top of page

Knowledge in the primary curriculum?

Updated: May 14, 2019

Recent research carried out by Ofsted and proposed changes to the Ofsted framework have thrust curriculum into the limelight. Schools that are considering the 'intent, implementation and impact' of their curriculum need to reflect on the role 'knowledge' plays. This blog and podcast considers how we can deepen and broaden school conversations about 'knowledge'. This is part of a series of blog posts and podcasts discussing different elements of the primary curriculum. In this episode, the role of 'knowledge' in the curriculum is considered. What is knowledge? How does knowledge related to comprehension, vocabulary development, skills development? Is knowledge transferable into new situations? What role does knowledge plays in social justice?

At the end of the blog there are links to Ofsted curriculum conference slides, Ofsted research reports and blogs which explore the practical implications of a 'knowledge' rich curriculum.

What do we mean by knowledge?

Dictionary definition:

1.Knowledge: acts, information, and skills acquired through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject. "A thirst for knowledge."

Synonyms: understanding, comprehension, grasp, grip, command, mastery, apprehension; more expertise, skill, proficiency, expertness, accomplishment, adeptness, capacity, capability; savoir faire; informal know-how; learning, erudition, education, scholarship, letters, schooling, science; wisdom, enlightenment, philosophy; familiarity with, acquaintance with, conversance with, intimacy with; information, facts, data, intelligence, news, reports; lore; the sum of what is known.

Antonyms: ignorance, illiteracy

2. Awareness or familiarity gained by experience of a fact or situation.

Synonyms: awareness, consciousness, realisation, recognition, cognition, apprehension, perception, appreciation; formal cognisance

Antonyms: unawareness

It is vital that our teachers apply a ‘full fat latte’ approach of the term ‘knowledge’ rather than a watered-down version.

The National Curriculum is based on a ‘mastery philosophy’. The underlying basis of this is that pupils should develop ‘understanding’ for which ‘knowledge’ is a requirement. Pupils should know and understand the subject / learning matter so well that they are able to apply it to new and unfamiliar contexts and problems.

Schema: Ofsted refers to the knowledge remembered by pupils as being knitted together in an interconnected web-like structure called ‘schema’. For pupils to create a scheme requires them to understand the subject matter and appreciate its relevance, e.g. the ability for pupils to make associations and link the parts together. For example, a pupil may have a schema related to their knowledge and understanding of ‘rivers’. The scale of their ‘rivers schema’ will depend on how much they currently know and understand about rivers. This might include a knowledge of the flow of rivers from their source, names of rivers locally, a basic understanding of the concept of erosion, a mental picture of what rivers look like, a recollection of some of the main creatures and plant life that are typically found in a British river, and wider concepts such as the dangers of water.

The schema develops over time. We add to the schema (called assimilation) and refine our schemas (called accommodation) each time we learn something new about rivers or change our conclusions and thoughts about a concept. The knowledge and understanding contained in the schema will have been gained in a variety of different ways, e.g. first-hand experiences, reading, video, direct instruction, examination of diagrams, discussion with others.

The use of schemas as a basic concept was first used by a British psychologist named Frederic Bartlett as part of his learning theory. Bartlett's theory suggested that our understanding of the world is formed by a network of abstract mental structures. We often bring these mental structures into play when we are faced with an issue, problem or a decision to make, e.g. ‘Should I cross the river at this point?’ might bring into play: knowledge of maps; knowledge of estimation measurement to consider the distance between one bank and the other, or the depth of the river; knowledge of undercurrents; first-hand experience of how difficult clambering up muddy banks can be or how the type of clothing being worn might help or hinder the crossing; information about the dangers of rivers; plus personal information such as an assessment of one’s confidence in the water. Over time, the pupils’ understanding of rivers becomes more and more complex, more nuanced, and more interwoven with other elements of knowledge. The root meaning of the word ‘development’ is ‘unfolding’. A useful mental image perhaps to consider how a schema branches out and grows over time.

In a world where we have knowledge at our fingertips, it can at first appear that having knowledge at the heart of the curriculum is no longer relevant. Surely, we can access anything we want via the webpages, Youtube clips, blogs, podcasts, TV, etc.? However, in order to access, identify relevant elements, understand and evaluate the vast quantity of information that is available to us, we must first have base knowledge. Being able to search the internet for ‘quantum physics’ and identify relevant articles is perhaps of limited value if you don’t have any prior knowledge of the subject (and other subjects that would be relevant) for a full understanding of the concepts! How much we can understand of the information we find may be very limited.

A combination of knowledge, a range of skills and metacognition help us to become life-long learners, but without knowledge, the success we can achieve is likely to be limited. We need to understand how these elements interact with each other to create successful learners. Let us first seek to identify why knowledge is important…

Knowledge and reading comprehension

Read the following text:

As the desert sun climbs overhead, the kangaroo rat burrows deep in the sand and rests until evening.

First the reader must have the skill of being able to decode the text and appreciate that print is a form of communication. The reader must also have an understanding that one of the key purposes of reading is to ‘fully understand’ what is being read and that it is important to unpack the text to explore its full meaning. To do so, the reader will employ a range of reading comprehension skills, e.g. inference, retrieval, making connections, monitoring own level of understanding. They may well employ a range of ‘fix-it’ strategies if they realise that meaning has broken down, such as slowing the reading rate, reading the text a second time, using a dictionary to seek the definitions of unfamiliar words.

However, no matter how well developed a reader’s comprehension skills are, they cannot interpret and fully understand the sentence without background knowledge.

For a reader with background knowledge who knows that the desert sun’s ‘climbing’ implies that it is moving towards the point where it is hottest and where that heat is deadly to mammals, there is not much of an inference to make – survival demands that the rat needs to hide until the sun goes down. But if a reader merely knows that deserts are hot – not deadly hot – or that we are talking about the scorching midday sun, or have no interpretation of the sun’s movements, then the rat’s behaviour is open to multiple interpretations.

In addition, if the reader has limited knowledge of how animals are classified and named, the reader may have a strange image in their head of the type of animal that is burrowing into the sand. If they lack animal knowledge, they may have no image at all.

Research has therefore found that one of the strongest predictors of reading comprehension is background knowledge. This is why linking fiction with non-fiction and reading multiple texts on the same topic is important. Teachers should consider how they can build background knowledge in order to aid comprehension of challenging texts.

For example, it is easier for a child to understand a book about snakes if they have first been exposed to a real snake, discussed snakes in class, and watched video clips of snakes (for example). Having a basic knowledge will allow them to access more and more complex texts. Even hearing and using words in class, such as ‘habitat’, allows pupils to decode those words more easily when they see them in print.

E.D. Hirsch in his book ‘Why knowledge matters’ claims that ‘Drills in formal comprehension skills have not raised mature reading scores; rather they have taken up a lot of class time that could have been devoted to knowledge building.’ He goes on to say, ‘This emphasis on technique at the expense of building subject-matter knowledge in early grades produces students who at age seventeen lack the knowledge and vocabulary to understand the mature language of newspapers, textbooks, and political speeches. The basic principle to keep in mind is that, once decoding has been mastered, the “skill-set” that most reliably determines reading comprehension is relevant knowledge. The wise teacher and school will therefore create better summarizers and main-idea finders automatically if they focus on knowledge building- a happier, more productive, and far less boring focus for schooling.’ It must be remembered that Hirsch is describing practice in American schools – however, the advice is worth heeding because he provides wise words about ensuring any programme of comprehension building skills is entwined in subject learning (e.g. reading non-fiction in geography, reading newspaper articles on pollution as part of science learning) and high-quality fiction texts, rather than collections of random comprehension exercises (ok for revision and occasional practise and homework, but should not be the main strategy for delivering and developing comprehension skills). Instead, comprehension building skills should centre on central texts and carefully selected works that link to wider learning to ensure that the curriculum can keep its focus on knowledge and not be hijacked by skills building in isolation.

How subject knowledge links to vocabulary development

In schools across the country, from inner city to leafy lane, teachers are exasperated by the lack of vocabulary their pupils have. There are a number of reasons for the general decline in vocabulary depth and breadth, but one important link is to the quality of the curriculum and the ‘knowledge base’ that pupils develop through their school studies.

Imagine if pupils in Year 4 have just completed an in-depth, high quality unit of work on ‘rivers’ in geography. They might typically have been exposed, learnt the definitions of, read in text books and used in their own speech and writing the terms in this table.

Many of these words are not just used in the study of rivers, but are also used in many other contexts, e.g. flow, abrasion, meander. (Knowing wider meanings of words depending on their context is referred to as depth of vocabulary, whereas the number of words known is the breadth of vocabulary.)

The vocabulary understood by the pupil may be further strengthened and developed through the development of vocabulary in other subjects. For example, pupils might learn about the type of wildlife one might find in a river through the study of science, bringing additional words such as habitat, beaver, reeds, dependency.

In addition to developing specific subject related vocabulary, the knowledge and understanding gained in studying rivers can enable pupils to access more challenging fiction texts, e.g. Wind in the Willows, or various types of poetry. This then has a symbiotic relationship as the fiction pupils read further expands and deepens vocabulary.

Non-fiction reading (as well as other forms of studying a subject) will support vocabulary development. It is important that pupils (particularly lower and middle ability older pupils) see the text and not just hear the text being read (or at least for sections of the text) in order to expose them to the vocabulary (and to be able to see sentence structures). Teachers are also advised to refer to advice and materials on ‘tier 1, tier 2 and tier 3 vocabulary’ for identifying vocabulary to focus on when reading.

On coming across a river…(Mole)

He thought his happiness was complete when, as he meandered aimlessly along, suddenly he stood by the edge of a full-fed river. Never in his life had he seen a river before – this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a lurch, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again. All was a-shake and a-shiver – glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble. The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spellbound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.

I think it is clear to see that pupils would need knowledge of rivers to be able to comprehend the above poem, but that if there had been solid learning in geography and history, then with support of the teacher, such poems are within reach. There are some topics that lend themselves naturally to English links – the point is to choose any links judiciously! It is important not to lose sight of the needs of the discrete subjects. We know that pupils will produce better quality writing if they have good background knowledge and vocabulary, but sometimes the ‘English’ learning is limited (too much focus on content) or the subject is limited (too much focus on English). It is also important to consider elements of reading and writing within a subject: e.g. being able to ‘read’ and interpret a historical course, being able to ‘write like a scientist’ when producing a report of a class experiment.

For more on vocabulary see 'Bringing words to life' by Isobel L. Beck

Knowledge and social justice

Research would suggest that non-disadvantaged pupils gain their knowledge from a variety of sources, e.g. parents, home conversations, trips, visits, experiences, home reading, types of radio, news and television programmes watched, amount of time spent on leisure activities, contact with wider family and friends. Part of the knowledge transfer is about the knowledge and educational experience of the parents, e.g. university educated / non-university educated, type of employment. The vocabulary base used by family members is often passed on to the next generation.

By contrast, disadvantaged pupils often gain the majority of their knowledge through school. Therefore, if knowledge is not a central feature of the curriculum, disadvantaged pupils can be left with a lack of knowledge. This perpetuates a cycle of disadvantage which is hard to break.

Quite a lot of social interaction revolves around a shared meaning of phrases, language, knowledge and experience bases. When this is lacking, a person can be isolated.

‘Children need to master the shared conventions of standard language and of social interaction. They need to learn the shared knowledge and vocabulary of the nation, the shared spelling, pronunciation, and other conventions in the public sphere of the grown-up world.’ E.D. Hirsch.

Knowledge and its relationship to skills

How does your school define skills?

Research demonstrates that it is extremely difficult to transfer skills between different domains and that there are a whole host of skills that are very domain specific. I think we can all recall incidents of using our skills in contexts and situations other than those in which the skills originally developed, whilst shopping we might: analyse the information on food labels, plan a route through the supermarket, make decisions on the products to buy, estimate the total in our baskets. However, the success or sophistication with which we use these skills might be enhanced or limited by our ‘knowledge’, e.g. our understanding of the nutrients the body needs, the impact calories have on our bodies, the idea of a balanced diet, a view of what is ‘healthy’ , our knowledge of the shop layout based on previous visits, our knowledge of which food items are typically near each other in the supermarket, our knowledge of budgeting, our knowledge of times tables, number bonds, addition and subtraction, rounding and even of estimation itself. The two go hand-in-hand.

Having skills in one area does not automatically make it easy for us to apply those skills to areas where we have limited knowledge, e.g. we may feel perfectly comfortable making purchases in a supermarket for our own or our family’s needs, but what about if we suddenly had to cater for someone who was diabetic or had heart disease – would we feel as comfortable, or if we were asked to shop for a restaurant or to feed 500 people on a Merchant Navy ship? Does having skills alone equip you for this task? However, equally if you had knowledge but a lack of skills where might it all go horribly wrong?

I was only reminded of this recently when visiting a patient in hospital. I had the skills to be able to appreciate that the results of a blood test were not in the normal range, and I had the skills to be able to search the internet and find a range of articles related to the topic, but was left feeling that I wished I had paid more attention to basic biology when I was at school as despite my ability to decode the text in various articles, my comprehension was sketchy / patchy and I had far too many unanswered questions! I would need someone more knowledgeable than myself to help answer my questions. It also left me feeling vulnerable that I would have to ‘trust’ the quality of that person’s answer, including its truthfulness, accuracy and completeness as what knowledge did I have to refute any claims they made? Or, another option would perhaps be to try quizzing more than one person – a rather time consuming process fraught with other dangers, such as conflicting information.

The example Ofsted gave in a recent presentation was as follows:

‘A treasure hunter was going to explore a cave up a hill near a beach. He suspected there might be lots of paths inside the cave, so he was afraid he might get lost. Obviously, he did not have a map of the cave; all he had were some common items such as a torch and a bag. What could be done to make sure he did not get lost trying to get out of the cave later?’ (Taken from Willingham, D.T. (2007) Critical thinking, American Educator 31(3), 8-19.)

In the training session, many of the participants came up with an answer that was linked to ‘leaving some kind of trail’. When repeating this in my own training recently, many of the participants responded in a similar fashion. Some did, however, heed caution, citing for example how trails made by characters in films and cartoons were often eaten by animals, leaving the person stranded. I was left wondering what children of various ages would say. Ofsted’s argument was that when this question is asked in western countries where people have been introduced to stories such as Hansel and Gretel, they use their knowledge of such stories to problem solve and therefore identify a trail as a possible solution, whereas in countries where such stories are not a tradition the respondents did not think of this as an answer.

However, I would question whether the people who asked the question were fully considering the problem and the solution with sufficient skills and that in reality a much more sophisticated blend of skill and knowledge comes into play. Those with a good knowledge base plus the ability to analyse problems, find solutions and make decisions, as well possessing well developed metacognitive skills, such as ‘when have I faced a similar situation and what can I conclude from that’, are far more likely to come up with a high-quality answer than those simply with a good knowledge base. Those good at analysing problems and finding solutions might follow a process such as this:

First, let’s apply some metacognition thinking: People who have highly developed metacognitive skills ask themselves thousands of questions. One category of questions they ask relates to the processes the brain undertakes before acting, e.g.

o What do I know about the problem or situation?

o What knowledge do I have that might be relevant to the task?

o How do I judge the urgency / importance / critical nature of the situation?

o What are the variables and constraints of the situation or problem?

o When have I tackled something similar to this in the past? And, what did I learn from this?

o How would I categorise the task, e.g. easy or hard, simple or complex, information rich or information poor?

o What are the options?

Let’s look at the situation and consider if the best solution might not be the simplest or easiest answer. If the person was intending on exploring the cave perhaps the most prudent option is to stock up on suitable supplies before setting off. The importance of planning may be based on previous experiences of exploring, or of hearing about more general stories and tales of explorations, or through personal experience of trips and visits beyond the home. Making a decision about the necessary equipment might involve deciding whether to put off going to the cave immediately. Perhaps the explorer could plan to go tomorrow, or if already at the cave, perhaps they could return on a different day. There may be other metacognitive processes, e.g. ‘I suspect there may be technology I could use, such as GPS and infra-red, but I don’t know enough about this and I may need to find out / ask someone in order to make a good choice about the equipment to take’. People who are highly metacognitive often try to make assessments of what they already know and what it might be useful to know.

Most people good at problem solving would realise that there are usually multiple possible solutions, but that the pros and cons will need to be weighed, e.g. collecting stones from the beach to make a trail may make the bag heavy to carry and it may not hold enough stones to make a suitable trail. When making a decision the person may recognise that decisions often have to be made with incomplete information and that this can affect the quality of the decision and outcome.

Perhaps I am just ‘overhtinking’ the example provided by Ofsted, but in my mind, and perhaps in theirs, knowledge without skills is equally as limiting as skills without knowledge. The two go hand-in-hand.

One element that can help the transfer of skills and knowledge from one context to another is a focus on metacognition. The more metacognitive we are, the more likely we are to be able to pull on our skills, mental resources and knowledge base to be successful in a new venture, including knowing when not to move forward until the knowledge gap has been addressed and appreciating that decision making may be faulty due to lack of knowledge!

The development of skills (be they cognitive, people, communication, metacognition, physical, etc.,) are best achieved in a context that is steeped in a good knowledge base. For example, it is virtually impossible to develop good ‘debating skills’ without first building appropriate knowledge – both content knowledge (of what will be debated) and knowledge related to what makes a good debate (e.g. typical etiquette, use of emotive language, being able to articulate a point and back this up with evidence).

Lack of content knowledge and associated vocabulary is often a key hinderance in pupils’ writing – how can pupils be expected to describe a forest scene in detail or vividly if they have never been in a forest and have a lack of knowledge/vocabulary about forests? How can pupils be expected to write an information text about volcanoes that uses complex sentence structures if they only have very basic understanding and knowledge of volcanoes (trust me when I say it is hard to write complex sentences without a good knowledge base!)

Interwoven into lessons (not developed in isolation) with an emphasis on larger concepts to aid transferability.

The research would seem to point to the importance of all three elements as being the keys to success, with a cautionary note that they should not be developed in isolation. Where the elements are not in balance, this is likely to have a detrimental impact on success.

With a further aim to support characteristics such as resilience and perseverance and curiosity.

When referring to ‘skills’ in this context, it is in its widest sense, e.g. cognitive, physical, oral, people.

Teachers should also be mindful of elements such as growth mindset, self-efficacy, resilience, perseverance, curiosity, etc., in order to encourage and develop healthy habits of the mind.

Tim Oates, educational researcher, would suggest that the debate on a skills or knowledge based curriculum puts the two elements as polar opposites when actually they are interlinked and related. "The general goods of education – confident, creative, thoughtful children – are just as strongly emphasised as the acquisition of powerful knowledge – and they are not opposed, but connected." Tim Oates, Sept 2018, Chartered College article.

Going beyond the facts

Consider the following extract from the book ‘How People Learn’ produced by the National Research Council on Behaviour and Social Science and Education in America, extended version p 158.

History experts understand that in the field of history, available evidence is more than a list of facts. The research study being described contrasted a group of gifted high school seniors with a group of working historians. ‘Both groups were given a test of facts about the American Revolution taken from the chapter review section of a popular United States history textbook. The historians whose specialities lay elsewhere knew only a third of the test facts. Several students scored higher than some historians on the factual pre-test. In addition to the test of facts, however, the historians and students were presented with a set of historical documents and asked to sort out competing claims and to formulate reasoned interpretations. The historians excelled at this task. Most students, on the other hand, were stymied. Despite the volume of historical information the students possessed, they had little sense of how to use it productively for forming interpretations of events or for reaching conclusions.’

When we talk with teachers about ‘knowledge’ it is important that we think of it in context and in regard to how we use knowledge and how different types of knowledge combine to make more than the sum of their parts. Consider how the feedback from two different teachers reflects their beliefs about how they view history teaching.