“Big church.” “Nice church.”
Typical comments perhaps from someone with few facts in their long term memory, when visiting a famous cathedral, according to blogger and primary teacher Solomon Kingsnorth in this tweet thread from 2018.
Kingsnorth suggests that with the benefit of a knowledge-rich curriculum, you might hear these comments instead: “Looks gothic, different to the baroque cathedrals I’ve seen.” or “I’m metres away from a tomb containing the heart of Richard the Lionheart. My own heart is racing.” Because as Kingsnorth explains: “To have facts in long-term memory is to have a private tour guide to the universe LIVING IN YOUR BRAIN, ready at a second’s notice to give you a plethora of information which will enrich your experience of everyday life.”
One might counter that the first person is still able to read a guidebook to learn about the cathedral, however the second person will still have the richer experience, because the guidebook will make more sense, its content triggering even more connections to existing knowledge which are recalled and enjoyed. Knowledge is both what we think with and think about according to English teacher and author David Didau, therefore more knowledge in long-term memory means richer life experiences.
I first encountered the idea that we “think with knowledge” in my second year of teaching (2017), when I first read “Why don’t students like school?” by cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham. Until then I had been a fan of constructivist thinking, very much beloved of Computer Science legend Seymour Papert, famous for the phrase “The role of the teacher is to create the conditions for invention rather than provide ready-made knowledge.” My attempts to replicate Papert’s alleged success with “learning through creating” were ineffective, however, which was unsurprising when I learned that “unguided or minimally guided learning is significantly less effective and efficient than guidance that is specifically designed to support the cognitive processing necessary for learning.” (Kirschner, Sweller and Clark).
Over the next year I read more on cognitive science and became convinced of its importance to my teaching practice. I moved schools from one where constructivist pedagogies were common, to a school which embraced “cognitive load theory” (CLT) including the illuminating notion that “understanding is remembering in disguise” (Willingham). The school values a knowledge curriculum too, and since joining my practice has developed considerably.
Back to our cathedral, and we can understand why the second visitor enjoyed a fuller experience if we listen to E.D. Hirsch who explained that “Learning builds on learning” and that existing knowledge acts as “mental Velcro” which allows new knowledge to stick to it. (Hirsch, 2000) Hirsch goes on to claim that “knowledge is the great equalizer, schools have … a responsibility to provide more equal life chances for all students [through transmission of knowledge]”.
Michael Young went further in 2014 to describe the types of knowledge that provide opportunities to succeed in life. Young (2014) explains that knowledge is powerful ‘if it predicts, if it explains, if it enables you to envisage alternatives’. Robbie Burns explains in his MA thesis (summarised in Impact here) how powerful knowledge gives “students the knowledge they need to go beyond their own experiences towards greater social mobility.” (Burns 2020).
I do believe that learning knowledge empowers our children to succeed in life and improve their life chances. But even if we sometimes fall short of that lofty aim of social justice, I also believe, despite the clunky nature of the phrase and it’s problematic origins, “the best that has been thought and said” is every child’s birthright. As Ben Newmark put it so eloquently in his book “Why Teach” and on his blog here: “We teach because … our children are the heirs of all that has gone before them and by teaching them well we gift them their birth right to the fruit of our civilizations”. Let’s give that gift, to the best of our abilities.