Book title: What Should Schools Teach?
Author/Editor(s): Alex Standish & Alka Sehgal Cuthbert
Publication date: 2017
1. What is your overall impression of the book?
The central purpose of this book is to provide a rationale for deciding what schools should teach, rooted in the special nature and types of knowledge found in university disciplines and their corresponding school subjects.
In the wake of Michael Gove’s ‘bonfire of the blob’, the so-called ‘knowledge-led’ schools movement was born. Since then, there's been a swing towards ‘knowledge’ and away from ‘skills’, but as this book points out, unless teachers, teacher-trainers and policy-makers have a conceptual understanding of what the ‘knowledge’ we wish to teach is, the change is in danger of being purely rhetorical.
This book provides a much-needed explanation of the history of school subjects from first principles, and the specific types of knowledge they offer our pupils. Through the introductory chapters, the reader is led through a whistle-stop history of disciplines from Ancient Greece, Islamic empires of the middle ages and Confucian China to the 19th century where discipline boundaries became concrete in university departments. This is a useful reminder that the starting point for all of our teaching should be the subjects themselves and the special types of knowledge they provide, rather than the latest national curriculum performance descriptors.
Each subsequent chapter offers a short introduction to the origins of the specific discipline and an interrogation of the forms of knowledge, methods and modes of enquiry that define it, from which subject-specific pedagogy must follow.
Though it would have been good to read about more subjects such as classics, chemistry, drama and music (which are missing from this volume), and the how to face the challenge of teaching a broad range of subjects in primary schools, we are hopeful that this book will prove to be a clarion call for teachers of all subjects to think more deeply about their disciplines.
2. Who do you think would benefit most from reading the book? What will they learn?
This book will be of interest to anyone with a serious interest in education, be they teachers, teacher-trainers, school leaders, policy-makers or academics.
For the current generation of teachers, to which we belong, there is often limited coverage of the history, philosophy and sociology of education in our initial training. Yet, at the same time, there are few things in education less stable than the curriculum. Without a deeper understanding of the types of knowledge which define our subjects, we are left at the mercy of changing exam specifications and the shifting sands of educational policy.
Without deeper reflection, it is also too easy for teachers to see curriculum design as merely timetabling and the sequencing of modules based on exams. By covering the formations and historical changes of university disciplines and their corresponding school subjects, the authors help readers to understand the special types of knowledge in each subject.
On a practical level, reading this book will remind anyone involved in curriculum design that the starting point for a knowledge-based curriculum should be the subject itself.
3. What did you think about the quality of the writing? Please consider the tone, structure and ideas. Does it suit the audience?
Whilst the book introduces a large number of theoretical terms and concepts from educational philosophy and sociology, this is done in a clear and systematic way.
The introduction and opening chapter lay out the central ideas of the book and provide context for the subsequent subject-specific chapters, allowing readers to dip-in and out as they wish.
Professor Michael Young’s preface suggests the reader begins by reading the chapters that are most relevant to them, before reading the introduction and the rest of the book. This is because the theory that informs the chapters might be unfamiliar to readers so it will make it easier to understand the practical implications of his framework.
Though not all the authors are academics, the quality of the writing is consistently high and it remains accessible to all those with a serious interest in education. One of the book’s strengths is that each contributor explains the nuances of their subject discipline in a way that any interested education professional will understand.
The book does not adopt a neutral tone; it offers a passionate and persuasive argument for a liberal subject-based education without falling into clichéd debates focused on a binary knowledge vs. skills dichotomy. That said, the writers do not come across as overly dogmatic and offer ideas and frameworks that can enrich the educational debate.
4. Please discuss the research used to underpin the ideas. What evidence does the author use? Is it robust and up-to-date?
The principle question of this book – ‘What knowledge should schools teach?’ – is arguably not one which can be answered through empirical research. If you are hoping for the authors’ arguments to be supported by neuroscience and statistically sampled trials, you will be sorely disappointed.
This is a point made explicitly by the editors: they acknowledge the evidence-based education movement, but also point out the limits of such research when conceived along narrowly scientific and mathematical principles. Their view is that ‘the preferable model for teachers is one of the scholar rather than researcher’.
Instead, the writers’ arguments are based on the work of researchers in sociology, psychology, history and philosophy of education. The bibliography has references to thinkers such as Basil Bernstein, Johan Muller, Emile Durkheim and Michael Young, whose idea of ‘powerful knowledge’ is an underlying principle for the selection of curriculum content within any subject.
These thinkers distinguish between two orders of knowledge; that which is acquired in the conduct of everyday life and ‘powerful knowledge’, which is the product of specialist, often scholarly, communities. Powerful knowledge is theoretical – it helps people see beyond their everyday experiences and make predictions about the world. The purpose of schools, it is argued, is to give children access to this.
The absence of empirical research, therefore, does not diminish the robustness of the writers’ arguments but rather acts as a reminder of the limit of contemporary trends.
5. What did you learn from reading the book? What ideas/approaches/practice will you change or adopt as a result of reading this book?
For us, this book offered clear explanations for terms we had heard before without truly understanding. For example, the difference between disciplines and subjects (disciplines being found in university departments and subjects being their school-based counterparts).
Having read this book over the Christmas holidays, we are now faced with a new year, a new term and the challenge of adapting and developing schemes of work in the relatively open field of primary and secondary modern foreign languages. In selecting, pacing and sequencing the knowledge for our pupils, we will be guided by the intrinsic pedagogy of the discipline itself rather than extrinsic pressures and accountability measures.
And, whilst we are making new year’s resolutions, we aim to be more scholarly in our approach to teaching – reading more widely around our subject so that our pupils access the most valuable ideas and concepts.
6. Could you share a quote from the book that particularly resonated with you?
"School subjects…are a way of inducting children into the intellectual habits of humankind, and hence into a disciplinary conversation about knowing our world."