Knowledge and the future school

We’ve been strongly influenced by the work of Professor Michael Young (Institute of Education, University College London). Here are some of our favourite insights from the book Knowledge and the Future School by Michael Young and David Lambert with Carolyn Roberts and Martin Roberts:

On the the two common curriculum models and on “powerful knowledge” as an alternative:

“Future 1 refer[s] to the curriculum that secondary schools have inherited from the nineteenth century and was the model that many teachers reacted against in the 1970s, especially those teaching slow or disadvantaged learners. Future 1 was (and is) symbolised by the typical curriculum of grammar and public schools; it formed the basis of the first National Curriculum launched in 1988. Crudely expressed, in Future 1 knowledge is treated as largely given, and established by tradition and by the route it offers high achievers to our leading universities. […] For a Future 1 curriculum, the future, despite incremental changes in knowledge, is seen as an extended version of the past.”

“Future 2 changes were introduced as part of policies of social inclusion and widening participation […] A […] trend was the weakening of boundaries between the worlds of school and work as the curriculum was progressively ‘vocationalised’ for […] pupils from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds.

All these developments represented a change in the old assumptions about knowledge as a given and the curriculum as a fixed body of knowledge to be transmitted to all students capable of acquiring it. They represented a change from seeing education as “worthwhile in itself” (and the phrase barely used today of encouraging ‘learning for its own sake’) towards an increasingly instrumental view that education was a means to an end – usually expressed as the expectation of future employment. […] These were shifts in the dominant view of curriculum knowledge from something that changed little […] to something that could always be changed to suit a new need or interest. […] For teachers, Future 2 had a number of attractions. First, it was a response to what was perceived as the rigidities and elitism of Future 1. Secondly, if all knowledge were “socially constructed” and not fixed or given, it licensed a differentiated curriculum as a way of spreading access to all pupils.”

“Knowledge and the Future School”, pp. 60-61

“Of course knowledge is not given as Future 1 assumes; it has social and historical origins as Future 2 argues. What other origins could it have? However it does not follow as Future 2 assumes that because knowledge is social, there is no ‘better knowledge’. Newton and Shakespeare are historical figures who made discoveries and wrote plays in their contexts which were very different from ours. But we still go to Shakespeare’s plays, and recognise that although they are about a society that we only dimly know about through history books, their characters and relationships articulate for us almost universal truths. Likewise, we find that for human beings living on this planet, Newton’s laws of motion and light are as near the truth as we can get – today, as they were in the 1970s, and before he discovered them in the late 1600s. So being social and historical doesn’t just (as of course it can) make knowledge biased, it also makes it true. Why? Because what is true, is not just ‘in the knowledge defined as a set of propositions’ – as in the dominant philosophical argument about knowledge being ‘justified true belief’. Newton’s laws, to take but one example, locate their claim to be true in the community of physicists who have, since his time, tested and questioned them. Whether these specialist communities are particle physicists, novelists or social scientists, such communities have their shared rules, some more and some less agreed than others, for testing and questioning the truth of whatever they claim to know in their field. The truth, and the objectivity of knowledge is the truth of these communities, as the nearest to truth that we get – that is the truth of Future 3.

[…]

On the one hand, Future 3 points to a curriculum of the future and so offers a vision of the future for schools today. […] It differs in its idea of knowledge from Futures 1 and 2 in a number of ways. In contrast to Future 1, it explicitly locates knowledge in the specialist communities of researchers in different fields and as a consequence, does not treat knowledge as ‘given’ but fallible and always open to change through the debates and research of the particular specialist community. Unlike the openness of knowledge assumed by Future 2, the openness of Future 3 is not arbitrary or responsive to any kind of challenge; it is bounded by the epistemic rules of the particular specialist communities. It follows that a Future 3 curriculum rejects the a-social givenness of school subjects associated with Future 1 and the scepticism about subject knowledge associated with Future 2. Instead it treats subjects as the most reliable tools we have for enabling students to acquire knowledge and make sense of the world. In other words, a Future 3 curriculum is a resource for teachers who seek to take their students beyond their experience in the most reliable ways we have.”

“Knowledge and the Future School”, pp.65-67

“What are the educational implications of there being some knowledge which has generalisable meanings and a degree of objectivity that cannot be reduced to its context or origins? In other words […] truth as the best knowledge we have in any field of enquiry. If subjects are the nearest we get in a curriculum to having access to this “best knowledge” are there any grounds for denying access to such knowledge to the next generation, whatever their social or cultural backgrounds[?]”

“Knowledge and the Future School”, pp.108-109

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