'human learning'. Formal learning aligns with a behaviourist or information processing stance (what Patricia Murphy labels Traditional in the Innovative Pedagogy Framework). Human learning aligns with a sociocultural stance (Innovative in the Innovative Pedagogy Framework).

With shifts in theoretical understanding (including for example from neuroscience) the evidence suggests that sociocultural theory provides a better explanation of learning than behaviourism - and that human learning is more effective than formal learning. As a knowledge based curriculum is closely associated with formal learning it is associated with a less effective pedagogical approach to learning.

The pragmatic explanation

The world is changing rapidly, and this is impacting on the outcomes that we need from education. This is often framed as being about the need to develop 21st century skills. Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica frame this in terms of our industrial age model (i.e. a knowledge based curriculum) and argue that "these systems are inherently unsuited to the wholly different circumstances of the twenty-first century" (Robinson and Aronica, 2016, p.xxi).

Fundamentally the challenge for schools is how to prepare young people for a world in which digital technology, in the form of artificial intelligence (AI), is able to perform many of the things which previously were thought of as being indicators of human intelligence. In part this is because we are confusing knowledge with information when we talk about a knowledge based curriculum. Knowing, in the sense of being able to remember or even being able to explain or manipulate information, is a subset of knowledge, but is what a knowledge based curriculum focusses on. The problem is that:

"AI is brilliant at performing the routine cognitive skills of knowledge acquisition. The information that can be processed and learned by readily available machine-learning systems are way beyond our human capability."

(Luckin 2018, p.99)

In other words, a knowledge based curriculum focusses on teaching something that humans cannot do as well as AI. It sets us up to become subservient to AI systems rather than being controllers of them. This has huge implications for society, including for people's employability.

The alternative to a knowledge based curriculum

The danger with a knowledge based curriculum is that you can learn about information without developing many of the critical competences that AI is not good at. Luckin suggests that these include 'meta-level' intelligence - knowing about ourselves.

Knowledge remains important, because you cannot develop these other attributes in a vacuum - you can only do so through an interaction with information. So you cannot have a 'skills based' approach without developing your knowledge, though you can have a knowledge based approach without developing key competences that differentiate us from AI systems.

To illustrate the point. I can learn some facts about Australian history and explain how Australian culture has evolved in the light of those facts without developing the ability to think critically, evaluate evidence or understand the human aspects of Australian history. In contract, if I am learning to compare the quality of different information, critically analyse it and understand it from alternative perspective through a study of Australian history I will also be engaging with and processing information. Such a 'skills based' approach is likely to enhance my understanding of Australian history compared with a knowledge focussed one as well as developing additional attributes that will stand me in good stead in the competition against AI.

Continuing to focus on a knowledge based curriculum dooms young people to a future in which they are unable to compete both with other people who have been taught to develop their meta-level intelligence and with 'robots' (AI systems).

Schools need to do better than that.

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5 thoughts on “Why is a knowledge based curriculum no longer fit for purpose?

  1. Alan Savage

    Thank you for blowing the whistle on the sophistry that is the knowledge rich curriculum. Teachers have always taught 'knowledge' - the skill is knowing what to do with knowledge and as you rightly point out, develop critical skills that AI cannot do. We are living through a revolution and the world is changing at an exponential and dizzying pace - kids need to be prepared for this world, the one that is already here. It makes me sigh deeply when a fashionable mantra goes around and many educators swallow it whole without really questioning the validity and effectiveness of it.

  2. J Gelston

    I am wondering if your opinion is based on any more than a few visits to certain schools. Have you read an entire unit of any of the "Knowledge Based" curriculum's teacher guides? If you do, you may find, that if done well, kids are being asked to offer and defend opinions, evaluate the actions of people in history, compare and analyze differences in cultures, connect historical periods with patterns in today's world, etc. I don't think "knowledge based" curriculum needs to be politicized as a "back to basics" vs 21st century skills approach.
    As a teacher of over 23 years, I have witnessed the general trend in society of kids not knowing common things that are crucial to being able to think critically, weigh facts, find patterns, or even distinguish fact from fiction. Social Studies is barely taught anymore, thanks to high stakes testing in other areas.

    Here's an experiment you can try...walk into a 5th grade classroom and hand each child a blank outline map of the world, and a list of the continent and ocean names. Ask them to put the names on the map. Also, ask them which countries are in North America. I think you may be become more interested in helping our students acquire more knowledge/information after you try this.

    1. PeterT

      J, as I think you are implying, this is not an either/or argument - we need to move away from the artificial divide between 'knowledge' and 'skills' - you cannot develop the competences and dispositions that folk need in the world today without having some information and understanding of that information and how to apply it in real contexts. My argument is about the current predominant focus on 'knowledge' without a concern for the ability to apply it in real contexts. Given that until recently I have been working in the English education system my views are very much coloured by the English National Curriculum and the ways in which I have seen it being implemented in a range of schools. As noted in Twining et al. (2017) - see Section 2.2.1 - the English National Curriculum has a predominant focus on 'facts', for example

      "In the History specification, there is further evidence of this epistemological shift. ... There is a strong emphasis on chronology which represents a move away from the practices of doing history towards the facts of history. This retreat from what is claimed to be the influence of social constructivist theories has seen a more general claim for school curricula to be based on ‘powerful’ knowledge’ (Young, 2011). As part of this social realist approach it is argued that schools must become places where the world is treated as an ‘object of thought’ and not as ‘a place of experience’ (Charlot, 2009, p.91, cited by Rata, 2016, p.175)." (Twining et al., 2017, p.6)

      Curricula in other countries - such as Australia where I'm now living - are less problematic, though they still emphasis those things that can be assessed in high stakes tests (which tend to be academic 'knowledge' rather than the range of dispostions, competences and 'knowledge' that schools ought to be focussed on).

      You can download Twining et al., 2017 from


  3. JakeH

    High school history teacher from the Chicago area here, just doing some googling on "knowledge-based curriculum."

    Thanks much for your insights. I'm inclined to look askance at the sort of rigid classrooms you describe.

    I worry, though, that the progressive approach to history and/or social studies or social science education, in its zeal to focus on themes, skills, student-centered pedagogy, and so on, has gone too far in the other direction -- has too cavalierly, almost without debate in my circles, jettisoned knowledge nearly entirely (with the notable exception of Advanced Placement history courses).

    Neither of the major American college entrance exams, the SAT and the ACT, tests historical knowledge -- that has long been the case. But we are increasingly seeing "studies"-style thematic courses at the high school level that don't hold students accountable for historical knowledge in the classroom either.

    I recently had a conversation with a high school sophomore who not only had no clue what the U.S. Civil War was about but didn't have familiarity with the concept of a "civil war" at all. This is alarming for an American at that level of her education. And yet it was not surprising.

    "Knowledge" is caricatured here as quickly-forgotten facts and dates that anyone today could quickly look up with a few taps on their phone -- as mere "information," so much extraneous detail that's beside the point. Perhaps it would be helpful to replace the word "knowledge" with "literacy" -- a basic familiarity and facility with the big picture. That necessarily includes knowledge of important facts and concepts. Yes, we don't expect high school students to have the working knowledge of an academic specialist. But we ought to expect them to have *some* working knowledge. Otherwise, students graduate as amnesiacs, generally ignorant of the contingent forces that have shaped their world and can be harnessed to change it.

    Consider as an analogy a foreign language course. Yes, students learn by hearing, immersing, and communicating. But they can't really do the last thing if they don't know a decent number of words and basic grammar. Knowledge is a prerequisite to mastery of the skill, even at the basic secondary student level -- and the lack of it is painfully obvious. So too with history.

    I am keenly interested not only in grammar, but logic and rhetoric as well. Students should write essays, participate in debates and simulations, and so on. "Exams" has become a dirty word in large corners of our profession, but AP exams, for example, effectively test these higher level skills in analysis and communication with short answer and essay questions.

    Unfortunately, what many American teachers have taken from the literature is that students remember only that which they produce and is transparently relevant to them and have thus substituted assessments of knowledge with a proliferation of narrow projects that frequently amount to shallow acts of personal expression and performance. Students remember them, yes. They might have been fun, not least because they were the center of attention and received positive feedback for their performance -- they are relatively easy and personally validating. But this sort of thing should not be mistaken for learning, which, irritatingly, remains pretty hard work.

    The best test of whether a student has learned a concept or subject is whether they themselves can plausibly teach it. I would like to see, for example, fewer little projects and more magnum opus style projects where students, say, create their own world history textbooks. But I wouldn't chuck finals either.

    Perhaps the biggest travesty in criticism of "traditional" pedagogy is the denigration of chronology. It is downright bizarre that teachers of a subject that is essentially chronological (history), and relatively easy to grasp because of it, would labor mightily to deprive their content of its most intuitive feature!

    1. PeterT

      Thank you for that thoughtful response JakeH.

      I agree that sometimes (maybe often) folk go to far - as part of the unhelpful binary divide between 'Knowledge' and 'Skills'. You need some knowledge - at the very basic level some shared understanding and terminology - in order to communicate or think.

      I like the idea of focusing on key concepts (e.g. civil war; chronology) which you probably need to have illustrated by engaging with some specific examples (e.g. The American civil war; sequence of events in the civil war).

      Without those key concepts - and shared understandings - everything else become problematic. The issue is one of getting the right balance - and of course different folk have different views about what that balance should be (or indeed which concepts are key and which are not, or which examples you should use to illustrate those key concepts).


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