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Michael Young: fighting for working class students’ access to knowledge

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 16 October 2018

John Morgan. 
The Guardian Education section last week published a profile of Michael Young, Professor of the Sociology of Education at UCL. Its author, Peter Wilby, charts what he saw as Young’s dramatic shift from countercultural figure on the educational left to alleged supporter of Michael Gove’s narrow view of the National Curriculum.
Wilby reverts to what has been described as the default settings of educational discourse in England, whereby to be in favour of the dissolution of subject boundaries is to be “progressive”, whilst to be in favour of strong subject boundaries is seen to be at best “traditional”, and at worst, “Conservative”. This could not be further from the truth. As Wilby acknowledges, Michael Young has always sought to advance the socialistcause in education.
The fact that he was born in the mid-1930s meant that Young came of political age at a time of the emergence of the post-war New Left, which was dissatisfied with the hierarchies and exclusions of ‘The Establishment’. The expansion of the educational franchise was part of this, but by the mid-1960s there was widespread criticism of the assumption of gradual progress in social and educational reform, especially that made by an ostensibly ‘modernizing’ Labour government.
It was in this context that a new sociology of education emerged. Young’s 1971 edited volume Knowledge and Control was one part of this, but there was a flourishing of ‘radical educational discourse’ in this period. The idealist wing of this approach saw knowledge and the curriculum as malleable and open to the possibilities of change, but, as the economic conditions of the 1970s deteriorated, this political optimism was replaced by realisation that the curriculum could not be changed without wider sets of economic and political changes (Young himself had reached that conclusion by 1976).
The 1980s were a period of defeat for the educational left, and It is notable that in the 1990s, Young aligned himself with a loose coalition of ‘left modernisers’ who saw in the much-hyped transition to the ‘knowledge economy’ the possibility for alternative forms of curricula. However, the optimism of this period – which centred around the early new Labour governments- quickly disappeared and educational policy became dominated by utilitarian and moralizing forms of citizenship.
For Wilby, Knowledge and Control marked the highpoint of the critique of established subject teaching in schools on the grounds that it reflected the interests of powerful groups in society (i.e. the middle classes) and thus served to disempower and alienate working-class children. This is contrasted with Young’s later position, symbolised by a collection of essays in his 2008 Bringing Knowledge Back in, which retracts the former position and calls for powerful knowledge (roughly interpreted as ‘the best that has been thought and said’) to be taught to all students.
This does not mean that Young has followed the predictable path from young radical to older conservative. Rather, it explains Young’s comments in the Guardian article about vocational education and creative education. “We’ve always used vocational courses as a way of coping with low achievers and that seems to me a loser from the beginning”, he told Wilby. “And I am not a fan of people who go on about creativity. Creativity doesn’t spring from nowhere, it comes out of something you’ve been thinking about.”
His concern is that working-class children are being offered an inferior “knowledge-lite” version of the curriculum whilst the children of the wealthy, in private schools and affluent state schools, are being offered a more rigorous version of the curriculum based upon powerful knowledge. This is clearly not a recipe for social justice, and explains Young’s argument that powerful knowledge should be available for all and that schools are the one place in our society where young people might gain access to such knowledge. Thus, contrary to Wilby’s portrayal, we can see that Young is arguing, just as he was in the 1970s, for access to knowledge for working class students.
It is unfortunate that Young’s career has spanned a period in which the educational left has been on the defensive and the possibilities for a truly socialist education have not been realised. Far from shifting from ‘red to blue’, Young’s writings model the ‘radical doubt’ and openness to change that a genuine education would make available to all.
John Morgan is Professor of Education at the University of Auckland. He studied on the MA Geography and Education at the IOE, currently celebrating its 50th anniversary, and worked as Reader in Geography Education between from 2007-2011.

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2 Responses to “Michael Young: fighting for working class students’ access to knowledge”

  • 1
    rogertitcombe wrote on 16 October 2018:

    The problem here is that both Wilby and Young miss the essential point. While ‘knowledge’ may be the ‘currency’ of education,it is ‘understanding’ that empowers learners and equips them to gain control of their lives and destinies.
    Teachers can impart knowledge and even successfully force-feed it. Knowledge can reside in human brains AND be stored in various media, but understanding is entirely a matter of PERSONAL COGNITION and cannot be ‘transmitted’ from a teacher to a learner under the control of the teacher. The acquisition of understanding is never a passive process.
    Young argues that “powerful knowledge should be available for all and that schools are the one place in our society where young people might gain access to such knowledge. Thus, contrary to Wilby’s portrayal, we can see that Young is arguing, just as he was in the 1970s, for access to knowledge for working class students.”
    While I agree that all students of all abilities and stages of cognitive development should be exposed to the same ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum, the ability of individual students to make personal sense of that knowledge will depend on their stage of cognitive development (Piaget). This should shift the focus of pedagogy from debates about the knowledge to debates about the development of cognition (Vygotsky).
    This is the dominant theme of my book, ‘Learning Matters’ and my website, where my latest article and its links explain the arguments for cognitive developmentalism and provide the evidence that teaching and learning strategies based on it are hugely effective.
    Working class children are indeed discriminated against because the perverse incentives applied by the marketised education system, increasingly deny their access to cognitively developmental teaching and learning methods in favour of the ‘quick fix’ imposition of the ‘knowledge cramming’, needed to meet ‘floor targets’, which stunts cognitive development.

  • 2
    Sam wrote on 22 July 2020:

    Michael Young’s arguments are much more nuanced than this response suggests. The importance he places on powerful knowledge has nothing to do with the kind of ‘cramming’ which you refer to. He has also said that once we acknowledge the importance of powerful knowledge – the information most important to understanding a subject and most essential for creating new knowledge – that then we can start to consider factors such as pacing, i.e how to help all gain this understanding from the place they are at or in relation to their own speed of learning. What Michael Young’s theories so significantly highlight is that being working class or academically ‘behind’ does not mean an inability to gain or understand concepts or information, or to create new ideas or questions from that knowledge. Furthermore, it acknowledges that learning new things, things which (perhaps especially the working class) would not otherwise have access to, is an essential – and exciting – aspect of school. Of course HOW we impart this knowledge in a way which is understandable to learners is part of what teachers must give thought to, but powerful knowledge is a curriculum issue, not a pedagogic one. Knowledge and the Future School:Curriculum and Social Justice is absolutely essential reading for anyone who believes in the importance of education to giving children of all backgrounds access to the thrill of learning and the possibilities its pursuit makes available.