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What knowledge should we teach the next generation? the most important question in education

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 18 September 2017

Alex Standish writes a letter to beginning teachers.  
Dear Beginning Teachers,
The school curriculum is about what knowledge to teach the next generation. There is no more important question in education. It is the main reason why children go to school – to learn interesting and valuable knowledge about the world, its natural systems, its human systems, cultures, arts, languages and how the world has changed. This way they can be a part of conversations about its future.
The reason you as a teacher stand in an authoritative relationship to pupils is that you have some knowledge to teach them and you are learning how to communicate ideas and skills with pupils. This is not to dismiss the significance of pedagogy, how children learn and the personal knowledge and experiences they bring to the classroom. Rather, to become a successful teacher depends upon understanding the respective roles of each. And, the curriculum – what to teach – is logically prior to how to teach it.
So, how do we know what goes into a curriculum? How do we know what knowledge is important for children to learn? What counts as knowledge? Where does it come from? What are knowledge and skills for? How is knowledge different in the sciences, arts and humanities, and what does it mean to make progress in each? These are questions you need to examine as a student teacher.
The content of the curriculum is not a matter of science and hence there is no evidence we can point to that gives us the answer. Rather, as Michael Young said, decisions about what we think is important for children to learn are ‘philosophical questions about who we are and what we value’. The reason schools teach geography, history, biology, music and literature is because we/society believe they are of value to children – they enable pupils to explore and to understand different aspects of the world and our humanity.
The curriculum should provide opportunities to take the child into new and exciting worlds where they can explore what is true, what is right and what is beautiful. In order to address such questions, teachers must make judgements about what we think is better knowledge – that which will enable pupils to move from a low level of understanding to a place of proficiency or even mastery. We want children to study Shakespeare, Picasso, Newton, Darwin, and Pascal as well more contemporary scholars because of their contribution to our understanding of a realm of knowledge and human experience. The criteria for judging what better knowledge is comes from disciplinary-specific methods, procedures and practices.
Most school subjects derive from or have a connection with disciplinary knowledge (for example, physical education draws upon knowledge of biology and psychology). The disciplinary knowledge that informs the curriculum comes from our universities and broader culture. It is not static and neither should this be the case with the school curriculum. Teachers and schools need to work at their subject knowledge and continually augment the curriculum. They are in an intellectual profession and should be communities where everybody is engaging in exploring what is true, what is right and what is beautiful.
However, as I am sure you are aware, many schools today have been distracted from focusing on the curriculum. They are driven by narratives of results, meeting targets, social mobility, employability, classroom management, sex and relationships education and other social goals like safeguarding and healthy living. While St. Olave’s grammar school has been in the news for kicking out students half way through their A Levels, similar results-driven practices are widespread. A culture of completing targets, demonstrating learning objectives, giving the answer required by the mark scheme and passing tests gives rise to conformism and may well turn children off education.
While we can recognise that education has a broad range of aims, the curriculum should not be used as an instrument for fixing social problems or meeting targets. What is being lost is a love of learning for its own sake. As a teacher it is your job to inspire pupils with curiosity and interest such that they want to explore the different dimensions of our world. Through the acquisition of subject-specific concepts and by opening their minds to other places, cultures and historical periods, pupils will come to see their own social and physical worlds in different ways – an experience that transforms their understanding and suggests new possibilities and ways of interacting. This is the humanising quality of education. As Michael Oakeshott surmised, ‘man [sic] is what he learns to become….this is the human condition’, which includes experiences outside of school.
In our new book, What Should Schools Teach? Disciplines, Subjects and the Pursuit of Truth, Alka Sehgal Cuthbert and I invite you and other teachers to partake in a serious conversation about the intrinsic value of disciplinary knowledge and its place in the school curriculum. Each chapter explores one dimension of knowledge*: its evolution over time, its purpose, its methods, its object of study, what insight it provides into human experience and/or the physical world, how this can be reflected in the curriculum and its value to children. As a beginning teacher, having a clear sense of the scope and purpose of your subject is invaluable. With a sound understanding of the respective roles and relationships between curriculum, pedagogy and assessment you will gain clarity of purpose, confidence and develop positive, trusting relationships with pupils and their parents.
The cost of not prioritising the curriculum in education is that pupils will become turned off education, their minds closed, their life chances diminished and they will not be inspired. You have an important job to do. Now, go teach something worth learning!
Yours in good faith,
Alex Standish, Senior Lecturer in Geography Education, Institute of Education, University College London. Co-editor of What Should Schools Teach? Disciplines, Subjects and the Pursuit of Truth.
*subject-specific chapters: mathematics, foreign languages, physics, biology, history, geography, English literature and art.
What Should Schools Teach? Disciplines, Subjects and the Pursuit of Truth is published by UCL IOE Press on the 18 September 2017. Alex Standish will be speaking to PGCE students at the IOE on Wednesday 20 September.

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17 Responses to “What knowledge should we teach the next generation? the most important question in education”

  • 1
    John Quicke wrote on 18 September 2017:

    I agree these matters are important and should be discussed. The problem is how to arrive at a consensus about a common curriculum. Assuming, like Young does, the traditional subject curriculum is still worthwhile and relevant is contentious ( see my article ‘What’s Wrong with the EBacc? in Forum 59(2) pp241-252.

  • 2
    Frank Coffield wrote on 18 September 2017:

    I too agree with this blog but I would like to add something. The curriculum is not just about who we are and what we value but also about what kind of society we will have. Students need to know how the traditional subjects will help them deal with the major threats to our collective well-being such as climate breakdown and rampant inequality. What will be the point of ,say, learning Spanish irregular verbs or listen to Mozart’s clarinet concerto when the classroom is two feet under water or the local tower block is on fire?

  • 3
    John White wrote on 18 September 2017:

    There is an even more important question in education than ‘what knowledge to teach?’ It is ‘what to teach?’ Knowledge may not be the only answer – whether in the form of academic knowledge for its own sake, as Alex believes, or practical knowledge like knowing how to use a computer. Love of the arts goes beyond the pursuit of knowledge. I often return to Mozart’s music (sorry, Frank!), but not as a knowledge-seeker. And what about the development of personal dispositions, like being a democratic citizen for instance? What education should be about is a large, sprawling question. It can’t be confined in the way Alex suggests.

  • 4
    Alka wrote on 21 September 2017:

    John, your comments point to an important socio-cultural and epistemological problem, which in my view, has become more acute through the 20th century: that knowledge has come to be widely conceived of as modelled on the way knowledge looks and works in the natural sciences, and in which the major (but not only) faculty exercised is one form of deductive, logical reasoning. Aesthetic knowledge, and the faculty of the imagination, has suffered, in part, from their under-theorisation, in relation to education at least (if not in philosophy), of this form of knowledge which works according to different epistemological principles. Hope you can make the launch!

  • 5
    John White wrote on 21 September 2017:

    I agree that the natural sciences are not the model for all knowledge. History, e.g., is not to do with discovering empirical generalisations. But is music (or visual art) a form of knowledge at all?Do we seek knowledge when we listen to Schubert or admire Turner’s paintings? We may well be seeking aesthetic experience, but isn’t that different?

  • 6
    Alka wrote on 22 September 2017:

    My hunch is that there is knowledge involved, but because the primary object of knowledge in arts is the perceptual and imaginative dimension of subjectivity – it follows different epistemological procedures and principles. Also think the generational aspect of education is especially important here, because unlike other disciplines, subjective experience does have a larger role in this discipline. I think the faculty of imagination might be the precondition for all knowledge, but clearly pans out differently in each area.

  • 7
    educationstate wrote on 19 September 2017:

    Isn’t the most important question why we educate? This answer/s guides the other questions listed above in the post and comments, doesn’t it?

  • 8
    John White wrote on 19 September 2017:


  • 9
    Alexander Standish wrote on 22 September 2017:

    Is it possible to separate the ‘why’ from the ‘what’ of education? A while back, RS Peters correctly observed that education doesn’t have its own values. The value comes from the knowledge being taught. We consistently ask our PGCE students to justify why this or that part of the curriculum is important for pupils to learn. It is only possible to provide a rationale in relation to what is being learnt.

  • 10
    Emeritus Professor Rosemary Davis wrote on 19 September 2017:

    Yes, a crucial question but the blog does not address the question of what kind of society do we want. Similarly, Alex Standish does not ask whether education should be an agent of the State or whether education should be an agent for change. Without the latter, it is hard to see how innovation at school/ teacher level can easily take place. Still further, the curriculum is effectively defined in the blog as content rather than the old Alec Kerr one, still relevant and paraphrased here as all the learning whether it takes indoors or out…… Thus, and logically, it does not follow that the method ( pedagogy) is a corollary of what to teach. The blog acts as a useful start but needs further thought.

  • 11
    Alexander Standish wrote on 22 September 2017:

    I concur with the comments that education and the curriculum are tied to notions of society. And, of course, questions about the curriculum will be especially contentious when society lacks a common foundation of beliefs and values, which is certainly the case today. Actually, what we say in the introduction to the new book is that we would like to invite teachers, governors, parents and others to join a discussion about what is valuable knowledge to teach today. And, just because there are differences of opinion doesn’t mean that schools should shy away from discussing and teaching ideas about what is right, what is beautiful and what is true. In fact, it is only through study and conversing that teachers and pupils can reach any kind of common understanding of these different types of knowledge. It is also a question of social justice that all children are given access to the best knowledge we can offer them. Right now, this doesn’t appear to be a main priority in a school system that is being driven by data management, targets and results.

  • 12
    John White wrote on 22 September 2017:

    Re Alka’s last point under 3:
    This seems to assume rather than argue that art is a form of knowledge. No case for it is made. What intrigues me is why one should want to assimilate acquiring a love of music or visual art to getting inside a kind of knowledge. Perhaps, as with Michael Young’s similar move re ‘powerful knowledge’ it is because one is in the business of seeking some overarching theory to fit curricular content? But perhaps reality is more recalcitrant?
    Re Alex’s point under 4:
    A small point on Peters. He held that education has no external aims: students learn science eg because it is intrinsically not extrinsically worthwhile. Agreed, if he is right, this supports what I think is your view that we begin with curricular areas, not from aims outside them. But is he right? I see no reason for thinking that science should only be studied for its own sake. There are good reasons to do with choice of vocation or for one’s role as a citizen that also help to justify its place on the curriculum. On your last point, I agree that one can ask about aims in relation to a specific subject; but this does not rule out a study of what educational aims should be at a more general level – looking at the relationships and priorities, for instance, among aims to do with personal well-being, moral agency, work, being a responsible citizen, etc (and spending a lot of time on the way getting clearer about what such problematic terms (cf personal well-being) might involve).

  • 13
    educationstate wrote on 24 September 2017:

    “We often say of a man that he is highly trained, but not educated. What lies behind this condemnation?…
    he has a very limited conception of what he is doing. He does not see its connection with anything else, its place in a coherent pattern of life…
    The slogans of the educationalist such as ‘education is of the whole man’ bear witness not simply to a protest against too much specialised training, but also to the conceptual connection between ‘education’ and seeing what is being done in a perspective that is not too limited.
    We talk about a person as being trained as a philosopher, scientist, or cook, when we wish to draw attention to his acquired competence in a specific discipline of thought or art which has its own intrinsic standards; we do not use the phrase ‘education as a philosopher, scientist, or cook’“
    (R.S. Peters, 1965)
    For me what Peters appears to say here is convincing. To be educated is to fit the disciplines into our prior, evolving way of living. Being initiated into a subject isn’t then the focus of education; achieving and maintaining a coherent way of life is. The aim is therefore not to see the world primarily as a geographer, for example, but primarily as an educated person, who is a geographer etc.
    If trainee teachers are educated in this sense, among other things their education requires an ability to weigh things up and where there is a clash, be able to ask and answer why one belief needs to be retained over another. This for me is the ‘why’ that prefigures the ‘what’.

  • 14
    David Lambert wrote on 25 September 2017:

    For me (and my GeoCapabilities partners – http://www.geocapabilities.org ), the ‘why’ definitely prefigures the ‘what’. And the ‘what’ comes before the ‘how’, even though in practice the what and the how are sometimes indistinguishable!
    However, what we also found was that ‘who’ prefigures even the ‘why’. Who are the children we teach? It seems to us a teacher needs to operate at this level of curiosity – about students’ experiences, circumstances, hopes, aspirations and so on.
    Of course, the official ‘curriculum’ or specification cannot take account of this, which is why our project focussed on curriculum making. This we discovered is a construct very similar to the practice of Didaktik under the north European tradition of Bildung.

  • 15
    Alka wrote on 30 September 2017:

    Re. David’s point on who/Bildung.
    I’m very sympathetic to notion of Building, but I understand it (from limited reading) to be more akin to a sense of a public model of character able to operate within, affirm, and thus, continue, societally normative values (rather than spontaneous interests of pupils, although teachers might draw on this in pedagogy). Key epistemic value is truth. And here disciplinary knowledge in its various forms is necessary because apart from specialised substantive knowledge, its strengthens a self-reflexivity which we all have to the extent we enter world of language, but then further sub-divisions of the language/concepts of disciplines enable a deepening and extension of this element of self-reflexivity or interiority. In turn, this enables us to take up a more (temporarily ) objective stand in relation to our own spontaneous interests/responses, and make more nuanced judgments. This might touch on the points made by educationstate.

  • 16
    Andy Day wrote on 26 September 2017:

    On the surface, the potential for secondary subject leaders (- those that are likely to determine the defined curriculum students in their subjects are exposed to) – are relatively limited. Once KS5 and KS4 exam specifications are set aside (there being no significant variance in the offered courses by exam boards), in subjects such as geography, it is only at KS3 where such choices are a given. With many schools starting GCSE courses in Y9, that reduces it to two-year flexibility of between 1 and 2 hours per week; 80-160 lessons. What to convey in that precious and too-limited time? Realising this may be the first exposure of students to ‘geography’ after primary school’s themed studies, and that around half would not be continuing with the subject past the options – then it became a self-selective reduction of choices. What would students not be exposed to in any other subjects? What would inspire them to want to select Geography as an option for GCSE? What would my department team find stimulating to teach over successive years, developing their own background expertise as we did so? What physical – what human – what integrated human/physical units would give balance? What would I want young (voting) adults who had left geography behind many years ago, to be aware of, consider, be informed by – and pose questions of.
    There again, we taught exam specifications up to 19 years olds. The curriculum students were exposed to was more than the subject content that needed to be mastered. It was the pedagogy that framed and probed that knowledge. I’m glad you select the phrase ‘exploring’ what is right, what is true and what is beautiful. You could have chosen ‘informed’, or ‘told’ or ‘instructed’. But it’s the tensions between alternative ‘right’s and ‘true’s and ‘beautiful’s and challenging the examination and exploration of them that lifted exam specifications into a curriculum I was happy with being responsible for.
    I look forward to reading your book.

  • 17