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Powerful Knowledge - Jan 2020

Like all schools we are utterly focused on enabling our children as well as all members of the school to learn through every interaction so that they can make sense of the world, and ultimately contribute to it.  This is as vital for them now in their teens as when they leave and become adults.  We are therefore always trying to bridge the gap between children’s current experience and understanding, and what else they need to know to succeed in the world – whatever that world may be like.

Through reading the work of Michael Young and others one can see the need to re-evaluate our offer and ensure that what and how we teach treads the tightrope between being too content focussed and too experiential.  Matthew Arnold, the nineteenth century educational inspector, described education’s role as to impart ‘the best which has been thought and said’ focussing on a prescribed body of knowledge decided by those in power of it.  There have also been attempts in the 1990's to move to a more skills based approach where knowledge takes second place.  We find ourselves in a critical period where we can now bring these two perspectives together and engage our children in relevant learning that is applicable to their (and our) futures.

I see two temptations that we must guard against in our practice.  Firstly, the one to try and engage children in interesting activities in lessons that will hook them in and make them interested in what is going on, but may not actually develop the real subject content and deepen knowledge.  The other can be to make the content so accessible and related to children’s experience that it doesn’t serve the best interests of the curriculum traditions and rigour.

To enable powerful knowledge across our school we seek to honour the subject traditions and challenge our students to raise their aspirations to meet our expectations.  There are three aspects to this – and I’m relying heavily on Michael Young when I describe these – and these encapsulate a shift in direction in thinking…

  • Firstly we teach aspects that are distinct from our children’s every day experience or common sense knowledge.  Vital though this is, we want to introduce knowledge that won’t be otherwise experienced and so overcome these limitations.
  • The subjects are systematic and develop thinking and knowledge in particular ways.  That knowledge can then be applied to other cases in the future enabling children to generalise their thinking so access more of the world in which they live.
  • Finally we teach distinct subjects and the knowledge and way of thinking is special to that context.  The approach taken in maths is different to history, languages is different to science, and it is this way of interacting with the subject content that develops critical understanding that is truly powerful.

We seek here to do this through every lesson and also bring about wider learning through the interactions and extra-curricular activities that we offer.  Part of the challenge is changing tacit knowledge into something that children can recognise and attribute in order to realise the progress they are making as they grow and flourish through their time with us.  This would make the knowledge truly powerful…

Mike Boddington

January 2020