Powerful knowledge: too weak a prop for the traditional curriculum?

John White here concludes his debate with Michael Young on The Framework for the National Curriculum (report by the Expert Panel for the National Curriculum Review).

For previous papers in this debate click see the first paper by Margaret Brown and John White, An Unstable Framework, and Michael Young‘s response ‘An Entitlement to Powerful Knowledge‘…

… and for a another view on the curriculum debate, see also Robin Alexander‘s paper, Entitlement, Freedom, Minimalism  and Essential Knowledge: Can the Curriculum Circle be Squared ?

The debate about ‘powerful knowledge’ is not an academic exercise. Michael Young’s concept is a keystone of curriculum policy. The Expert Panel’s Report on the National Curriculum depends on it both in its theoretical framework (DfE 2011: para.1.2), and, more specifically  (para 4.8 and note 57), as a criterion to exclude subjects like Citizenship, D&T and ICT from the proposed National Curriculum and relegate them to the ‘Basic Curriculum’.

In ‘An Unstable Framework’ I argued that PK cannot provide such a criterion. I welcome Young’s defence of his concept in his Response (Young 2012). For Young, its pivotal role in education is evident in his idea of ‘entitlement to “powerful knowledge” as the primary aim of schooling’ – a claim for which he gives no reason.

What, then, is ‘powerful knowledge’? The term is appealing, but we should resist its seductions, before seeing what its proponent actually means by it. Young gives a clear account of this in his statement that ‘my argument for ‘powerful knowledge’ rests…upon the distinction between two types of concept  – the theoretical (or scientific in Vygotsky’s sense) and the everyday or common sense.’ He elaborates this by saying that ‘It is everyday concepts which constitute the experience which pupils bring to school. On the other hand, it is the theoretical concepts associated with different subjects that the curriculum can give them access to.’ Acquiring ‘powerful knowledge’ is learning to use these theoretical concepts.

Young’s distinction between the two kinds of concept comes, as he indicates, from Vygotsky (1962, ch.6). Vygotsky illustrates the distinction by comparing an everyday, or in his usage ‘spontaneous’, concept like ‘brother’, with a theoretical, or ‘scientific’, concept like ‘exploitation’ as used in a (Marxist) social science course (p87). What distinguishes learning a scientific concept from learning an everyday one is that the learner begins by consciously grasping the systematic interrelationships between a concept like ‘exploitation’ and other concepts that enter into its definition. In learning ‘brother’ on the other hand, a child is able to pick out brothers from non-brothers in her own experience, but is not aware of the systematic connections between ‘brother’ and ‘male’ and ‘sibling’ that enter into the definition of the term.

Vygotsky’s account of scientific concepts locates these in the world of school learning (p.93). His examples are taken from the social sciences curriculum, but he suggests that ‘future studies should include concepts from various fields of school instruction’ (p.118).

This last point bears on what Vygotsky means by ‘scientific’ concepts. His word for these in Russian is ‘na’uchniye’, which in English can mean ‘scientific’ or, more broadly ‘to do with some field or other of academic or scholarly study’. Although usually translated as ‘scientific concepts’, a more accurate version in this context would be ‘concepts peculiar to academic studies’ 1. This tallies with Young’s above phrase ‘theoretical concepts associated with different subjects’.

It follows that Young’s claim that ‘entitlement to “powerful knowledge” is the primary aim of schooling’ means something like ‘access to the concepts peculiar to academic subjects is the primary aim of schooling’. This has two consequences:

  1. An increasingly common justification, eg in the Expert Panel Report, for basing the curriculum on academic subjects is ‘Because they provide powerful knowledge’. This now becomes ‘Because they provide access to the concepts peculiar to academic subjects’. This is clearly not a justification, but something closer to a tautology.
  2. We need to know why the school’s primary aim should be access to the concepts peculiar to academic subjects. As we have seen, Young has given us no answer to this.

The conclusion must be that we have no reason to think that the notion of ‘powerful knowledge’ is of help in determining what kind of school curriculum we should have.

There is a related problem. Suppose we entertain, without necessarily accepting, Young’s claim that entitlement to powerful knowledge is the primary aim of schooling. How wide is its scope? We can see that PK depends on acquiring concepts peculiar to academic subjects, but which academic subjects generate it? Mathematics and science, certainly, since acquiring their concepts plays so huge a part in learning them. But what about history, MFL, and English Literature?

While some traditions of historiography, eg Marxism, treat history as a science with its own specialised concepts (and might Vygotsky himself have thought that way?), most historians are not so inclined, but deal in narratives about particular phenomena and their interrelationships, the concepts they use in this being non-technical (except when drawing on other disciplines like economics or statistics), but for the most part familiar to us from ordinary life.

Modern foreign languages may do something to deepen a learner’s understanding of the notion of language in general (although MFL is surely not a necessary vehicle for this purpose); but the great bulk of its work is not about the development of conceptual understanding, but about the use of different words (Katze, blau, etc) to express concepts with which the learner is already familiar, and their understanding of which remains undeepened.

English Literature does bring with it some specialised concepts – eg lyric poetry, tragic drama. But the great bulk of its work, as with the non-fictional stories that historians write, relies on concepts drawn from ordinary life. The benefits of reading Emma go beyond knowing that it is an instance of a novel.

Is the heartland of powerful knowledge, then, in mathematics and science? PK is a poor vehicle for discussing – and justifying – the curriculum as a whole. The aims of education go wider than acquiring academic concepts and the knowledge that comes with them.2

1 I am grateful to my colleague Jan Derry for alerting me to this problem of translation.

2 Two brief comments about other aspects of Young’s paper.

First, there is more than a hint in this that Young thinks I am opposed to school subjects as a way in which learning can be organised. This is false. I have no objection to courses in biology or in history, where appropriate. For me, subjects are one vehicle among several whereby valuable learning objectives may be attained. Since Young does not rule out interdisciplinary enquiries as such a vehicle, there may be some meeting of minds between us in this area. This said, I disagree with his argument that since interdisciplinary enquiries ‘presuppose substantial subject-based knowledge’, they are ‘unlikely to be appropriate early in a student’s educational career.’  This may well raise eyebrows among primary teachers. In any case, the argument is fallacious. It moves illicitly from the alleged logical priority of separate subjects in the first part of the statement to their desirable temporal priority in the second.

This brings me to my second final point. My objection is not to school subjects, but to taking subjects as a taken-for-granted starting point in curriculum planning. In place of this I advocate taking as a starting point the question ‘What should schools be for? I am in favour, that is, of an aims-based, rather than a subject-based curriculum, one that begins from general aims and specifies these in aims of increasing determinateness. Young takes the opposite position, producing various objections to the idea of an aims-based curriculum.

One of these is that this kind of curriculum planning is only likely to be realised in an authoritarian society. He gives no reason for this claim. There is indeed some empirical evidence against it, not least in the path-breaking Pathways Key Stage 3 curriculum introduced in the early 2000s into schools in Northern Ireland. The Scottish Curriculum for Excellence is an example of a curriculum built at least partly around aims, as is the English Key Stages 3 and 4 curriculum introduced in 2007 and still in force.

The objection to an aims-based curriculum on which Young spends most time is that the Outcomes-Based Curriculum that post-apartheid South Africa introduced was a disaster and later replaced by a subject-based model. I find this an odd argument, not least in the light of Young’s repeated reminder that outcomes are not aims.


DfE (2011) The Framework for the National Curriculum: a report by the Expert Panel for the National Curriculum review

Vygotsky, L. (1962) Thought and Language Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press

Young, M. (2012) The Curriculum – ‘An entitlement to powerful knowledge’: A response to John White, New Visions for Education website – www.newvisionsforeducation.org.uk/2012/05/03/the-curriculum-%E2%80%98an-entitlement-to-powerful-knowledge%E2%80%99-a-response-to-john-white/