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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.

You can imagine how the lessons for these two teachers might look very different from each other and have different outcomes for pupils over time.

‘For expert history teachers, their knowledge of the discipline and beliefs about its structure interact with their teaching strategies. Rather than simply introduce students to sets of facts to be learned, these teachers help students to understand the problematic nature of historical interpretation and analysis and to appreciate the relevance of history to their everyday lives.’

Experts’ knowledge is connected – it is not just lists of facts. It is organised around important concepts. For example, if pupils were asked to study veins and arteries then they may be expected to remember that arteries are thicker than veins, more elastic, and carry blood from the heart; veins carry blood back to the heart. There is a rich body of research that shows facts are important for thinking and problem solving (as already illustrated). However, research also shows clearly that ‘useable knowledge’ is not the same as a mere list of facts. For example, people who are knowledgeable about veins and arteries know more than the facts already noted: they also understand why veins and arteries have particular properties. They know that blood pumped from the heart exits in spurts and that the elasticity of the arteries helps accommodate pressure changes. They know that blood form the heart needs to move upwards (towards the brain) as well as downwards and that the elasticity of an artery permits it to function as a one-way valve that closes at the end of each spurt and prevents blood from flowing backwards. Because they understand relationships between the structure and the function of veins and arteries, knowledgeable individuals are more likely to be able to use what they have learned to solve novel problems – to show evidence of transferring their knowledge to new and perhaps unfamiliar contexts and problems. For example, imagine being asked to design an artificial artery – would it have to be elastic? Why or why not? An understanding of the reasons for the properties of arteries suggests that elasticity may not be necessary – perhaps the problem can be solved by creating a conduit that is strong enough to handle the pressure of spurts from the heart and also function as a one-way valve. An understanding of veins and arteries does not guarantee an answer to such design questions, but it does support thinking about alternatives that are not readily available if one only memorises facts (Bransford and Stein, 1993).

Transferability of knowledge

A key finding in the transfer of knowledge to different contexts is the person’s ability to organise information into a conceptual framework in their mind. Having an understanding of concepts and being able to think in more abstract terms, allows people to transfer knowledge more quickly and easily to new situations. For example, the pupil who has learned geographical information for the Americas in a conceptual framework approaches the task of learning the geography of another part of the globe with questions, ideas and expectations that help guide acquisition of the new information. Understanding the geographical importance of the Thames river would set the stage for pupils developing an understanding of the geographical importance of the Nile. And as concepts are reinforced, pupils will transfer learning beyond the classroom, observing and inquiring, for example, about the geographical features of a visited city that help explain its location and size or appreciating the relevance of a river in the town where they live (Holyoak, 1984; Novick and Holyoak, 1991).

The idea of key concepts being important for the transferability of knowledge and long-term ‘usefulness’ of information has implications for the design of the curriculum. For example, imagine two classes both reading the novel ‘Goodnight Mr Tom’ by Michelle Magorian. The book tells the story of young Willie Beech, evacuated to the country as Britain stands on the brink of the Second World War. One class reads the book and carries out various comprehension and English related tasks, e.g. writing letters home, writing a diary of how the main character feels. The other class also considers the book themes, e.g. the displacement of people during war time, the concept of ‘family’, the concept of caring for others. The class that considers the wider themes, can start to explore learning beyond the example in the book – e.g. looking at current war situations and the difficulties people face when they have to flee dangerous situations, including leaving their home. It is easy to see how paying attention to the wider themes would help with the transfer of knowledge to understanding new situations.

In Ofsted presentations in 2019, they stressed the importance of concepts when designing the curriculum. They called the broader element ‘the composite’ and the elements that pupils would need to study to achieve the composite was referred to as ‘the components’. This framework would then help teachers to break down the overarching elements into a more finely tuned scheme of work. They gave the following example:

The driver they selected for the composite was painting a portrait, e.g. considering colour theory for skin tone, appreciating the difference in portraits produced in oil compared to pastels, learning how to use stippling to create a vivid eye. By considering what pupils need to be able to know and understand, as well as identifying the skills they will need to achieve an overarching composite, teachers should be able to build a unit of work that has depth, helps pupils hang their knowledge and understanding around ‘larger concepts’ thus aiding transferability of knowledge, and through the clear focus on concepts provide more opportunities for abstract thinking, again, leading to more transferability.

When subject knowledge is developed in too narrow a frame of reference it becomes ‘subject or even context bound’. An example of this can be seen in mathematics. Pupils in Year 5 and 6 were taught mathematical concepts of distance – rate – time in the context of solving a complex case involving planning a boat trip. The findings of the research study found that the pupils, who only learnt the mathematics concept in this one context, often failed to be able to flexibly transfer the knowledge and understanding to new situations. One way to counter this is to provide pupils with additional, similar cases; the goal is to help them abstract the general principles of distance – rate – time, so that eventually they can apply their knowledge and understanding independently to new and unfamiliar tasks. Another way to achieve similar outcomes is to engage in ‘what if’ questions after the initial problem has been solved. They might be asked to consider : ‘What if this part of the problem was changed?’ or ‘What if that part of the problem was changed?’.

Research suggests that how tightly the learning is tied to the context depends on how the knowledge is acquired to begin with. When a subject is taught across multiple contexts and focuses on understanding key concepts, it is more likely to be useful to the pupil in the long-term.

Other factors that influence the transferability of knowledge include:

The degree to which the original knowledge is known and understood. Three examples of this would be a) how well a pupil knows the times tables influences their ability to then use times tables knowledge confidently and quickly in a wide range of mathematical problems, b) the extent to which a pupil is familiar with the alphabet will influence their ability, confidence, speed and independence in writing simple words, c) the level of proficiency and confidence with individual phonic sounds will support a pupil’s ability to decode text in the books they read. The stronger the knowledge in the first place, the more likely transfer will be achieved to a new context.

The depth of understanding and time taken to study. Some curriculums end up a ‘mile wide and inch deep’ in that topics move on too quickly. Attempts to cover too many topics too quickly may hinder learning and subsequent transfer. A classic example of this is the teaching of grammar. Too often, by the time pupils reach Year 6, they have a vast toolkit of partially learnt techniques which they either apply ineffectively or not at all when writing independently. For example, a pupil is introduced to the use of similes, looks at a few examples and learns the sentence structure required to use one in their writing. However, as the learning moves on too quickly, the pupil is left in a situation where they make poor choices for the simile comparison, use too many, use similes at inappropriate times or don’t use the technique at all. If more time was devoted to the in-depth study of each element of grammar, more pupils would be able to transfer this into their own writing. Another example would be learning conjunctions and subordinating conjunctions in lower KS2. If this was done in depth with a focus on ‘mastery’, then Year 5 and 6 teachers would find pupils’ writing to be of far better quality. As it stands, too many Year 6 teachers are trying to re-teach key elements that should have been ‘mastered’ much earlier on. We are well aware of the pressures this then causes for both pupils and teachers in Year 6.

Deliberate practise – When working on tasks, pupils need feedback about their progress. This helps them to refine their understanding, address misconceptions and build stronger, more interconnected understanding. In addition, deliberate practise also includes the pupils themselves monitoring their own learning, considering their own level of understanding, assessing and evaluating their success both during the task and afterwards with a view to modifying their approach when trying again. This approach builds both knowledge and skills, but also, importantly, confidence. The level of confidence the pupil has will support them in transferring knowledge and skills to new contexts.

A spiral Curriculum - thinking about the 'what' and ensuring units of work build up to create a 'picture'

I think it becomes apparent that any school that places has a heavy focus on knowledge, needs to spend time mapping out the 'units' of the curriculum, taking time to consider 'what' is taught and 'when' it is taught. Which units are cognitively more demanding and therefore lend themselves to older year groups? What is the best sequencing of units to ensure core concepts and prior knowledge is correctly constructed? How do we ensure a comprehensive spiral is created? As Steven Covey would say ‘start with the end in mind’. What do you want pupils to know, understand and be able to do and what steps will they need to take to achieve this? Working backwards, where would the starting point be? Can we identify the key concepts that must be covered along the way?

Sometimes the curriculum is quite specific regarding what should be covered, e.g. Year 1 Science ‘identify and name a variety of common wild and garden plants, including deciduous and evergreen trees.’ There are still some choices on content, e.g. which flowers, plants and trees will the class focus on? Is there any prior knowledge pupils need to know? Schools also need to make choices on organisational issues, such as ‘When would be the best time of year to deliver this?’ and ‘How many lessons should we devote to this?’ The teacher then needs to choose their approach to delivery – the HOW.

Communication between year groups and utilising past documents (e.g. keeping hold of one set of exercise books from the prior year, teachers passing up to the next year group their annotated planning documents) is worthwhile.

Sometimes the curriculum defines the overarching element, but still requires a substantial amount of teacher knowledge and understanding of the topic to decide exactly what should be covered. For example, in history ‘The Roman Empire and its impact on Britain.’ The NC gives some ideas (but none of these are statutory). Julius Caesar’s attempted invasion in 55-54BC; the Roman Empire by AD42 and the power of its army; successful invasion by Claudius and conquest, including Hadrian’s Wall; British Resistance, e.g. Boudica; Romanisation of Britain, e.g. culture and beliefs, impact of technology. The teacher should perhaps ideally start a series of questions that relate to understanding the overarching composite. Why did countries want to expand? Why did the Romans want to conquer Britain? Over what time period did they invade? What was Britain like at the time? How successful were they in conquering Britain? What helped / hindered? Over 2000 years ago the Romans first came to Britain. How do we know this, e.g. archaeology, first hand experiences, print? What evidence is there of the Roman Empire on modern Britain? In these cases it is important that the teacher ‘starts with the end in mind’ and then considers what prior knowledge a pupil might need– e.g. geography, maps, Celts, tribes, warfare? When we consider these questions, we can immediate see why studying an element such as Boudica needs to set into a larger context (rather than in isolation) in order for the overarching composite.

Sometimes the curriculum is extremely general, and before the teacher can start to consider the ‘how’ they need to spend considerable time identifying the ‘what’, e.g. Key Stage 2 Geography – ‘describe and understand key aspects of rivers’. The National Curriculum does not specify which year group this should be delivered in, or how it might fit well with other aspects of geography and science. The teacher needs to have considerable knowledge and understanding of rivers to specify what will be covered. How much depth should there be? How much breadth? What specifically will children learn. They need to drill down to a granular level before they can start to consider the ‘how’.

A considerable amount of time and effort needs to be spent carefully mapping the ‘what’ as otherwise the medium-term plan will be like building a house without having a clear vision of what you want to achieve as a design.

A useful place to start is the Purpose of Study and Aims of the subject as set out in the National Curriculum. In addition, teachers should pay careful to the subject skills that pupils need to develop.

A thought to consider…

E.D.Hirsch in his book ‘Why Knowledge Matters’ states:
‘If one had to choose a single measure of the academic quality of a school system, the average reading score of its graduating seventeen year-olds would serve.’

Further research and study

Obviously, knowledge is just one part of curriculum design - to find out more about this and other aspects of the curriculum:

Attend our curriculum training days - further study and workshop style sessions

Consider in-school support by contacting

Ofsted curriculum conference video clips (in 7 parts!)

Ofsted research report (report 3 is interesting) At the end of this document there are numerous research references that you can read.

If you are a member of the Chartered Institute of Teaching you can access a wide range of educational research including many of those quoted in the Ofsted research report.

Chartered College Blog 'What is a knowledge-rich curriculum?' with links to other blogs.

'Why knowledge matters' by E.D.Hirsch

Young et al., Knowledge and the Future School link Michael Young has written several research papers and books on the subject of curriculum.

Why Curriculum Matters - Tim Oates presentation to Research ED 2016 (There are several Tim Oates video clips on YouTube and opportunities to listen to E.D.Hirsch).

Continuing the conversation in school

The following might be useful discussion points for SLT or a staff meeting:

· To what extent would teachers and leaders in your school say ‘knowledge’ acquisition is important?

· How would teachers and leaders in your school define ‘knowledge’?

· How aware are teachers (and leaders) of the ‘purpose of study and the aims’ of each subject in the National Curriculum.

· How aware are teachers of statements in the National Curriculum such as: ‘Instilling a love of cooking in pupils will also open a door to one of the great expressions of human creativity.’ ; ‘Reading also feeds pupils’ imagination and opens up a treasure-house of wonder and joy for curious young minds.’ ; ‘an appreciation of the beauty and power of mathematics’?

· To what extent does the current school curriculum match the ‘purpose of study and the aims’ of each subject?

· When considering the development of knowledge in different subject areas, which subjects would teachers and leaders say were the strongest in the school?

· For individual year groups, what ‘knowledge’ is developed? In which subjects / topic areas is knowledge acquisition the strongest?

· To what extent does the phrase ‘a mile wide and an inch deep’ relate / not relate to your current curriculum offering? Where is breadth achieved? Where is depth achieved? Can you give examples of when ‘deep’ learning has occurred in the year group and what helped to achieve this depth?

· What resources do teachers have available to support their own subject knowledge acquisition and how does this help them with medium term planning?

· How well developed is whole class ‘non-fiction’ reading?

· To what extent do pupils build background knowledge in order to allow them to access challenging whole class fiction texts?

· To what extent could teachers discuss the most valuable ways of building pupils’ vocabulary and where would the study of foundation subjects fit into this discussion?

· How is skill development interwoven into subjects and how do you know that skills building is progressive?

· To what extent does ‘metacognition’ flow through the very fabric of every lesson?


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