What is a Knowledge-Based Curriculum? Curriculum Series Number Five.

In the fourth post of this series I suggested that all curricula teach knowledge and therefore some people think the idea of a ‘knowledge-based’ curriculum is no different as all curricula ‘teach knowledge’. But the term ‘knowledge-based’ does not mean merely the teaching of knowledge, there is much more to it than that.

The first thing to realise is that ‘what’ knowledge is extremely important. Not just ‘any’ knowledge will do. This is what leads people to attack this type of curriculum as elitist or obsessed with the works of ‘dead, male and pale’ people. This is a ‘canonical’ approach which favours some ‘great books’, ideas and artefacts over others, ‘the best that has been thought and said and done’ to paraphrase Arnold. The sequencing of this knowledge is vital – it is about building up an understanding of how different disciplines work. Domains are extremely important in a knowledge-based curriculum. The idea is to introduce children to the culture(s) to which they ostensibly ‘belong’ – locally, nationally and internationally. That these cultures don’t rub along seamlessly is part of what is taught. This is enculturation warts and all. A great history curriculum, for example, is not about brainwashing a child into thinking they belong to a master-race or class.

This approach requires the teacher to be an expert in their field. They are the sage on the stage and they stand on the shoulders of giants who have, over time, made each domain what it is today. It is also central to the knowledge based ideal that the subjects are academic. This can be controversial. In England this controversy is seen most starkly in the subjects that are deemed worthy enough to feature in the ‘EBacc’. Vocational subjects, Design and Technology, and Arts subjects are notable by their absence, as are more controversial ‘academic’ subjects like Film Studies and Sociology.

For me the Arts are central to any education worth its salt and a good liberal arts knowledge-based curriculum offer should recognise this. This is why I understand that the argument about ‘what knowledge?’ can be keenly felt.

‘What knowledge’ to teach is informed by the traditions, arguments and conversations in each domain. That this might be due to the arbitrary practices of time doesn’t matter but a good knowledge based curriculum will recognise these controversies at its heart. For example an economics curriculum ought to include both Adam Smith and Karl Marx, if it didn’t it wouldn’t be introducing students to the great controversies of the subject being studied and thus would disable their ability to take part in the conversations around that domain.

Yet it is the sheer need to leave out far more than to include that leads to problems. A progressive curriculum offer could easily follow the child’s interests even though that could end up with the child having a distorted and prejudiced view as to what is really important – even so, the logic remains. A knowledge-based approach has to make difficult choices… e.g. ‘Dante’s Inferno is one of the best books ever written, but we have no room for it in our curriculum’.

In some areas the knowledge that is to be taught is less contested than in others. Arguably it is easier to put together a knowledge based subject curriculum in Maths and Science than it is in History and Literature. The recent efforts of English Literature professors at Cambridge University to ‘decolonise’ the curriculum is an example of the difficulties for institutions to justify curricula based on the ‘great tradition’ The question ‘why is my curriculum white?’ is so difficult to answer.

Another problem with a knowledge based curriculum is that human beings keep adding knowledge that could become part of any decent canon. Writers keep writing, painters keep painting and composers keep composing. At least with science new discoveries sometimes, obviously, wipe out older ideas; science tends towards a contemporary feel. (History of science would offer other challenges.) And though discoveries of the past still merit inclusion – think the works of Darwin and Newton as examples, it tends to be the latest iterations that matter. Though history can be revised, it still requires an understanding of the past – whose history? Kings and Queens or the common man? Or woman? In literature books can drop out of the canon but with all these things the perennial question must be ‘what have we lost?’

Along with a desire to create workers for an ever-evolving jobs market and the idea that not all pupils can muster an interest in the intricacies of Algebra, Newton and Beethoven some people think that a knowledge based curriculum belongs in the dustbin of history. For a teacher wedded to a knowledge based approach this is an anathema – this important knowledge is for all, because it is about ensuring all have a stake in their society. People who argue for this approach are passionate advocates for the rights of the child to know, to understand and to be able to make a difference to themselves, their families and their society.

For all the difficulties about what knowledge to include and why, there are noble aims at the heart of this curriculum approach. The desire is to enable a child to grow into a ‘well-educated’ person. To experience the breadth of knowledge that our culture deems to be worthy and uplifting. As RH Tawney put it to ‘imagine the rivers of learning and purity in the world and bathe yourself in their living waters’.

Maybe it is the image of the Goethe reading, Wagner appreciating, SS officer that did so much damage to the idea that education in the finer things, Matthew Arnold’s pursuit of perfection and ‘sweetness and light’, can make a human being a better person. A well educated person is not necessarily a better one.

Is a person more attuned to the works of Beethoven better educated than one who knows nothing of the composer of the Eroica but is well versed in the collected works of One Direction? Is someone who knows the plays of Shakespeare intimately better educated than one who knows nothing of the Bard and has spent a good deal of their lifetime watching Eastenders? Is someone who understands what the Hadron Collider is doing better educated than someone who knows nothing about the proton-smasher yet plays darts to a good level at their local pub every Saturday night?

Those who believe in a knowledge based approach will tend to say yes in answer to these questions and though this knowledge is accessible in much of society it is introducing children to, this often, more ‘difficult’ knowledge and, for some, much less accessible knowledge that is at the very heart of what a school must do.

In my next post I will be looking at some of the different types of knowledge based curricula.






11 thoughts on “What is a Knowledge-Based Curriculum? Curriculum Series Number Five.

  1. Thank you for raising the ‘Goethe-reading SS officer’ issue. I know there are many dangers around invoking any aspect of what happened in Germany following WWI when writing seriously; there’s the risk of cliche and the risk of offence. However, I wish you had pursued it in more depth; perhaps you will in a future blog? There seems to me to be a great deal of wishful thinking around the idea that more knowledge will make people better – when a cursory overview of c20th history demonstrates the falsehood of this statement. There is some research to tentatively suggest that more education may make people happier, but as far as know. this research is not specific as to the curriculum used. So if a certain type of education cannot be shown to make people more moral, nor definitively happier, can you help to clarify why it should dominate in school? And I speak as someone who is not opposed to the teaching of difficult, canonical texts, but who can’t help seeing the sheer amount of ‘this OUGHT to be the case’ in many defences of this approach to education.

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    1. Now responding to the SS Officer issue.

      There they were, not just SS Officers but their leader and his cabinet, in the audience at a performance of Wagner’s Ring, a work of canonical significance in Western European High Culture. The question arises: does the value of the work exist as a text alone and detached from the conditions of its practice and the purposes to which it is put? In the knowledge rich curriculum does ‘the text’ have special protection from its social meanings?


      1. Ha! Does the white horse at uffington carved into the hill exist as a text alone? Yes, it has value all of its own. Are we interested in who put it there, why and when… yes. We are interested in Beethoven’s 9th because it is intrinsically superb. We are interested in the brooding, deaf composer & how it relates to us in a European/Brexit way. The piece, though, is greater in its own terms .


  2. I agree that ‘the Arts are central to any education worth its salt’ and I think that this deserves pondering (apologies if I have missed this bit!). Apart from actual artistic content/history it seems to me that this is because artistic skills demonstrate and deal with the conceptual. They inspire new thought by demonstrating process in the moment. Their effect is overtly ‘transformational’ and first hand – going through a range from – an appreciation, through an adaptation to an original piece. As Martin shows a ‘good liberal arts knowledge-based curriculum offer’ allows a child to appreciate the human implications of knowledge and liberates the mind. It opens up the arena for fresh thought in all subjects. It lays the basis for the child to establish a critical dialogue with the past, present and future in any field of knowledge.


  3. I can testify to the failure of the progressive approach in my own case. I went to Dartington Hall College of Arts (as a state funded student) for two years in the late sixties and learned the hard way that being left to ‘do my own thing’ meant I was not taught anything – a complete waste of time. I left with a pass (over half the course students failed!) and with only two instructional comments given on my final day. The painting tutor said, “I think you may be a painter one day!” and the principal’s wife said, “I really enjoyed reading your poetry!” I went on to become a fairly competent art and English language teacher, eventually getting a degree at 36 and a PhD at 64 and am now a published author, developing my academic writing and painting (currently with an art exhibition in Liverpool) at the age of 70. My point? There are many of us out there who deserve better and millions of taxpayers who deserve a better return on their investment.

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