The Knowledge-Based Bookshelf

Parents and Teachers for Excellence are campaigning for more schools to adopt a ‘knowledge-based approach to learning’. But what does this really mean? Well, a number of recently published books can help answer this question.

These books tend to fall into one of two categories: culturalist and cognitivist. Culturalist books make an argument for knowledge on the basis of what is often termed ‘core knowledge’ or ‘cultural literacy’. This encompasses key events, concepts, ideas, people, places and – yes – facts, which once learnt allow pupils to lead a rich intellectual life and engage in human society’s great conversations.

Cognitivist books take a more scientific approach. Influenced by recent work in the field of cognitive psychology, they argue that complex thought can only be achieved once a requisite amount of information has been stored in one’s long-term memory. Such books have a practical bent, offering teachers clear strategies for improving pupils’ memory of subject content, and the complexity of their thinking.

Both culturalist and cognitivist arguments play a vital role in this debate. Below are listed ten books that will help you find out more.

1. Hirsch, E. D. Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (1987). Written by a literature professor at the University of Virginia, Hirsch’s book is an attack on the anti-knowledge ethos in American schools, which has clear parallels with ideas prevalent in Britain. Hirsch is also an expert in the science of reading, and offers a clear introduction to the arguments from cognitive psychology about how knowledge, committed to long-term memory, aids reading comprehension.

Taster: ‘We will be able to achieve a just and prosperous society only when our schools ensure that everyone commands enough shared background knowledge to be able to communicate effectively with everyone else.’

2. O’Hear, A. & Sidwell, M. The School of Freedom: A Liberal Education Reader from Plato to the Present Day (2009). O’Hear and Sidwell have brought together texts defending a Classical Liberal (read ‘knowledge-based’) curriculum from three millennia of human history. Each extract provides an argument for initiating the generations of tomorrow in the great texts and ideas of yesterday. The extracts are varied in focus, but always inspiring.

Taster: ‘Each of use is born in a corner of the earth and at a particular moment in historic time, lapped round with locality. But school and university are places apart where a declared learner is emancipated from the limitations of his local circumstances.’ (Michael Oakeshott)

3. Furedi, F. Wasted: Why Education isn’t Educating (2009). If you want a picture of how far British schools were moving away from knowledge-based teaching before 2010, this book provides it. It is an excoriating attack on an education culture that sidelined knowledge in favour of contemporary fads. Published one year before Gove took charge at the Department for Education, Prof Furedi’s book was a timely call for returning schools to firm discipline and traditional, subject-based teaching.

Taster: ‘Instead of wasting precious resources on trying to teach what cannot be taught, schools need to be orientated towards the task of providing subject-based knowledge to children.’

4. Willingham, D. Why Don’t Students Like School? (2009). What Prof Hirsch is to culturalist arguments, so Prof Willingham is to the cognitivist side of the debate. Each chapter in his book tackles a common teacher concern, providing an elegant series of arguments for teaching knowledge, and clear strategies on how to achieve it in practice. Lucidly written and impeccably researched, this book will transform your teaching (it has certainly transformed mine).

Taster: ‘We have learned more about how the mind works in the last twenty-five years than we did in the previous twenty-five hundred… What may surprise you are the implications for teaching that follow.’

5. Christodoulou, D. Seven Myths About Education (2014). Daisy’s book has been accurately described as ‘A heat-seeking missile aimed at the heart of the old educational establishment’. She takes seven ideas that are alive in English schools, and debunks each of them with pinpoint precision and wide-ranging research. If you have ever felt distrustful of claims such as ‘teacher-led instruction is passive’, or ‘projects and activities are the best way to learn’ – this is the book to read.

Taster‘It is not simply a matter of saying that we have got a few bits of obscure theory wrong …what we are looking at here is something far worse. The fundamental ideas of our education system are flawed.’

6. Roediger, H. L (et al). Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (2014). For schools and teachers who decide to abandon learning styles, group work, thinking hats, project-based learning and poster making, it can be daunting figuring out how to fill the void that is created. This book offers some guidance. Co-authored by a cognitive psychologist from Washington University, it explains how teachers can harness the power of human memory through practice and testing.

Taster‘In recent decades, studies have confirmed …that repeated retrieval can so embed knowledge and skills that they become reflexive: the brain acts before the mind has time to think.’

7. Didau, D. What if everything you knew about education was wrong? (2015). As any reader of David’s hugely popular blog will know, he has never been afraid to challenge his own presumptions. This fascinating book starts with the fallibility of human reason; becomes a primer on cognitive principles such as deliberate practice and the testing effect; and ends as an assault on idols such as formative assessment and lesson observation.

Taster‘Perhaps the fact that we’re having this debate is a sign that the teaching profession is maturing. We are only just beginning to challenge our preconceptions and refine both custom and practice in light of research and evidence.’

8. Lemov, D. Teach Like a Champion 2.0 (2015). Teaching knowledge requires a calm and purposeful classroom, and Doug Lemov is the man who can show you how. His invaluable book provides an inventory 62 different classroom techniques learnt through training and observing charter school teachers in the US. Lemov’s techniques cover areas such as behaviour, lesson planning, writing, questioning, and setting high academic expectations.

Taster: ‘One thing both Gary’s and Erin’s classes have in common is that students are able to think deeply because they know a lot… You can’t have ‘applied’ learning, as valuable as it is, without something factual in your memory to apply.’

9. Allison, S. & Tharby, A. Making Every Lesson Count (2015). This delightful book applies the recent insights of cognitive science to everyday classroom practice with aplomb. Each of the seven chapters focuses on the bread and butter of what teachers do such as ‘Explanation’ or ‘Questioning’, which are so easily overlooked, and explains how to do them well. If you want to teach knowledge, but are unsure about the ‘how’, start with Allison and Tharby.

Taster: ‘…we realised that in our headlong pursuit of fashionable pedagogical ideas – such as pace, rapid progress and independent learning – we had long neglected an eternal truth. That it is our fundamental responsibly to give children the chance to be excellent.’

10. Birgalsingh, K (ed). Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers (2016). In terms of teaching knowledge, Michaela is the most pioneering school in Britain – bar none. Published at the end of this month, this book is written by its teachers, and will explain how they have implemented a knowledge-based curriculum and a zero-tolerance behaviour policy to startling effect. I have not yet read Battle Hymn, but am sure the book will be controversial, challenging, and entirely beneficial.

Taster: [from Amazon] ‘At Michaela, teachers think differently, overturning many of the ideas that have become orthodoxy in English schools. In this book, over 20 Michaela teachers explore controversial ideas that improve the lives of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.’

Robert Peal is a history teacher at the West London Free School. He is most recently an author of Knowing History, a series of knowledge-based history books for Key Stage 3 published by Collins. He is also the author of Progressively Worse: The Burden of Bad Ideas in British Schools (2014).

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of PTE or its employees.