“Knowledge Rich” or “Content Rich” Curricula?18 December 2020
Sometimes, when talking about knowledge and curriculum, people will ask my thoughts about the term “knowledge rich.” My response usually starts out with a statement saying “First off, I’m not opposed to knowledge,” and then from there, well – things get complicated.
I have some objections to the use of “knowledge rich.” Here are a couple of my concerns. First, from a rhetorical perspective, “knowledge rich” can be used as an inflammatory and divisive term. For example, a Jeremiad is a type of narrative bemoaning the (usually unsatisfactory) state of society and its morals. Used this way, “knowledge rich” is an indictment of approaches to curriculum perceived as not including ‘enough’ knowledge, or perhaps more appropriately the right kind of knowledge. Some educators persuaded by E.D. Hirsch’s “core knowledge” may fit into this category, believing that simply including this “right kind of knowledge” in the curriculum will bring about their desired results. While this approach attempts to create a uniformed ‘core’ of knowledge it can also overemphasise “knowledge” at the expense of pedagogy and pupils, and presents a danger of teachers being reduced to transmitters of knowledge rather than subject experts with professional experience, knowledge, judgment, and expertise (Lauder 2009).
“Knowledge rich” proponents often align their rhetoric to Young et al’s (2008) call to “bring knowledge back in” to the curriculum, which itself is a Jeremiad suggesting we should “get back” to a “golden age” of education that held knowledge as the heart of the schooling experience (if such an era ever existed).
“Knowledge rich” is also a kind of trope situating the “richness” of a curriculum (which alludes to notions of wealth, abundance, fertility, and saturation) entirely upon its collection and presentation of knowledge. When used this way concerns over what to include in school curricula risk failing to address ways in which disciplinary knowledge becomes curriculum content.
School subjects are “uniquely purpose-built educational enterprises, designed with and through an educational imagination toward educative ends” (Deng & Luke 2008, p. 83). If I were splitting hairs, I would argue for the use of ‘aims’ instead of ‘ends.’ For me, ‘ends’ suggest a terminus, an educational exit-point grounded in discourses of schooling and training, whereas I interpret ‘aims’ as educational ideals that are central to the immediate circumstances and experiences of teachers and pupils that also extend far into the realms of their future aspirations, being, and actions.
However — irrespective of whether we position these curricular purposes as the outcome of schooling experiences or as ongoing educational aspirations that inform reflection, guide current action and thought, and provide motivations that fuel aspirations for the future — as part of a curriculum, school subjects remain aligned to socio-cultural, political, economic, educational and individual outcomes and consequences.
The deliberations of knowledge noted above are all set within the context of educational policies (e.g. national, regional, and school), established discourses of practice, and the simple (yet often unforeseen) realities of school-life. Curricular work focused on questions of “what knowledge is of most worth” (as well as why, and how it is experienced at school and beyond) means disciplinary knowledge stops existing in its initial form prior to curricular deliberations and is then translated into a curricular context and form through the efforts of curriculum workers. The outcome is a “very special kind of knowledge that results from a special selection, organisation and transformation of knowledge for social, cultural, educational purposes” (Deng 2020, p.7).
Finally, in returning to a rhetorical analysis of the phrase “knowledge rich,” we can also interpret it as a kind of ideograph – a term that appeals to an idea that evokes strong emotions in many people. In 2002, the “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) act was introduced in the US. Its emotive title suggested children were being “left behind” (but when, and by whom?), and that they would continue to be “left behind” without this national policy.
Ideographs can frame resistance to the details of policies like NCLB through simply using a provocative phrase. Initially, opponents to NCLB were positioned through rhetoric as being opposed to “not leaving children behind.” The term “knowledge rich” can also be used in this way, with those who are suspicious or critical of the term and its use automatically situated as being opposed to the idea the phrase suggests (e.g., “Why do you oppose knowledge rich curricula? Don’t you think pupils should gain knowledge?”).
If I had to choose an alternative to “knowledge rich” curricula, but still had to use the word “rich,” perhaps I would choose “rich curriculum content.” This is largely because I think this better represents the deliberations and justifications for the inclusion of particular forms of knowledge in school and how they are to be considered in planning, enacting, and evaluating educational experiences.
Typical curricula are organised around three broad considerations: Curriculum content, societal needs, and individuals’ needs.
- Of the three considerations above, which one is of the utmost importance to you? Why?
- How should curriculum workers (e.g. teachers, curriculum leads, pupils, parents, etc.) negotiate different perspectives on knowledge in curricular deliberations?
- While curricular deliberations involve how to translate subject/disciplinary knowledge into curriculum content, arguments involved in those deliberations can sometimes ignore the epistemological foundations of curriculum work. In general terms, epistemology is concerned with the nature of knowledge, its acquisition, and how we justify those claims. With this in mind…
- What do you believe knowledge “is?”
- How do you think humans acquire knowledge?
- How do you justify these claims?
Deng, Z. 2020. Knowledge, Content, Curriculum and Didaktik: Beyond social realism. London: Routledge.
Deng, Z. and Luke, A. 2008. Subject matter: Defining and theorizing school subjects. In F.M. Connelly, M.F. He, & J. Phillion (Eds), The Sage Handbook of Curriculum and Instruction. pp.66-87. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Lauder, H. 2009. Policy and governance (Introduction) in Daniels, H., Lauder, H., and Porter, J. (eds). Knowledge, Values and Education Policy: A critical perspective. London: Routledge.