Arguably, all knowledge has value. However, it’s clearly impossible for schools to teach students everything. Decisions need to be made. But how do we make them?
Let’s start to explore this idea via a discussion of ‘useful’ and ‘interesting’.
Knowledge isn’t a useful or useless thing in itself. Its usefulness depends on what we are asked to do with it. That isn’t always easy to predict.
For example, we might speculate that teaching students about percentages will be ‘useful’, because there is a good chance they will need to use this knowledge, either in school or out. By the same logic, we might speculate that teaching students how to calculate the area of a circle will be less useful, because it is less likely they will have a use for this beyond the classroom. Does that mean we shouldn’t include this knowledge in our curriculum?
Let’s assume we say yes. If we start to apply this principle across the curriculum, all sorts of things from every subject start to disappear. Knowledge of deserts? Not useful. Knowledge of Shakespeare? Not useful. Knowledge of black holes? Not useful.
I know some school leaders who think like this. An obsession with ‘useful’ has led them to narrow the curriculum to such an extent that the only things they want teachers to focus on are ‘useful’ ‘transferable skills’ – such as problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity – or subjects that they perceive link closest to the world of work. Business, ICT and enterprise are ‘useful’; history, English literature and science are less so. Indeed, I once had a conversation with a senior education official who accused schools with strong history, English literature and science curricula of being ‘old-fashioned’ and ‘elitist’. Why, in the 21st century, are schools forcing students to learn knowledge they will have no use for? Arguments about the need to develop cultural literacy fell flat. No: schools should be about developing ‘skills for work’. That’s what’s useful.
The principle of ‘useful’ has limited usefulness when it comes to decisions about what to include in a curriculum.
As a student, I had a great physics teacher, Mr Macdonald. He taught us about how black and white televisions work. Was that knowledge of any use to me? No, I don’t think very many people still had a black and white television in 1996. However, I did find this interesting.
Things we find interesting have value to us. We might not need to know them, but the interest they generate gives them value. For example, I find the following interesting:
- The phrase ‘green-eyed monster’ comes from Othello.
- Mars has two moons, Phobos and Deimos. These are named after twins from Greek mythology. Deimos, from which the word ‘demon’ originates, personifies terror. Phobos, from which the word ‘phobia’ originates, personifies panic. Their father was called Ares, the god of war. In Roman mythology, the god of war is called Mars. In Gustav Holst’s suite The Planets, the piece titled ‘Mars’ is subtitled ‘The Bringer of War’.
- The largest lake in the world is the Caspian Sea. Despite being called a sea, it is an inland body of water found in western Asia, on the eastern edge of Europe. It is called a sea because the Romans discovered it was salty.
The importance of connections
In each of these examples, I have interest in each ‘piece’ of knowledge, but the real interest comes from the connections that can be made between different ‘pieces’. It’s a bit like watching a film that is mildly interesting most of the way through, only to be blown away by the ending when all of the pieces are brought together.
In schools, we want as many lessons as possible to be like the end of such films. We want students to make knowledge connections within subjects and across subjects, which generate interest and, as a result, bring value.
Of course, the problem with all of this is that the knowledge I find interesting might not be the same as the knowledge you find interesting. Perhaps you couldn’t care less about Othello, Mars and the Caspian Sea. Surely the problem with ‘interesting’ is the same as the problem with ‘useful’: it’s impossible to predict who will find what interesting.
Making it interesting
Well, that’s not quite true. Returning to the example of the black and white television, it was through the way it was taught to me that I found this knowledge interesting. If you’d asked me before it was taught if I thought I would, I’d probably have said no. In the hands of another teacher, I might not have, but in my physics teacher’s hands, I did. The point here is: almost all knowledge can be made interesting through both the way it is taught and the connections that are made to other knowledge.
This is clearly a good thing, but does it help us to decide what should be taught in a curriculum and what shouldn’t? Yes, it does. By exploring the theme of ‘interesting knowledge’, we have discovered how important connections are. The connections that can be made within subjects and across subjects should help us to determine what we teach in each subject.
For example, if we have made a decision that teaching students about the water cycle is important, this will likely lead us to conclude that teaching the three states of matter is important, as is knowledge of what the words ‘evaporation’, ‘condensation’ and ‘precipitation’ mean. If we know that Animal Farm is being taught in English literature, it would make sense to teach the Russian Revolution in history, and communism and socialism in politics. Clearly, there is an element of ‘chicken or egg’ here, but once a decision has been made to teach something specific in one subject, content within that subject and across others should start to fall into place.
Sometimes, things that we learn at school aren’t particularly useful or interesting at the time, but they become useful or interesting in the future.
Dormant knowledge becoming useful
Returning to my secondary school physics teacher, he also taught us how to wire a plug and fit a fuse. In 1996, this was a skill that you often needed to use, because many appliances didn’t come with plugs fitted. However, since learning this at school, I don’t think I’ve ever had to use it. That was until two months ago, when a light blew in our living room and I had to change the fuse of a plug. Suddenly, knowledge I had learned more than 20 years before became useful.
Had my teacher given me any choice about whether or not I learned about how to wire a plug and fit a fuse, I would probably have said, ‘No thanks. I’d rather learn about something that would be more useful or I find more interesting.’ Luckily, it wasn’t up to me as a 15-year-old student to determine what I learned.
Dormant knowledge becoming interesting
As well as becoming useful in the future, knowledge can become interesting. For example, I am a huge fan of the British TV series House of Cards, starring the great Ian Richardson. In one episode, Richardson’s character, Francis Urquhart, turns to his wife and says, ‘How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child’. When I first heard this, it didn’t mean very much to me. However, a year later, my English teacher, Miss Bee, taught me that this quotation comes from King Lear. The fusion of two previously unconnected pieces of knowledge made both more interesting.
When connections of this kind are made, a positive physiological response tends to come with them.1 This makes us happy. Yes, we can get through life without making such connections, but ‘getting through’ life shouldn’t be what it is about. We should be enjoying life! Knowledge connections that make things ‘interesting’ can play an important role in ensuring we do.
Every piece of knowledge we teach students at school functions as a building block to something bigger. The ‘something bigger’ will always tend to be more interesting and useful than the blocks that have created it. However, the blocks are essential to get there.
For example, knowledge of what the word ‘evaporation’ means is a building block to understanding why puddles ‘disappear’ (something most people would think is interesting).
Learning what the word ‘evaporation’ means is probably going to be less interesting than learning why puddles disappear, but it is a necessary building block to get there. And, as we have said, through the way they are taught, individual building blocks can be made to be interesting.
If we want students to think about ‘big questions’ like ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ or ‘Is socialism or capitalism better for our country?’, they first need to have been given a lot of building blocks to be able to do this in an informed way. Yes, they could attempt to answer such questions without these blocks, but the answers you would get would be fairly nebulous, such as: ‘Yes, I think Scotland should be an independent country, because I’ve heard my dad say that’s a good idea.’
Schools that don’t have a knowledge-based curriculum aren’t giving students the building blocks they need to think critically about big questions.
A useful analogy is a mosaic. Mosaics are made of different coloured stones, of different shapes and size. Each stone might be interesting in itself, but the real power comes from the contribution of individual stones to the mosaic as a whole.
In schools, we want students to build their own mental mosaics, using specific knowledge. These take time to create and they appear late in the learning sequence. Learning the knowledge needed to create them can, at times, seem pointless. It can be a lot of hard work. However, the more students learn and the better they learn it, the more creative they can be with the mosaics they build.
Taken from The Teaching Delusion 2: Teaching Strikes Back by Bruce Robertson, published by John Catt Educational. Available at:
- Willingham, D.T. (2010) Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.