Does Knowledge Have Any Value in the 21st Century?

by Guest Blogger
April 3rd, 2013

In the UK, a debate is raging about Michael Gove’s proposal to implement a Core Knowledge–style curriculum. The discussion largely parallels criticisms and defenses of Core Knowledge in the US, so it’s both interesting and relevant to those of us who would like to see American students become more knowledgeable.

Sadly, strong opposition to the new curriculum is coming from the National Union of Teachers (NUT).  I don’t know anything about teacher preparation in the UK, but if it is anything like teacher preparation in the US, then the teachers are not to blame for their own lack of understanding of the many benefits of a rich, broad, carefully sequenced, knowledge-building curriculum. The UK teachers have probably never been taught about the decades of cognitive science demonstrating that knowledge and skills develop together; they probably have no idea that the higher-order skills we all want students to possess simply cannot be developed without simultaneously ensuring that they also have lots and lots of knowledge.

Now would be a good time for them to learn. As David Green (the director of Civitas, which is publishing a UK Core Knowledge Sequence) points out, the NUT is appropriately concerned about the de-professionalization of teachers—but it fails to see that the new curriculum is an opportunity to right that wrong:

Michael Gove’s planned national curriculum, heavily influenced by American reformer E.D. Hirsch, came under strong attack over the weekend. Critics claim that it will de-professionalise teachers. NUT activists and their allies insist that teachers will have to abandon the ideas that were prevalent when they were trained, and teach in a different way, which risks alienating and demoralising them.

There are good reasons for being concerned about the de-professionalisation of teachers, but Hirsch’s curriculum for the UK is not one of them….

Two main forces have contributed to the de-professionalisation of teaching: the politicisation of performance targets; and the impact of falsely named ‘progressive’ education that assigns a diminished role to teachers. Assessment is useful as a guide to teachers, parents and pupils about how much young people have learnt. However, assessment became dysfunctional in the last few years…. An official report in June 2011 … recognised that narrow ‘drilling’ had become common, squeezing out real learning and denying children a broad education. Lesson time in primary schools was used to rehearse answers instead of deepening and extending knowledge. The focus on results in English and maths meant that other subjects were neglected.

Critics of Hirsch have not realised that his work is an alternative to rehearsal and drilling, not an extension of it…. Cramming for exams is not the same as equipping the memory with useful information that will aid future understanding. Learning times tables, for example, involves memorisation in order to increase fluency in the use of numbers. It is about acquiring knowledge to make analysis and critical thinking possible.

Confusion over the symbiotic relationship between knowledge and skills is so widespread that the sociologist Frank Furedi decided to weigh in too. He sees very basic misconceptions in teachers’ objections to the new knowledge-building curriculum:

Education has been so instrumentalised that its main function is now to ‘provide skills’. The teaching of knowledge itself, for its own sake, is frequently dismissed as an old-fashioned custom that is not relevant to the twenty-first century….

In any discussion about the relationship between analytical skills and knowledge, it is easy to become one-sided. Often, too much of a polarising distinction is made between knowledge and its application. It is possible to make a distinction: knowledge is accomplished through learning principles, concepts and facts, while skills represent the capacity to use that knowledge in specific contexts. But in reality, these two things are inextricably bound together….

Knowledge is not simply the sum total of a body of facts; it is based on concepts, theories and specific structures of thought. So even if some of the content of knowledge changes in line with new developments, its structure and concepts can retain their significance for very long periods of time. Geometric theorems may be contested over time, but they nonetheless express a body of knowledge that transcends centuries….

A liberal humanist education is underpinned by a conviction that children are the rightful heirs to the achievements and legacy of the past. It is precisely because education gives meaning to the human experience that it needs to be valued in its own right.

Anyone who takes a careful look at the Core Knowledge Sequence for the US or the UK will see a curriculum that builds broad knowledge of the world and engages students in grappling with ideas and questions that are central to the human condition. As Green explains, it is a curriculum that could fully restore the teaching profession because it restores teachers to their rightful position as guides to the world:

Many young teachers are still being taught that lessons should be 10 per cent the teacher and 90 per cent the children. Teachers find themselves being criticised for being ‘too didactic’, which is a bit like criticising a doctor for being ‘too medical’. There were two sources for these attitudes: child development theories and political theories that saw teaching as no more than a kind of authoritarianism….

We now know that theories which devalue the teacher are especially harmful to children from poor backgrounds.  The bottom quarter of young people, whether defined by their school attainment, or by their parents’ income, are badly served by ‘progressive’ methods….

Hirsch’s core knowledge curriculum is designed so that every child from every background can benefit. It represents what children from all social groups can be taught. And it is based on the belief that teaching is a vocation. Teachers are custodians of the best interests of children. Their role is not to facilitate learning defined by the children themselves as interesting or relevant to their lives. The teacher’s calling is to open up new possibilities that children simply don’t know about….

Content-rich education offers a broad curriculum for every child. Expectations are high. They are not just taught the three Rs but a wide array of subjects to prepare for modern life. Out of six chapters in Hirsch’s UK primary school curriculum, one is on the visual arts and one on music.

Trade union activists assume that to be a professional is be autonomous, essentially free to do as you wish. But teaching is not only a vocation, which implies dedication to bringing out the best in every child, it also has much in common with the ‘learned professions’, occupations that are constantly open to the discoveries of science or experience. No true professional would resent having to abandon ideas taught in early training. The self-conception of the teacher as a learned professional is of someone constantly developing a better understanding of how best to teach and what to teach. It’s normal to be asked to do things differently because earlier ideas have been discredited by practical experience or the sciences. This idea of the learned professional is closely linked to autonomy. But it does not mean never having to change your ways unless you choose to; it means being guided by an independent search for the truth and being willing to change pre-conceptions when necessary.

True professionals do not object to applying their craft in a different way when new methods have been shown to be more effective.

Educators should be celebrating knowledge for its own sake and should be fighting for this new curriculum. It offers students the best of what humanity has discovered and created—and it builds knowledge and skills in the only way that really works: together.


  1. I see technology as the biggest threat to the professionalization of teachers. Silicon Valley is gearing up to give us Khan Academy on steroids: very sophisticated on-line content delivery systems stocked with the kind of slick, high-caliber production values that we lowly public school teachers cannot equal. I forsee a day when kids attend school, sit at a computer, imbibe the impressive on-line subscription fare featuring teams of truly world-class teachers, and get supervised by low-wage aides who just keep order and make sure the equipment is plugged in.

    To my dismay this Silicon Valley “disruptive innovation” model would seem to dovetail nicely with transition to a Core Knowledge approach (and vice versa) –it’s well-suited to provide direct instruction by subject matter experts. Sadly, our mis-educated teaching corps –well-versed in bogus pedagogy but not in their subject areas –has little chance of competing against the likes of a charismatic PhD in Aztec studies beamed in from Knowmia’s studios in Palo Alto delivering Core Knowledge lessons in splendor. Given such threats looming on the horizon, I can understand why teachers might cling stubbornly to their ed school doctrines (e.g. that being a “guide on the side” –not a “sage on a stage” –is true professionalism) –admitting that they’re bogus would bring them one step further down the road to obsolescence.

    Comment by Ponderosa — April 4, 2013 @ 12:00 am

  2. “a learned professional is of someone constantly developing a better understanding of how best to teach and what to teach…it means being guided by an independent search for the truth and being willing to change pre-conceptions when necessary.”

    That is the beauty of having a “Core Knowledge Sequence” in one hand and a large body of creative resources, cultural literacy, and experience in the other — rather than a drilled list of proper responses.

    Comment by Cherry — April 4, 2013 @ 10:12 am

  3. I’m not sure why the tone of these blogs is so negative. It’s a shame that most of what you have to say is cloaked in an almost hatred of teachers. What you are neglecting to take into consideration is the actual environment in which teachers function. It’s easy to claim that there is this unambiguous, completely right way to head. The truth is, there is much that muddies the water, and nothing is as clear as the science suggests.

    Comment by Suezette — April 4, 2013 @ 7:57 pm

  4. Dear Suezette,
    I am sorry that you find the tone of the blog negative. Having just spent the past 11 years working for the American Federation of Teachers, I can assure you that I have a great deal of respect for teachers. The vast majority of teachers work very hard and do extraordinary things for their students. My personal knowledge of the difficult, unsupportive circumstances many teachers face in their schools is one reason why I emphasize that teachers are not to blame. For the students’ sake, I feel obligated to point out that the UK teachers who are not in favor of Gove’s proposed knowledge-building curriculum are not aware of current research. But I also state in the second paragraph that teachers are not taught that research.

    You are quite correct that there are many areas of education-related research that are not at all clear. But the development of knowledge and skills together is not one of those areas. A curriculum that builds broad knowledge is more beneficial for reading comprehension and critical thinking (not to mention knowledge itself) than a curriculum that does not build broad knowledge. I wish all teachers had an opportunity to learn the cognitive science revealing what knowledge does for thinking. When I was the editor of American Educator, teachers often thanked me for publishing articles that explained that research. In some schools, teachers’ voice is not heard and there is little that teachers can do to affect the overall environment. But no matter what the school or district mandates, teachers can build even more opportunities to broaden and deepen students’ knowledge into the day. If I were not confident in teachers’ ability and desire to act on sound information, I would not be trying to help correct the mistakes in their training.

    Comment by Lisa Hansel — April 4, 2013 @ 9:12 pm

  5. Suezette,

    We live in a time when many teachers are being attacked from myriad sources, and I can’t help but think that this is influencing your reading of this particular source. I’ve been following this blog for about a year, and, though I, too, detect an immense sense of urgency here, I would certainly challenge your idea of an prevalent negativity toward teachers. Surely the schools of education don’t make a great showing here, but teachers themselves seem to be consistently portrayed as professionals who want to do what is best for their students.

    I wouldn’t confuse “hatred of teachers” with ‘an open challenge to schools of education to prepare teachers based on proven effectiveness for their future students rather than philosophical idealism’, and I certainly wouldn’t consider an ongoing rationalization of less effective approaches based on individual teachers’ conditions as “neglecting to take into consideration…the actual environment in which teachers function.” To the contrary, I find this blog aimed mostly at schools, school systems, and schools of education – imploring each to adopt an approach that would surely better prepare teachers to more effectively prepare their students for the world.

    Teaching is an incredibly difficult job, and it’s not always clear to us teachers which ‘experts’ we should be listening to, but I have never read a single post here intimating that teachers are at fault for approaching their craft in other, less effective ways, much as students are never faulted for not approaching reading in a way contrary to the only way they have been taught. On the contrary, the authors seem to take great pains to explain the rationale behind the entirely logical (and often forced) choices made by teachers every day, even when these choices result in less student learning than we would result from a comprehensive knowledge-building approach.

    With regards to your assertion that the science doesn’t always point us in the right direction, I assume you’re right in some areas, though, like Lisa, I’m not sure this is one of them. I am new to the study of Core Knowledge, however, and, in the spirit of looking for refuting evidence, I would love an honest answer to the following:

    Are there any schools that have wholeheartedly adopted a Core Knowledge approach and subsequently failed to improve student achievement? In these cases, what went wrong?

    Lisa, maybe you can help me with this last question.

    Comment by Hawke — April 4, 2013 @ 11:04 pm

  6. Dear Hawke,
    I am not aware of any schools that have wholeheartedly implemented Core Knowledge and not seen an increase in achievement–but I also have to say that the Core Knowledge Foundation might not know if that did happen. We do our best to track and support schools using Core Knowledge materials, but we have no way to compel schools to communicate with us. We would love to have more independent studies of Core Knowledge. I don’t know that we will ever be able to track each school that buys some Core Knowledge products, but we are eager for more research on our curriculum, approach, and schools.

    Among those schools that are actively and consistently participating in Core Knowledge professional development, I believe all are making progress, though the amount of progress varies. There are two obstacles that I find especially troubling: student mobility and poorly designed high-stakes accountability. Both the Core Knowledge Sequence and the new Core Knowledge Language Arts program are very carefully organized so that knowledge, concepts, skills, and vocabulary build on each other within and across grades. Student mobility is a problem in every school (and is the main reason why I would love to see more shored content across schools), but I think student mobility may present an even greater challenge in Core Knowledge schools because the gap between students who have had several years of Core Knowledge and students who just transferred in is likely to be very large. Today’s poorly designed high-stakes accountability is also a major concern. As Linda Bevilacqua and E. D. Hirsch have both written about on this blog, typical state assessments in reading keep the topics of the passages secret, preventing teachers from preparing students by teaching relevant content. At the same time, the high-stakes accountability policies demand increases in scores. Unable to prepare students for the test in an educationally sound manner, teachers feel enormous pressure to drill students in comprehension strategies instead of continuing the slow, steady work of building knowledge and vocabulary, immersing students in worthwhile texts. Broad literacy requires broad knowledge, and that takes many years to build (especially among children who have little exposure to books at home).

    By the way, the years it takes to learn enough to be able to read about a wide variety of topics is a critical issue for schools to keep in mind. Core Knowledge builds essential knowledge starting in preschool, but the beneficial effects probably will not show up in reading comprehension scores until the middle grades, when reading comprehension tests start having more academic content in the passages (as opposed to passages about everyday topics like friends, pets, and trips to the grocery store). If Core Knowledge schools need to see test-based results in the early grades, they should add on science and social studies assessments.

    Comment by Lisa Hansel — April 4, 2013 @ 11:51 pm

  7. I have great respect for the difficult jobs that teachers have. Even schools full of wonderful young people are challenging for experienced, perceptive teachers – kids everywhere will always act like kids. And from what teachers always say, even worse these days are parents: helicopter and defensive are two of the kinder labels that come to mind.

    But as an involved parent and one-time school board member who pays attention to curriculum issues, I’m frequently disappointed in how few teachers keep abreast of developments in cognitive science and educational theory that can increase academic achievement. Few teachers, even in the two CK charters that my kids have attended, know much about why the CK curriculum is effective and the “learning science” that supports it. So even in CK schools, teachers often veer off into pointless group projects, or artsy “hands-on” projects in middle school and high school.

    Moreover, no genuine lifelong learner who reflects on his reading will fall for the idea that content knowledge is secondary or superfluous. As an example, I’ve read many dozens of serious American history books over the last decade, and it’s obvious to me that a greater command of lots more “mere facts” in context enables me to actually think critically about American history. Ditto for other self-directed learners, on any topic. A teacher who reads seriously, no matter what grade she teaches, should be a fairly easy convert to the CK philosophy.

    Hence my support for making teaching a more attractive option for people who both love and are good with children, and who also have a passion for self-directed learning in their personal lives. The CK blog has contributors who have both qualities.

    Comment by John Webster — April 5, 2013 @ 10:34 am

  8. @Suezette, Not sure there is the negativity you’re suggesting. It could be in the eye of the beholder. The negativity you refer to might better be perceived as a threat to teachers who do not employ this pragmatic approach to school – knowledge building. After having examined this philosophy, you might actually be wondering why all teachers/schools don’t operate in this manner.

    Most regular visitors to this blog are believers in the CK philosophy and actually use this approach in their everyday practice. We don’t see this approach as negative nor are we threatened in the least by teachers who choose to use alternative approaches. We believe strongly in the CK philosophy and welcome other teachers to try it.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — April 7, 2013 @ 7:00 am

  9. My own education was that of the prevailing philosophy, (sometimes called progressive) such as it was in the 40s and 50s. I have taught in school systems that pride themselves on being “progressive.” My daughter was schooled in such a system. This triple exposure has left me resentful about the lack of knowledge communicated.

    I do not blame the teachers because from my experience I know they do what they were taught, and they believe in it. As a colleague I witnessed the caring and effort they demonstrated. But my own training was in a subject, not in “education.” Consequently, as a teacher I did not understand the “why” of progressivist theory.

    When I first read “The Schools We Need” I had already begun to explore what I did not understand. Even with Professor Hirsch’s help it took a long time for me to reach the kind of understanding I wanted. One reason why it is so difficult to communicate the values of an approach such as Core Knowledge is the extremely complicated nature of progessivist theory.

    I respect the work done by the Core Knowledge Foundation.
    And I see no negativity in saying, as Lisa Hansel did, that “… teachers [not only UK teachers] have probably never been taught about the decades of cognitive science demonstrating that knowledge and skills develop together; they probably have no idea that the higher-order skills we all want students to possess simply cannot be developed without simultaneously ensuring that they also have lots and lots of knowledge.”

    Comment by Susan Toth — April 8, 2013 @ 9:45 am

  10. [...] (For a hint of the U. K. debates, as seen through a U. S. lens, follow this thread on the Core Knowledge website. Cannadine, however, is not focused on that [...]

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  12. The problem is that Gove’s approach in England *isn’t* like Common Knowledge. CK purposefully develops year-on-year knowledge which builds up towards certain aims. In the proposed English curriculum some subjects have been written in a way that doesn’t build from easy to hard (e.g. history has been written ‘chronologically’), some parts are incredibly vague (e.g. the design curriculum requires that students ‘develop a love of cooking’ and a ‘repertoire of savoury dishes’?!), and others are overly prescriptive and dry (e.g. the science one goes into minute – and sometimes incorrect detail – about the definitions of scientific terms).

    Comment by Laura McInerney — May 1, 2013 @ 1:36 am

  13. [...] it’s just my view from across the pond, but CK appears to be rocking the UK. Hats off to Michael Gove, of course, but the real excellence- and equity-inducing power of building students’ knowledge [...]

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