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The Question of Knowledge in the Curriculum

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert

In some ways, the recent controversy over Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, introduced in 2010, could be said to be going over a familiar knowledge versus skills debate. Not only is it banal to say that obviously, both are involved, but it would also miss the fact that after too long a time, some academics are going on public record to voice their criticisms of the de-intellectualisation of education that, intentionally or not, is facilitated by policies which prioritise teaching generic skills over academic knowledge.[1] The strong ethical and political commitments on all sides (whether acknowledged or not) in questions of knowledge is, in part, why issues which may seem uncontroversial at first glance, can prompt intense responses.

In this context, the fact that knowledge is on the public agenda, and that it is being discussed, and researched, is a good thing: the more open public discussion about what academic knowledge is, why it is special and why it has been afforded a privileged place in Western societies, the better for a democratic culture in and outside of academia.

Nonetheless, disciplinary or academic knowledge is still seen too often by too many as oppressive, irrelevant or elitist – but in the words of Bob Dylan ‘the times they are a changin’, although perhaps not as quickly, or necessarily in the direction we want. Again, open debate on all issues, including knowledge, can only contribute to clarifying problems and confusions. Intellectual progress is being made in relatively new fields of theoretical work, namely social realism –  whose most well-known exponents in the UK are Michael Young at the UCL Institute of Education and the late Robert Moore at the University of Cambridge, as well as from some quarters of educational philosophy.

Current problems in Britain’s education system arise more from problems with our understanding and valuation with knowledge itself than a lack of research or poor implementation of policy initiatives. Once the marginalisation of disciplinary knowledge as an organising principle of education became mainstream, sometime between 1970s and 1990s; and once established gatekeepers and professional networks between politicians, academics, exam boards and teachers were effectively dismantled in the wake of the Education Reform Act (ERA) 1988, the door was opened for a wholesale restructuring of institutional and professional relationships: in many ways, it was the equivalent of the teaching profession’s UK miners’ strike 1984-1985.

Since that moment of overt politicization of not only general education provision, but the curriculum itself, educational policy, and society’s normative understanding of knowledge and education, have tended be shaped by the loudest voices. And as any teacher knows, the loudest voices are not always the best or correct. Schools now face the enormously important and difficult task of educating the next generation with cohorts of teachers whose formative education experiences are likely to have had a weak relationship to disciplinary knowledge at best. This has left the profession intellectually disorientated in the face of old and new forms of instrumentalism, so much so, that arguably, many are now willing to see their work in the necessarily restricted terms (epistemologically) of a science rather than as part of a humanistic tradition. In this process, the general purpose of education, and the more focused aims of schooling, have become unclear to say the least.

This book, What Should Schools Teach? Disciplines, Subjects and the Pursuit of Truth, provides an example of how theoretical insights can provide concrete knowledge and principles for pedagogic practice which respects the epistemological identity of the school subject, whose truth value, and authority, lies ultimately in its relationship to disciplinary knowledge.  It is not a how-to-do manual with quick fixes, but more a prompt to deeper thinking about what differentiates disciplinary knowledge epistemologically, and how these distinctions pan out in a range of disciplines and school subjects.

The authors share teacher Richard Russell’s ethical concern that the further away schools move from providing subjects based on academic knowledge, the greater the inequality of access to disciplinary knowledge, with its potential for intellectual development, will be.[2] This cannot be good for education or society.


What Should Schools Teach? Disciplines, Subjects and the Pursuit of Truth is published by UCL IOE Press on the 18th September 2017.





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