Philosophy of Education · Powerful knowledge · Progressivism

The social reality of powerful knowledge

social realityIn my last blog, I discussed the academic/non-academic subject divide in education. In two recent blogs Old Andrew defines an academic subject as:

(…)  one where mastery of it was best characterised by further study. The people who are best at history, are historians and they study history.

Following Bernstein, I argued that subjects require a field of knowledge and the relations of construction, transmission, application and enactment. In other words, academics, professional bodies, educational institutions, and practitioners interact to construct, transmit, apply, and sometimes enact knowledge.

In this blog, I want to offer some thoughts on knowledge, in particular a type of pedagogic knowledge described as powerful knowledge. In his paper  “Three Educational Scenarios for the Future: lessons from the sociology of knowledge”  Young describes powerful knowledge emphasising its social reality.

In order to do that I need to define powerful knowledge, and do so by claiming has the following three properties:

1. it is distinct from ‘common sense’ knowledge acquired through everyday experience and therefore context-specific and limited;

2. it is systematic. Its concepts are related to each as part of a discipline with its specific rules and conventions. It can be the basis for generalisations and predictions beyond specific cases or contexts;

3. it is specialized; developed by specialists within defined fields of expertise and enquiry.

Powerful knowledge, therefore, is a systematic form of knowledge intended to be transmitted in an education context. In order to understand its nature, it is necessary to consider the social relations that constitute it.

Young sees it as an antidote to current conceptualisations of knowledge and identifies  problems with current approaches.

The problem of progressive knowledge

Young identifies a problematic progressive discourse in education citing Kress as an example:

“(…) a significant proportion of the young are alienated from school- they no longer judge school to be of relevance to …the world as they experience it. …What the school actually offers is … no longer of interest to these young people….the responsibility (for the transition from school to work) now falls on the young themselves.” Kress (2008).

Young describes this view as an over-socialised form of knowledge, which “plays down the propositional character of knowledge and reduces questions of epistemology to “who knows?” and to the identification of knowers and their practices”.

An example, oft-cited by traditionalists against progressivism is the elevated role of the student as a joint expert in the “co-construction” of knowledge. The question is, can students really co-construct powerful knowledge?

The problem of traditional knowledge

Young also describes a traditional type of knowledge that is:

(…) “a-social” or an under-socialised epistemology that defines knowledge as “sets of verifiable propositions and the methods for testing them It treats their social production in particular historical contexts and within the boundaries of particular disciplines as implicit or taken for granted.

Traditionalists are often accused of traducing pedagogy to the rote learning of accepted facts that comprise an uncontested canon. Traditional fields, such as the natural sciences and mathematics, are regarded as sacrosanct and elevated above newer or more social fields of expertise.

Properties of powerful knowledge and social realism

In contrast to progressive and traditionalist views of knowledge, Young describes three important properties of powerful knowledge:

  1. it is necessarily objective, which is  a condition for any kind of enquiry or reliable prediction about the future;
  2. it is emergent from and not reducible to the contexts in which it is
    produced and acquired;
  3. it is an explicitly historical approach to knowledge; otherwise, predictions are likely to be little more than extrapolations from the present as if the present itself had no history.

Young identifies this as a realist position, which sees knowledge as:

(…) sets of systematically related concepts and methods for their empirical exploration and the increasingly specialised and historically located ‘communities of enquirers’ with their distinctive commitment to the search for truth (Charles Peirce) and the social institutions in which they are located.

This approach emphasis the structures implicit to knowledge and historical context in which it emerges.


Powerful knowledge is not dependent upon a simplistic truth proposition or overly-dependent upon the interpretation of the individual. It is dependent upon the relations that structure the object; therefore,  it cannot be said to be dependent upon the knowing of one individual. On that basis, it can be said to be sui generis, socially real (Archer, 1995).


Archer, M. S. (1995). Realist social theory: The morphogenetic approach. Cambridge university press.

Bernstein, B. (2003). Class, codes and control: Applied studies towards a sociology of language (Vol. 2). Psychology Press.

Kress, G. (2008). Meaning and learning in a world of instability and multiplicity. Studies in Philosophy and Education27(4), 253-266.

Young, M., & Muller, J. (2010). Three educational scenarios for the future: Lessons from the sociology of knowledge. European Journal of Education45(1), 11-27.


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