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. 🙂

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