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 how) 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.

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