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 over–emphasise 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.