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