Views of knowledge

Knowledge is at the centre of the Enquiring Minds approach. An Enquiring Minds classroom is a classroom in which knowledge is being presented, shared, discussed and critiqued. It is also a democratic but intellectually disciplined classroom in which students and teachers create and re-create knowledge. Central to Enquiring Minds is the principle that young people are able to access, shape and contribute to knowledge, and that this is not an activity to be delayed until children become adults.

It is often argued that schools operate with a ‘banking’ view of knowledge in which knowledge is ‘deposited’ in students’ minds1. Much of this knowledge never gets used and, since it is not meaningfully connected with students’ experiences, is quickly forgotten. In an attempt to counter this tendency, others suggest that it might be better to teach students to learn how to learn, so that they are able to ‘access’ knowledge at the point where it is useful to them.

The problem with both these views is that they seem to assume that knowledge is simply a stable commodity that is more or less useful at different times. This ignores the fact that knowledge is shaped by human interests and contexts and is, therefore, in itself fluid and subject to change.

Enquiring Minds works on the assumption that knowledge is a social construction. What this means is that knowledge is the product of human activity, and that what counts as knowledge is likely to change. A moment’s thought will confirm that what are seen as scientific or historical ‘facts’ are open to revision, that what counts as valid English language changes over time, that new ‘problems’ emerge as important at different periods, and that older concepts such as ‘economic development’ are subject to reinterpretation as society changes2.

Far from being static and stored in libraries and databases, knowledge is something that is actively worked on. In a rapidly changing world, therefore, students do not simply need to ‘acquire’ a fixed body of knowledge, nor do they simply need to learn how to ‘find the knowledge’ when they need it. Instead they need to be adept in understanding how knowledge changes, how it is formed and developed, in what contexts and situations it is used and produced, and how they themselves may play a role in shaping, changing and working with such knowledge.

This suggests that we need to consider the types of knowledge taught and learned in schools. In thinking about this it is useful to consider three types of knowledge3:

Functional – this is knowledge that allows us to operate in the world. It is often technical or ‘factual’ information. An example would be the knowledge required to read a map to navigate around a town.

Cultural – this is knowledge that is concerned with understanding the meaning of objects or events. An example would be the type of knowledge that allows us to understand why a particular place or landscape is considered valuable.

Critical – this is knowledge that allows us to understand and critique the forces that shape the world. An example would be the type of knowledge that allows students to understand the reasons behind things such as housing shortages or climate change.

All three types of knowledge are required for people to understand the world and operate within it. However, it could be argued that much of what is taught in schools tends to be functional or cultural knowledge which allows people to take their place in the world. Students also need to encounter critical knowledge which allows them to pose questions about how things could be different, and to understand knowledge as dynamic and open to change. It is this critical knowledge that allows people to act to shape themselves and the world.

The dynamism of knowledge is not reflected in the school curriculum, where there is a tendency to present knowledge as ‘tidy’ and ‘packaged’. This is reflected in the metaphor commonly used to describe teaching: that the curriculum is to be ‘delivered’4. This view of knowledge has little in common with the ways in which knowledge is produced and transformed in reality. The differences between ‘school knowledge’ and ‘dynamic knowledge’ are summarised in the following table:

The differences between ‘school knowledge’ and ‘dynamic knowledge’
‘School’ knowledge ‘Dynamic’ knowledge
Evidence-base strong
Appears to be largely an individual process
Social context appears largely irrelevant
Often contested
Evidence-base weak
Collaborative in production
Social context is relevant

Enquiring Minds is an approach to teaching and learning which attempts to model how we might design curriculum with and for students based on a dynamic model of knowledge.

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