Knowledge is Power

When I began blogging in 2013, the argument that knowledge should be at the heart of the curriculum was readily rejected. The most common counter-argument was that rote learning of lists of facts was a waste of time as it would not lead to ‘deep learning’ (whatever that means) or understanding. Since that time, the debate seems to have shifted somewhat. Fewer people now argue that knowledge is irrelevant. Instead, critics argue that knowledge is just the beginning, or that we should somehow teach knowledge and skills simultaneously, or that a distinction between knowledge and skills is a false dichotomy (yawn).

I’ve always been a firm believer in the power of knowledge. It’s one of the reasons I joined Michaela– where our motto is ‘Knowledge is Power’. Although I’ve always believed that a knowledge- rich curriculum could lead to great things, I had never seen it in action until I came to work at this school. Over the past year, I have come to see the impact that knowledge can have on a child’s ability to make interesting connections and links, and to analyse and evaluate ideas. At Michaela, all our children are expected to learn lists of facts by rote. This is still very unusual and there are many out there who criticise us for it.

But time and time again, I have seen the value of learning such lists of facts. Not only do pupils genuinely enjoy knowing loads of stuff, this rote learning has proved to be incredibly useful when they come across new knowledge. They are able to make connections and inferences that someone who lacks such knowledge would simply not be able to make.

Here is one of my favourite examples of this:

I was reading through a biography of Percy Shelley with ‘Poseidon’- one of my year 7 classes and my tutor group. Many of the pupils in this class have reading ages far below their chronological age. More than half the class have Special Educational Needs.

On this particular occasion, we were preparing to study Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’. In the biography, we came across this piece of information:

Shelley began writing his poem in 1817, soon after the announcement that the British Museum was to acquire a large fragment of a 13BC statue of Rameses II from Egypt.”

I explained that Rameses II was a powerful Egyptian Pharaoh.

Within seconds, a forest of hands shot up. Slightly baffled, I asked one of the pupils to tell me what was wrong.

“Miss, how could Rameses II be a Pharaoh in 13BC when Egyptian civilisation ended in 31BC? Miss, that doesn’t make sense.”

I was stumped and couldn’t answer for this. It later transpired that there had been a typo in the printed version of the biography. Instead of 13BC, the date should have said 1213BC. Because I lacked knowledge of the date of the end of Egyptian civilisation (which the pupils had learned in Mr Porter’s History lesson), I would never have been able to spot the mistake. In fact, I would have had a completely incorrect understanding of Rameses II and the statue, which was over a thousand years older than I had believed it was.

In this instance, a lack of relevant knowledge rendered me incapable of grasping an accurate understanding of the facts. I consider myself to be a relatively good ‘critical thinker’ (although I’m sure many readers may disagree!), but my ability to think critically was useless in this instance because of the gaps in my knowledge. My pupils, by contrast, had been empowered by their knowledge. Consequently, they were in a far stronger position to critically analyse the text they had been given than I was.

Rote learning is perceived to be a dull, mindless activity that leads to little other than parrot-like recall, but this simply is not the case. On the contrary, mastering lists of important dates is essential for critical thinking to take place.

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10 thoughts on “Knowledge is Power

  1. Superb. I’ll always stand corrected if pupils raise similar points. We need to value their knowledge acquisition potential as equal to ours. Love this open acknowledgement of learning from one lesson working in another, as well. @Lisa7Pettifer

  2. Interesting (and plaudits to the pupils!) but doesn’t this also show the risks inherent in treating knowledge as lists of simple facts? It’s not very helpful to think of ‘Egyptian civilisation’ ending in a particular year. Also, the error in the printed document was that it should have said, no doubt, ’13thC BC’, not that the statue was made in the year 1213 BC. (The British Museum dates it to ‘around 1250 BC’.) Knowing that civilisations do not ‘end’ overnight is important, just as it is important to know, even in primary school, that dating ancient artefacts is usually imprecise,.

  3. Hi Katie – as you can imagine, I’ve very supportive of pupils learning dates for exactly the kind of reasons that you describe here. This particular example did however make me think a little about the choices we have to make in terms of teaching pupils something that that might well be understood to be incorrect.

    Did Egyptian civilisation end in 31BC? Well, if we are happy with the idea that a civilisation can ‘fall’ in a year, then this might be a candidate (though more often it’s quoted as 30BC), which is when Egypt became a province of Rome. But one might equally say that Egyptian civilisation ended when it fell to the Persians and then the Greeks in the 4th century BC. Or indeed one might argue that the Ancient Egyptian civilisation well into the first millennium A.D. Or one might argue that Egyptian civilisations (plural) had risen and fallen on numerous occasions. There’s a good summary here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians/egypt_end_01.shtml

    So here’s my question – to what extent are we happy to teach children something that might well be understood to be (a) very simplistic or (b) actually just wrong?

    There are very good examples of where we might do this, and I like using teaching the structure of the atom as a case. I think most children in school are taught that the atom is structured a little like the solar system, with electrons as particles orbiting the nucleus. But (as I understand it with my AS-Level in Chemistry!) this is not a model that any modern chemist or physicist would say is correct: it is really just a simplification used to help younger children understand something very complex and which (if they progress far enough) will later be untaught and retaught.

    I wonder if this is the same with dating the start and end of eras – I personally avoid it (at the very least I make liberal use of ‘circa’) but can see the value in giving children a clear framework. In the case you cite here, it works very well as Ramses II was Pharaoh long before any possible date might be given for the ‘collapse’ of Egyptian civilisation. But you could imagine a similar situation where children say “how can Ptolemy I have been a Greek when the Egyptian Civilisation fell in 31BC?”.

    Just some thoughts – would be interested to hear what line Michaela is taking on this, because it’s one potential challenge that could be thrown at schools advancing a knowledge-rich agenda, and it’s one we need to be able to defend ourselves against.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment, Michael. Interestingly, you have a far more detailed knowledge of the possible ‘end’ of the Egyptian civilisation than I do. Again, this means that you are in a far better position to challenge this anecdote than I am. I’d say that we need to teach children a broad framework with (admittedly approximate) dates early on in their historical education, as this is what underpins the kind of critical analysis that can happen later, once that framework is firmly in place. I think the framework and a broad chronology is so vital that I’d be willing to make certain calls on historical dates. Jonny Porter has gone with the dates that most historians broadly agree on. Yes, they may be quibbled, but our kids need to know something to get them started. We can, of course, tell them that these dates are approximate, and perhaps when they study particular civilisations in greater depth they can explore these historical claims in more detail.
      As for your example of the way atomic structure is taught, I couldn’t agree more. Olivia Dyer (our Head of Science) takes great care to teach children the the correct structures of cells, atoms, etc. when she first introduces them in order to avoid any later confusion or the need to- as you put it- unteach and reteach.
      I think this is slightly different in history (although I’m not a historian, so I’m happy to be wrong). As I’ve said above, my instincts are that the framework is vital for understanding the broad narrative of history. It wouldn’t necessarily need to be untaught and retaught, but rather, it would be built upon in later years when pupils look at particular periods/civilisations in more depth.

      • I don’t think there is a problem teaching and re-teaching the structure of the atom. Science works with models, and these are constantly evolving. It is important that students are exposed to that. A simpler model suffices under certain conditions, and a more accurate model is required on other occasions. All Science is like that. Scientists have to be prepared to challenge their own thinking all the time.

  4. A nice moment of student empowerment, but I’m not sure ‘critically analysing’ that text as a piece of literature is dependent or even affected by that knowledge… I’m happy to be wrong if I’m missing something.

  5. I have just returned from Bangladesh, where in many government schools the ‘learning’ consists largely of memorising the government-published textbook. In other countries, too, for reasons to do with inappropriate learning content (above the learners’ level) and general classroom conditions, this is what learning often amounts to. This is my main concern with promoting an idea that knowledge = memorising = power. Yes, there is a power in such contexts, because the exam system tests learners’ powers of recall (of the textbook). But this is not what we could generally call learning.

  6. Pingback: In Defense of Facts « The Core Knowledge Blog

  7. I discovered your blog sort of randomly: I am a French teacher (I teach French in France, to make it clear) and I am interested all issues in education, including in other countries. I a slowly reading through your blog but this article really caught my attention: this same opposition between knowledge and skills is warmly debated in France at the moment and your experience is really enlightening and inspiring. I reblogged your article: I hope you don’t mind, but feel free to tell me if it is so, and I would delete it.

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