This is not a strawman argument. It is easy to find examples of people who argue that search engines and other new technology has eliminated the need for knowledge. It is much harder to find schools that are knowledge-free; indeed, even school leaders who promote the idea that Google has replaced individual human knowledge will keep some content in the curriculum.
However, considering its importance to education, knowledge cannot be kept as an afterthought in our schools.
We shouldn’t rely on chance or incidental development of this knowledge, for children to pick it up from their surroundings or their privileged background. This may work for the high-achieving students, but leaves the low-achieving students further and further behind.
Knowledge in our curriculum should be intentional and thoughtfully considered.
There is also an incredible amount of knowledge in our collective human memory, and it would be impossible for students to learn it all. The knowledge we teach should be discussed and prioritized.
First, there is the question of breadth, which holds special importance for reading comprehension. Students, once they complete their education, should be able to read work aimed at a general audience; writers make assumptions about the background knowledge their readers possess to be somewhere between a novice and an expert on a range of subjects. People need broad, general knowledge to read with understanding publications such as The New York Times and The Economist.
Lists such as the one developed by E.D. Hirsch are a good starting point. In the case of Hirsch’s list, research has found that those terms are frequently referenced in publications such as The New York Times, as well as correlations between cultural literacy and academic achievement.
Which knowledge carries and imbues cultural literacy depends on the context. Hirsch’s list is far less useful outside of the United States. In Chinese schools, studying the works of Confucius is more important than studying Shakespeare because of the weight he carries in that culture. For an international school? Well, I’m still trying to figure that out.
I am not suggesting schools takes lists or curriculums as a whole and transplant them into their school. I’m saying there should be discussion around which knowledge is valuable for students.
There is certainly no one right answer; it is hard to decide on which elements of history, which novels and plays, which concepts in science are more important for students to know than others. It is important that, as Michael Fordham argues, we, as curriculum designers, accept arbitrariness as a fundamental feature of curriculum design. However, as Fordham explains, there are ways to go about the process. We should ensure our curriculum has internal coherence, that the different elements relate to each other, such as teaching the American Revolution because it helps students understand the causes of the French Revolution. Knowledge can also be chosen based around which concepts you want students to understand, such as revolution, democracy, or social class. Once the concepts, the substantive knowledge, is identified and linked to concrete examples, we should decide what disciplinary knowledge students need to know. This can include the operational knowledge and key critical concepts discussed by Balin et al.
Once we decide which knowledge to teach, the next task is how to sequence it. This involves thinking about both vertical alignment, across grade levels, and horizontal alignment, within grades levels. If students are going to be learning about Ancient Greece and Rome in History, should they be reading mythology and epic poems in English Language Arts? Will students understand bar and lines graphs in Mathematics before they learn about climate graphs in Geography? Will they learn about climate before they learn about climate change? A curriculum should be ‘joined up’ and this cannot be left to chance. Thinking about how a given course fits in the broader school curriculum also helps build schema in the students’ minds.
While discussing how to sequence the curriculum, we can also talk about how to design the curriculum for memory. After all, if the knowledge is valuable, we want to avoid the scourge of forgetting. We want to build a 3D curriculum that thoughtfully and intentionally returns to key concepts and ideas, to develop and deepen student understanding.
Then we can move on to teaching methodologies. A knowledge-based curriculum does not necessarily define how we teach, but while we are immersed in education research that led us to the decision that knowledge matters, we might as well employ practices that are best supported by the research, such as retrieval practice.
Finally, by accepting the importance of knowledge and discussing its role in schools, we can also recognize the importance of knowledge among teachers. It is easy for teachers to suffer from the ‘curse of knowledge’ and forget what it was like to not know something. When we see what knowledge our students need, it is easier to recognize what knowledge we have and utilize.
It als helps focus teacher attention on building our own subject knowledge, as that is an important factor in being effective teachers. When I am lacking subject knowledge for a topic, I find this deficit to be an obstacle in effectively designing curriculum, planning lessons, fielding student questions, and directing discussion. When I have subject knowledge, I am better equipped to identify important aspects of a topic, bring in relevant examples, effectively explain them, make connections to other things the students have learned, and design meaningful lesson activities. Without subject knowledge, I feel like I am stumbling in the dark. With subject knowledge, I teach with confidence.
If we decide that knowledge matters, then we discuss it in department meetings and make it a focus of professional development. If we care about having knowledge in our students, then we care about having it in ourselves as well.