One of the criticisms I read so often of a knowledge-based curriculum is that the focus is too much on facts and not enough on understanding, as if facts are somehow these noumenal, things-in-themselves, entirely devoid of any other meaning. This is a mistaken and wearisome misunderstanding of knowledge. Here’s why.
Say we have the word ‘dog’. There’s the apriori ‘dog’, in terms of its dictionary definition, but there’s also the phenomenal dog, the one we have experienced. My friend’s three year-old loves dogs, and he’s able – and has been for some time now – to recognise the many different types of dogs. There’s something, as Quine might have said, quite ‘doggish’ which he seems to understand, whether looking at pictures of dogs, or meeting friends’ dogs, or whatever. And so it could be argued, I suppose, that his understanding is enriched by his experience of dogs in reality. He doesn’t yet have enough language, I suspect, to be able to explain what it is that is so doggish about his favourite creatures, but he recognises them all the time.
Similarly, I’ve not been to Moscow, but put me in Red Square and I’ll know immediately where I am. And yes, of course, by being there my understanding will be enriched: I’ll straight away look for Lenin’s mausoleum and St. Basil’s. Not having visited means I don’t have an appreciation of the space of the plaza, true. However, although I maybe don’t understand it in the same way as a Muscovite I still know what it is. Moscow has many different emotional meanings to many people, I’m sure. For some it is home, for others work; for more, still, it is the representation of Soviet power. But it’s still Moscow, both apriori (capital city, etc.) and aposteriori (wear extra socks in November, avoid the Tsverskoy district on an opera night, etc.).
These are facts: a dog is x, Moscow is y, and so on. These facts have intrinsic value in and of themselves because they open the door to more knowledge: knowing that Moscow is the capital city of Russia means that anything else one ever finds out about Moscow has more value because of the links available: knowledge breeds knowledge.
Now, great teaching will of course help children understand these things further and that is why it’s so important to have what has been called ‘fingertip knowledge’. Therefore, if I’m teaching 1984 I want my pupils to first know certain things about Europe from the 1930s up to 1948. A knowledge organiser (or whatever you want to call it), from which pupils can memorise certain historical facts which have meaning in and of themselves, would thus be really useful. These facts would be neither decontextualised on their own, collated or with reference to Orwell’s piece: they’d be an essential part to understanding the story. Could one enjoy 1984 without knowledge of totalitarianism? Yes, of course. Could one recognise the danger of power for power’s sake, of mass-surveillance, and of propagandist sensationalism? Again, yes. But it’s also rubbish to say that the book could be totally understood, and that’s why we’d teach – and expect pupils to memorise – certain facts: memorisation is an argument for contextualisation, not against, because it is the context.
Knowing more allows us to argue because it gives us the knowledge to do so. Yes, we need the language to argue, and we need to be taught how to do so in particular domains, but that comes after the fact. Knowing lots of facts doesn’t make us right, or even necessarily interesting if we cant express ourselves, but that isn’t an argument which supports the claim that a focus on knowledge is somehow the antithesis of learning.
What about a statement, decoupled from any other meaning? What about, ‘A triad is a chord consisting of three notes.’ On its own does this have any meaning? If we know what a chord and a note is then yes, of course. In fact, if we know what these are then we can create a triad. Maybe we can’t do it really well, but we can do it. If we learn lots of triads then it stands to reason that, once practised, we’ll begin to understand music. In fact, if we know three triads, and learn how to play just these three, we have the basis for most modern pop. And no, theory is not the same as playing (I taught myself guitar, and then had to teach myself theory later for A level music, which was a much harder way of doing it), but it helps.
Again, this is a fact, and knowing this means I can do more. It isn’t decontextualised from anything else because it is a doorway to everything else, and memorising this triad and others helps us to become intrinsically familiar with not only the chords but also popular-music culture and Western composition: it becomes more than the sum of its parts on its own terms.
And so when I read that a knowledge-based curriculum is the teaching of decontextualised facts I can only wonder what that would actually mean. A poor knowledge organiser might not tie itself to a topic particularly well, or might not be adhered to by a department, but even then knowing the facts is valuable: the assessments might end up being awful, but that’d a problem of curriculum design, not of requiring the memorisation of facts. It would be a pointless exercise, and I cannot imagine why anyone would bother doing it, let alone whether anyone actually does.