In this post and the next two, I want to explore several threads that came to mind whilst I was listening to the BBC Radio 4 Documentary “Publish or Burn” about Mein Kampf and the imminent end of the copyright limitations. This first post will explore the nature of knowledge, and I intend on giving my thoughts on what this is and what it might look like for teaching.
The second concerns the importance of knowledge and why I think it is vital that students are clearly and explicitly taught subject knowledge. The books of Daniel Willingham and Daisy Christodoulou, and the blogs of Andrew Old, Harry Webb and others have inspired much of this post. The third post will focus on why it should be subject specialists that deliver knowledge.
What I want to lay out in this first post is my understanding of knowledge in order to create the groundwork for my next post.
In every subject area that a student is taught over their time at school, there is a core area of ‘facts’ (the knowledge of ‘what’) and a core area of skills (the knowledge of ‘how’) relevant to that discipline. I’m going to focus on the ‘what’ rather than the ‘how’, as the ‘how’ is an entire series of blog posts in its own right. The ‘facts’ are the accumulated knowledge and understanding arrived at by the experts in the different disciplines over years and years of refinement. We might refer to the different subject areas or disciplines as territories[i], the knowledge that is well established within the territory is clearly laid out and well defined, of course parts of it may change (like a city block being re-built or a bit of land cleared) – knowledge develops and so will the map. Knowledge that is yet to be fully developed or ‘proven’ is less well defined, it could be at the extremes of the map, we can see the shape but it hasn’t fully resolved yet.
The Knowledge of ‘what’, contained in a territory although unique to that territory, doesn’t exclude the idea of overlap: subject areas constantly utilise knowledge gained from other areas and incorporate it in their own territory. Experts in the different territories are able to see these overlaps and use them to develop their understanding; they can transfer between territories to a certain extent. However, students don’t have this knowledge of the territory at the start – how can they? – they must thoroughly understanding the territory before they identify any overlaps – this is why transfer is so hard to achieve. They also need to understand what constitutes knowledge in each territory, and this is where the teacher is important.
If we stretch the analogy a little further, we might consider the teacher as the guide, the one with a map (how we share the map with the students would then represent the pedagogy we deploy). The teacher is the one that is leading the students through the territory and helping them understand more and more of it as they go. (This is directly relevant to my third post – so will be covered there)
In all subjects, the map the teacher possesses – their subject knowledge – should cover most of the territory, it might be more complete in some areas than others but it will be fairly complete. What the teacher chooses to share of this map, or has to due to curriculum, might well vary from country to country or culture to culture. For me this raises two questions: firstly, is some knowledge universal, should all maps cover it? Secondly, how important is it to know about the territory, or, why is knowledge important? This second question is a massive subject and I try to address some of the points in my second post.
Is some knowledge universal? Returning to the inspiration for this post – the re-publication of Main Kampf – the question becomes, should all students, no matter their culture or location, learn about Hitler, the Nazis and the Holocaust?
Depending on whether we consider the knowledge in a territory as serving some purpose, (making students better people, creating a better society or avoiding past mistakes), or simply for the sake of knowing about the territory then the idea of whether there is any ‘universal knowledge’ changes. If the purpose of knowing about the holocaust is ‘bigger’ than simply knowing about the holocaust, and it is designed to serve some purpose, then history is replete – unfortunately – with examples from countries and cultures all around the world that could be used instead. This is not to diminish the importance of the holocaust at all, it is to point out whether we should advocate for one particular area being incorporated on all maps in the same detail and neglecting other areas. Should India and China spend vast amounts of their history curriculum covering the holocaust when they have many other examples they could draw from? This is not the same as denying the Holocaust for instance it is about using appropriate examples from your country’s own map of the territory.
I wasn’t quite sure where to put this but a couple of days ago a colleague sent me the article, “How India and China explain the Holocaust to school kids”, it raises interesting questions about the idea of what knowledge should be taught, (what areas of the territory are covered). It is tragic when an event as cataclysmic as the holocaust is ignored or downplayed and I understand the argument being made by the writer. However, a point could also be made that the history of colonial India and the rape of Nanking should also be on everyone else’s map. It should not be an ‘either or’ decision but the territories are massive and each student only has a limited time in them at school.
[i] The idea of disciplines as territories was introduced first (I think) in the IB Theory of Knowledge course – I have expanded on the idea in this post.