If you are a full-time teacher in the UK, you have probably been asked to do some work on a Knowledge Rich Curriculum in the past year or so. On 19th October, 2017, school standards minister, Nick Gibb complained to ASCL (the Heads’ union) that the previous government had launched a national curriculum that had been stripped of all knowledge content in favour of skills bias. The ten year obsession with the curriculum of Finland had led away from academic learning and teacher-centred education, he argued. Indeed, headteachers in his ASCL audience had been fundamental in developing a manifesto The Question of Knowledge, and deeply influenced the minister’s thinking:
The influence of E. D. Hirsch on educational thinking has been profound. At its heart is the idea that returning to a traditional, academic curriculum built on shared knowledge is the best way to achieve social justice in society. His work has also encouraged schools to focus on the concept of building cultural capital as a way to close the attainment gap.
— Leora Cruddas, foreword
Cruddas credits Hirsch’s development of ideas to a 2015 lecture entitled Knowledge and the Curriculum for The Policy Exchange. The Policy Exchange being the centre-right think tank set up by Michael Gove, Francis Maude and others. The vitally important bit of the speech for creative arts teachers worried about a more academic curriculum led by EBACC subjects was:
I am clear that the arts are a vital component of every pupil’s education. Arts and culture are part of the fabric of our society and the government firmly believes that every child should be taught a high-quality arts curriculum.
One of the contributing editors, Hywel Jones (West London Free School) states that music has pride of place in the curriculum – a school in which the vast majority of pupils are entered for the EBacc suite of core academic subjects. That is because music – along with other important arts subjects – has an important role to play in ensuring that pupils leave school with the cultural literacy they will need. And cultural literacy is a vital goal of a knowledge-rich curriculum, as Hywel explains in his essay:
We want children to leave our school with the confidence that comes from possessing a store of essential knowledge and the skills to use it. We believe that independence of mind, not compliance with socio-economic expectations, is the goal of a good education. We believe the main focus of our curriculum should be on that common body of knowledge that, until recently, all schools were expected to teach. This is the background knowledge taken for granted by writers who address the intellectually engaged layman – the shared frames of reference for public discourse in modern liberal democracies. Sometimes referred to as “intellectual capital”, at other times as “cultural literacy”, this storehouse of general knowledge will enable all our pupils to grow to their full stature. Passing on this knowledge, as well as the ability to use it wisely, is what we mean by a classical liberal education.
— Hywel Jones, p21
What did this mean at the actual chalkface (not in Free Schools) but in so-called “bog standard” academies as they used to disparagingly say?
As you can see from the mind map above contributed by at least 10 art teachers, we felt we were adding cultural value already but that skill acquisition was an equally important aspect of art education. ‘Mastery’ was seen as an opportunity for deeper understanding and that chronology was less important than key themes.
One Year Later
Now, Amanda Spielman of Ofsted seems to have green lit the idea by saying that ‘too many schools feel like they simply haven’t thought about the curriculum anywhere near enough, but now we have explicit permission to do so’. Discussion that started off as being centred on how we might teach a walking blues sequence on a keyboard and that it should reference the struggle from slavery now has moved on to: “Why do art teachers think that Georgia O’Keeffe’s flowers are so vital to the curriculum?”
Inevitably, something of a rethink of the curriculum has to take place to ensure robust and meaningful cultural literacy. Here is a snapshot:
In my view, this is pretty diverse, culturally rich, internationally significant, exciting etc but then I am biased by my own involvement in its’ development. However, it is only a cultural snapshot isn’t it? Who is to say that Benin carved masks exported by African artists to Paris in the early 20th century and influenced the Cubism of Picasso and Braque are so much more interesting and embed with intellectual capital than say Aztec textiles or Indonesian puppets? This movement has come from the right of the political spectrum, it is Eurocentric and has a ‘public school’ (ie private education) feel about it. I am sure they would approve of our topics involving Gothic architecture, Da Vinci and Michelangelo but would they approve of Jean-Michel Basquiet, Weta Workshop and Banksy? I suspect that their suspicion of multiculturalism stretches quite deeply and they wouldn’t approve of a book like John Teeple’s Timelines of World History that compares globally significant historical and cultural artefacts. It is available still on Amazon here.
Much of our accepted ‘chronology’ of Modernism is due to the founding principles of New York’s MoMA. Led by Rockefeller money and influence, the Museum of Modern Art was intended to showcase influence from the Gauguin’s and Van Gogh’s to contemporary American works. When it opened, just after 1929’s Wall Street Crash, its first curator was Alfred H Barr Jr. As well as Post-Impressionists, Barr was a huge fan of the German Bauhaus school of art, as well as the work of Pablo Picasso. Barr’s flow chart of Modernism is an awesome piece of graphics in itself; equally misleading and ingenious!
What he includes (and is unaware of) have formed our art historical context since the 1930s. Cubism as a visual arts language didn’t simply die off in 1912 or transmute into De Stijl; it was culturally significant in Czechoslovakia right up until the 1980s. Political movements and prejudices have swayed influence one way or another right up to the late Robert Hughes saying that all art is dead in the early 1980s.
I am not arguing against cultural significance in my discussion about the Knowledge Rich Curriculum; merely asking who gets to choose what stays and what goes and reinforcing the fact that all this is very much an aspect of a political interference rather than a cultural necessity. I am concerned that the algorithms of popular search engines will dictate cultural significance more efficiently than art educators.
Nick Gibb The Importance of a Knowledge Based Curriculum October 2017
Debra Kidd A Rich Curriculum June 2018
ASCL The Question of Knowledge 2017
Schools Week AI will soon beat pupils taught knowledge-based curriculum May 2018