I will be publishing a series of blog posts which were initially to feature in a book about RE. This is the part two on Knowledge.
Why focus on knowledge in RE?
Too often in education, well-educated people have argued that others need less education, or namely, less knowledge. Those in favour of a knowledge based curriculum, have pointed out that people who don’t know things will be excluded and marginalised, and division will be created. This is a social and cultural reason, which is at the heart of Hirsch’s idea of cultural literacy.
People in positions of power and influence rarely reach such office without being supremely knowledgeable. The groups on the fringes of society are generally those who are lacking in knowledge. Those who claim success despite a lack of conventional academic education are in the minority when compared to all those who have not been successful; for every Alan Sugar there are hundreds struggling to survive on the minimum wage. or handouts from the state.
If all students are given equal access to a powerful cultural curriculum, then they are less likely to continue to be excluded. Otherwise, a status quo will continue: the elite will continue to educate their children in such a way that they become the new generation of elite. Power and influence will produce more power and influence; divisions will simply be perpetuated. If we want students on the margins to gain access to the opportunities and possibilities that their parents didn’t have, they need access to the knowledge that makes others successful.
It seems logical to try and identify the knowledge with the most cultural capital, as Hirsch believes he has done, and ensure this is the minimum taught to all students. Once students have a wide body of knowledge, they will be able to learn to critique. Ignorance and unawareness have never helped anyone.
Teachers can often be uncomfortable with economic terms being used in education, however the idea of ‘opportunity cost’ has crept into education in recent years. We have limited time with our students, and we need to carefully consider how we best use this time. For example, Personal Learning and Thinking Skills (PLTS) are generic skills that some have claimed are essential to life, learning and work. Yet, is time not better spent on developing a real depth of academic subjects? Other ‘21st century skills’ are really things we’ve always known and have learnt naturally over time. Do we know that spending time doing group work in Key Stage 3 ensures students are able to work collaboratively in a career that is still many years away?
Some have claimed that the progressive education provided in the late 20th century, and into the 21st has lead to teachers focusing too heavily on these skills and not on an academic education (see Progressively worse: The Burden of Bad Ideas in British Schools by Robert Peal for more on this). This lesson time could instead be dedicated to providing students with more to think about, and lots of practice thinking about these things. With this knowledge, it can be argued that students will be able to contribute more to collaborative working and solve problems which are both complex and difficult.
Arguably the most important reason for teaching a knowledge based curriculum is the effect is has on cognition. As Hirsch points out, the difference between students is often the quantity and quality of their prior knowledge; quite simply, the more you know, the better you are able to think. Without knowledge, it is virtually impossible to meaningfully engage with a given topic. An opinion without any knowledge to back it up is of little value in any context.
Critics have argued that teaching knowledge in the 21st century is unnecessary, indeed a pilot was trialled in Denmark where students would have access to the internet during exams in 2009. As Hirsch points out, “Google is not an equal opportunity fact-finder, it favours those with knowledge, it exacerbates knowledge inequality.” (2015 Policy exchange lecture)
We are not always aware of the background knowledge which is subconsciously influencing our thinking processes. However it is clear that our brains are full of many types of knowledge, which are useful in different situations. Our ability to engage with what are often labelled as ‘Higher Order Thinking Skills’ in schools is totally dependent on what we know. We can not create, analyse or create without a wide knowledge base. Hirsch has said that in order to become good readers, children need to develop a large vocabulary and a lot of knowledge about the world; these are “plants of slow growth” (2015 Policy exchange lecture).
Many suggest the 'knowledge versus skills' debate is a false dichotomy, which is of course true. However in RE, there has been a real focus on skills and personal exploration at the cost of knowing deep and complicated things about religion in some schools. This was exacerbated by GCSE questions that simply wanted personal response. However considering a knowledge basis for an RE curriculum forces the RE teacher to consider many things, namely what knowledge to teach, who decides?
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