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, and in particular, on 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 this and subsequent blogs, I want to discuss a realist ontological view of powerful knowledge, asking the question:  what is it and how do we study it?

In order to do that I need to define powerful knowledge:

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 specific 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.

Firstly, I want to establish the need to consider powerful knowledge by identifying problems with current conceptualisations of knowledge using the examples of progressive and traditional knowledge.

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 social realist ontological 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 both the structure and historical construction of knowledge as well as the agency of the students to whom it is transmitted. The truth proposition implicit to the knowledge is not changed by the context in which it is learned, however, the success of transmission is dependent upon the agency of the student.


In summary, following scholars such as Bernstein and Young, we can begin to construct an ontological view of powerful knowledge that is neither dependent upon a simplistic truth proposition or that is over-dependent upon the agency of the individual.

In this blog I have identified the following attributes of  powerful knowledge:

  1. it offers a truth proposition;
  2. it consists of the relations of construction, transmission, application and enactment;
  3. it is emergent from the relations of its construction but dependent upon the context of its transmission;
  4. it emerges through time and space;
  5. it is dependent upon the agency of the recipient.

This list is only a starting point in constructing an ontology of powerful knowledge, in future blogs I will look at the relations of power and compliance (OFSTED), the institutions that transmit knowledge and the institutional cultures that teachers and students interact with on a daily basis.

Powerful knowledge is dependent upon the relations that structure the object but also the agency of the individual receiver. 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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