Should we teach useful knowledge? The poverty of a ‘useful’ curriculum

This question is doing the rounds a bit on Twitter at the moment with numerous people jumping in to claim that we should be teaching only those things that are ‘useful’ to pupils. Sometimes this is dressed up as ‘knowledge has to be applied’ or something to that effect. Images such as this capture this kind of mindset:

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Or this one (thanks to @websofsubstance for sharing):

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In some ways the idea that we should teach only that knowledge that is useful to children is a difficult one to challenge: you certainly would not wish to teach someone something that there are going to have no use for at all.

The problem with this approach is that nothing is ‘useful’ by definition: something is only useful for something else. By arguing that we should teach useful things, what we are really doing is arguing for what kind of person we expect someone to become, and because someone might potentially go on to become a thousand different things, we have no basis on which to decide. There are perhaps some basic life skills that we might say pretty much everyone needs to learn to do, but even here we make some pretty big assumptions (e.g. that everyone will become a parent).

I would suggest, therefore, that to ask the question “what knowledge is going to be useful in your life?” is to ask the wrong question: everything is potentially useful.

The better question to ask is “how does this knowledge enrich my life?”

This does not resolve the tough choices we have to make about the curriculum: one could happily say ‘I need to teach you parenting skills so that you might lead the life of a good parent’ or ‘I need to teach you construction so that you might lead the life of a construction worker’. Asking this kind of question does, however, allow us to justify the teaching of a wide range of academic disciplines and creative arts that would otherwise get lost in the drive for utility.

If, for example, I teach you the structure of the atom and the way atoms form molecules, then I make it possible for you to understand the nature of the physical reality that you experience every day. If I teach you the laws of physics, astronomy and biology then I make it possible for you to begin to explore questions about the origins of life and existence. If I teach you about glaciers and the movement of tectonic plates, then when you walk with your children along the shores of Loch Lomond or Windermere you will be able to tell them something special about the formation of mountains and the carving of valleys. If I teach you about the industrial revolution, you can live a life in which you understand your city, its origins and its development. If I teach you Shakespeare, or Austen, or Bronte, or Achebe, then I create for you greater opportunities to experience (to love, to appreciate, to hate) a wide range of literature. All of this is even before we get to the kinds of knowledge one needs that allows one to begin to participate in the great debates of our day about climate change or the role played by social class in modern society.

Are any of these things useful in a narrow sense? Probably not: you will almost certainly not have to use your knowledge of the solar system for anything in your life, nor your knowledge of the industrial revolution, nor your knowledge of the sluggish flow of glaciers. All of these things would fall victim to a demand that one demonstrates the utility of what one teaches. But if we turn this question on its head and ask not what is useful about this knowledge, but rather how this knowledge might enrich our lives, then we are suddenly able to have much more interesting conversations about the nature of the school curriculum.

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4 Comments on Should we teach useful knowledge? The poverty of a ‘useful’ curriculum

  1. Matt Bradshaw // 17 February 2015 at 07:43 // Reply

    I think this is a huge challenge for us in schools and one that has become harder as the focus on outcomes has intensified. Learning is increasingly cast in extrinsic terms. We are doing this to… get a C, go to college or please Ofsted. Those involved in delivering education have lost some grip of its enriching intrinsic power.

    Ironically now this extrinsic culture is developing alongside a return to a more elitist, academic, inflexible curriculum offer. Which is less apparently ‘useful’. Because BTECs were mismanaged by school leaders from 2015-16 everyone goes to grammar school. This could be wonderfully enriching opportunity but only if we value student learning more wholistically. If everyone: student, teacher, leader is insulted by measuring learning entirely in digital bytes on an excel table then what hope can we have that students will learn to love and cherish the enrichment of education.

    What we cherish, students cherish and currently our education system has made a totem of the destination of learning. This is lazy, reductionist, breeds immorality. We all know the road needs checkpoints. The danger is if we are always focusing on a destination we are always waiting, maybe even hoping, for learning to stop. In my experience the best learning celebrates the journey and helps develop this disposition of awe, and not fear, of the mountains left to climb. Surely this is the most useful thing we can learn in school for a happy, and hopefully successful (however we measure this), life.

  2. Maybe the key problem is not so much those who ask which knowledge is useful, but the DfE doing things like publishing details of how much tax you’ll pay in different careers, and constantly talking about education as a means to economic success. There’s also the decimating of the arts in schools over the past ten years or so to consider. By narrowing our focus to getting children to pass subjects such as English and Maths, we narrow the chances that there will be time to share knowledge of the arts, the humanities, etc.

  3. How many times have I used my knowledge of the Ancient Romans on any given day? None. Yet if I had not been taught about the Romans at school my love affair with history would not have taken off. The main thing was the archaeological dig we were taken to – amazing – I have not stopped being fascinated by and studying history of some sort since. The knowledge I learnt did not get me to an MPhil in Political Science but without it I would have had no foundation for the history and politics I studied.

    More to the point, without the experience I may have downplayed the role of archaeology in learning. Instead I took my class to see an Iron Age Fort that was being excavated. There is a small window for these kind of opportunities and I encourage anyone to do it. Moreover, I had the wonderful experience of talking to the Lead Archaeologist who happened to have been part of the archaeological dig I went to as a child!!! It was a wonderful connection between the past and present.

    Also I was taught coding as a child – just a sessions over the course of one year, which were not built on due to the move towards teaching software rather than coding (as that was considere more relevant!). Almost 30 years after the fact when Computing arrived on the curriculum, I wasn’t able to code but I was able to use it as a starting point to code and learn more. That knowledge gave me the confidence to do more.

    I think the focus on the knowledge that we don’t use on a daily basis obscures the knowledge we ‘do’ use and how this is different for each of us depending on our lives.

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