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We had Prof. Michael Young in the House last night talking about the question 'What are schools for?' This marked the first in a new series of education lectures at the RSA supported by Edge.

It's the sort of question that, by virtue of being big, broad and endlessly contestible, is always enjoyable to explore and but impossible to fully answer.

Michael's focus was on knowledge and the curriculum. In particular he made a distinction between everyday experience, and curriculum knowledge. He argued the latter is powerful knowledge - it relies much less on context to be of use, and importantly takes students beyond their own experience. It's the kind of knowledge that helps people interpret, understand and ultimately change the world around them, and their lives. 

But these are also the difficult, disciplined, coherent bodies of knowledge and their role is being challenged by recent educational innovations, changes to the Key Stage 3 curriculum, and Diplomas.

Ultimately Michael's warning was that by changing curricula to emphasise the experience of the learner we could actually deny young people the chance to acquire powerful knowledge. We would leave them stuck in same situation they were in before they engaged in learning.

The debate in the hall afterwards, to my mind, misinterpreted him - often inferring (wrongly, I think) that a conservative idea about the process of teaching was also being advocated. One audience member went as far as describing him as a dinosaur!

I think there is an important implication for social justice here, which those concered with innovation in the curriculum would do well to consider carefully, and must balance with the challenges of relevance and enagement.


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