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It ain't necessarily so

Published on 10/06/19

I’ve always conceived of the education profession as fundamentally relational at heart. One of the most frequently stated reasons for entering the teaching profession is the desire to ‘make a difference’ to the lives of young people.

Often, this is mirrored in the way that some pupils respond at the end of their time at school: heartfelt thanks and gestures of gratitude to that one special teacher who will never be forgotten.

Yet underneath our profession sits an even more complex web: a set of relationships which, though less obvious that the teacher-pupil dynamic, are at the very heart of the profession. Within schools as institutions there is of course the set of relationships between professionals: consider the way that particular approaches to governance, leadership and accountability within senior leadership shapes the climate and culture of professional interaction, or the way in which different departments within a secondary school seem to have different personalities or how different year teams in a primary school have distinctive ways of going about similar things.                                                          

A common criticism levelled against approaches to curriculum thinking which use the currency of ‘knowledge’ as the medium of professional discourse is that the link between pupils and the knowledge they learn is a reductive, mechanical one. Some might claim that, when teachers appeal to the findings of cognitive science as a way of reflecting on pedagogy, ‘learning’ is being characterised as an unsophisticated, passive, motorised and robotic act. Pupils are robots; information processing is the game.

Whilst I’m sure there may be places where the connection between knowledge and knower is under-theorised, as Ira Gershwin famously put it, it ain’t necessarily so. For another family of relationships also sits within the complex web of our profession: the relationship between teachers and professional knowledge, the relationship between teachers and subject knowledge, the relationship between bodies of professional and subject knowledge and the sources from whence this knowledge comes. The relationships that educators have with the bodies of knowledge which anchor their profession are important. They can also be the profound source of development within the profession.

I remember very vividly witnessing a discussion between an EYFS specialist and one of the Year 5 teachers who had been involved in the SSIF (Strategic School Improvement Fund) Project I have been directing over the past two years. With the help of two post-doctoral researchers, the project is interested in researching the relationship (!) between ‘reading’ and ‘knowledge’. The EYFS specialist had become convinced that all approaches to ‘knowledge’ were much more suited to Upper Key Stage 2 – if at all – and certainly not to the Early Years. Yet when it became known that the approach to ‘knowledge’ was in fact conceived of as vocabulary acquisition, the two realised that they had much more in common in terms of what they were both teaching. On that shared basis, both began to talk about the emancipatory qualities of vocabulary: the way that, at two very different developmental stages, there was a common experience of vocabulary enabling pupils to bring emotions under reason, to communicate their thoughts and ideas. They spoke about some pupils who had increased in confidence through development of their vocabulary. They began to talk about the various (and hilarious) ways that fresh, exciting vocabulary was introduced to pupils, using mime, gesture and story-telling. For these professionals, the intended relationship between the knowledge (the vocabulary) and the knower (the pupils) was far from mechanical or reductive. The Year 5 teacher said to me that it was her hope that her love of the novel that was being taught would “carry on” in the minds of her pupils: “I want them to love reading classic novels, just like me and they can do that now with some of the vocab they now know”. Importantly, the relationship that teachers have to their subject knowledge frames the relationship that pupils go on to have with the knowledge they learn.

In the recent climate of curriculum development, it has been fascinating to speak to so many colleagues whose conception of knowledge is a far cry from reductive parodies of ‘teaching facts’. Many professionals engaged in curriculum development have looked to disciplines – recontextualised disciplines (referring to the writings of Bernstein and Young) – as the foundational pillars for such work. Disciplines can offer the medium by which knowers can approach knowledge: they offer the shared grounds for mutual discourse; they offer the basis on which valid claims can be made; they provide the ‘rules of the game’. Without doubt, there is much work to do in fleshing out these theoretical and epistemological dimensions of the relationship between knowledge and knower. However, one thing is clear: the over-simplified caricature of ‘teaching knowledge’ – it ain’t necessarily so.

  • Dr Richard Kueh is Head of Primary Curriculum & Teacher Development at the Inspiration Trust