The Importance of A Knowledge-Based Curriculum

How important is your school’s curriculum in determining student outcomes? Does it matter if students who go to different schools or who are in different classes experience different curricula? Let’s explore this.

The impact of different curricula

Imagine two students, Julia and Derek, who attend different primary schools. Julia experiences a knowledge-based curriculum in which specific content is taught across a range of subject domains. Derek experiences a skills-based curriculum. Rather than teach specific content, the school focuses on ‘transferable skills’, such as ‘literacy’, ‘problem- solving’, ‘critical thinking’ and ‘creativity’. Teachers can teach what they like – and students can choose what they learn – so long as these skills are developed.

On leaving primary school, Julia and Derek attend the same secondary school. Having been taught a knowledge-based curriculum, Julia has a broader, deeper subject knowledge across every subject domain than Derek. What this means is that Julia has a significant knowledge advantage over Derek in every area of the curriculum.

You might think this would be offset by the skills advantage that Derek has over Julia. If a knowledge-based curriculum leads to knowledge advantages, surely a skills-based curriculum leads to skills advantages? Sadly not. Counterintuitively, Julia is also the one with the skills advantage. Why is that?

The reason is because, with a broader, deeper body of subject knowledge, Julia is better equipped to solve problems, and to think critically and creatively. She is also more literate than Derek, because, armed with more knowledge, she is better at reading comprehension and has a more extensive vocabulary. In short: Julia is better educated in almost every way.

The advantages that Julia now has over Derek have come about as a result of differences in learning in school, not as a result of background circumstances. Had Julia also had advantages at home, the gap with Derek would have been even bigger. While it won’t be impossible for Derek to catch up, it certainly won’t be easy. Had they experienced curricula that had more in common, it is far less likely that one would become more advantaged than the other.

The widening gap

Now let’s imagine that Julia and Derek are in the same geography class during their first year of secondary school. One of two things could happen:

  1. The teacher could teach the curriculum as planned, regardless of what students were taught in primary school.
  2. The teacher could personalise the curriculum to meet the needs of individuals, depending on what they were taught in primary school.

Should the teacher teach the curriculum as planned, with no understanding of what either Julia or Derek were taught in primary school, they would likely be doing both students a disservice. For one of them, topics might be repeated. For another, they might never be covered. The curriculum is fragmented.

Should the teacher personalise the curriculum, so that Julia and Derek are taught different content at different rates, Derek will never catch up. Julia will always know more and, as a result, be able to do more.

The importance of shared knowledge

Neither of these scenarios needs to play out. The curriculum does not need to be fragmented and these students do not need to be taught different content at different rates. The key to avoiding this is to ensure a shared, knowledge-based curriculum.

The word ‘shared’ is key. It is possible that Julia and Derek could both have experienced knowledge-based curricula at primary school. However, the specific content might not have been the same. For example, in history, Julia might have learned about the Egyptians, the Ancient Greeks and the Romans. Derek might have learned about the Wars of the Roses, the Tudors and the Victorians. In secondary school, if this continues, Julia might learn about the break-up of the British Empire, the Cold War and the Industrial Revolution. Derek might learn about World War I and World War II.

Whilst infinitely better than Julia experiencing a knowledge-based curriculum and Derek not, this is less satisfactory than both students having learned shared content. Only by ensuring access to shared content can we truly guarantee equity of experience for students in our schools. If we don’t, we will find that, depending on the school they go to, some students will learn about suffixes and prefixes; some won’t. Some students will learn about how the human ear works; some won’t. Some students will learn what ratios are; some won’t. We could go on, but I think the point is clear: in the absence of a shared knowledge-based curriculum, the only thing guaranteed is inequity.

To avoid this, teachers and school leaders need to specify the intricate detail of what is being taught in their school curriculum. This is essential to ensure that:

  1. All students are taught the same content, regardless of their teacher.
  2. Knowledge gaps, leading to attainment gaps, don’t appear.
  3. Teachers are clear about what they are teaching.
  4. Content can be taught in the best order.
  5. Links can be made within subjects and across the curriculum.
  6. Parents are clear about what is being taught, so they can support learning at home.

Taken from The Teaching Delusion 2: Teaching Strikes Back by Bruce Robertson, published by John Catt Educational. 

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