What do we mean by ‘knowledge rich’ anyway?

In Education Politics and Polemics, Educational Research, Memory for Learning, Uncategorized by Alex QuigleyLeave a Comment

Recently, I published a blog on the EEF website on a ‘knowledge rich’ curriculum – you can find it here. I have republished it on my website for regular readers.

A New Year’s Prediction: 2019 will be The Year of Curriculum. 

Prompted by forthcoming changes to the inspection framework and recent reforms to SATs and GCSEs, many schools will be about to begin, or already are in the midst of, curriculum reviews.

If you are considering your curriculum, you are likely questioning if your curriculum is ‘knowledge rich’, a phrase that has become almost ubiquitous, and on which interesting perspectives abound (eg, from brilliant bloggers Tom Sherrington and Clare Sealy).

Without a clear definition of ‘knowledge rich’, a huge opportunity could be missed.

In my view, reaching a consensus on what it means to be ‘knowledge rich’ is important. Without a clear definition, the risk of confusion and misunderstanding is high, and a huge opportunity could be missed.

So, what might it mean in practice?

Focused and sequenced

Recent Ofsted research defined a ‘knowledge-rich’ approach as one in which curriculum leaders are clear on the “invaluable knowledge they want their pupils to know”. 

This idea, essentially that schools must make choices about what to prioritise, echoes Michael Young’s famous emphasis on “powerful knowledge” and runs through many recent articles and blogs. In practice, some schools have attempted to be more explicit about the choices they are making by introducing knowledge organisers or more detailed unit plans.

Another common thread, which is certainly to be welcomed, is an emphasis on sequencing. In short, a successful knowledge-rich curriculum should be designed to help pupils remember what they have been taught. 

Recently, questions about sequencing have often been considered through the lens of cognitive science — which my EEF colleague Robbie Coleman has recently blogged about here and here — for example, emphasising the potential of spaced learning and retrieval practice.

Making rich knowledge robust

Let’s assume teachers plan a specified and arranged sequence of knowledge, designed to support pupils to develop memorable networks of powerful knowledge. Will that be enough?

Unfortunately for some of our pupils, I fear not.

To understand why, I think Professor David Perkins, from Harvard University, can help. Perkins wrote about the troublesome nature of ‘fragile knowledge’. His analysis offers us a more nuanced language to consider how even carefully sequenced curricula may not be well understood by our novice pupils, despite our best efforts.

He describes this ‘fragility’ in four parts:

  • Missing knowledge. Sometimes important pieces of knowledge are just plain missing. E.g. In a Shakespeare essay, Alex may forget that Macbeth was written with the audience of James I in mind.
  • Inert knowledge. Sometimes knowledge is present, but inert. It lets the student pass the quiz but does not help otherwise. E.g. Alex doesn’t think to mention the ‘divine right of kings’, which his teacher implicitly wanted him to focus on in his essay.
  • Naïve knowledge. Sometimes the knowledge takes the form of naïve theories and stereotypes, even after considerable instruction. E.g. Alex persists with the notion that Lady Macbeth is solely to blame for her husband’s behaviour in his essay.
  • Ritual knowledge. The knowledge that students acquire often has a ritual character, useful for certain academic tasks but not much else. E.g. Alex pleases his teacher by mentioning the rare rhetorical device ‘anadiplosis’ in his essay.

Though Perkins was writing in 1995, today we would recognise aspects of the fragility he explores as linked to the term ‘metacognition’ – put simply, how we think and how we use our knowledge. 

In short, we need to carefully attend to our pupils’ learning: ensuring we develop their knowledge of themselves as learners, of strategies, and of tasks.

We need to develop our pupils’ knowledge of themselves as learners, of strategies, and of tasks.

By attending to such considerations in our curriculum design, we have a much better chance of ensuring that the knowledge our pupils learn is robust.

In practice, we might need to consider what teaching strategies we model for organising knowledge – so should Alex, writing his Macbeth essay, use writing frames, graphic organisers, mind-maps, or Cornell notes when he is marshalling his knowledge for this task?

We may need to explicitly teach Alex strategies for how to plan and monitor his writing – including how to evaluate it and spy knowledge gaps, and when seemingly ‘inert’ knowledge of historical context needs to be explored alongside interpretations of character and motivation.

And no doubt, when Alex is struggling, we will need to attend to his motivations, alongside supporting him to develop strategies to overcome frustrations when his ‘naïve knowledge’ proves insufficient.

Ultimately then, we need to ensure that these questions are addressed as we attempt to conceive a ‘knowledge-rich curriculum’. 

Such a curriculum must be well-sequenced and underpinned by an understanding of how children learn. But, in addition, it must be based on a rich conception of knowledge that includes the skills and attitudes that contribute to success. 

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