Powerful Knowledge vs Content-based Curriculum

One of the more fascination ideologies pertaining to curriculum in my module is Michael Young and his notion of “powerful knowledge” curriculum, developed quite recently in 2013. His views are still hotly debated even now, as evident from a recent public debate hosted by Policy Exchange in UK. We’ve spent quite a bit of time in class discussing him too.

Michael Young argues in his article “Overcoming the crisis in Curriculum Theory: A Knowledge-Based Approach” (2013) that in recent times, there seems to be a fear of knowledge and teachers and even curriculum theorists seem more focused only whether the curriculum is meaningful for students. In recent times, he argues, there has been an “over-psychological approach to identity focusing on the learner as an individual person rather than a social being, or to the romantic politicising of some critical pedagogy”.

In response to this, he argues that the starting point of curriculum should not be the student as learner, but  from a student’s entitlement or access to knowledge. Such a theory of knowledge, he argues, would also help broaden the possibilities of curriculum designers.

He goes on to describe the characteristics of what he calls “powerful knowledge”:

  • It is specialised, in how it is produced and transmitted, i.e. this is not general knowledge. Its specialisation is expressed in the boundaries between disciplines and subjects which define their focus and objects of study
  • It is differentiated from the experiences that pupils bring to school. Such differentiation is expressed in conceptual boundaries between school and everyday knowledge.

In essence, as I personally understand it, “powerful knowledge” is defined as knowledge that has the potential to elevate students beyond their everyday experiences. School subjects therefore need to take strong reference from the disciplines that they come from, i.e. from academia. Academics are believed to be those who have the commitment to goal of searching for the best knowledge within their fields, hence Young argues that students have access to that.

To paint a clearer picture of what a “powerful knowledge” curriculum may look like, it would be useful to illustrate with an example of a school that takes that approach and one of the schools cited in Young (2013)’s paper has the following as its manifesto (available also online here):

  1. Knowledge is worthwhile in itself. Tell children this: never apologize that they need to learn things.
  2. Schools transmit shared and powerful knowledge on behalf of society. We teach what they need to make sense of and improve the world.
  3. Shared and powerful knowledge is verified through learned communities. We need to keep in touch with universities, research and subject associations.
  4. Children need powerful knowledge to understand and interpret the world. Without it they remain dependent upon those who have it.
  5. Powerful knowledge is cognitively superior to that needed for daily life. It transcends and liberates children from their daily experience.
  6. Shared and powerful knowledge enables children to grow into useful citizens. As adults they can understand, cooperate and shape the world together.
  7. Shared knowledge is a foundation for a just and sustainable democracy. Citizens educated together share an understanding of the common good.
  8. It is fair and just that all children should have access to this knowledge. Powerful knowledge opens doors: it must be available to all children.
  9. Accepted adult authority is required for shared knowledge transmission. The teacher’s authority to transmit knowledge is given and valued by society.
  10. Pedagogy links adult authority, powerful knowledge and its transmission. We need quality professionals to achieve all this for all our children.

Such a purist approach is certainly not adopted by Singapore, even though we do recognise the importance of consulting with academics when developing our curriculum. Young’s views are refreshing in light of the general move of education systems around the world towards 21st Century Competencies and the need to focus more on skills instead of knowledge.

Arising from our discussion of a “powerful knowledge” curriculum in class was an extended discussion of the difference was between a knowledge versus a content-based curriculum. I’d like to capture my tutor’s very useful response here:

As we know, the ‘powerful knowledge’ curriculum or Adler’s proposal is explicitly based on a social equality agenda – it starts from a recognition that social division in society is a problem and the belief that all that schools can do about this is to at least ensure equality of access to the curriculum. It does not go so far as to facilitate critique of that curriculum or the knowledge at its heart and how and by whom it was constructed.  Careful thought has been given to the selection of the knowledge taught – i.e. it is ‘the best’ knowledge available at the time as identified by specialists in the different subject fields. It is suggested that this knowledge should be available for every single child so that they are in a position to reconceptualise their world and enter into a world in which this ‘powerful knowledge’ is necessary if they are to be ‘successful’ by that world’s criteria. e.g. All girls must study physics if they are to become physicists and engineers. (This physics may be taught co-constructively, but the way it is taught is not the specific concern here).
In contrast, my thought was that a content-based curriculum is not based on such an explicit, and certainly not a social equality or equal access, rationale. Yes there will be an implicit rationale. The rationale may not be clearly thought through or discussed very thoroughly. There may be omissions at the start of the discussion of how the content based curriculum is developed i.e. the discussion may jump straight to the question of what should be included in the syllabus. Often the content based curriculum might be based on the implicit rationale of perennialism/tradition i.e. this is what our syllabus has always included. Possibly it might be based on the idea of intrinsically worthwhile knowledge. e.g. R. S. Peters.
This may seem unimportant and to lead to little differentiation between a content driven and powerful knowledge driven curriculum, and in reality there may be little difference in what is actually taught to SOME groups of children. This last point is the crucial difference – because those starting with a content driven curriculum do not start with equality of access, different children will study a different content and this is vital in any comparison.  Many of the critiques levelled at a content based curriculum made by e.g. Kelly, may be also levelled at the ‘powerful knowledge’ based curriculum. But in addition any discussion of the ‘powerful knowledge’ curriculum must examine claims relating to equality of access, and ask whether this knowledge actually empowers. 
So, is Singapore’s curriculum a content- or knowledge-based one? This is a question I’m still thinking about. 🙂

Capabilities Approach by Amartya Sen

(Image credits: harvardpress.typepad.com)

The main module I’m taking now is called “Curriculum Development: Issues and Principles”, where we delve into curriculum theories, philosophies as well as broad issues pertaining to curriculum, pedagogy and assessment though curriculum remains the key focus.

Three weeks ago, we had a session facilitated by a PhD student, where she introduced to us the capabilities approach, which she was hoping to use as a way to evaluate the effectiveness of a curriculum to bring about empowerment. I found this framework rather fascinating and a new way to think about curriculum ‘effectiveness’.

The approach was pioneered by Amartya Sen and then further developed most significantly by philosopher Martha Nussbaum. At the heart of the approach is the belief that (subsequent info drawn from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy):

  1. The freedom to achieve well-being is of primary moral importance
  2. The freedom to achieve well-being is to be understood in terms of people’s capabilities, that is, their real opportunities to do and be what they have reason to value

The approach makes a distinction between what are functionings and capabilities.

Functionings: ‘Beings and doings’, that is, various states of human beings and activities that a person can undertake. Examples of ‘beings’ include being educated, being depressed etc. Examples of ‘doings’ include travelling, voting, killing etc.

Capabilities: A person’s real freedom or opportunities to achieve those functionings.

To illustrate the relationship between the two, ‘travelling’ is a functioning, but the real opportunity to travel is a capability.

Building on Sen’s capabilities, Nussbaum then identifies core capabilities that should be accepted by all democracies (more details available on Wikipedia)

  1. Life.
  2. Bodily Health.
  3. Bodily Integrity.
  4. Senses, Imagination, and Thought.
  5. Emotions.
  6. Practical Reason.
  7. Affiliation.
  8. Other Species.
  9. Play.
  10. Control over one’s Environment

It’s interesting to note that Sen himself was against identifying a list; nonetheless, Nussbaum’s list is interesting because it includes some important capabilities, like ‘play’ which wouldn’t immediately come to mind.

While the capability approach sounds rather fuzzy, it should be noted that it’s not meant to be used as a stand-alone theory, but rather used as a means to complement the Human Development Index as an alternative way of looking at human development in nations. It should also be noted that the approach has not been utilised in relation to education yet, hence the application of it to education still requires further theoretical exploration.

The PhD student who shared with us found this approach useful, because she saw it as a means of understanding education not just in terms of inputs and outcomes, but also analyses an individual’s capability to convert inputs into valued outcomes.

This poses some interesting questions for me, which I am still seeking the answers to:

  • To what extent do the capabilities match with competencies stated in Singapore’s 21CC framework? The competencies stated in our framework are technically outcomes, whereas the capabilities are supposed to convert inputs into outcomes. However, I see a great amount of overlap and would really need more conceptual clarity on this.
  • Should education aim to inculcate the equality of capabilities or equality of outcomes? We do know that equality of outcomes is too idealistic, given that each child has their own interests and strengths. However, to what extent are capabilities within the realm of education? This is where I believe there needs to be some work done in translating the approach from human development to education to define what they would mean exactly for education. In Nussbaum’s model, for example, life refers to “being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length; not dying prematurely” – this fits in well to evaluate the provision of health in a country, but how about education? How would education contribute to this?
  • Can we use the capability approach as an assessment framework for our national curriculum? Or is it better used for our education system? Would we see the national curriculum namely as the “inputs” into our students?

If anyone has thoughts on this or has done work on this particular in relation to Singapore’s system, would be glad to have a conversation with you!

Restarting this blog

This blog was set up during my days of teacher training to document my reflections as both an educator and a Christian.

It is timely now to restart it during this season of learning as I’ve really been learning so much, yet not having the opportunity to capture my thoughts from each week. Shall start writing more on this blog again!