Does core knowledge point to less knowledge and not more?

So what is core knowledge? This explanation is from the Core Knowledge Foundation Web Site:

The idea behind Core Knowledge is simple and powerful: knowledge builds on knowledge. The more you know, the more you are able to learn. This insight, well established by cognitive science, has profound implications for teaching and learning. Nearly all of our most important goals for education–greater reading comprehension, the ability to think critically and solve problems, even higher test scores–are a function of the depth and breadth of our knowledge.

(Core Knowledge Foundation, 2014)

Of course, that presumes that an education system is about learning “stuff”, as opposed to learning about how to learn “stuff”. Although Core Knowledge looks like it may well contribute to skills (application and enactment of knowledge) I question whether it actually does so. Do not get me wrong, I think there are some powerful ideas here but it seems to me that its proponents argue its cause based on three false premises outlined below:

  1. The argument from the perspective of cultural capital

This seems to stem from the belief that knowledge has some intrinsic value as a “thing in itself” distinct from its social purpose, described wrongly in my view as cultural capital. In other words, the middle classes have some body of knowledge that is intrinsically valuable, whether it is Dickens, Shakespeare, or whoever.

Cultural capital is essentially the value placed on certain types of knowledge or representations of knowledge by society. This does not mean that knowledge as a “thing in itself” is valuable (though it sometimes is), quite the opposite; a degree confers the holder of the degree with cultural capital it does not necessarily mean that the knowledge the degree holder has acquired earning the degree is worth knowing. Attempting to identify core knowledge is in my view simply not possible in a rapidly globalising world.

David Didau on his excellent blog, The Learning Spy seems to argue from this perspective:

“For me, the point about cultural capital is that it isn’t subjective, or at least, not very subjective. It’s based on the body of knowledge which collectively and over time we, as a culture, have decided is worthwhile” Learning spy (16th of December 2013).

Is it possible knowledge has cultural capital because it is somehow intrinsically more worthwhile than other knowledge? That is clearly not the case. As Bourdieu argued, cultural capital is a means of symbolic exchange. In other words, it is a commodity, its value is defined by its worth to those that know it, not in its inherent wisdom. A Masonic handshake may have cultural capital but it has no essential meaning to those who are not Masons.

2. The argument from the perspective of cultural literacy

Cultural literacy is, at its most basic, the ability of individuals to engage with the discourse of society. In his research, Ed Hirsh quoted experiments, which provided evidence that Indians were better at interpreting information about Indian weddings and Americans about American weddings simply because cultural familiarity helps an individual interpret the text. Who would disagree?

The problem starts when you have to decide what aspects of culture you find important. Famously in Hirsch’s case, it was knowledge of Ulysses S Grant and Robert Lee. This is no doubt purposeful knowledge in “middle America”, but of little interest to much of the rest of the world.

Of course, Hirsch acknowledges this point. He seemed to suggest that actually core knowledge really means core concepts. In other words, you don’t need to know much about Dickens, just enough to understand what Dickens means from a cultural context; so most people probably need to know little more than; 18th century, poverty and Oliver Twist. The reality is that cultural representations may just be little more than social constructions there are any numerous examples of historical characters building a reputation for things that it is unlikely they ever said.

3. The argument from the perspective of cognition

This really relates to the work of Daniel T Willingham. Of course, if you know “stuff” when you read it, it will be easier to read. If you have pre-existing cultural conceptualisations, it will help working memory, If you can associate new material with old then even better. Again, who would want to argue with that?

However even if you accept all these premises, the argument still exists that you need to create a brain that reflects the reality of existence rather than try to pretend that existence reflects the reality of a school curriculum. The world is not constructed from core knowledge (although plenty of cultures and religions have tried to impose it throughout the years); individuals have to acquire the skills to manage knowledge in all its complexity. Stripping out the complexity does not lead to better learning it just makes it easier.

It seems to me that we are back to the skill of conceptualising again, or “chunking” as Willingham calls it. The skill implicit to the core knowledge agenda is the ability to conceptualise random fragments of information into cohesive constructs in working memory. Knowledge itself is too costly, too unwieldy and there is far too much of it to use in any meaningful way, cognitively speaking; so the argument seems to go, let us just reduce the amount of knowledge that we think is important.

I doubt individuals need a lot of knowledge to think critically or with any complexity. It is easier, of course, to do so, but let us not conflate expertise with complex thinking skills. You can be an expert on a subject but the reality is that even the most expert will bring their great intellects to bear on “stuff” they know nothing about. I doubt they become stupid or less able to read just because of a lack of knowledge in a particular area. They may have to do a little work but so be it, they will still be great thinkers.

I think the agenda stems from three fundamental policy perspectives:

1. It looks as though it works

Politicians and policymakers do not like complexity. It does not make vote-winning policies. If you limit the curriculum and test people on it then I think it will flatten achievement, it may even facilitate a closing of the social gap and give more quantifiable data, but is it really learning?

2. It is new and anyway I blame the progressives

Politicians and Policymakers want to avoid culpability for their decisions, “its teachers “wot” done it, they don’t teach properly”. Here is a new way, “let us all learn Charles Dickens-like wot I did”.

3. It’s proper science (sniff)

Politicians and policymakers like positivist research because it delivers, uncomplicated replicable and therefore implementable (from a policy perspective) results. Often though it’s reductive and the implications for practice are generalised from a very narrow research perspective.  The question of whether it delivers anything meaningful in the complex world of the classroom is another matter.

The purpose of core knowledge

I think the argument that if you know the cultural concepts that underpin text makes it easier to read is indisputable. The science backs up the view but in reality, I wonder whether “spoon feeding” knowledge to learners so that it makes understanding and passing exams easier, is just a sophisticated form of dumbing down. The real world is not like that; sifting through lots of information and conceptualising that information into useable chunks are key skills in the 21st century and certainly ones that no generation has ever had to face before.

Daisy Christodoulou (again another interesting blogger) may:

…..fail to see what is so uniquely 21st century about them. Mycenaean Greek craftsmen had to work with others, adapt and innovate. It is quite patronising to suggest that no-one before the year 2000 ever needed to think critically, solve problems, communicate, collaborate, create, innovate or read

I think most people would recognise that the amount of information available in the 21st century far outweighs that available to Mycenaean Greek craftsmen. No doubt they did have to think critically, solve problems, communicate, collaborate, create, innovate or read but that’s not really the point. Of course, if we could replicate Mycenaean Greek society then I would agree but we can’t and whilst you can offer a reduced curriculum in schools, is the point of education replicating Mycenaean Greek society?

We may as a profession struggle to teach transferable skills but that does not mean we should abandon the project and embrace yet another form of “dumbing down”; rather we should embrace complexity and re-double our efforts to teach cognitive skills.

I think the science behind core knowledge is purposeful but my conclusion is that it points to less knowledge and not more.Perhaps the reason we fail to teach skills adequately is that educational institutions are still teaching too much knowledge and not paying enough attention to the relationship between skills and knowledge.

Hirsch asks himself this question: “How much do I really need to know about DNA in order to comprehend a newspaper text directed to the common reader”.

The answer he gives: “Not much”.



4 thoughts on “Does core knowledge point to less knowledge and not more?

  1. I think you have started with the very assumptions that Core Knowledge challenges, and this has left you unable to actually process the arguments. Of course, if there were such things as teachable thinking skills which were independent of knowledge, and we were in a society in which what we know was in constant flux without any clear advantage to knowing particular knowledge, then some of the arguments mentioned here for giving priority to knowledge wouldn’t make sense. But both those assumptions are false.

    Also, circumstantial ad hominems are not valid arguments, try skipping them next time.

    1. “Of course, if there were such things as teachable thinking skills which were independent of knowledge, and we were in a society in which what we know was in constant flux without any clear advantage to knowing particular knowledge, then some of the arguments mentioned here for giving priority to knowledge wouldn’t make sense. But both those assumptions are false.”

      Thanks for the response:

      I think I’ve dealt with both your points:

      Firstly it is true that thinking skills cannot be taught independently of knowledge however that is not the same as suggesting that “thinking skills” are domain specific or that there is a requisite amount of knowledge that needs to be taught. Both of which I think are crucial to the core knowledge agenda. Nor does it necessarily mean that knowledge should have priority.

      I think Core Knowledge conflates expertise with skills and doesn’t make the case for giving priority to knowledge. I’m not rejecting it rather suggesting that its findings may not be as clear cut as some seem to think.

      Secondly whilst there is knowledge that gives you an advantage in society it doesn’t mean that the knowledge is implicitly good nor that it can easily be taught to students that are abstracted from the context of that knowledge.

      I’m not sure that I have made circumstantial ad hominems except towards politicians. If I have then you need to point them out. I simply quote bloggers (maybe out of context I don’t know) to show that I am not constructing straw men.

      I think I have been respectful towards all concerned. I respond to them because they have adopted interesting positions.

      To be honest I’ve proffered a view that others can shoot down if they so wish but I don’t accept that thinking skills are domain specific or that knowledge should be given priority in society because that is what society currently thinks.

      But I could be wrong. It’s an ongoing thought process really responding to other bloggers and trying to understand positions.

      1. Perhaps I’m missing something here, but apart from your surprising indifference to your use of bad arguments as long as they involve politicians, haven’t you just repeated a series of points from your post without addressing the points I raised? If you are going to base your argument on some massive assumptions, you need to justify those assumptions with more than a claim that the opposing view isn’t “as clear cut as some seem to think”.

  2. Ok let me first make the point that my post is not intended to be disrespectful nor do I have a fixed position. If my arguments are bad then I am happy to allow other people to think I am an idiot. And would be happy to do so even if I wasn’t posting anonymously.

    If people think they are disrespectful then I’m happy to amend it.

    To be fair you have adopted two strawman arguments

    Firstly that there are, “such things as teachable thinking skills which are independent of knowledge” and secondly that there is ” no clear advantage to knowing particular knowledge”.

    You make the assertion that both those assumptions are false.

    Of course I didn’t make either of those claims. I said that actually when you look at Hirsch and Willingham’s science it points to less knowledge and not more. At no point did I say no knowledge. And secondly that knowledge is not intrinsically valuable and the means used to ascribe it intrinsic value are flawed.

    I didn’t say that there is no clear advantage to knowing particular knowledge. Clearly there is. but I question whether that means the knowledge that has advantage, has intrinsic value or otherwise. There are factory jobs in my area that pay as well as a teachers salary. Does that mean we should teach semi skilled work as opposed to Dickens for example?

    Hirsch and Willingham basically make the point that conceptual familiarity helps learning. My point is that of course it does conceptualising is a cognitive skill. Adopting core knowledge helps learners because complex conceptualisations come culturally pre-packaged.I’m going to make this point de-constructing OFSTED reports shortly.

    If I was to summarise my point into one statement it would be this; Hirsch and Willingham make the point that the problem of attempting to comprehend information without pre-existing conceptualisations makes parsing that information difficult. I agree.

    They then go onto to suggest that by sharing mutually agreed pre-existing conceptualisations we can make it easier for students. I also agree.

    I think that one of the problems of constructivist or progressive teaching is that knowledge has become “hairy fairy”, almost a secondary consideration. This is a mistake. I think Hirsch and Willingham are correct that pointless group work and a sprawling unfocused curriculum has hurt progressive learning.

    Where I disagree with Hirsch and Willingham is when they conclude that knowledge therefore is a priority or that you cannot teach thinking skills- I disagree, but I think constructivists have to acknowledge that a lack of attention to knowledge has been a mistake.

    That and the fact unfortunately OFSTED have taken progressive teaching methods and turned them into an idiot wind.

    My naturally contrarian style probably makes me seem more anti than I am. Does that clarify any or am I still talking rubbish?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s