Why does knowledge matter?

Ian Bauckham from Bennett Memorial School in Tunbridge Wells has written this blog, which he has edited from a speech he gave at a recent event we held with The Institute of Education titled ‘What is a Knowledge-led School Anyway?’.

In recent years the issue of knowledge and skills has been hotly debated by teachers and others interested in education. This has led to a reassertion of the role and importance of knowledge in a climate where in recent decades greater emphasis has been placed on acquiring skills.

Education’s purpose is the induction of young people into our civilisation, teaching them the knowledge and wisdom which has accumulated across many generations, so that they speak the same language as other members of their, our, civilisation, and can themselves in due course make a meaningful contribution to it. Etymologically, education means ‘leading out’.It is indeed a leading out, but most significantly a leading of the individual out of the darkness and isolation which the individual has no choice but to inhabit without access to shared knowledge, civilisation, into the light of the shared treasures humanity has accumulated.

Just to dwell on the metaphor of light and darkness for a moment longer: you may be familiar with the story of Helen Keller, who inhabited the ultimate isolation as a deaf and blind girl who had not been able to learn any human language, until one day a teacher managed to teach her that every object was designated by series of shapes, letters she traced on Helen’s hand.Keller later described the effect of those foundational segments of knowledge: “Once I knew only darkness and stillness … my life was without past or future, but a little word from the fingers of another fell into my hand that clutched at emptiness, and my heart leaped to the rapture of living.”

There are three main ways in which I think educators have sometimes gone wrong in their thinking about knowledge and its place in education.

Firstly, we have too often thought that knowledge is somehow inferior to critical skills or creativity.This notion is reinforced in the minds of so many teachers by the lazy, but ubiquitous, use of the Bloom’s taxonomy pyramid in teacher training, where knowledge is at the bottom of the pyramid.Interpreted as meaning that knowledge is of a lower order, rather than foundational, teachers are implicitly encouraged to devote more energies to the supposedly higher order critical and creative skills.

But without knowledge there can be no higher order skills. Indeed, without knowledge, there can be no cognition, not thought.Like Helen Keller before she learnt any language, without knowledge, we inhabit darkness, and the inherited knowledge which itself constitutes civilisation is not passed on to the next generation. And an attempt to bypass knowledge and develop higher order abilities as the first aim produces demotivation and, actually, quite the opposite of creativity because all pupils are able to do is uncomprehendingly mimic.They cannot build or create because they have not learnt the building blocks for doing so.

Secondly, too often we think that teaching a knowledge based curriculum is somehow elitist.Eloquent cynics will conjure for us images of bored pupils in serried ranks uncomprehendingly chanting lists of meaningless facts, and implicitly contrast this approach with one which warmly and encouragingly enables smiling happy children to be creative and self directive so that they can ‘fulfil their potential’.But that idea that education is primarily about children being allowed naturally to fulfil potential is in my view a dubious one.It implicitly implicitly sidelines the overriding importance of transmitting the corpus of shared human civilisation to the next generation; it implicitly reinforces the already too pervasive notions of ability as something fixed (fulfilling potential implies that ultimately your potential will limit you, rather than emphasising the idea that with effective teaching and deliberate practice we can all master all domains at a high level); and thirdly it is pernicious because it favours those who already have: self guided learning leading to natural unfolding works least well with those who have least to bring to the experience, and so does little to promote social mobility or equality.

The eminent American educationalist E D Hirsch says: ‘A well stocked mind is the skill of skills’. Skills, like creativity, inventiveness, innovation, are all important outcomes of education, but all are firmly rooted in knowledge.

There is a social and moral dimension to knowledge in education.The powerful and privileged have access to certain domains of knowledge, and if others are not given the same knowledge then their ability to move into the ranks of the more privileged strata in society will be limited.This is the basic idea behind the emphasis on getting all schools to give due emphasis to core academic subjects, and discourage those from less privileged backgrounds contenting themselves with a less academic curriculum.

But the moral dimension of knowledge goes further. Shared knowledge can bring society together, both horizontally and vertically.Vertically, the fracturing of the intergenerational relationships, the cutting loose of young people from all the anchor points which keep them secure, is inseparably connected to the notion that passing on the knowledge of the past is the central activity of both education and parenthood. Shared knowledge unites generations and helps to bind society together.Horizontally, the bonds of shared knowledge tie us to each other in society and make for better cohesion, because we all share some knowledge and some assumptions which go with that knowledge.

Transmitting knowledge, the best of what has been thought and said, as Matthew Arnold said, that task is the central mission of education.There will always be debates about precisely which knowledge that actually is, and in some areas agreeing a canon will be easier than others.I am not worried by that, providing teachers understand that this is their mission, because when they do, in my experience, it changes and influences everything they do, and gives them a sense of vocation, purpose, clarity of understanding of their role and, ultimately, job satisfaction which nothing else can do.

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