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Too Much Knowledge, Too Soon, Might That Keep The Poor in Poverty Too?

What might happen if we become obsessed with knowledge for its own sake?

Readers are touchingly loyal to the first history they learn — and if you challenge it, it’s as if you are taking away their childhoods. For a person who seeks safety and authority, history is the wrong place to look.

So spoke Hilary Mantel. It was the first of her fascinating Reith Lectures, and though she was talking about the problems a historical novelist faces when ‘fill[ing] the gaps’ of history, I’ll bet any teacher who’s toiled to unpick a pupil’s misconception can relate. People cling to what they (think they) know.*

Unlike historical novelists, teachers, when we plan, are not overly concerned if our pupils will question whether what we teach is correct. Unless we ask them to identify a falsehood, credibility should be a given. Instead, we have other considerations, such as: when is the best time to teach this piece of knowledge? What prior knowledge do pupils require? In how much depth should I teach the topic? Why are we teaching this at all?

These questions are critical, if you believe a curriculum should be knowledge-based, as I do. And asking these questions is not only critical if we are to provide pupils with a coherent curriculum, but also because, as I demonstrate below, if they are not asked then knowledge-based curricula risk becoming the next 21c skills. That would be a travesty for the poorest children of this country, who are disproportionately likely to be taught problem solving and teamwork in place of reading, writing, and history.

To illustrate the point, I read a series of tweets recently, in which a number of people got excited about the idea of teaching philosophy at KS3. There was even some talk about designing a KS3 scheme of work. To me, with the above questions in my mind, this seemed absurd. Mostly because philosophy is hard, and at times impenetrable, sometimes maddeningly so.

On the flip side, it can be wonderful, enlightening, and highly satisfying, but many intelligent and well-educated people find it doesn’t come easily. To see this in action, check out this course—called ‘Philosophy For Beginners’—delivered by Oxford University’s Marrianne Talbot and made available for free online. The course is pitched below undergraduate level, at lay members of the public who simply wish to know something about the subject. Still, witness how quickly a group of educated adults begin to struggle with the content and concepts, and how quickly some become frustrated. To a large extent, this is woven into the stitches of philosophy, and seeing a group of well-educated adults struggle with an introductory course does lead one to wonder whether KS3 pupils are really ready for the subject.

Now, I’m no philosopher myself, and have only a passing interest, but it seems to me that, of all the academic disciplines, philosophy is the one that most thrives on complexity. A great deal of the time, philosophy isn’t about finding answers but about posing questions, and often those questions call into doubt the very nature of things we take for granted. A philosopher might ask: What is truth? Does reality exist? Why, exactly, is there anything at all? Does space come to an end? How do I even think about a question like that? Are things infinitely divisible? Et cetera.

Stop for a moment and consider the questions above. Ask yourself whether a twelve-year-old possesses the knowledge required to attempt coherent answers. The answer is surely not. It follows, therefore, that in place of coherent answers will be incoherent answers, and incoherent answers are unlikely to be an effective method of gaining the knowledge required to get to coherent answers. There is much more to be gained by teaching twelve-year-olds the fundamentals of literature and history, of science and maths. Calling into question those fundamentals before they are understood will facilitate misjudgement and confusion amongst pupils.

Ah, you might retort, but a good teacher would make the content accessible to the pupils. Perhaps. Actually, I have no doubt that KS3 pupils would pick up a superficially profound idea or two from a course of philosophy. But what else would they pick up? To paraphrase Mantel, would not the first philosophy they learn just leave pupils with a gross oversimplification of philosophical ideas, which later teachers or lecturers must unpick with great difficulty, since they have been embedded and re-embedded over a number of years? I can see aesthetics being reduced to what something looks like rather than a complicated investigation upon the nature of beauty of itself. And if you’re not dealing with its complexity, if you’re not ‘thinking like a philosopher’, or at the very least trying to understand a philosopher’s ideas, are you studying philosophy at all? (This is all getting very meta and, er, philosophical.)

So if KS3 isn’t the right time to teach philosophy, when is? KS5. Personally, I would like philosophy, or an introduction to the history of philosophy, to be mandatory for anyone taking A-Levels, because it is so foundational to so many degree-level courses. And even for those subjects where it is less obviously useful (nursing, perhaps?), the ability to think through an argument or idea, formal logic, is useful. You might argue that developing free-thinking pupils who are able to question the world is precisely the aim of a knowledge-based curriculum, and that philosophy is therefore exactly the kind of knowledge we should teach our pupils, and I’d agree with your aim. But I’d argue that prior to KS5, the best way to develop pupils’ thinking is to through literature, history, and maths, your traditional subjects, because the questions these subjects raise feel concrete: In what way has Dickens presented Nancy? Why has he done this? What is he trying to illustrate? How has he achieved this? A good teacher will guide pupils through logical lines of enquiry that lead to valid conclusions. On the other hand, a philosophical question, such as ‘What is the nature of beauty?’ feels significantly more abstracted. Not only is it an abstract question, but a deep understanding of literature, art, and music will make it far easier to think upon the nature of beauty. As has been said numerous times, and by people wiser than I, people cannot think about a subject until they have a well-developed knowledge of that subject.

To be clear, pupils simply aren’t equipped to think about philosophical problems at KS3, because they don’t possess the foundational knowledge that allows them to think about the subject in a meaningful manner. Before pupils consider Aristotle, they should, for example, have a firm understanding of Greek history, of the Trojan war and the Peloponnesian War, of the Iliad, the Odyssey and the myths. This way, when they are ready to study ancient Greek philosophy, pupils will already understand the historical circumstances out of which a set of complex philosophical ideas emerged, and thus be on the road to understanding why. With a bit of luck, and armed with this knowledge, some A-Level pupils might even begin to make reasoned assessments about the validity of the philosophical arguments. Yet even with all this, others won’t. And that’s ok, like I said earlier, philosophy is hard.

As I’ve mentioned, there is a broader point to all this: to teach a subject like philosophy at KS3 is to allow the knowledge-tail to wag the knowledge-dog; it is to make the same mistakes as those who argue for a 21c-skills curriculum — conflating ends and means. To study philosophy too early, before pupils are able even to think about the subject it is being applied to (politics, say), will lead to exactly the same place as does teaching problem-solving: no man’s land. Worse, and somewhat ironically, the opportunity cost of teaching philosophy is that it would decrease the time available for pupils to study the very subjects that would develop the broad knowledge-base that is required to think philosophically about those subjects. Paradoxically, teaching philosophy before pupils are ready will actually leave them less-able to think philosophically.

This is so important, because the folly of your own ideas is always seductive. Presumably, this is why some proponents of discovery learning are so loathe to give it up, in spite of evidence against it, and even manage to ascribe a peculiar logic to it all, claiming pupils remember more of the things they discover for themselves. Ok, but if that’s true, it makes things worse not better, because, since the problem is that they don’t discover very much, and most of what they do discover is wrong, what they end up with is a few misconceptions that are very well embedded.

Like discovery learning, the prospect of corridors filled with mini-Aristotles is seductive. But to teach philosophy at KS3 would involve a huge amount of curriculum time and most children would end up confused regardless. And where would proponents of knowledge turn then? Well, I can envision a scenario whereby well-intentioned but misguided teachers point out that since pupils don’t possess enough knowledge to ‘think philosophically’ about Marx, we must teach them some politics and economics. Given that curriculum time is already at a premium, before you know it pupils will be doing economics in maths and politics in English. Because politicians give lots of speeches, right? Attempting to turn our KS3 pupils into PPE undergrads will not be a good look.

It is imperative to avoid mistakes like this with knowledge. Attitudes are a-changin’, but it’s hardly universal, and such madness would leave knowledge once again open to attack and political whim. Having high expectations and recognising the benefits of knowledge doesn’t overrule the need for a carefully designed curriculum with information organised into a logical sequence. A knowledge curriculum is far better than skills curriculum, but it won’t make wine out of water; you can still design a knowledge curriculum poorly, and you can still teach the wrong stuff in the wrong order at the wrong time. They are also not without limitation, for with so much knowledge available, we can only skim the skin of the cream. The question isn’t so much ‘What to teach?’ but ‘What not to teach?’ and decisions about what to include and exclude require careful thought.

So, here’s my point: if we don’t discriminate between knowledge, and if we don’t recognise that some knowledge is ill-suited until children reach a particular stage of development, then we’ll end up with a self-parodying curriculum that undermines itself. As such, those of us who recognise the essential role of knowledge in learning must not abandon common sense. Instead, we must recognise there are limitations, as well as legitimate debates and criticisms, to all curricula, including those based around the transmission of knowledge; we must acknowledge those limitations, engage with them, attempt to overcome them, but not ignore them.

At KS3 in particular, but also at KS4 and to some extent KS5 as well, the curriculum should build foundational knowledge so pupils can think through complex topics, such as philosophy, in later life. If KS3 simply becomes a time when we try to teach pupils everything, or when we just teach pupils anything, so long as they know lots of stuff, then knowledge-based education will become a caricature of itself; it will aim to teach everything but leave pupils with nothing. And if that happens, who knows where the pendulum of education will swing to next?


* Incidentally, for anyone who loves language, Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lectures are an absolute goldmine:

  • “History is what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have passed through.”
  • “There are wars fought in footnotes.”
  • “Myth is not a falsehood — it is fact, cast into symbol and metaphor.”
  • “Dead strangers did not live and die so we could draw lessons from them.”
  • “Time is not an arrow pointing; it is a candle burning.”


Many thanks to Stuart Lock, who provided feedback and helped to clarify my thoughts.


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