Curriculum for Excellence and the question of knowledge (pt 2)

The issue of knowledge in the school curriculum has periodically been a battleground between opposing schools of thought. These debates have often been framed as rather crude dichotomies, what John Dewey referred to as either/or-isms. Questions include:

  • Is knowledge acquired, or is it constructed?
  • Should schooling develop knowledge (knowing that) or skills (knowing how)?
  • Should schools be promoting [academic] disciplinary knowledge, or is there also a place for everyday knowledge?
  • Related to this final question is the issue of whether schools should be concerned solely cognitive development, or whether they should also be developing qualities and virtues in young people.

These age old questions have assumed a new force with the recent development of curricula like CfE, which seek to define not just (or even) what a person should know, but instead are framed in terms of what people should become as a result of their schooling. In particular there has been fierce debate about the ways in which such curricula seem to downgrade knowledge, and many writers have sought to re-emphasise the importance of canons of disciplinary knowledge. This is complicated terrain through which a new book – Gill, S. & Thomson, G. (2012) Rethinking Secondary Education: a human-centred approach – charts an interesting course. This books draws upon philosophy to address many of the questions outlined above. It is especially critical (rightly in my view) of notions of knowledge being acquired (or delivered), which they see as being unhelpful in framing pedagogical practices in schools.

An interesting debate lies in the book’s treatment of the knowledge-skills dichotomy. The authors question the validity of the knowing that/how distinction. For example, they claim that knowledge (knowing that) is ultimately rooted in skills (knowing how). They suggest that deep understanding of knowledge (as opposed to superficial recall of facts) is fundamentally a question of learners developing the skills to differentiate and to categorise. This conceptual understanding involves the ability to ‘classify objects appropriately’, to ‘recognise instances of the concept’ and to ‘recognise relevant similarities and differences’ (p. 37). Such skill requires the ability to utilise language effectively – another skill. The authors also suggest that knowledge is not just a matter of learning the facts and concepts – the cognitive stuff – but is also rooted in the development of dispositions and values. They cite the example of war, where full understanding is not possible without empathy towards the victims of war. And they point to the importance of motivation. So mastery of knowledge is also an affective matter.

Whether these authors have got this right is a moot point. However, this view of knowledge and learning clearly raises a number of implications for teachers engaged with the implementation of CfE and its ilk. The quality of knowing is important, and so therefore is the quality of the experience that leads to the development of knowledge. Students’ interest must be gained for thorough engagement to occur. There must be opportunities for students to make sense of facts and concepts as they build their understanding of the world around them – through dialogue and contemplation – and to place them in their wider context. Rote memorisation of information plays only a minor role in this grander scheme – there must also be opportunities to analyse – to classify, sort, differentiate etc. Students should have the opportunity to apply knowledge in different settings, and to be creative – to synthesise various forms of knowledge to come up with new ideas. This is a view of schooling that is quite different to traditional secondary education with its emphasis on learning facts – but it is also a view that reaffirms the importance of knowledge in the school curriculum. In the absence of a systematic rationale in CfE for the selection of content, and the paucity of professional debate on these issues, I would certainly encourage secondary teachers to read this engaging book.

Curriculum for Excellence and the question of knowledge

In the course of my travels, I regularly hear the refrain that under Curriculum for Excellence, ‘we no longer do knowledge – we do skills instead’. Such sentiments are, in my view, badly misguided. People need what Michael Young has termed powerful knowledge if they are to function as effective citizens, contribute to society, enhance the economy through their work and lead full lives (to name just a few of the multifarious purposes advocated for modern education systems). I am not suggesting that we need a return to a content-driven curriculum – it is absolutely clear in my mind that traditional approaches to defining curricular content are problematic in their own right. However, conversely, we should be avoiding wild pendulum swings that ‘downgrade knowledge’ (in the words of Australian academics Cherry Collins and Lyn Yates), in favour of a narrow competency or skills-based approaches.

So why is knowledge so important? And how do we define the content in the school curriculum in such a way that it draws meaningfully and coherently on what John Dewey described as the ‘wisdom of the ages’? In addressing the former question, I will set aside the issue of how knowledge and skills are inter-related (for a full treatment of this issue, see: Pring, R. [1976] Knowledge and Schooling). Instead I will say a few comments about why young people need knowledge, with reference to Curriculum for Excellence. Let’s take for example the CfE capacity Successful Learners. According to the CfE documentation, a successful learner will make reasoned evaluations. Now clearly, in order to be able to do so, people need to be able to draw upon a range of knowledge. They need to be able to weigh up alternative courses of action, and to make decisions based upon their knowledge of context. Thus, for example, in evaluating one political party over another in an election, it seems sensible to assume that an evaluation will be more reasoned if people have more in-depth knowledge of the alternatives. To take a second example, the capacity Responsible Citizens is yet more explicit on the need for knowledge, for example stating that students need to ‘understand different beliefs and cultures’. So I make two related points here: 1] that young people need to gain certain forms of knowledge at school in order to be able to function as citizens in a modern society; and 2] that despite claims to the contrary from proponents and opponents of the new curriculum alike, there is in fact a rationale deep within the documentation for the place of knowledge in schooling. A further point is that schools are places where young people get access to knowledge not available elsewhere. A large part of this knowledge, although not all, is found in the academic disciplines (although note that disciplines are not the same as schools subjects – a different issue which I will address in a future blog post).

Of course this sort of abstract discussion does not provide any easy answers to age old questions about what goes in the curriculum, and who decides. This is where some of the insights from advocates of the process curriculum – John Dewey, Lawrence Stenhouse, A.V. Kelly – are extremely helpful.  As Walter Humes and I have argued*, it would appear that the architects of CfE are ignorant of, or have ignored such literature. CfE is framed as a model that draws eclectically (some might argue incoherently) on multiple and to some extent incompatible models for curriculum development, displaying elements of process, content and especially outcomes approaches. In doing so it provides multiple starting points for curriculum development. I believe that this design fault has encouraged many schools to innovate in a minimalistic way through auditing existing content against the Experiences and Outcomes, and tweaking content to fit. Such practices seem to provide three main justifications for selecting curriculum content: it is already taught in the school; there are existing resources; it is seen as interesting for pupils (as opposed to relevant, although clearly content can be both). It therefore seems to me that we are missing a trick – and that curricular content runs the risk of becoming divorced from curricular purposes. Treating CfE as a process curriculum is the answer in my view. The Four Capacities are actually not bad as a set of overarching curricular purposes – careful thought about these (what they really mean, and their implications for education) is a worthwhile starting point for curriculum planning, enabling decisions to be made about content and pedagogy that are fit for purpose. In the case of content, we should be asking what sorts of knowledge young people need in order to become successful learners, responsible citizens, etc. Some of this should have course been specified more clearly in the national documentation – I would have preferred to see broad – as opposed to prescriptive – indications of content instead of outcomes. However, many of these decisions should be made in schools – through the thoughtful engagement of teachers in school-based curriculum development. And of course this raises further questions about: the capacity of teachers to engage in such work; the amount of time available to them; and more fundamentally the cultures of Scottish schools, which remain hierarchical, and where teacher innovation remains risky and in many cases is discouraged.

* Priestley, M. & Humes, W. (2010) The Development of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence: amnesia and déjà vu. Oxford Review of Education, 36[3], 345-361. Online at and