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 I question whether it actually do 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:
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”, 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.
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 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 on things that it is unlikely they ever said.
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 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 in 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:
It looks as though it works
Politicians and policy makers do not like complexity. It does not make for 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 real learning?
It is new and anyway I blame the progressives
Politicians and Policy makers 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”.
It s proper science (sniff)
Politicians and policy makers 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 because we 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”.