Powerful knowledge – research and reading

Powerful knowledge refers to knowledge that:

  • Provides reliable ways of thinking
  • Is the basis for alternatives
  • Enables acquirers to see beyond everyday experience
  • Is conceptual
  • Is based on evidence and experience
  • Is open to challenge
  • Is acquired in educational institutions
  • Is often discipline-based

In our curriculum content, are we looking for powerful knowledge or priority knowledge?

An excellent summary of powerful knowledge…

The Curriculum- ‘An entitlement to powerful knowledge’ : A response to John White – The New Visions for Education Group – by Michael Young (2012)

“Subjects, which despite counter pressures and the efforts of their critics, still constitute most school curricula, are different from disciplines. They are not a source of new knowledge; they are different from disciplines but draw on disciplinary concepts and organize, sequence and select from them in ways that have proved most reliable pedagogically.”

subjects, as Basil Bernstein has argued, play an important role in establishing pupil’s identities as learners.

Schools(and of course, colleges and universities) are peculiar institutions. They have both a conservative and an emancipatory role in society; they are, as Basil Bernstein once observed, ‘disrupters’ as well as ‘reproducers’ of social relations. They are conservative in reproducing social class inequalities, but they are also conservative in an almost universalising sense- they ‘conserve’ knowledge and ensure that the next generation has access to the knowledge that has been established by earlier generations. Without institutions representing the universalizing conservatism, we would still be like the societies which had no schools; they hardly changing from century to century and had no basis for progress of any kind.

Furthermore, as Gramsci well recognized, the upper and middle cases will never give up a subject-based curriculum for their children; intuitively at least they ‘know’ what ‘powerful knowledge’ is and it can do. However, it is powerful knowledge partly because it is not their knowledge.

It is everyday concepts which constitute the experience which pupils bring to school. On the other hand it is the theoretical concepts associated with different subjects that the curriculum can give them access to.

To read…

Knowledge and the future school: curriculum and social justice

Young, Michael


Powerful knowledge and geographical education

Margaret Roberts*

The curriculum case for powerful knowledge is made by Young in terms of entitlement and social justice. Young (2013a) argues that ‘the curriculum must start from a student’s entitlement to knowledge’ (p. 107) and that ‘if some knowledge is “better” how can we deny it to all pupils?’ (p. 109). Young’s arguments about ‘better’ and ‘powerful’ knowledge are based on the distinction he makes between everyday and school knowledge. The everyday concepts that children acquire when growing up are context specific and enable them to make sense of their everyday world.

Vygotsky (1962)  In contrast, the concepts associated with school subjects, which have been developed by specialist subject communities, enable students to generalise beyond their experience.

The acquisition of scientific concepts, unlike that of spontaneous concepts, required students to be aware of their thinking; it required ‘consciousness and deliberate mastery’ (p. 102). Because of the complexity of scientific concepts, children needed teachers’ support in helping them acquire them and use them to solve problems.

Young argued that powerful knowledge is ‘real’, the test of this reality being ‘whether the world answers to knowledge claims’ (Young & Muller, 2013, p. 241).

I would argue that although human geography does not produce the kind of powerful knowledge suggested by Young, it does have powerful ways of looking at the world through the kinds of questions it asks and the ways in which it investigates them.

Whatever knowledge is selected and justified, it is only potentially powerful. Students do not necessarily learn what they are taught; they do not simply acquire knowledge because it has been prescribed in a curriculum. School knowledge remains inert if students are not motivated to learn it and if they cannot make sense of it in some way for themselves. Firth (2011) argues that ‘knowledge becomes ‘meaningful through engagement with the disciplinary practice that govern the creation, validation, representation, interpretation and critique of knowledge within specific domains’ (p. 293). 

 It does not make sense for curriculum documents to require the acquisition of knowledge unless they also include the skills that enable students to use and critique that knowledge. In valuing the development of conceptual knowledge, it is not necessary to devalue skills.

Young’s ideas on powerful knowledge raise interesting issues about curriculum and pedagogy but do not resolve them. They do not provide criteria on how knowledge to be included in the curriculum should be selected. It also seems important to identify in the curriculum the kinds of skills that students need to use in the classroom in order to gain access to powerful knowledge. Knowledge is only potentially powerful. We need to know much more about the pedagogies that would make such knowledge accessible and meaningful for all students.

there are different forms of power associated with different forms of specialised knowledge.

Whereas the sciences speak to the particular from the general, the arts speak to the universal in the particular, and can enable people to feel part of a larger humanity. It is this freedom that Bernstein (2000) is referring to when he argues that disciplines are resources for ‘thinking the un-thinkable’ and the ‘not yet thought’.
Comparing Curriculum Types: ‘Powerful Knowledge’ and ‘21st Century Learning’

Graham McPhail1 • Elizabeth Rata2

Received: 19 November 2014 / Accepted: 14 October 2015 / Published online: 17 October 2015

This is a very interesting paper. It sets out and compares the 2 curriculum types. It explores 4 comparable curriculum components: the theory of knowledge underpinning the curriculum design type, the knowledge structure, the method of conceptual progression, and the pedagogy associated with the knowledge type.

The 21st Century model is based on the idewa that pupils learning should be skills focused, with knowledge being constructed through investigation and exploration. Knowledge is secondary to experience. Teachers are charged with identifying the important  knowledge that supports pupils’ lines of enquiry. The writers argue that the curriculum type does not fully support the acquiurement of knowledge.

Both curriculum types can be used to support the pursuit of equity. ” Both curriculum design types are committed to the ideal of social justice and claim a role for education in promoting greater opportunities, particularly for the working-class and marginalised groups that have been disadvantaged historically.”

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