Notes on: Young, M (2013) 'Overcoming the crisis in curriculum theory: a knowledge based approach'.  Journal of Curriculum Studies, 45 (2): 101-18.doi: 10.1080/00220272.2013.764505

Dave Harris

The question is what sort of knowledge our students entitled to learn at school, whether they are attending university or undertaking vocational or professional education.  These questions need to be constantly re-asked [handy].  Knowledge should accumulate between generations, and this is 'what distinguishes us from animals' (101).  At the same time, the curriculum should be able to build on and create new knowledge in order to progress.  Schools are important in social change.  However, once it was normal to differentiate school knowledge from everyday experience.

In order to develop the right sort of knowledge, we need to break with some older approaches to education.  One is that the curriculum is the source of the sacred, which became secularised and specialized.  However, expanded knowledge did not become available to all, and critique came to reject the idea of the sacred in favour of a belief 'in the innate capacities of all learners, and for some, all cultures' (102).  This is the progressive learner-centred tradition associated with Rousseau and Dewey: only when the burden of the sacred is been thrown off will potentials be realised.  Two approaches follow, one puts its trust in knowledge and its 'inherent openness', where teachers are pedagogic authorities and specialists, but without any particular expertise in pedagogy.  The second refers to the 'emancipatory potential of learners' and, recently, in digital technologies.  However, access is not the same as 'real learning' (103), as opposed to 'experiential or informal learning'.

Curriculum theory should go beyond these two options.  It should remain with the notion of a store of knowledge, disciplined study and inquiry, but break with the exclusiveness of the sacred, and remember that the purpose is to discover truth, 'which is, in principle, open to all who are prepared to make the effort and are adequately supported in their commitment' [weaselly].  This is not to say that effort is the only factor, because 'massive political factors' also affect opportunity, and these should be identified and suitable pedagogies explored.  Curriculum is largely in crisis because it does not focus on the issue of access to knowledge, or a reluctance to address epistemological issues about truth and reliability, 'at least since Hirst and Peters' [!  Let consensus break out!]. What should count as important knowledge?  We should not leave this to administrators or politicians as in the UK at present.

Callaghan noted the emergence of curriculum theory in the USA as an attempt to apply Taylorism [part of his 'cult of efficiency'].  Apple was one of the first critics.  The UK avoided 'the American obsession with instructional objectives', but was limited with its own conception of liberal education as in public schools.  It is this that Hirst and Peters expounded, and that the new sociology of knowledge challenged.  That challenge politicised the field and led to the development of critical pedagogy, by focusing on power relations, or the '"knowledge of the powerful"' [quoting an earlier piece of his own --try this summary by Beck].  However, this was an excessive focus on power and its wider social relations, and this 'offers little either to teachers or to political movements seeking a more equitable approach to the curriculum'[same old unfocused activism then].  Although advocating curriculum change, it was less specific about what the new curriculum might look like, and this risks the old rerun of conservatism whenever the left gain power.

There needs to be a new focus on what is taught and learned in school, something which will be distinctive to educational studies.  General commentaries on knowledge, from philosophers or cultural studies people have tended to avoid educational specialism.  Curriculum theorists themselves are partly to blame, however, hence the need for a 'more adequate theory'.  The powerful critiques lacked an interest in different forms of curriculum knowledge and focused instead on general politics, sometimes on identity.  Bourdieu and Passeron on the arbitrary origin of school knowledge does not help.  Power struggles in intellectual fields are important, but no curriculum alternatives seem to emerge.  They have also ignored epistemological constraints, as in Bernstein [see Maton].

The expansion of education has not fulfilled its promise of emancipation, partly because of global capitalism, partly because of a focus on means rather than ends, including an undue emphasis on destinations rather than internal processes of learning  [now, it seems, learning for its own stake is too easily dismissed as elitist and turns out to be 'crucial to the intellectual development of all students'(106)].  Excessive interest in reproduction theories in the sociology of education also lead to a certain 'left functionalism' which ignores the opportunity schools can offer.  Schools subjects are contradictory [well argued by Gintis and Bowles years ago] - submitting to rules and discipline can be an alienating, but can also lead to 'access to alternatives and a wider sense of their own capabilities': rules are never just expressions of power or ideology.

There has been an acceptance that 'knowledge itself has no intrinsic significance or validity', leaving teachers to focus only on the meanings of students not the meanings of any curriculum.  This limits the students to their own experience and reduces alternatives, especially those that 'have some basis in the real world' [he must mean those provided by social science, I assume?].  There is sometimes even 'a "fear of knowledge"' in schools (107).  Resistance among students is too easily seen as a celebration of subjective meaning and identity.  This has led to an excessive psychologization [citing Ecclestone and Hayes!] and a 'romantic politicising of critical pedagogy.'  However 'teachers cannot escape the instructional element of their role' if only because parents expect them to discharge it.  Knowledge itself is not 'oppressive and alienating', but requires inappropriate pedagogy to engage the learner [it is all so easy at the abstract level!].  The sociology of education, including his own work has over emphasize the political question of definitions of knowledge.  We need now to focus on the entitlement to knowledge.

His own approach now depends on a number of assumptions. First, that there is 'better knowledge, more reliable knowledge, knowledge nearer to truth about the world we live in and to what it is to be human'.  This is always open to challenge, however but to challenge must be undertaken within rules and concepts, promoted by a community.  Students of natural science or mathematics simply trust the arguments for fallibility, but others disagree far more about what rules and concepts might be - nevertheless, there might still be some agreement about a range of acceptable meanings and had to debate them. 

This is '"powerful knowledge"', and it has additional characteristics referring to its boundaries.  First it is specialized in the way in which it is produced and transmitted, and that specialism is organised in the form of disciplines and subjects.  'It is not general knowledge'(108).  Even cross disciplinary research and learning depends on discipline based knowledge.  Second, it is different from every day knowledge, explaining the conceptual boundaries between school and every day knowledge [why not use Bernstein on classification?].  These characteristics are not just found in STEM subjects although they 'express the features of powerful knowledge least ambiguously'[badly needs some modern STS].

Powerful knowledge can be generalised.  Kantian ethics, for example is powerful because it expresses a generalisable or universal principle [Jesus, needs Bourdieu], and other philosophers also [claim this].  Great works of art are powerful because they engage with feelings and emotions 'common to all human beings'.  History geography and the social sciences also qualify [with no further justification].

Within each discipline, some search for the best and most reliable accounts, some develop shared rules and concepts, and this permits knowledge to progress, even if some of it gets rejected.  However since the phenomena they deal with are different, natural sciences have different methods in concepts and claim a greater reliability.  Nevertheless, the epistemological issue clearly leads to questions of entitlement and social justice turning on access to better knowledge.

A knowledge base curriculum should consider a number of 'principles'.  First, since it is specialized, forms [sic] should be divided by concepts and rules, types of argument and sequences, at the university level at least: schools need more attention to pedagogy.  Pedagogy requires recontextualization from disciplines in the Bernstein sense, the 'selection, sequencing and pacing of contents'[according to legitimation codes] [how odd that university lecturers don't have to take into account the capabilities experience and potential of students.  This is experience derived from an elite university].  Concepts remain general and universal, at least in physics, but other subjects vary.  The goal [or assumption] is that students will gain confidence by working within these boundaries, especially if they are able to challenge them.

Second there must be an obvious relationship between individual curricula and the national curriculum, focusing on key concepts already identified.  The national curriculum 'guarantees autonomy to individual schools and specialist subject teachers'and ensures a common knowledge base for students [come back John White!  I wonder if all this suppression of differences between sociologists and philosophers arises from them all facing a common fate with the advance of school based training?].  Third, the difference between curriculum knowledge and everyday knowledge must be maintained, since both work with 'concepts that are different in both structure and purpose'(110).  Experience accumulates more and more context specific concepts, but the coherence of them relates to those contexts, and this limits understandings [I kept thinking of Deleuze here with his attack on common sense as coordinated by practical purposes].  Subject based concepts are linked to each other and 'underpinned by the community of subject specialists' [how functionalist!  Just one community united in the pursuit of truth?].  This permits generalisation. A homely analogy makes the point, comparing the knowledge of the city from the point of view of a participant to the knowledge provided by a geography teacher, or the every day knowledge of the natural world compared to a scientific worldview which enables specific activities to be transcended.  [Why not a real example, say as in the work on threshold concepts?]

Fourth, pedagogy is not just a practical activity, but should be knowledge based, knowledge of subject, of pupils, of learning.  The curriculum cannot include pupil experiences, but these are 'a crucial learning resource', even though they vary widely [but this experience is only a means to an end?].  Fifth, we need to focus on assessment as feedback rather than as something that drives the curriculum and pedagogy [no doubt, but how?] [All this is amateur idealist philosophy]

Turning to a practical example, discussions with the head teacher of the large mixed secondary school followed reading of his 2008 book [I bet she was a Ph.D. student of his].  She had advocated a knowledge-led school and wrote a manifesto about it.  It all seems very constructive and supportive of head teachers.  [The manifesto is produced as an appendix and she urges teachers to think again about offering powerful and shared knowledge, which is both fair and just.  A numbered list of 10 things to remember reassert this - we have a duty to pupils and society, verification takes place through learned communities and we should keep in touch with them, powerful knowledge breaks dependence upon knowers, it transcends and liberates, it helps children become useful citizens so they can shape the world as adults, it's a basis for a sustainable democracy, education, it requires adult authority and offers a role for 'quality professionals'].

Practical objections argue that knowledge base curriculum would increased levels of failure and drop out.  It would face real difficulties in engaging pupils.  However, although basing a programme on immediate interests of pupils 'may make them happier at school', it also denies them access to powerful knowledge.  That is an inescapable dilemma that needs to be faced up to.  Engaging programmes can mask educational failure and fail to draw attention to wider inequalities.  It is really capitalist society that is responsible.

Epistemological objections come from post modernism and post structuralism on the inevitability of standpoints.  Thus claims for universal knowledge is really ideological.  However, some knowledge is more universal and generalisable [but why?  Because of its epistemological qualities or because it yields effective research programmes?].  Teachers should simply 'help students find some meaning in their lives'.  White has added to criticism that schools subjects are now inappropriate given the new kinds of knowledge but there are available, but this focuses on contents.  Disciplines are also 'sources of stability for schools students and teachers'(113), they offer national and international coherence and common knowledge, they offer stable identities for students and teachers and permit discussions in specialist communities [all these are good social functional reasons, of course, and we seem to have abandoned epistemology at this point?].  Subjects are recontextualizations from valuable disciplines, and offer an alternative to the authority of the individual teacher.

Political objections arise from government policy and oppositions from those on the left.  This can lead to relativism, however, and many critics are able to 'rationalise their avoidance of the question of knowledge', possibly because they are 'reluctant to accept a realist position' (114).  Such a position would inevitably lead to epistemological constraint.  The right are happy with the idea of power for knowledge is the basis of the curriculum, but blame individual pupils if they fail.  Overall, no curriculum can 'on its own, significantly reduce educational inequalities', because there is inequalities lie outside in capitalism, and it becomes a political not just the educational task to counter them.  For example, wealthy parents can buy a better education, and the labour party should have tackled private schools.

'I am no longer convinced, as I was in the 1970s, that it is helpful to see everything as political' (115) because there is no organized spaces for radical politics.  Educators must tackle what they can tackle, developing curriculum principles that maximised epistemic access.  We must make the best available knowledge accessible.  At least we are highlighting not masking inequalities as populist [the actual example is prevocational] programmes often do.  Politically, it is now a matter of distributing resources more equally, including knowledge resources.  Curriculum theorists are the 'experts on knowledge', and should be allowed to use their expertise to develop more equal opportunities.

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