Nobody’s actually against knowledge are they?

December 25, 2016

I’ve written many times about those who wish to deny the debate in education. Sometimes the debate denial is so ridiculous it can be safely ignored, for instance when people express their disagreement with traditionalists and simultaneously claim that it’s all a false dichotomy and nobody really disagrees. Sometimes it’s just an attempt to disassociate one’s self from the history of one’s own ideas; for instance, when people complain about labels like “progressive” and “traditionalist” being recently introduced to the debate, even when those terms are over 100 years old. But occasionally, it is a sincere belief that what traditionalists are saying about something, particularly if it is something hard to argue against, is what everyone really believed all along.

The most recent outbreak of this seems to have been about knowledge. Traditionalists have recently been describing their position as being in favour of “knowledge based” education. I don’t really object to this term, but it has led to some progressives pretending to be mystified about the boundaries of the debate. So for instance:

Or (from this blogpost):

There’s a narrative, mostly found on Twitter, but also evident in other social media and education commentary in the press, that teachers somehow eschew teaching ‘knowledge’. That knowledge is almost incidental to ‘better’ ways of teaching like group work, problem solving etc. On top of this, teacher training, we are told by others, teach theory like ‘Bloom’s taxonomy’ which is also ‘anti’ knowledge.

Such attacks are convenient sticks with which to beat the ‘progressives’ who, themselves, it is claimed, are anti-knowledge. To be honest, I’m getting quite tired of this obviously flawed logic and rhetoric.

Teachers are teaching ‘knowledge’ all the time – regardless of the methods they use. Even in group work knowledge is being delivered. I’ve yet to see any curriculum document that does not contain some form of knowledge. I’ve yet to see a lesson where a child has never engaged with any knowledge at all.

To imply that teachers – any teacher – does not deliver knowledge in teaching is frankly silly.

Of course, some of this is about a straw man, that those calling for more knowledge are simply opposing a position of teaching no knowledge and, therefore, their position is of no significance if you admit to occasionally passing on some information to your students. But it also seems to be an attempt to air brush out of the debate the anti-knowledge stance that was pretty mainstream among progressives until this sudden bout of denial. The same day I read the blogpost I quoted above, I also read another blogpost, that was advice for teachers in a school in England from a few weeks ago:

Skills Over Content

Whether or not we agree, there is a paradigm shift happening around us in education as knowledge becomes increasingly available and accessible. So our role as teachers must change to accommodate this. We need to start thinking of ourselves as developers of skills rather than deliverers of content.

In practice, this means starting our lesson planning by considering the skills which need to be developed rather than the content that’s next in the syllabus.

I think this sort of thing has been fairly common in recent years. I heard it very many times. I think it may have gone out of fashion now – I see it more often from overseas sources than English ones – but it is still in the culture. I find it hard to believe that this could have been missed completely by anybody. I gave this example because it was recent, not because there weren’t hundreds of other examples out there. If one really wanted to find multiple examples of people denying the importance of knowledge then I’d recommend buying Seven Myths About Education by Daisy Christodoulou, as the vast majority of the myths she addresses are about the lack of importance of knowledge, and she gives multiple examples of each one, usually from influential and important sources.

If I could only pick one source to establish that a hostile attitude to the teaching of knowledge was the orthodoxy in recent years, I don’t think there’s a better example than the letter signed by 100 educationalists when Michael Gove tried to increase the amount of knowledge in the GCSE curriculum. Here are just some of the ways they described the teaching of knowledge.

…The proposed curriculum consists of endless lists of spellings, facts and rules. This mountain of data will not develop children’s ability to think, including problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity…

Much of it demands too much too young. This will put pressure on teachers to rely on rote learning without understanding. Inappropriate demands will lead to failure and demoralisation. The learner is largely ignored. Little account is taken of children’s potential interests and capacities, or that young children need to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity…

…The mountains of detail for English, maths and science leave little space for other learning…

…A recent CBI report argued that “we need to end the culture of micro-management”, and (citing the Cambridge Primary Review) that “memorisation and recall are being valued over understanding and inquiry”…

…Schools in high-achieving Finland, Massachusetts and Alberta emphasise cognitive development, critical understanding and creativity, not rote learning…

This is what I, and most traditionalists, are opposing when we say we favour the teaching of knowledge. We support the teaching of actual specified knowledge over the teaching of vague generic qualities like “creativity” or “cognitive development”. We don’t think teaching more knowledge means understanding is not passed on. We don’t fear facts, detail, recall or memorisation. If you don’t disagree with us, then good, but let’s not pretend that there were not people fighting against these things. Let nobody pretend there weren’t those who were appalled by the idea of teaching more knowledge in the curriculum. We cannot forget all those comments about Gradgrind, regurgitating facts, or rote-learning out of the debate. Don’t pretend to be for knowledge if the moment anyone celebrates teaching it, or recommends testing it, you will be the first to complain.



  1. I see it as an issue of efficiency. Say you are learning your times tables ; you can do so experimentally by (say) drawing times tables , counting the dots and trying to look for patterns. Or you can just learn them by rote. (as two extremes)

    The first does work ; it just takes ten times as long. If everything you learn takes 10 times as long as optimal it’s hardly surprising half the curriculum has disappeared or been simplified.

    • Good point. I’ve been encouraged to play bingo with my language classes to get them to learn new vocabulary. It takes a whole class, they may learn a few words but not very well as they are more interested in the game itself than the meaning of the words

  2. […] Andrew Old (25 December 2016). Nobody’s actually against knowledge are they? blog […]

  3. […] Andrew Old published this just […]

  4. You are quite right. Nobody in their right mind could ever argue against ‘knowledge’. The dichotomy arose, I think, in the early days of the NC review and the extensive appeal to E D Hirsch’s, ‘The Knowledge Deficit’, which was being used by some close to the political centre – including Daisy – to explain the greater prescription in the new curriculum, especially for KS1/2. You are right again that there is no ‘either/or’ about knowledge and skills. But there was a perception that this was so. That was why Tim Oates, commenting on the new curriculum, added,’ it’s chock full of skills’. This probably didn’t need saying but the nay-sayers had set up this straw man, as you put it. Titles like, ‘The importance of knowledge’ by Saxton and Briggs from Civitas (which I’m not sure ever got beyond a draft), helped to reinforce the artificial divide.

    I believe that there is, however, a need for us to understand the fourfold nature of teacher knowledge in Teachers’ Standard 3. Maybe I ought to scribble about this in my own blog.

  5. And in Ireland, the Department of Education decides to ignore what’s happening across the water and implement a system which is failing, or has failed, in the UK and further afield.


  6. Knowledge without being above to recall is useless, so some balance is required.

  7. I’m still unsure of the argument. For example I would expect pupils to KNOW that 5×7 = 35. But I wouldn’t expect then to know that x^2 -2x – 35 = (x-7)(x+5), I’d expect them to have the knowledge or the skill to factorise. But is it knowledge or skill???

  8. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  9. Many of the people who signed that letter were early years experts who were not just writing about the GCSE curriculum. There is plenty of research to show that in the early years, knowledge is important but so is developing positive dispositions for learning. If we do not do this with young children, then by the time they get to secondary school the job is harder. It worries me that particularly on Twitter, the arguments do not take into consideration that teaching and learning might need to be different depending on the age and development of the children involved. The EYFS curriculum is based on research evidence and I would not want to see us lose effective early years practice in the midst of a progressive/traditionalist debate.

    • Was the EYFS curriculum even being changed at that time?

      • No, but I think that people who work in the early years are always concerned about the ‘top down’ effect. There is a lot of concern around Y1 children, for example, given that there is a strong argument for continuing pedagogical approaches from the EYFS up until the age of 7.

        • How is extending the EYFS to older years anything other than dumbing down?

          • Not extending the content, extending the approach.

          • So treat older kids like they were toddlers? Surely, that’s dumbing down?

  10. No, of course you should not treat older children like toddlers. I do not teach 5 year olds like toddlers, because they are not toddlers, they are 5 year olds. They should be treated as learners with appropriate, research based pedagogical approaches, the same as any child or young person.

    • Right, so why should EYFS be the model for education of older children or justification for criticising curriculum change at secondary schools? Also, I’m a bit puzzled as to why you think EYFS is evidence based. Isn’t it the one place where learning styles still appear in official materials?

      • I don’t see it as a justification for criticising curriculum change at secondary schools, the letter you referred to earlier was not about the National Curriculum as a whole, not just GCSE changes. I don’t disagree with you at all about the importance of knowledge, I was just pointing out where the concerns expressed in that letter might come from. I think that sometimes if you see things from a certain perspective it is easy to miss that others have different concerns but for equally valid reasons.
        The evidence for pedagogical approaches used in the EYFS is summarised by Helen Moylett if you are interested. I agree with you that the use of the term ‘learning styles’ is problematic, particularly because of the association with VAK etc. But in the EYFS context this is about the principle of ‘a unique child’ and the importance of accurate observation and assessment to determine starting points for learning.
        I should add that this is the first time I have ever commented on an education blog. I hope I am not breaching any kind of ‘blog etiquette’ by starting/continuing this conversation. I find your posts thought provoking and as someone who works with younger children it is really useful to get a different perspective. I think it is easy to get set in particular ways of doing things without questioning if and how they work and your blog helps me to avoid this.

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