What makes a curriculum ‘knowledge-rich’?

The terms ‘knowledge-based curriculum’ and ‘knowledge-rich curriculum’ have become increasingly popular, particularly amongst educational traditionalists, but the terms are difficult to define. As critics of traditionalism note, all curricula contain knowledge (and we might ignore for a moment the extremists who say knowledge is not important), and therefore it makes no sense to call a curriculum ‘knowledge-based’. This is a fair criticism, although it is worth pointing out that, by the same logic, it also makes no sense to refer to a ‘skills-based’ curriculum, as all curricula involve skills. Yet what is also clear is that there is sufficient disagreement about curriculum models to have some need of different ways of describing these curricula.

My preference is to define the sort of curriculum I am in favour of as ‘knowledge-rich’. A reasonable analogy here is the eating of vegetables. It is widely accepted that eating vegetables is good for you, and I suspect that the vast majority of us eat vegetables. But how many are sufficient? A carrot a day? Five vegetables a day? Seven a day? How many people actually eat a ‘vegetable-rich’ diet? Eating a carrot each afternoon is not the same as having a vegetable-rich diet. I would suggest that a vegetable-rich diet is not one where you calculate the minimum number of vegetables you need to eat daily to be healthy and eat just that number: the margins of error here are just too large. Instead, you overemphasise the thing you want to focus on, and you do not leave something to chance. If I aim to eat eight fruit and vegetables a day but on some days I manage only four, then that is okay. If I aim to eat five, but on some days I manage only one, then that’s not okay.

This is I think the principle that rests behind Jo Facer’s recent post on teaching facts. If someone is asked to learn twenty facts, then it can be difficult to see the purpose of this.  But learning thousands of facts? Well that’s another matter. A knowledge-rich curriculum is one where we over-emphasise the importance of knowledge. The problem here partly comes about because, for too long, we have obsessed about outcomes and performativity, particularly in the context of public exams. If I know that James can perform task A having learnt X, Y and Z, then there is little incentive to teach O, P and Q. The temptation is always to teach “what they need to know”, but, beyond the confines of a GCSE specification, we as teachers have no idea what precise things they need to know. Maybe James is going to read a news article about Aleppo, or perhaps a piece about black holes? I can’t predict James’ future encounters: in terms of preparing him for a life in which he understands the world, my best bet is to go for breadth of knowledge. A broad overview of the hillside is more likely to be useful to him than a few rabbit holes.

And the beauty of over-emphasising knowledge is that it opens up future possibilities. No fact exists in a vacuum: everything we learn is connected to something else we know. And, the more things we know, the more connections there are. People who have extensive knowledge bases have significantly more possible connections available to them. Rather than inhibiting creativity, a knowledge-rich curriculum makes creativity possible, for one has more chance of creating new ideas if one has more raw material with which to start.

What does this look like in practice? Consider the following two curriculum models.


The one on the left, Curriculum 1, is a fairly standard exam-preparation model. You teach them ‘what they need to know’. You have a relatively small number of things on your curriculum, and you teach them really really well, so that there is no doubt in your mind that the pupil knows them. Curriculum 2, however, is quite different. It also teaches the bare minimum, but it secures this knowledge by embedding it in a much more extensive knowledge base that incorporates lots of other things, some of which might not immediately be relevant, or which may simply be additional examples. At the time these may not be strictly necessary (they could cope without these extras) but, in the long run, the cumulative weight of what has been learnt becomes significant.

So, when I teach the weaknesses of the League of Nations in the 1920s, do I teach pupils a couple of good examples, or do I teach them seven examples? When I teach the relationship between church and state in the middle ages, do I teach just Henry II and Thomas Becket, or do I also teach Emperor Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII, and the Avignon Papacy? If I have taught Romeo and Juliet, have I ‘done’ Shakespeare? Or do I also need to give pupils an overview of seven or eight other plays?

This mindset is quite different I think to the prevailing mood in teaching, in which a qualification-driven system has encouraged us to teach ‘what they need to know’. I think this is an attenuated version of a curriculum based around knowledge: a knowledge-rich curriculum goes far beyond this.


9 Comments on What makes a curriculum ‘knowledge-rich’?

  1. I think what you’re describing here is not so far from what might be called a ‘pedagogically rich’ teaching; in the sense in which a teacher comes at an idea or concept from a range of perspectives and draws on a range of approaches. I really enjoyed reading it but honestly feel thatwhilst taking the point about ‘teaching to the test’ , what you describe is what is going on in many, many classrooms.

    • Michael Fordham // 19 November 2016 at 20:28 // Reply

      I’m just not convinced there are ‘many, many classrooms’ where pupils are being taught seven or eight overviews of Shakespeare plays, or three or four examples of the crisis of church and state.

  2. Thanks for this…interestingly, the Fourth Industrial Revolution people identify a bunch of critical skills young people will need by 2020–most are ones requiring a width and depth of domain specific content knowledge. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/the-10-skills-you-need-to-thrive-in-the-fourth-industrial-revolution/ Yet, instead we’re asked to move into more student-centered teaching with our charges fiddling on devices (engagement!) in the hopes that this will prepare them for their tests…

  3. Tom Burkard // 19 November 2016 at 20:13 // Reply

    It seems that in the average primary school, the percentage of veggie in pupils’ intellectual diet amounts to little more than a carrot per week. I just bet a teacher that not one in a hundred pupils leaving primary school had ever heard of the English Civil War or the French revolution. He put this to his top set Year 8s, and no one even knew what a civil war was, let alone that we’d had one. One girl claimed to know about the French revolution–it was when France attacked America.

    As for your example about knowledge–another way to put it is that the more we know, the richer and more varied our schemata of existing knowledge. As these grow, new information is more likely to connect to one or more existing schema. We enter a virtuous cycle whereby new information builds up at an accelerating rate.

    This is exactly what Stanovich’s ‘Matthew effect’ is all about, and it is also a salutary reminder that we can only teach so much during the school day. The great majority of new vocabulary literate children acquire after the age of 9 or so comes from reading; the written language has a much richer vocubulary than the spoken. If you can’t get them reading, they will grow up ignorant of a lot more things than the English Civil War and the French revolution.

  4. Michael Fordham // 19 November 2016 at 20:30 // Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

    • This isn’t a fair comment. There is plenty of intellectual rigour in primary schools; it just happens to mainly focus on English and maths. We have 27 hours a year to teach both history and geography and the national curriculum for history effectively stops in 1066. If we had any spare time, we’d probably learn about the Victorian era/Industrial Revolution, because this will be useful for their later reading (eg Dickens). English Civil War and French Revolution, not so much. But we don’t have spare time. Be lovely if we did, although design and technology getting sufficient airtime would be the first thing I would use that time for. The amount of attention DT gets is risible.

      • Tom Burkard // 20 November 2016 at 19:01 //

        I’ve recently been looking at the primary maths curriculum, and I can’t believe how much time is wasted reinventing the wheel, all in the name of teaching ‘number sense’. Teaching children different calculating strategies confuses the less able and wastes the time of the more able. All the while, automatic recall of number bonds for addition and subtraction is ignored. In theory, pupils know them all by Year 4, but we have yet to find a pupil who had automatic recall for any but the simplest (1+ , 2+ and 1x) bonds. If a tiny fraction of this time were recovered, there would be ample time for other subjects. And don’t talk to me about English–compared to the Core Knowledge curriculum, ours is pathetic.

        But what really worries me is your dismissive attitude to two of the most profound changes in the way European society developed. A generation ago, few teachers would have failed to understand how important they were.

  5. significantpast // 19 November 2016 at 21:34 // Reply

    The New Zealand Curriculum (2007) envisages and tries to encourage the second model you outline. Different Government agendas along with the limited vision and general restrictiveness of national goals and league tables are pushing schools into the first model, MOE publicity about promoting “student-centred learning” to the contrary.

  6. Rich knowledge needs to be built up earlier in schooling, in key stages one to three, before big public examinations begin to loom large. Hirsch points out that knowledge and vocabulary are plants of slow growth. The soil is tilled at a young age, and we may not see immediate results, but there will be a huge benefit as children mature.

    And let’s not forget the importance of digressing regularly in order to bang on about really interesting stuff, at any stage of schooling.

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