Moving to a knowledge-led, knowledge-rich, knowledge-based curriculum.



Our school already eschews generic skills in favour of subject knowledge and subject pedagogy. We value subject knowledge.

However, we have also been through several iterations of a national curriculum and national framework of skills-focused curricula, including the personal, learning and thinking skills. The orthodoxy of the last two decades has been a move away from subjects and towards genericism.

Leaders at CVC are opposed to these moves, and determined that our curriculum will move in the opposite direction. Learning from E.D.Hirsch’s work on the psychology of reading, and subsequent American research that examines its effects in diverse school settings and from Michael Young’s work on the sociology of knowledge, we are determined to use the freedom of the new national curriculum to identify the powerful knowledge that is the right of every young person, and to frame a curriculum around that. We are interested in a knowledge-led curriculum as the key driver of a school. That knowledge is the driver of democracy and of inclusion: we want all our learners to join the community of educated citizens.

In an era when senior leaders responsible for curriculum are becoming less common, and senior leaders responsible for ‘teaching and learning’ are on the increase, our direction of travel represents something of a challenge to the orthodoxy. We contend that attention to ‘learning’ without attention to what is being learned, is at best of limited value, and, at worst, in danger of masking what our students are and are not really achieving.  Crucially, we need to be able to examine how the knowledge taught within a particular time period is transforming both students’ later acquisition of further knowledge and their ability to work with that knowledge in analysis, argument or creative work.

Moreover, we argue that in an era where teachers are demanding professional autonomy, granting that autonomy comes, to a greater extent than with methods, with decisions about what pupils should learn. CVC is a place where all pupils are entitled to access the best that has been thought and said. This is a great privilege and huge responsibility. Thinking and making decisions about what is to be taught has largely been ignored in the debate around teaching and learning, where the focus is on methods and the search for quick wins; it’s been an era of trading ‘tricks and tips’ and of increasingly institutionalized quests for merely short-term gains. We are reclaiming the professional responsibility of debating and deciding what pupils learn, and hence reclaiming the professionalism of teachers.

As a result, we decided that on the 4th January, one term after Stuart Lock took over as the new headteacher of the school, we would focus on what pupils should learn in our school and hence what pupils should learn in each subject area. Three of us, Christine Counsell, our guest trainer from the University of Cambridge Faculty of Education (our ITT partner), Geraint Brown, Assistant Headteacher and Stuart Lock worked together to plan how this day might look.

A knowledge-focused, curriculum-focused and subject-focused training day:

Our aims for the day were

  •         to extend our understanding of what we mean by knowledge (both substantive content and disciplinary principles) in relation to what it means to learn a subject, and therefore what we mean by a curriculum (the planned sequencing of new knowledge over time);
  •         to clarify and advance arguments for a knowledge-based curriculum.

Our aims for beyond the day were:

  •         to establish a knowledge-based curriculum with a defined, entitled knowledge at Key Stage 3.

Setting up the training day:

Prior to the training day, we set some optional reading, which we felt would enhance what staff would get from the day. One of these was the first chapter of Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination (2003). The book, in one sense, is a history of mountaineering and explores why so many risk their lives climbing mountains. However, it also blends cultural history, philosophy, literature, sociology, geology and much more. The choice of extract was not entirely random; we used a shorter extract of the text for an activity during one of the sessions in order to explore the role of knowledge, particularly in literacy. The extract from Macfarlane’s book is a wonderful piece of literature. However, to appreciate it fully, one must be educated in a broad range of subjects. To access this book and appreciate it, one must be a member of the community of educated people, and hence have a level of knowledge that allows one to access the book without putting it down every few moments to look something up. It is comprehensible and enjoyable only if you are able to grasp the assumed knowledge that Macfarlane and his readers share.

The second pre-training day reading was Paul Hirst’s seminal 1975 essay, What Is Teaching? (published in the Journal of Curriculum Studies). Hirst uses logic to explore what teaching is, and what it is not. He argues that there is, “no such thing as teaching without the intention to bring about learning” and that, therefore, teachers must focus on what learning is and what they intend pupils to learn. Hirst goes on to say that, “If teachers are not clear what end achievements their teaching is concerned with, they cannot know what is involved in (a pupil) learning X, they cannot (therefore) know what is involved in (a teacher) teaching (the pupil).
Any notion of learning which is not the learning of some particular X is as vague as the notion of going somewhere but nowhere in particular.” Thus, the paper was useful groundwork for setting up the day up well by allowing us to look at our subjects and what we are teaching.

The start of the day:

Both of these readings were set in order that we might successfully introduce Chapter 2 of E.D.Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy (1987). At the beginning of the day, we allowed colleagues over an hour to find a place in the school to read this chapter without interruption. We didn’t begin, as often happens, with an outline of some rather abstract aims. Instead we enthused about what is fascinating about Hirsch’s text and tried to build a sense of expectancy, knowing that engagement with the text would be crucial to the rest of the day’s work. Staff were tasked to consider two questions as they read the text: what is Hirsch’s position on the role of knowledge in literacy and how does Hirsch’s position relate to your own subject?

Hirsch makes the case that reading is not a generic skill. It is highly dependent on the knowledge of the reader. In understanding a text, the reader must share the assumed knowledge in the form of schemata. It is developing that knowledge of these schemata – of 50,000 words upwards – which allows us to become literate and educated within different spheres, and it is in being literate in different spheres, in different disciplines, that we therefore become literate and are able to transfer between domains or disciplines.

This chapter therefore begs questions about what we want pupils to learn and, particularly in each of our subject domains and about how we sequence the knowledge we teach to pupils in a curriculum so that the schemata can operate.

Immediately upon staff returning to the conference room, comments were very revealing about the impact Hirsch’s text had already had. One colleague quite rightly asked,  “Why haven’t I read that before? It’s brilliant.” Another said “I don’t follow all of it, but I’m getting the idea that it is explaining to me why I don’t follow all of it”. And another recounted reading a book over the Christmas holidays and now, with the aid of Hirsch, understanding why he had found it so hard going: “I don’t have the schemata!” he declared.

Introduction by Headteacher

Following the readings, the Headteacher reminded colleagues that he had promoted, at the start of the school year, several things that are not the orthodoxy in education:

*   That it is OK to tell pupils what they need to know;

*   That subject knowledge is very highly valued;

*   That subject-specific pedagogy is very highly valued, including unpicking common misconceptions;

*   That generic development, like ‘thinking-skills’, is a valued aim of education, but not a good method for getting there;

*   That development of subjects, including deciding what pupils will learn, is a privilege and what makes us professional;

*   That today is about our subjects, rather than some generic training, and that this is part of a process.

Christine Counsell

Christine spent some time on two themes:

1) Celebrating our subjects:

a) their distinctive structures and roles

Christine spoke about how as we’ve moved towards generic skills, our subjects have, to a great extent, got lost. There has been an inevitable pull towards genericism. This pull is well-meaning, understandable and logical from the perspective of the fact that we want pupils to become adults who are creative, adaptable, work in groups well, are team workers and team builders who are ready for the challenges of the outside world.

This pull is also wrong. The destination – young adults who are adaptable as above – is not the method of getting there. In order to become young adults who are highly adaptable, skilful and creative they need to begin by becoming hugely knowledgeable in a number of subjects.  Diverse research shows that enduringly weak literacy can be prevented by systematic teaching of knowledge about the world (e.g. science, history, geography, art) in the early years of schooling, that is, well before public examinations are taken. This knowledge makes new knowledge possible and speeds up students’ reading and thinking.

Christine then illustrated a possible consequence of the shift towards genericism – the decline in teachers’ readiness to explain how and why their subject distinctively matters, other than its contribution to generic skills and attributes. Christine recounted a story from an occasion when she had been working as an ITT External Examiner interviewing groups of trainees from all subjects.   None could explain, with reference to a subject’s content and structure, what their subject uniquely contributed to the curriculum. She doubted that this was peculiar to that particular group or setting.

This is the route with which we counterpose our own future curriculum. We want a curriculum that values our subjects at CVC, that places knowledge at the centre and allows pupils to be inducted into the conversations of mankind – via being highly culturally literate.

Christine expanded on this to speak of subjects as knowledge and subject as ways of knowing. Subjects are collections of knowledge, divided into domains, but there are also unique methodologies within subjects, and hence ways of looking at knowledge and truth.  Subjects are not just collections of ‘information’ or ‘facts’; they are disciplines.  They are profound and exciting quests to understand how the world works.  Students need both substantive knowledge (the content of subjects) and disciplinary knowledge (how the particular quest for truth in that subject works).

Christine wrapped up her introduction by talking of subjects as traditions – a continuing conversation whose rules and vocabulary we need to learn so that we can enter into that conversation as educated adults.

Christine then moved into making an argument for:

b) the need for logical, systematic and secure induction into these conversations

The central paradox that Christine presented was that subjects are always more than factual recall, yet factual recall is vital for each of our academic subjects. She expertly explained how factual recall liberates within a subject – frees up mental space to think.

Christine was able to refer to some of the examples from cognitive science and the requirement to have material easily available in long-term memory. She referred to when she had realised this herself in her own teaching in a comprehensive school.  She also gave a very good example from the work of a history teacher at Bottisham Village College, Kate Hammond, whose work has is having enduring influence on history teachers’ curricular thinking.  Fundamentally, knowledge is enabling in that it leaves us free to ‘move about’ within our own knowledge. We instantly recognize challenging words from the material we associate with those words; we call up terms, concepts and stories and deploy them in argument and analysis.  In these ways, secure knowledge is transferable to and richly fertile within new contexts.

Christine then moved on to talk about how this knowledge – stored in long-term memory – manifests itself as ‘background knowledge’, stored for use with later operations. She linked this to our reading, that morning, of Chapter 2 of Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy.  This knowledge hence allows access to further knowledge and allows pupils to remember further knowledge because of existing knowledge. The Matthew Effect: the knowledge rich get richer and the knowledge poor get (comparatively) poorer as they fail to remember what is taught because they don’t have existing knowledge to process new knowledge. Thus knowledge is emancipatory.


At this point colleagues discussed and shared examples of where their deep familiarity with an aspect of content in their subject that made it possible for them to do something else in their subject:  either to assimilate something new more readily, or to comprehend an abstract idea (because of content moorings in an example), or to arrive at a new content example with reference points that illuminated it.

Here we introduced examples from English and History; from D&T and from mathematics. It was stark how this is so much easier in a hierarchical subject like mathematics where there are clear elements of prior knowledge necessary to study other areas of the subject. In more cumulative subjects, identifying prior knowledge necessary for accessing new knowledge was a much more demanding task because of the nature of knowledge within the subject.

Our colleagues then came up with their own essential knowledge, after a task set by Christine and our Assistant Headteacher, Geraint Brown.

The function of knowledge in creating an educated person

The central role of academic knowledge in securing inclusion was established here. If pupils are denied access to powerful knowledge – the knowledge that educated people take for granted – they are destined for life to be outside of the community of educated people.  Too often, in the past, students have been denied such knowledge in the name of ‘inclusion’, and even been given easier or more limited content because this was deemed to increase ‘access’.  In fact, we need to work all the harder to ensure that students who struggle gain this secure knowledge, and this is a very long-term project.  This fundamentally alters many preconceptions about what the quest for inclusion should involve.

In demonstrating this, colleagues reflected on the knowledge that enabled them to read MacFarlane. This was supplemented by Christine sharing the anecdote of how she came across the book – it’s a beautiful book about mountains that requires broad knowledge of geography, history, science and mathematics to understand and appreciate. It was bought for her by Geraint Brown as a present – from one educated person to another – and is exactly the kind of text that is inaccessible to those who haven’t been inducted into our subjects’ conversations.

3) Knowledge as prior to, as well as result of literacy

In this section, colleagues were set a short processing task on Hirsch. How does chapter two of cultural literacy relate to the teaching of, and hence the taught curriculum, in each subject?

Feedback from this related to the tasks earlier in the day.

This throws up importance of content security, of thoroughness, of not leaving secure knowledge to chance.  Content isn’t just a setting in which to practise skills, it is essential that we consider exactly what has to be learnt as the content itself is central and foremost, even in developing what we commonly call skills.

This took approximately three hours. We then set up the task that had to be completed by the end of the day. It was deliberately focussed on Key Stage 3 in order to avoid the new GCSE qualification becoming the domain rather than the whole subject.  The purpose was to stimulate a thorough review of a subject specific Key Stage 3 curriculum.

The Task:

Generate two examples of essential content in which you would like pupils to be secure by the end of year 7, so that they can do x in year 8 and/or 9.

You might choose to do this on a micro scale – a topic, example or case study that pupils have mastered so that they can access a further topic or concept.

Alternatively, you may choose to do this on a macro scale – sketching out the key knowledge that is essential for pupils to have mastered a concept in your discipline.

e.g. if we want all pupils to be confident, fluent and accurate in their use of the terms empire and imperialism by the end of year 7, what topics and/or patterns of topics would you include in order to establish and test that mastery.

4) Conclusion:

(a) The domain and the test – Christine outlined how the pull of the test can take us back to skills rather than content. This is why each subject team needs therefore to keep its eye on the subject/disciplinary domain: the content, nature and structure of the subject. Christine returned to a brief outline of the work of Daniel Koretz and others on assessment and the need to distinguish the domain from the sample.

(b) The distinctiveness of subjects and really worthwhile interdisciplinarity – Christine then outlined a vision for what could come.  What might Cottenham VC pupils be able to do by end of Year 9, if professional grasp of subjects really secure and collective grasp of their distinctiveness allows us to make curriculum bigger than the sum of its parts?

Christine ended on an inspiring note talking about subjects as the quest for truth – a uniquely human quest that it is a privilege to be a part of and be inducting pupils into.

The half-day session was planned with Geraint and Stuart to ensure it fulfilled the requirements of the curricular vision at CVC. Some subjects almost totally rewrote their Key Stage 3 curriculum in the following days. Others rewrote sections or reflected on their curricular thinking. Some suggested they had been challenged and found the day difficult.

A few days ago we had a training day at the start of another new term. This time the day was given over almost entirely to subject teams who were planning their new KS3 and KS4 curriculum. It was easy to spot the January training day bearing fruit: there was a sharp focus on the importance of thinking carefully about subject knowledge, and the nature and the structure of the subject, in designing the curriculum and in making decisions about the what is taught and the sequence in which it is to be taught.

So, we have steadily begun developing a knowledge-based curriculum that our pupils are entitled to. We have left time for reflection on the next steps, but they need to gather with pace: our pupils have an entitlement to join the community of educated citizens.


We’d like to thank Christine Counsell for challenging and inspiring us; we are all excited by the journey that she has helped to lead us on. Christine’s blog can be read here:


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