Powerful Knowledge and the Curriculum

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A few years ago, Michael Young (and others) introduced the notion of powerful knowledge. This they argued, is something that ...

"can enable students to acquire knowledge that takes them beyond their own experiences” (Young et al., 2014, p. 7).

In a 2018 article, Burns wrote this:

“Powerful knowledge can ‘enable students to acquire knowledge that takes them beyond their own experiences’ (Young et al., 2014, p. 7).  This is particularly important in disadvantaged contexts in relation to the promotion of social justice.  In Young et al.’s (2014) view, it is the educational right of the child to receive a comprehensive education committed to academic excellence – regardless of background or social standing.  Knowledge-led curricula attempt to provide young people with a school experience that enables them to be socially mobile, for this is at the core of what social justice is: enabling all people, regardless of socio-economic background, to be provided with the opportunities to succeed in life.

Powerful knowledge’ should not be simply equated with the curricula of traditional public schools. The sorts of knowledge that Young et al. (2014) advocate might include aspects of ‘the canon’ – but they may also include knowledge that meets the criteria above, taking students beyond their everyday experiences.”

I heard Young argue these points in August 2011 at a Keele conference on the curriculum.  These are part of my blog notes at the time:

"[in] a scholarly reflection on the idea of the school subject, and its importance from the point of view of equality, Young argued that, although in a society such as ours, any curriculum is likely to be inequitable because of the nature of society, a curriculum based on concepts (ie, subjects), can be seen as a carrier of equality as such a curriculum can treat everyone equally, unlike, say, a labour market.  In Young’s view subjects are the only basis we have as a curriculum for all."

He went on to say:

“… that the forthcoming Gove curriculum is likely to be too dismissive of skills because it is, in part, a reaction to the last curriculum review (new labour: 2008) which was dismissive of subjects and the formal conceptual knowledge they embody, and based too strongly on learner experience and knowledge which was seen as important as any other.  This was, said Young, more an instrument of politics, than of education.  Young stressed that a curriculum has to be about concepts that allow students to abstract from their own experience and personal knowledge and understandings, and argued that a curriculum that only emphasises experience and relevance lets down those who lack access to other knowledge at home; after all, he said, no one goes to schools to learn what they already know.  Young said that, whilst all knowledge is socially constructed, its truth is not dependent on its origins, and his view is that knowledge is best experienced through disciplines with boundary crossings (good teachers know how to do this).  Whilst the curriculum is not a given, and is open to change, an effective curriculum protects schools from passing and powerful social forces.  He reminded us that the subject-based curriculum was an enlightenment project.”

If you have a tes subscription you can hear Young argue around these points in a 2022 podcast.  Lots of people have spent a lot of time thinking and writing about powerful knowledge as a quick internet trawl will show, but it is still fashionable in some (usually well-educated) circles to decry and downplay the role of knowledge in the curriculum.

Whilst in England this debate continues, particularly across political party lines, in Scotland it appeared to be settled with the introduction of Curriculum for Excellence, where the importance of knowledge was relegated to a poor second place trailing forelonely behind experience.  However, there is considerable dissatisfaction with the experience of this curriculum experiment where ‘excellence’ is not always the way it is described.  And it looks as if the Welsh government, in its new curriculum venture, has also decided to run headlong down this cul-de-sac, having invited the bloke who designed curriculum for excellence to spearhead it.

There is, of course, always a balance to be struck in any curriculum between knowledge / understanding, and a range of other factors, including skills, values and attributes, and also the social context in which the curriculum is experienced.  In our time, this social context includes all the environmental issues we face, all of which are entangled in an economic matrix and our shared international condition.

As such it seems self-evident to me that there is powerful knowledge – I think I prefer the phrase powerful understanding – that all learners need to be exposed to.  A basic starting point would be the need to understand what climate is, why climate change is taking place, and the evience that it is both real and anthropogenic.  A more advanced aim would be to understand the difficulty of socio-ecomomic change and the contrasting political and economic perspectives about what now needs to be done.  NB, this sentence could and should also be rewritten to focus on our self-inflicted ecological problems.

My core point is this: if all young people are to be prepared to have a role in society’s deliberations on these issues, as many say they want to be, it would be better for them to have requisite understanding of the issues rather than relying entirely on other people’s rhetoric and emotion and political aims.


Young M, Lambert D, Roberts C, et al. (2014) Knowledge  and  the  Future  School:  Curriculum  and  Social  Justice. London: Bloomsbury

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  • Kudos on a fascinating look at this 'powerful knowledge.' We have many medical doctors who know a lot about medicine and diagnoses, but do not really understand the underlying mechanisms. They rely on accepted 'expert' interpretations about these necessary understandings. Similarly, our educational systems (globally) are predicated on the same model - teach and test for knowledge and rarely for individual thinking and interpretation.