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This article offers a philosophical critique of Michael Young's notion of 'powerful knowledge', as found largely in his own but also in others' writings since 2009. The first part of the article focuses on the definitional connection that Young makes between 'powerful knowledge' and systematic relationships between concepts. It argues that most of the school subjects that Young sees as providing 'powerful knowledge' fall short on this requirement. It also comments on the place of educational aims and of everyday concepts in Young's thinking. The second part of the article draws attention to similarities and differences between Young's notion and the philosopher Paul Hirst's notion of 'forms of knowledge', claiming that Young's position is vulnerable to many of the critiques of Hirst's notion formulated between the 1960s and the 1990s.
White, J. (2018) ‘The weakness of “powe rful knowledge”’. London Review
of Education, 16 (2): 325–335. DOI
* Email: ©Copyright 2018 White. This is an Open Access article distributed under
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and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
The weakness of ‘powerful knowledge’
John White* – UCL Institute of Education, UK
This article offers a philosophical critique of Michael Young’s notion of ‘powerful
knowledge’, as found largely in his own but also in others’ writings since 2009. The
rst part of the article focuses on the denitional connection that Young makes
between ‘powerful knowledge’ and systematic relationships between concepts.
It argues that most of the school subjects that Young sees as providing ‘powerful
knowledge’ fall short on this requirement. It also comments on the place of
educational aims and of everyday concepts in Young’s thinking. The second part of
the article draws attention to similarities and differences between Young’s notion
and the philosopher Paul Hirst’s notion of ‘forms of knowledge’, claiming that
Young’s position is vulnerable to many of the critiques of Hirst’s notion formulated
between the 1960s and the 1990s.
Keywords: knowledge; concepts; epistemology; philosophy of education;
In recent years the sociologist Michael Young has written several articles claiming
that ‘powerful knowledge’ should be at the heart of the school curriculum. As well
as scholars in South Africa and New Zealand the idea has attracted US academics
like Walter C. Parker (2017) and a number of British educationalists and policymakers.
The latter include academics like John Beck (2013), Jan Derry (2017), David Lambert
(2017) and Michael Reiss (2017; see also Cambridge Assessment (2014a)) as well as
heads of schools and colleges like Carolyn Roberts (2016) and Eddie Playfair (2015).
Among policymakers are the Expert Panel of the National Curriculum Review, chaired
by Tim Oates, which reported in December 2011 (DfE, 2011), and the think-tank Policy
Exchange (2016).
What is ‘powerful knowledge’ (PK)?
This paper critically discusses this central concept in Young’s thinking, comparing it
with a similar and also inuential idea in the work of the philosopher Paul Hirst in the
1960s and later. The rst thing that may strike one about the idea of teaching students
‘powerful’ knowledge is that, whatever it is, it would seem to be preferable to ‘weak’
knowledge. The term carries a strong, positive emotional charge. I suspect this is partly
why it has become attractive to many in the educational world. But when we try to see
what the term means, the answer is elusive. Let us see how Young denes PK when
arguing for a knowledge-rich curriculum. He writes that
powerful knowledge is systematic. Its concepts are systematically related
to one another and shared in groups, such as subject or disciplinary
associations. It is not, like common sense, rooted in the specic contexts
of our experience. This means that powerful knowledge can be the
326 John White
London Review of Education 16 (2) 2018
basis for generalisations and thinking beyond particular contexts or
cases Powerful knowledge is specialised. In other words, it has been
developed by clearly distinguishable groups with a well-dened focus and
relatively xed boundaries, separating different forms of expertise (Young,
2015: n.p.).
This quotation well articulates the two main features of PK, epistemological and social:
(1) it has to do with bodies of knowledge built around their own, sui generis systems of
interrelated concepts; and (2) it is the province of distinct specialized groups. This kind
of knowledge is contrasted with ‘common sense’ or ‘everyday’ knowledge. This, too,
depends on networks of interrelated concepts (think perhaps of ‘chair’ and ‘furniture’),
but children learn how to use these outside school, while acquiring PK requires formal
education. I return to everyday knowledge later.
Young supports the idea of a subject-based school curriculum against those
he sees as against it. I will come back to this, too. Meanwhile, a central question is:
which school subjects are repositories of PK? Young sees PK as inhering in all academic
subjects, ‘from maths to dance’ (Policy Exchange (2016), at 09:56 on the video). But
problems arise over component (1), the epistemological requirement. In which school
subjects do we nd systems of sui generis interrelated concepts?
As Young says in the article from which the above extract is drawn (Young, 2015):
‘The clearest examples both of the systematic structure of powerful knowledge and of
its role as a resource for generalising are found in the natural sciences.’ Mathematics,
too, with its own tightly interconnected conceptual schemes, ts this pattern. But are
things so straightforward once one leaves maths and science? Both these are among
the EBacc subjects that the current UK government, which is responsible for the
English educational system, presents as the hallmark of a good school education. Are
the other EBacc subjects history, geography, English and a foreign language – also
built around PK? And seeing that Young is an advocate not only for most or all of
these allegedly ‘core’ subjects (I am not clear about his position on foreign languages),
but also for a subject-based curriculum conceived more broadly what shall we say
of other familiar school subjects like (visual) art, music, drama, citizenship? Does his
epistemological requirement distinguish which of these provide PK and which do not?
Young says of subjects beyond the sciences (and presumably mathematics):
other forms of subject knowledge, such as the social sciences, humanities
and the arts, also have concepts that take us beyond particular cases
and contexts in different ways, and offer us different capacities for
generalisation, due to the nature of the phenomena they are concerned
with (Young, 2015).
He also writes:
the curriculum must stipulate the concepts associated with different
subjects and how they are related, whether they refer to energy, matter,
literature or historical change. It is the systematic interrelatedness of
subject-based concepts and how they take their meaning from how they
relate to each other that distinguishes them from the everyday concepts
of experience that pupils bring to school, which always relate to specic
contexts and experiences (Young, 2014b: Chapter 3).
Let us begin with so-called ‘core’ subjects outside maths and the sciences history,
geography, English and a foreign language. Is historical knowledge an example of
The weakness of ‘powerful knowledge’ 327
London Review of Education 16 (2) 2018
PK? If so, it must be built around its own system of interrelated concepts. But what
might these be? Should we say things like ‘causation’ and ‘change’? There are two
major problems here. First, learning history at school does not consist in getting inside
schemes of concepts, as learning maths and science largely does: history students do
not spend most of their time understanding interrelated historical concepts. Second,
concepts like ‘causation’ and ‘change’ have to be understood in relation to specically
historical knowledge. The terms are also found in scientic subjects like chemistry and
biology, but there their meaning is not connected with concepts peculiar to human
life. Historical change and causation, however, have to do with the world of human
goals, intentions and achievements. These concepts are not, importantly, sui generis
to history as an academic discipline, but are of a piece with the conceptual schemes
we use in everyday life to explain why people do the things they do. Explaining why
there was a Puritan uprising against Charles I requires a larger and more complex story
than explaining why a teacher gave a child a detention, but both accounts revolve
around notions like norms that are followed or broken, what people want and the
means they follow to reach their goals. All this casts doubt on Young’s central claim that
there is a gulf between subject-based and everyday knowledge. Technical concepts
sometimes do occur in historical accounts, but they are drawn from other disciplines
like economics, for example or, like ‘danegeld’ and ‘villein’, are easily explicated
in everyday concepts. History does not contain schemes of sui generis concepts as
science and maths do.
This is also true of another allegedly ‘core’ subject, geography – now described
in promotional material on the web as ‘powerful geography’ (see GeoCapabilities,
n.d.). That iconic concept from my own schooling, ‘ox-bow lake’, and others like
‘global warming’ can be elucidated at a supercial level in non-technical terms, and
more fully by drawing on concepts from natural science. Michael Young (2012) takes as
a specically geographical concept the concept of city, but on this is at odds with the
geographer David Lambert, who states that PK in geography
should mainly emphasize the acquisition and development of systematic
conceptual knowledge … Here we are referring to what is sometimes
called geography’s ‘big ideas’ or ‘key concepts’ rather than a long list
of substantive concepts such as city, river, industrial location, etc. How
geographers argue about what these are! … Even so, there is some
international stability and agreement that geography is concerned
primarily with place, space and environment (occasionally scale is added)
– and these are complex and dynamic ideas that have evolved markedly
with the development of geography as a discipline (Lambert, 2015: 403–4).
Are the key concepts Lambert mentions sui generis? Children pick up the notions
of place and space early on, and the latter indeed, if Kant is right, is presupposed
in any conceptual scheme. The concepts of environment and scale are explicable
in more basic everyday terms and notions in science and maths. (There is more on
geographical concepts as well as on other topics in an earlier debate about PK that
I had with Michael Young in three online publications of the New Visions Group for
Education: Brown and White (2012); Young (2012); White (2012).)
This leaves the EBacc subjects English and a foreign language. If we leave aside
the ‘English language’ part of the former, which deals for the most part in everyday
concepts, does ‘English literature’ go beyond these? As we have seen, Young includes
literature among items possessing their own systematic, interrelated concepts. It is
not clear whether he has in mind concepts used by aestheticians like ‘form’, ‘aesthetic
328 John White
London Review of Education 16 (2) 2018
value’, ‘aesthetic experience’, etc., or concepts used by writers themselves. In
elementary maths, students acquire sui generis concepts like ‘multiplication’, ‘square
root’, etc.: learning how to operate with these is a large part of what doing maths
involves. But in studying literature at school, students rarely if ever get to grips with
aestheticians’ concepts: the novelists, dramatists and poets they read use everyday,
non-technical ones.
Another – and crucial – problem for Young about literature is how far it should
count as a kind of knowledge at all, powerful or not. We can certainly learn all sorts of
things from it about human nature, ourselves, our own or other societies. To that extent
it can be said to give us knowledge in the shape of deeper understanding. But what
students can get from literature goes beyond this. Poetry and its other forms centrally
provide aesthetic experience of various kinds.
The same is true, even more obviously, in music, the non-verbal nature of which
does not allow it to express propositions that could be true and thus could belong to
the sphere of knowledge. If music’s function were to give us knowledge, it would be
hard to explain why we listen again and again to pieces with which we are thoroughly
familiar. We do this to enjoy once again aesthetic delight that has entranced us before.
The same is true, mutatis mutandis, of our experience of visual forms of art – and of
dance, which as we have seen Young includes as a ‘powerful knowledge’ subject.
I have strayed beyond so-called ‘core’ subjects into other familiar areas of
the school curriculum. If we come back to the core subjects for a moment, they also
include a foreign language. Take French. French literature is not part of the GCSE,
but if it were, it would fall under what has already been said about literature being a
form of art. As for the language learning that constitutes the subject at GCSE, it is not
a form of powerful knowledge because it does not induct the learner into systems of
interrelated concepts that he or she did not know previously. What they learn is how
to operate with words expressing in another language concepts with which they are
already familiar.
This short survey has shown that the only subjects that so far meet both Young’s
criteria for PK are maths and science. We know that Young sees a PK-based curriculum
as covering not only these two areas, but also history, geography, (other) social sciences
and humanities, and the arts. The arguments presented in this section of the paper
have shown that even when we broaden the canvas from just the ‘core’ subjects found
in EBacc, maths and science seem to remain the only cases of PK-based subjects. At
the end of a 2014 video discussion (03:41) on PK with Michael Reiss, Tim Oates makes
it clear that in advocating ‘powerful knowledge as a means to rejuvenate curriculum
thinking in England’ he is talking about ‘knowledge from specic disciplines – science
and mathematics’ (Cambridge Assessment, 2014b).
The centrality of knowledge
The points just made about the arts reveal the shakiness of Young’s assumption that
the pursuit of theoretical knowledge is the rst priority in school education. School
education has many legitimate goals. This is not the place to unravel their complexities,
but a longer treatment can be found, for instance, in Reiss and White (2013): their
work makes clear that curriculum planning has rst to ask what schools should be
for. It should start from a judicious examination of candidate aims, since only then is
one in a position to think about what priorities among acceptable ones should be.
There may well be good grounds why academic pursuits like maths, science, history
and geography should play a large role in school education vis-à-vis other curriculum
activities, but this has to be shown, not assumed, to be so.
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London Review of Education 16 (2) 2018
The pursuit of theoretical knowledge as a candidate aim has thus to be weighed
against other aims that, even if they bring in such knowledge in some way, go beyond
it. Practical know-how of many sorts, the world of the arts, personal development,
and learning to become a citizen of a democracy are examples. Each of these areas
needs further elucidation and critical discussion in its turn. Curriculum-making is a
highly complex matter. Young provides no argument for the centrality of theoretical or
subject knowledge.
Beginning with aims?
The only way to plan curricula is, as I have said, to begin with aims. This requires seeing
what subordinate aims are derivable from more general ones and then which vehicles
– e.g. subjects or non-subjects – are the most apt to achieve them. Michael Young is
not happy with this aims-based approach. Picking up on the core idea in Reiss and
White that schools should enable students to lead ourishing lives themselves and
help others to do so, he writes
No one could disagree with Reiss and White that schools should promote
well-being and human ourishing in what they do; however, that is what
we expect of institutions that do not have curricula such as families, towns
and businesses. What distinguishes schools is that their primary concern,
as embodied in the specialist professional staff they recruit, and in their
curriculum, is (or should be) to provide all their students with access to
knowledge (Young, 2014a: 8).
The idea here is not spelt out as clearly as it might be, but it seems to be that we
should start our curriculum thinking with what makes schools different from other
institutions (i.e. that they do/should provide access for all to knowledge) and ignore
what they have in common with them. But no reason is provided for this. Whether
his view is that schools do or should provide access to knowledge, Young must be
assuming that this is a good thing. This stands in need of justication. To pursue why
knowledge is desirable takes one into an ethical discussion of what it should be for, i.e.
what schools should be aiming at. Whether the aims one uncovers overlap with those
of other institutions is irrelevant.
Rather than an aims-based approach, Young favours a subject-based one. His
starting point, school subjects rather than aims, arises from his empirical observation
of schools in their social and historical setting. He is impressed by the 150-year history
of a subject-based curriculum in Britain, and the ‘relative stability of subjects and
their boundaries’ (Young, 2012: n.p.). They involve ‘rules agreed by subject specialists
about what counts as valid knowledge; such criteria which derive from the pedagogic
knowledge of subject specialist teachers and their links with discipline- based specialists
in the universities provide access to the “best” knowledge that can be acquired by
pupils at different levels’ (Young, 2012: n.p.).
The points Young mentions about schools are empirical facts. The problem he
faces is the classic one, of how one gets from what is the case empirically to what
ought to be the case. His PK theory built around school subjects is intended to show
what schools should be doing. What he needs is an ethical investigation into this,
examining the credentials of different views about what they are for. This takes us back
to aims and an aims-based approach.
At one point, it looks as if Young begins not with PK itself but with its usefulness.
He equates it with the Chartists’ notion of ‘really useful knowledge’. This would seem
to take us in an aims-based direction. But as the quote in question shows, instead of
330 John White
London Review of Education 16 (2) 2018
extrinsic purposes all we get is redescription of what scientic and some other kinds
of knowledge involve:
it [powerful knowledge] refers to what the knowledge can do – for example,
whether it provides reliable explanations or new ways of thinking about
the world. This was what the Chartists were calling for with their slogan
‘really useful knowledge’ (Young, 2009: 14).
Whether this is indeed what the Chartists meant by the term is a further question.
Everyday concepts
Young’s idea that PK should be at the heart of the curriculum is awed. As I wrote
in White (2012), he relies on Vygotsky to argue that school education should take
students beyond their everyday concepts into theoretical ones associated with different
subjects. He states that
The crucial difference between the two types of concept is that a pupil’s
‘everyday concepts’ limit them to their experience, whereas the theoretical
concepts to which subject teaching gives students access enable them to
reect on and move beyond the particulars of their experience (Young,
2012: n.p.).
I do not think it true that ‘a pupil’s “everyday concepts” limit them to their experience’.
As we saw earlier, pupils use these concepts when extending their understanding in
studying subjects like history and literature. For a superb account of how, without
transcending our ordinary, non-technical, concepts, we can achieve considerable
depth of understanding of human beings and the world, see R.K. Elliott (1975: 66). As
he says, ‘One could attain the level of understanding achieved by many great writers
without undergoing an education in the disciplines, for though it has a craft tradition,
Literature, as far as content is concerned, belongs entirely to common understanding’.
On the notion of ‘everyday’, in his contribution to a festschrift for Young that he
has recently co-edited, Michael Reiss makes an interesting and engaging critical point.
Taking his own upbringing as an example, he writes that the everyday world of his own
family, with its intellectual richness stretching across politics, literature and other areas
(his mother taught him multiplication at a very early age), would not match everyone’s:
‘What is everydayto one student may beexotic toanother’ (2017: 125).
I do not think Reiss is right about the person-relatedness of ‘everyday’, at
least as applied to Young’s Vygotskian notion of everyday concepts as contrasted
with theoretical or academic ones. The technical concepts of elds like economics,
engineering, computer science, logic, maths and the sciences are indeed distinct
from the concepts we use in ordinary life. This is true regardless of different people’s
experience. The concept of multiplication – as contrasted with the concepts of one to
ten may be said to belong in the foothills of the specialized subject mathematics.
The fact that Reiss learnt it from his mother when he was very young shows not that it
is an everyday concept in the Vygotsky–Young sense, but that he was acquiring non-
everyday, specialized concepts, but not in school.
As a nal point on Young’s distinction between everyday and theoretical
concepts, I turn to another contribution to his festschrift. In a chapter supportive of
Young’s PK theory, Jan Derry (2017: 91) relates Young’s work to points made by Cassirer,
Durkheim and Habermas about human uniqueness resting on the use of different
realms of interrelated concepts. I am sympathetic to the general claim about human
distinctiveness. As Hamlyn (1978: Chapter 6) argued in a classic text in philosophy of
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London Review of Education 16 (2) 2018
education, human beings are not unique simply because they possess concepts. Some
non-human animals are capable of conceptual activity (for example, a dog seeing its
master taking down its lead as a sign of going for a walk), but lacking language they
are incapable of the kind of understanding of the world that symbols bring with them.
Human beings are unique not in having concepts, but in having the sort of concepts –
with all their interrelationships – that come only with language.
All this is true, but I cannot see how it supports Young’s case for ‘powerful
knowledge’ as, according to him, the ‘everyday’ concepts that lie outside the realm of
theoretical concepts are also unique to our species. The point about our distinctiveness
does nothing to strengthen the argument for a clearly delimited area of PK.
An echo of the ‘forms of knowledge’
Young’s PK theory strongly reminds me, as it has reminded Geoff Whitty (2010: 31), of
similar ideas in P.H. Hirst’s account of the ‘forms of knowledge’ (FK) (Hirst, 1965/1973).
Had I been writing 20 or 30 years ago or longer, this survey of them would not have
been necessary. The curriculum theory that Hirst (and later Hirst and Peters (1971)
in collaboration) constructed around FK was familiar to virtually everyone in Britain
interested in educational ideas, from teachers to teacher educators and policymakers
like the Schools’ Council and Her Majesty’s Inspectors (HMI). These include Young
himself, who critiqued it in Young (ed.) (1971: 23). In 2017, I suspect that far fewer are
acquainted with it. This may be connected with the fact that Hirst himself publicly
abandoned it as an educational theory in the early 1990s (Hirst, 1993: 184ff.). I will come
back to this.
Hirst’s FK theory was the basis of his notion of a ‘liberal education’. It was not
intended as an account of what the whole of an educational curriculum should be, but
only of its core. The basic idea is that there are seven or eight distinct, and together
comprehensive, forms of human understanding. Inducting students into them, not for
extrinsic reasons but as an end in itself, is developing the rational mind that we possess
as a uniquely human attribute.
Each of the seven or eight FKs has its own unique, interconnected concepts,
and its own tests for truth. The concepts (e.g. number, integral) and truth tests (logical
deduction) found in mathematics, for instance, are distinct from those in the natural
sciences (gravity, hydrogen, photosynthesis, empirical observation). The original list
of Hirst’s FKs (he also called them ‘disciplines’) was eightfold: mathematics, physical
sciences, human sciences, history, religion, the arts, moral knowledge, and philosophy
(Hirst, 1965/1973: 45)). Not all the familiar school or university subjects are closely
connected with a particular form. Geography, for instance, is not included; neither is
engineering. Hirst labels these ‘elds’ rather than ‘forms’ of knowledge, a theoretical
eld in the case of geography and a practical one in the case of engineering. They
are ‘held together by their subject matter, drawing on all forms of knowledge that can
contribute to them’ (Hirst, 1965/1973: 46).
It is not surprising that from the 1960s onwards Hirst’s theory became a central
focus for the development of school curricula, at a time before the introduction of
the National Curriculum in 1988 when schools were wholly responsible for them, and
simultaneously at the time of the ‘comprehensive revolution’ after 1965 when the newly
created comprehensive schools wanted to introduce common curricula appropriate
for the whole range of pupil ability in place of the radically different kinds of curricula
found in the older system of grammar and secondary modern schools.
332 John White
London Review of Education 16 (2) 2018
In many ways Hirst’s FK theory resembles Young’s PK theory, but in other ways it
is different. The most obvious similarity is in making systems of sui generis, interrelated
concepts the criterion for selecting central curriculum areas. Another is the link made
with the dening signicance, in the case of human beings, of the use of (symbolic)
A third is their questionable common starting point for a theory of curriculum,
not with an ethical investigation into what aims are desirable, as in Reiss and White
and many other writers, but with epistemological categories. We have already seen
how this applies to Young. In Hirst’s case, the justication of his theory rests on the
ingenious but inadequate claim (see White, 1973: 78–9) that ‘it is in fact a peculiar
question asking for the justication for any development of the rational mind at all.
To ask for the justication of any form of activity is signicant only if one is in fact
committed already to seeking rational knowledge’ (Hirst, 1965/1973: 42). A somewhat
different kind of justication comes two paragraphs later in Hirst’s paper, where he
sees a parallel between his theory and the Greek idea (found most notably in Plato’s
Republic JW) of education as ‘the freeing of the mind to achieve its own good in
knowledge’ (43). This appeal to the Platonic notion of human good as consisting in
the pursuit of knowledge does indeed go beyond epistemology into ethics. Ethics is
rightly where justications of curricula begin, but the Platonic idea of well-being as the
place to start would have few if any supporters today, as an investigation of competing
views of well-being and of its place among candidate aims of education would show.
A fourth similarity is the inadequacy of the criterion they both use to select central
curriculum areas: the possession of systems of sui generis interrelated concepts. We
have seen that the only solid examples of PK in Young’s case are maths and science.
The same is true of Hirst’s FKs. Outside these, for both theories, there are problems on
every side. These became evident early on in Hirst’s case. Within a few years (Hirst and
Peters, 1971: 65) he had slightly changed his original – 1965 – list of forms, reducing it
from eight to seven. Specically, he removed history and the human sciences, replacing
them by a wider category to do with understanding persons (63). In the intervening
years, the notion that history is a separate form had been challenged very much on
the same grounds as I challenged history – above – as a form of PK in Young’s theory:
history relies largely on the use of ordinary concepts (Dearden, 1968: 69). Other FKs
in the original list were also under re from an early date (see below the opening
paragraph of the conclusion to this paper).
The question also arose for Hirst’s theory, as it has arisen for Young (see above),
whether the categories he was using were indeed forms of knowledge. In 1971 Hirst
himself was already raising questions about morality, the arts and religion in this regard,
given widespread doubts that philosophers had expressed about the objectivity
of these domains (Hirst and Peters, 1971: 63–4). Two years later, I suggested that
engagement with art was typically to do with aesthetic experience, not knowledge.
‘In old-fashioned terms, the pursuit of Beauty is a different kind of endeavour from the
pursuit of Truth’ (White, 1973: 75; see also Pring, 1976: 43–5).
A fth commonality between Hirst and Young is that each has acknowledged the
existence of an area of understanding outside the specialized ones of FK and PK. Just
as Young, following Vygotsky, posited a realm of everyday concepts, so Hirst stated
that ‘the various forms of knowledge can be seen in low level developments within
the common area of our knowledge of the everyday world’ (Hirst, 1965/1973: 44). This
quotation also points to a disagreement: as we saw, Young makes a sharp distinction
between everyday concepts and PK while Hirst saw FKs as embryonically embedded
in everyday knowledge.
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London Review of Education 16 (2) 2018
This brings us to another difference between Young’s theory and Hirst’s, despite
all the parallels between them. This is that PK is directly related to school subjects and
FK is not. This is most obvious, as we have seen above, with regard to geography. For
Young (and Lambert) it is a form of PK with its own concepts; for Hirst, it is a ‘eld’, not
a ‘form’ of knowledge, as it lacks concepts of its own.
The fact that Young begins with subjects and Hirst with forms of knowledge
reects a wider, methodological difference between them. As we saw above, Young’s
approach is to look at empirical facts. He observes strong subject identities, the
boundaries between them and specialization within them found in schools, and starts
from there. Hirst’s approach is a priori rather empirical. He arrives at his FKs from what
he sees are the logical implications of the notion of possessing a rational mind. The
methodological divergence is perhaps not surprising. Not only is Young a sociologist
and Hirst a philosopher, but they also bring to these disciplines an earlier education
in chemistry and mathematics respectively. This fact may be relevant to what was
said above about the fourth similarity between them about the inadequacy of the
criterion of sui generis conceptual schemes they both use to pick out curriculum areas.
As we have seen, the only solid examples that t this model in both cases are maths
and science. I wonder how far both writers had been inuenced in their conception of
knowledge by their background in one of these two interrelated subjects.
I nish on a related methodological issue. Work in philosophy of education on Hirst’s
FK theory – his own writings and critical discussion – continued for three decades after
its rst formulation in 1965. Objections and defences almost invariably took the form
of careful, usually lengthy, arguments that drew attention to logical problems seen
in others’ positions, to hidden assumptions and inadequately supported claims (see
Dearden, 1968: 61–78; Gribble, 1969: 49–56; Hindess, 1972; White, 1973: 73–87; Elliott,
1975: 49–66; Langford, 1975: 73–82; Pring, 1976: 37–46; Bailey, 1984: 68–82; Barrow,
1984: 90–3; Kleinig, 1984: 149–154; Walsh, 1993: 130–9).
This made progress in debate possible. Participants were able to converge on
perceived weaknesses in the theory not least the inapplicability of Hirst’s criteria
for a FK to all the forms he claimed existed. Crucially, these participants included
Hirst himself. In 1971, as we have seen, he dropped the claim that history has its own
conceptual scheme and redrew his map of the FKs accordingly. In his 1993 book he
publicly abandoned his FK account altogether as an educational theory, while still
adhering to it in general, if not in detail, epistemologically (196). And he was right to do
the latter to an extent: the present paper, for instance, has made distinctions between
a priori and empirical knowledge and contrasted factual knowledge of both kinds with
considerations of value, both ethical and aesthetic. The main problem Hirst saw in his
abandoned theory was that it was not rooted in an adequate account of aims: ‘we must
shift from seeing education as primarily concerned with knowledge to seeing it as
primarily concerned with social practices’ (Hirst, 1993: 184). This was to recognize that
the starting-point for thought about what an educational curriculum should be must lie
within ethics, not epistemology.
Although Young is well acquainted with Hirst’s similar theory and has indeed
both criticized it in the past (Young, 1971: 23) and more recently praised it (Young,
2014b: 3), he has not taken account of the many familiar objections made to it (see the
list in the rst paragraph above), the most important of which apply to his own theory.
On a related point, his own and sometimes others’ discussions of PK lack the careful
334 John White
London Review of Education 16 (2) 2018
exposition and close argumentation that typied the FK debates. Although there has
been plenty of enthusiasm expressed in print and online for a PK-based curriculum,
as well as copious references to scholarly writers in many elds, there has been little
meticulousness in stating the theory and discussing it. It should be clear from the rst
part of this paper that in discussing PK and asking what schools should centrally be for,
these writings of Young and others have entered epistemological and ethical territory
familiar to general philosophers and philosophers of education. But neither Young
nor virtually any of his commentators uses philosophical methods – with all the careful
attention to the logic of argument that come with them – to help make their case. It is
ironic that a keynote of Young’s account is specialized learning within its own borders,
since writings on powerful knowledge are often a frontier-less amalgam of ideas from
many elds – social science, the history of sociology of education, contemporary
educational politics, rickety epistemology and visions of what should be.
Notes on the contributor
John White is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy of Education at the UCL Institute of
Education. His interests are in the mind of the learner, and in educational aims and
curricula. Recent books include What Schools are For and Why (2007), Exploring Well-
being in Schools (2011), The Invention of the Secondary Curriculum (2011), An Aims-
based Curriculum (with Michael Reiss) (2013), Who needs Examinations? (2014) and
What’s Wrong with Private Education? (2015).
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Routledge and Kegan Paul.
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Framework for the National Curriculum’. New Visions for Education Group, 5 April. Online.
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and Professional Knowledge: New perspectives on the work of Michael Young. London:
Routledge, 84–96.
DfE (Department for Education) (2011) The Framework for the National Curriculum: A report by the
Expert Panel for the National Curriculum Review. London: Department for Education.
Elliott, R.K. (1975) ‘Education and human being I’. In Brown, S.C. (ed.) Philosophers Discuss
Education. London: Macmillan, 45–72.
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(accessed 18 April 2018).
Gribble, J. (1969) Introduction to Philosophy of Education. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
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Hindess, E. (1972) ‘Forms of knowledge’. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 6 (2), 164–75.
Hirst, P.H. (1973) ‘Liberal education and the nature of knowledge’. In Hirst, P.H. Knowledge and the
Curriculum: A collection of philosophical papers. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 30–53.
Hirst, P.H. (1993) ‘Education, knowledge and practices’. In Barrow, R. and White, P. (eds) Beyond
Liberal Education: Essays in honour of Paul H. Hirst. London: Routledge, 184–99.
Hirst, P.H. and Peters, R.S. (1971) The Logic of Education. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Kleinig, J. (1984) Philosophical Issues in Education. London: Croom Helm.
Langford, G. (1975) ‘Education and human being II’. In Brown, S.C. (ed.) Philosophers Discuss
Education. London: Macmillan, 73–84.
Parker, W.C. (2017)‘Toward a powerful human rights curriculum in schools: Problems and
possibilities’. In Banks, J.A. (ed.) Citizenship Education and Global Migration: Implications
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Association, 457–82.
Playfair, E. (2015) ‘What is powerful knowledge?’. Blog, 19 August. Online. https://eddieplayfair.
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Reiss, M.J. (2017) ‘The curriculum arguments of Michael Young and John White’. In Guile, D.,
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New perspectives on the work of Michael Young. London: Routledge, 121–31.
Reiss, M.J. and White, J. (2013) An Aims-Based Curriculum: The signicance of human ourishing
for schools. London: Institute of Education Press.
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Visions for Education Group, 14 May. Online.
(accessed 10 April 2018).
Whitty, G. (2010) ‘Revisiting school knowledge: Some sociological perspectives on new school
curricula’. European Journal of Education, 45 (1), 28–45.
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Young, M. (2009) ‘What are schools for?’. In Daniels, H., Lauder, H. and Porter, J. (eds) Knowledge,
Values and Educational Policy: A critical perspective. London: Routledge, 10–18.
Young, M. (2012) ‘The curriculum – “An entitlement to powerful knowledge”: A response to John
White’. New Visions for Education Group, 3 May. Online.
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Young, M. (2014a) ‘What is a curriculum and what can it do?’. Curriculum Journal, 25 (1), 7–13.
Young, M. (2014b) ‘Powerful knowledge as a curriculum principle’. In Young, M., Lambert, D.,
Roberts, C. and Roberts, M. Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and social justice.
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... However, Young and Muller (Muller & Young, 2019;Young & Muller, 2010 have developed the concept considerably further and distinguished it from everyday knowledge and knowledge of the powerful. With the concept of powerful knowledge, Young and Muller aim to overcome the pervasive knowledge-centred and learner-centred dichotomy in education discourse (Oelkers, 1994;Willbergh, 2016), although their perspective has been criticised for being a return to the scientism of the knowledge-centred approach, which advocates rote learning driven by the interests of the powerful (Eaglestone, 2021;White, 2018). ...
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Curriculum integration refers to the integration of educational knowledge or to the building of an interdisciplinary curriculum with the objective of making learning more holistic. Key questions pertaining to curriculum integration include how to differentiate between and integrate knowledge within and across the boundaries of school subjects. However, school subjects often contradict curriculum integration because the subjects seemingly fragment the curriculum. This thesis explores what it means to adopt a knowledge-based approach to curriculum integration and examines the kinds of conditions set by knowledge integration with respect to teaching and curriculum design. This article-based thesis includes three studies. Two of the studies are theoretical, while the other applies quantitative empirical methods. The studies identify three major conditions affecting curriculum integration. The first study presents curriculum integration as a challenge for teachers precisely because it expands the demands of teacher knowledge. The second study points to the subject-matter specific character of curriculum integration, meaning that not all subjects can be equally integrated with one another. Given that curriculum integration creates challenges for teachers and is subject-matter specific, the third study suggests that it needs to be addressed more clearly as an issue concerning the organisation of educational knowledge in the written curriculum. To study the requirements of teacher knowledge and how they change when curriculum is integrated, the thesis applies Lee Shulman’s construct of pedagogical content knowledge. Then, to examine why knowledge matters at the level of written curriculum, it draws on discussions about powerful knowledge in education initiated by Michael F.D. Young and Johan Muller. These two frameworks serve in a mutually complementary way to assess both the level of teaching and that of curriculum design. The knowledge-based approach reveals that integrating educational knowledge is essential to the formation of school subjects and to the design of the curriculum as a coherent whole. The major claim of this thesis is that separate school subjects and curriculum integration are not opposing poles, but rather comprise the basic elements of teaching and curriculum design.
... Nordgren (2017) concludes that the concept of powerful knowledge is ambiguous in terms of the transformation from discipline to school subject, hence failing to give a certain area of knowledge a distinct purpose in curricula. White (2018) suggests that a presupposition of powerful knowledge is that its rationales evolve around the interrelated concepts of a discipline. Thus, in order for a subject to convey powerful knowledge, first, the web of disciplinary concepts must be the focus of the teaching (which may be the case in natural sciences, but rarely in social sciences), and second, specific concepts must be understood in relation to a certain disciplinary knowledge, which -at least for social sciences -threatens to make these interrelated concepts arbitrary. ...
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This thesis explores what financial literacy is, what financial literacy becomes and what financial literacy could become within the context of a citizenship education such as the Swedish upper secondary subject of social studies. Financial literacy does not intuitively converge with social sciences which leaves social studies teachers to both teach and realise financial literacy. Thus, teachers become co-creators of financial literacy as a school subject. This thesis explores this process via two different studies resulting in four research articles. In the first study, semi-structured interviews – analysed through PCK – are used to explore the perceptions of Swedish social studies teachers in upper secondary school regarding financial literacy teaching and learning. The findings include differences between experienced and novice teachers regarding which content knowledge and pedagogical approaches they use. However, all teachers express difficulties fitting financial literacy into social studies, mainly due to a perception of financial literacy primarily being a private matter, along with the unclear relationship between financial and societal issues. The second study is designed as a financial literacy teaching intervention. Students’ views on a financial dilemma are analysed using citizenship conceptions and threshold concepts. The findings are used to discuss design principles for financial literacy teaching. Salient conclusions in the thesis include citizenship education being able to frame financial literacy and provide epistemic features which can make financial literacy more teachable and learnable. It is hoped that the results from this thesis can inform future financial literacy teaching design as well as policy discussion related to financial literacy teaching and learning contextualised with another subject, especially citizenship education
... These academics are sometimes termed, 'social realist' thinkers because they are categorizing knowledge as a social object and trying to describe how knowledge works in social contexts. Young's work has been discussed extensively (for a detailed critique, see White, 2018), but for teachers, four key ideas that he propounds can be summarized as follows: ...
Major questions addressed in this chapter are: • What kinds of ideas about curriculum are translated into school practices? • What kinds of ideas about curriculum have been most prevalent in the last ten years and where do these come from? • What other kinds of thinking about curriculum might teachers and school leaders find useful that have not had very much exposure in the recent past? Abstract This chapter takes the view that teacher autonomy is crucial if there is to be a rich, successful relationship between the teacher, the learner and the curriculum they are exploring together. However, curricula are exercises in power. The views of curriculum espoused by politicians, school regulators and other educational commentators are, frequently, manifestations of educational power relations. In the UK at least, the privileging of particular views of curriculum by policy-makers and central government more widely has, in many ways, damaged the development of the teacher-learner-curriculum relationship and what theoretical ideas about curriculum can offer as a way to support the best teaching and learning. The chapter uses some recent and not so recent examples to exemplify this point. In a plea for practitioners and policy makers to think more widely about theoretical conceptions of curriculum and their relationship to practice, it introduces the reader to the work of two curriculum theorists, Allan Luke and his contemporary Zongyi Deng, who have important contributions to make in teachers' search for bringing the curriculum to life for learners.
... In this journal, Brundrett (2015: 49) raised how expert views on the primary curriculum have been 'dismissed' in favour of 'a limited and instrumentalist view'. Debates around 'powerful knowledge' have taken place, questioning the privileging of certain types of knowledge over others (White, 2018(White, , 2019. McNiff (2020: 440) cites the 'narrow, one-dimensional' school curriculum. ...
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The Literacy Policy Project examines the trends in UK government policy interventions into literacy curriculum and pedagogies in schools in England. We undertake a policy scholarship methodology to read policy texts through a conceptual framework that frames policy interventions with functional, realist or socially critical purposes. We identify how successive UK governments have primarily adopted functional policies and research relating to literacy in schools in England. We argue that policy is dictated by, and serves, a growing marketplace for educational solutions, making the case that more prominence should be given to facilitating socially critical approaches to literacy policy.
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Building on and going beyond Young and Muller’s theory of powerful knowledge, this article seeks to articulate a model of a future-oriented, knowledge-rich curriculum by invoking David Lambert’s capabilities approach and Bildung-centred Didaktik. The curriculum is knowledge rich in three respects. First, it is informed by a vision of education centrally concerned with the cultivation of human powers (understanding, capabilities, dispositions) predicated on the contribution of knowledge. Second, the construction of a school subject – in the form of curriculum frameworks, syllabuses, and guidelines--entails selecting and organising content in terms of educational potential and its realisation in classrooms. Third, classroom teaching entails unlocking the educational potential of the content of a school subject for developing human powers. The curriculum is future-oriented in the sense that it aims at the formation of autonomous and responsible individuals who can thrive and flourish in the present and future world.
The concept of ‘powerful knowledge’ has become extremely influential in discussions about curriculum in England over the last ten years. However, the concept seems to have done little to revolutionise curriculum design, and in some cases it has led to curricular narrowing and a focus on an increasingly nationalistic narrative in history. Michael Young (2019, 2021) has argued that the failure of the concept of ‘powerful knowledge’ to underpin meaningful curriculum reforms has been mainly due to its misinterpretation and loose definition. This paper explores these claims and finds that key voices in education in England, and history education specifically, have misunderstood and misapplied the concept of powerful knowledge. However, it also makes the case that powerful knowledge cannot be meaningfully defined in terms of history education, and that attempts to make curricular decisions based on the concept are therefore a distraction from more meaningful curricular work.
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Was kann man aus der Geschichte für das Leben lernen? Für dieses Buch wurde empirisch erforscht, welche Überzeugungen in dieser Frage unter österreichischen Lehrpersonen bestehen. Das Buch ist Ergebnis eines Habilitationsprojektes, im Zuge dessen 50 qualitative Interviews mit Lehrpersonen in Wien geführt wurden. Die erhobenen Daten machen es möglich, die "Philosophie des Faches", bzw. den Bildungswert, den die Lehrpersonen ihrem Fach beimessen, umfassend zu rekonstruieren.
Understanding the ways knowledge is created, tested and evaluated within geography remains an underdeveloped area of geography education. This knowledge is included within the Maude’s typology of powerful geographical knowledge and is recognised within the description of powerful disciplinary knowledge that has culminated from the GeoCapabilities project. This chapter presents a call to view disciplinary knowledge through the lens of geography teachers’ professional practice. This exploration is orientated towards the idea that disciplinary knowledge ought not be isolated from how it is developed and marshalled by geography teachers, because it is through teachers’ professional practice that disciplinary knowledge becomes part of students’ geographical education. This chapter considers Huckle’s (Intl Res Geograph Environ Educ 28(1):70–84, 2019) concern that powerful geographical knowledge is not fully underpinned by critical realism and through this discussion draws out the significance of considering the epistemic relations of geographical knowledge for geography teachers’ curricular decision-making. The second part of the chapter builds the case for a more explicit theorisation of disciplinary knowledge, which attends to the interplay between the relations of teacher, student and content and more broadly to geography teachers’ professional practice.
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Michael Young’s ideas about the school curriculum have proved to be enormously fertile, in particular his thinking about ‘powerful knowledge’ and his argument that the main function of schools is to enable all students to acquire knowledge that takes them beyond their experience. Young’s ideas are examined in this chapter, particularly in the light of John White’s long-standing views about the curriculum and his argument that the main aim of schools should be to promote human flourishing. I conclude that if applied inflexibly or naively Young’s ideas could result in some students receiving an inappropriate education. Applied sensitively they have the potential to complement the work of other educationalists, including John White, and enrichen the education that schools provide. A start is being made on such fine-grained work – notably in respect of geography. It would be good to see such work extended to other subjects.
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In January 2011, the Coalition government launched its National Curriculum Review. As part of this, they set up an Expert Panel to ‘support the Department in the conduct of the review by providing detailed advice on the construction and content of the new National Curriculum’. The Expert Panel of four senior educationalists was chaired by Tim Oates from Cambridge Assessment. In December 2011, the Panel produced its Report The Framework for the National Curriculum. This critical assessment of the Report is by members of the New Visions for Education Group. It is divided into two parts, corresponding to the structure of the Report itself. In Part 1, John White from the Institute of Education, London discusses central lines of argument in Chapters 1-4; while in Part 2, Margaret Brown from Kings College London examines leading themes in Chapters 5-8. Part 1 Comments on Curriculum Subjects, ‘Powerful’ Knowledge, and the Aims of the Curriculum This part is about the framework for the Framework: its basic principles as laid out in Chapters 1 and 2 (pp 11-17) and its restructuring of the curriculum in Chapter 4 (pp 23-9). Part 2 Comments on Programmes of Study, Attainment Targets and Assessment This part focuses on the nature of the specification of subjects and their assessment, and in particular on Chapters 5 to 8 of the Expert Panel Review.
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A critique of Michael Young's advocacy of 'powerful knowledge' at the heart of the school curriculum
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The almost universal practice when designing school curricula is to start with subjects – mathematics, science, music and so on. In this book we argue that this approach starts too far in. If a subject like geography or English is to be included, we need to ask why. What larger educational aims does it help to promote? An aims-based curriculum can take different forms. Ours starts with general aims that we hope are broadly acceptable – to do with equipping students for a fulfilling life and for helping others, e.g. as citizens and workers, to lead one too. We spell out how we see these aims and the complexities in them that need to be unravelled. Then we see what further, more specific, aims these very general ones generate. For instance, the fulfilling life for which students are being prepared has a lot to do with wholehearted engagement in worthwhile activities and relationships. Since students will make their own autonomous choices among these, they will need understanding and experience of them across a wide range. We explore this at some length, drawing attention to, among other things, the role that imagination and student choice can play, the especial importance of the arts, cooperative activity and discussion; and what can be achieved through what we call the ‘taster-option model’, whereby, as with more recondite parts of mathematics, for instance, students are able to take up an activity on an optional basis after a preliminary introduction to it.
For all the talk of ‘the Knowledge Age’, the nature of knowledge in the context of formal education remains a neglected area. Michael Young is one of few sociologists who responds to this neglect and puts the question of knowledge squarely back into discussions of why formal education matters. In the context of ongoing disputes around the curriculum, concerned with factual knowledge and access to multiple ways of meaning making as means for individual realisation, attention to the question of knowledge is ever more urgent. Young asks, “What is educationally worthwhile knowledge?” His response goes to the heart of what is distinctive about humans. Drawing on the work of Durkheim and Vygotsky, Young provides a rich account of ‘powerful knowledge’. This chapter combines his insights with developments in contemporary philosophy. It aims to respond to misconstrued readings of Young’s work which takes his emphasis on ‘powerful knowledge’ to be at odds with a concern for pedagogy and human flourishing.
In his paper ‘Education and the Educated Man’1 Richard Peters asks how the pursuit of knowledge can be justified for those who are not committed to it and who do not find it of absorbing interest. He asks also for a justification of the pursuit of ‘breadth’ of knowledge. In this paper I accept Peters’ view of education as involving the development of knowledge and understanding and try to provide the beginnings of answers to the questions raised by him, stressing the element of vitality in intellectual enquiry, which he tends perhaps to neglect. I shall maintain also that a criterion of the educational value of a branch of study is that it concerns matters which it is important for human beings to know about and understand. These two moves will bring me into collision with Paul Hirst’s well-known doctrine concerning the curriculum, the first because it involves a notion of mental development which is different from his, the second because it is incompatible with an account of the curriculum based entirely on formal considerations.
Mr Elliott begins by accepting Professors Hirst and Peters’ view that education is connected with the development of mind; but differs from them in the account which he offers of the development of mind. He rejects the view, associated particularly with Professor Hirst, that mental development can be understood only by reference to seven officially designated forms of knowledge. His primary purpose, however, is not critical but constructive; and Hirst’s account is criticised primarily to point the constrast between it and his own. According to Mr Elliott, the most fundamental development of mind is the development of the mental powers; and this may occur without any study of the systematic disciplines. A person becomes educated, therefore, not by becoming acquainted with Forms of Knowledge but by developing his mental powers. He justifies this preference by reference to a criterion of educational value; i.e. by reference to what “is necessary for a human being to live as a human being.” (p. 56) Although study of the systematic disciplines is not necessary to becoming educated, a person may become educated through the study of them provided the criterion of educational value is satisfied. It may be satisfied directly if it concerns matters which it is important for a human being to know about and understand (p. 59); or indirectly if the study develops his mental powers.
Charles Bailey advances a modern characterization and justification of liberal education and defends such a view of liberal education against contemporary challenges. The book will be of special value to those guiding educational policy, designing curricula and reflecting on their own teaching practice. An introductory part of the book describes the need for justification and the special nature of liberal education as compared with other characterizations of education in utilitarian terms. The author offers a positive account of the content of liberal education, after a consideration and critique of the work of Paul Hirst, Philip Phenix and John White and follows this with an account of teacher strategy, attitude and methodology appropriate to liberal education. The final part of the book describes contemporary trends and challenges to the idea of liberal education and shows how they fail to provide a coherent alternative to liberal education as a basis for universal compulsory education.