Critical Thinking-Can it be taught?

Not without subject knowledge 

An OECD report (see link below) says that one good example of a compound skill that relies heavily on both cognitive and personality components is critical thinking. It represents an ability to reflect on information interpret it in a new context and find solutions to novel problems based on existing knowledge. It encompasses cognitive capacities to use the rules of logic and cost benefit analysis, think strategically, and apply rules to new situations to solve problems. However, critical thinking also incorporates aspects of what it labels the Big Five dimension of openness to experience, such as independence  (autonomy) and unconventionality, which represent the driving factors behind the use of cognitive skills for purposes of critical inquiry.’

It continues ‘There is a consensus that critical thinking is an increasingly important skill that should be cultivated in formal education. The ability to act independently and reflect critically upon a given reality is especially important in the fast-changing environment we live in. The role of educational systems is thus increasingly seen as one helping children become lifelong learners, individuals who are autonomous and adaptable, able to critically reflect and understand the evolving reality. A critical stance is also seen as an increasingly relevant skill in a world with more and more misinformation, the unexamined acceptance of which can lead to dangerous consequences for both society and individuals.’

Critical thinking is reckoned by some to include the component skills of analysing arguments, making inferences using inductive or deductive reasoning, judging or evaluating, and making decisions or solving problems.

So critical thinking is good. But,  to think critically you need a sound knowledge base. The more we know,  the more we can think, and think critically. And the more we know, the more we can reflect on what we know and therefore make the connections and linkages that are a prerequisite for critical thinking.

Uncritical thinking, on the other hand , looks a bit  like rote learning , and  simple regurgitation of facts. This is the start of an on -going debate about whether critical thinking can be taught as a standalone subject or not. Is critical thinking a generic skill to be taught? The short answer is that you need sufficient knowledge of a particular domain before you can think critically about it, so it is important that you build your knowledge across the curriculum and in specific domains before you can think critically. You should be encouraged to think critically in every subject you are studying. Your critical thinking is only as good as the mastery of your subject.

The  American education historian Diane Ravitch argued that “we have ignored what matters most. We have neglected to teach them (ie students)  that one cannot think critically without quite a lot of knowledge to think about. Thinking critically involves comparing and contrasting and synthesizing what one has learned. And a great deal of knowledge is necessary before one can begin to reflect on its meaning and look for alternative explanations.”

According to Daniel Willingham, decades of cognitive research suggest that  critical thinking  can’t really be taught. The problem is that people who have sought to teach critical thinking have assumed that is a skill, like riding a bike. Similar to other skills, once you learn it, you can apply it to any situation. Unfortunately, thinking is not that sort of skill he says . The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought ( in other words,  domain knowledge). This helps to explain why students are able to think critically in one subject area, but not in another. The more domain knowledge they have, the more critically they will be able to think about that particular topic or idea. Critical thinking is dependent and contextual. It is not as transferable as we have been led to believe, he claims.

As Willingham says, ‘Critical thinking is not a set of skills that can be deployed at any time, in any context. It is a type of thought that even 3-year-olds can engage in – and even trained scientists can fail in.’

But research from Pearson, says that while background knowledge is absolutely necessary  it is not a sufficient condition for enabling critical thought within a given subject.  It found in its literature review that  ‘Critical thinking involves both cognitive skills and dispositions. These dispositions, which can be seen as attitudes or habits of mind, include open and fair-mindedness, inquisitiveness, flexibility, a propensity to seek reason, a desire to be well informed, and a respect for and willingness to entertain diverse viewpoints.’ So, there are both general- and domain-specific aspects of critical thinking. Critical thinking is more than recalling learned information.  Based on this, Pearson says that  critical thinking assessments should ‘use ill-structured problems that require students to go beyond recalling or restating learned information and also require students to manipulate the information in new or novel contexts.’  It concludes that in theory all people can be taught to think critically. Instructors are urged to provide explicit instruction in critical thinking, to teach how to transfer to new contexts.’ So this seems to reinforce the OECD view that critical thinking requires ‘both cognitive and personality components’  and yes teachers can help (see above)

Critical Thinking: A Literature Review- Research Report, Pearson 2011

Link to Report

OECD Report


Memorisation and Learning- Paul A Kirschner at SSATs conference

Memory and Learning

Don’t confuse access to information with knowledge

William Faulkner said in ‘Light in August’ that “ memory believes before knowing remembers”. In recent years cognitive psychologists have established that the mechanics of memory have a big impact on learning.   Professor Paul Kirschner, in a key note presentation  at  last weeks well attended   SSAT Annual conference,  described the difference between short term,  or working memory, and long term memory(LTM) and its impact on learning .

Short Term and Long Term Memory

The long-term memory can be defined as a huge,   virtually limitless repository of vocabulary, concepts and procedures.  Human intellect comes from this stored knowledge and not from long, complex chains of reasoning in working memory.  Everything we see, hear or think about, it seems,   is dependent upon our long term memory.

The human working  short term memory, on the other hand, is much more limited. It is the ‘space’ in which we think and process information immediately. The relationship between short term and long term memory and the cognitive processes that support learning are all  vital to learning. Indeed, long term memory is seen as the single dominant structure of human cognition.  Learning is defined as a change in long-term memory. And the human cognitive architecture is formed of both long-term and short-term memory “where the long-term incorporates a massive knowledge base that is central to all of our cognitively based activities”

Working memory can only hold, for a short time, a few items so   7+/- 2 items for less than a minute. When working memory fills its processing capacities,  it slows down. Kirschner demonstrated this with an exercise in memorisation in which the audience participated, memorising basic sequences of related numbers and letters. The exercise starkly demonstrated the constraints of short term memory.

When students are working on a task – be it reading, writing, solving a maths problem or throwing a ball – they are mainly relying on the representations of these experiences in their long-term memories. When we solve a new problem, we are not really working it out. We are remembering it. This is because the space in the working-memory is so small. And, It is easy to overload this short term memory. Its constrained ,unlike long term memory, which is virtually limitless.

The encouraging thing though is that  long-term memories  can be brought back to mind when they are needed/  The  point about this is  that if nothing has been changed in long-term memory, then nothing has been learned. If you know your times-tables, for instance, this knowledge can be employed to help in the solving of more complex problems without placing any extra stress on working memory. Therefore, the more developed our mental schemas – the vast repositories of concepts and procedures in our long-term memory – the easier it is to learn new information.

So what? How does this impact on what teachers do ? Well, teachers want their students to retain what they are being taught and apply it later on. They get frustrated that their students forget vital information so quickly.   So, teachers should ease the load on their students’ short term, working memories. Too much information leads to cognitive over-load.  So how do you get information to embed in your long term memory? In short,   the more students practice something, the more likely it will be that this stays in the  long term memory.  Broadly its called the Test Effect. Teachers   need to free  up short term memory  to ensure that more information gets s stored in long term memory.


So, teacher instruction must consider how this information is stored and organised in LTM so that it is  then accessible when and where it is needed. This is where schema theory comes in.  Knowledge is stored in LTM in schemata. Schemata is about categorising  information elements according to how they will be used , A schema can hold a huge amount of information, yet is processed as a single unit in working memory. Schemata can integrate information elements and production rules and become automated, thus requiring less storage and controlled processing. Skilled performance consists of building increasing numbers of increasingly complex schemas by combining elements consisting of lower level schemas into higher level schemas. . In summary, schema construction aids the storage and organisation of information in long-term memory and reduces working memory load so avoiding cognitive over-load. (If you’ve missed it , this is the new big idea in cognitive psychology.)

Multi- Tasking and Distractions

Well, at least we can  all multi-task  (especially women!). Well actually we can’t.  Or at least not  at all well.  Because our short term memory is so constrained, we are not good at multi- tasking, although we may think we are.  What we actually do is shift from one task to another. And we are particularly bad  at functioning in basic tasks if  we are in any way distracted while carrying out that task. Those who claim to  to multitask at scale    show an enormous range of  cognitive deficits. They’re basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking.

If ,for example, a car driver is  distracted by using his/her  mobile phone ,even hands free, Kirschner revealed an experiment that showed  drivers reaction times  and the distance it takes to stop a  car,   is  badly affected by mobile phone use.  (the data was pretty  shocking) Using a mobile phone was considerably worse, as it happens, than if  someone is impaired by alcohol.

Kirschner made it clear that the use of computers and mobiles during his presentation were distractions and should be switched off.  Much better to use pencil and notepad. Some teachers in the audience were inevitably caught out .The broader lesson for teachers though  is to reduce distractions,  and that includes technology,  for learners to a minimum because we cannot multi-task and our short term memory has significant constraints and is prone to overload.


The Testing Effect

The testing effect was referenced as means of embedding information and knowledge in long term memory (LTM). It is the finding that long-term memory is increased when some of the learning period is devoted to retrieving the to-be-remembered information through testing with proper feedback. The effect is also sometimes referred to as retrieval practice, practice testing, or test-enhanced learning. Testing has a powerful positive effect on future retention. If students are tested on material and successfully recall or recognize it, they will remember it better in future than if they had not been tested. . Frequent testing leads students to space their study efforts, permits them and their instructors to assess their knowledge on an ongoing basis, and—most important —serves as a powerful mnemonic aid for future retention.

Actually, the limitations of working memory mean that we have to have a store of facts in long-term memory, in order to be able to think. Not only that, but in order to use reference tools like Google and Wikipedia effectively, you need a great deal of knowledge to begin with stored in your long term memory .Those who think that you simply need access to the internet now and don’t need to learn and store facts are simply wrong. They clearly confuse information with knowledge, not uncommon among Edutechies.  Who can disagree with that?   Making knowledge stick, so you can apply it later on  matters to us all .Because that is what learning is really about. Memorisation and applying knowledge over time , is learning. And the more we know, the more we can think.

Memorisation and Rote Learning

Rote memorization actually encourages surface learning, rather than anything deeper   “Cognitively passive” study methods, are based on repetition and rehearsal, i.e., rote memorization.  While these techniques can make it easier (and faster) to recall information within a narrow window of time, when it comes to application, analysis, and other higher-order types of knowledge, they may be worse than useless because they consume valuable time that could/should be spent on deep learning approaches

There are a list of techniques that can help LTM which Paul Kirschner   briefly referenced in his presentation .There are quite a few .But here are just some:

Retrieval practice

Self-quiz frequently by recalling information from your memory. Every time you access a memory, you strengthen it. So, not only does self-quizzing help you identify your areas of weakness, it also helps you retain the information for later recall by strengthening the neural connections.

Elaborative rehearsal

Link new information to things you already know. Access to memories is greatly improved when the information being learned is meaningful. To aid in recall, study methods should involve deliberate creation of logical, intuitive, and even fanciful associations with existing knowledge. Make sense of new information and develop an organizational scheme/framework; information you understand rarely needs to be “memorized.”

 Generation effect

Retention and recall are improved when you actively participate in the creation of your own knowledge.  So, Create your own summaries, study guides, tables, flow charts, diagrams, etc.

Dual coding

Create both a visual and a verbal memory for the same information.

 Associate words with pictures

o Use your own words to describe a picture/figure/diagram

o Translate a written passage into a drawing or diagram

Distributed effort

Spread studying out over several days, rather than cramming. Say you’re going to spend 10 hours studying a particular topic, rather than spending one marathon 10-hour session, it is far more effective to spend that time as 10 one-hour sessions, or 5 2-hour sessions, or even 2 5-hour sessions, spread out over two or more days. This is why it is so very important to review everyday. Obviously, you cannot review everything everyday, but make sure you frequently review the things that are most challenging to you.

For more information on Paul A. Kirschners thinking and research

Urban Myths

Is Identity Politics fomenting Intolerance ?

Mark Lilla, Professor of humanities at Columbia University, New York, in his new book is “The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics” says that Identity politics on the left was at first about large classes of people – African Americans, women, gays – seeking to redress major historical wrongs by mobilising and then working through our political institutions to secure their rights. But by  the 1980s, it had ” given way to a pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow, exclusionary self-definition that is now cultivated in our colleges and universities.” Identity politics generally refers to the idea that we are all members of a particular distinctive  group or groups with whom we identify  sharing common interests and values and politics is about representing and protecting these groups perceived  interests.

Professor Lilla refers to  ‘identity liberalism’, in other words a  focus on racial, gender and sexual identity, rather than on the  politics of the common good.

He  says that by undermining the universal democratic “we” on which solidarity can be built, duty instilled and action inspired, it is unmaking rather than making citizens. In the end, this approach just strengthens all the atomising forces that dominate our age.’

The universities of our time, he claims , instead cultivate students so obsessed with their personal or group  identities that they have  precious left   to register  any interest in, or engagement with ,  people and matters that don’t touch on their chosen  identity

The main result has been to turn young people back on to themselves, rather than turning them outward towards the wider world they share with others. It has left them unprepared to think about the common good in non-identity terms and what must be done practically to secure it – especially the hard and unglamorous task of persuading people very different from themselves to join a common effort.

Clare Foges of the Times picked up on a similar theme in the paper this week . Again she sees it through the lens of left wing politics.  She said there is now a tendency to put people in boxes, to see the minority status first  then the individual second, rather  than  the other way round . There is now  an obsession, she says  with identity and difference which she claims is central to  Labours  strategy . Lost in all this though  is a sense of the common good, what is good for the community and country.

It is not exclusively of the left though, it seems to me. .  Pigeon holing people and defining   them as part of a group is common practice across the political and social spectrums. Social media aids  this process,  at  scale . If you define yourself as part of a group, you interact with  other members of that group and this helps reinforce your identity,  your views and values within  that group. In this echo chamber there is a tendency not to look outwards and to engage with others but to look inwards for support and reinforcement.  This in turn can breed intolerance and shut off  interaction debate and discussion. In the worse cases  people outside your group are seen  as a  threat which needs to be  addressed –and attacked or ostracised.   This  in turn begets trigger warnings, safe spaces and no- platforming. .  Wrapped around this   is the myth   that  these groups are homogeneous  , that they  share distinctive ,  common views and values. So you end up with vapid bogus  generalizations-  People of Colour think that … transgender people think this  .. Gay people think that..   Even  men and women are pigeon holed in this way.

Identity politics though leads to an atomised society .It is the individual group that is more important than the broader community.Sensitivity to the feelings of that group and individuals who mirror the views of the group, become paramount.  And if you are not part of that group   and you have not  lived  their experience and were not born into  it,   then you cant  know how they  feel.   So,   your views are irrelevant and  carry no weight. This is  an exclusive rather than inclusive form of  politics and engagement.  More than that, outsiders   are not entitled to express their  views . In this way intolerance is fomented and debate  shut down . And ,the rich  irony, is that if you express sympathy for a group ,with which you are not identified,  you can now  be accused of ‘appropriation’.   One  strongly suspects that this is one of the reasons why freedom of speech and expression has become such a fraught issue. Identity politics can shut down openness and transparent engagement. Too often the apostles of tolerance  ,who see themselves as liberals and champions of minorities rights   are, it turns out,   among the most intolerant.

The New Statesman wonders whether the left on the back of identity politics   has become too diverse. It opined recently ‘ The left must be more than a rainbow coalition of disaffected groups or identity interests. An obsession with self-affirmation can weaken solidarity and fellow feeling. It can lead liberals to tolerate illiberal behaviour in the name of “multiculturalism”. It can lead to the weakening of historic bonds – of class, of institutional loyalties.’

This all seems true.  Politics does seem to be more atomised, more exclusive and less focused now on shared values and action. Tolerance of others views is in short supply.If you really want diversity, you have to accept not just the views you like, but the ones you don’t.  The quality  of the public discourse is suffering .  Knowing this is one thing. Knowing what to do about  it  another. But pushing back on attempts to curb freedom of expression and speech seems  a good starting point  . So too  is teaching  young people  more about   liberal values, of how to engage responsibly  in informed debate ,to pursue truth,  to fact check,   to be tolerant of others views and more inclusive in their engagement with others  on political issues ,these  all   seem  to be  good starting  points.



The transition from primary to secondary school is known to be worrying for many pupils. They have to adapt to a more challenging school setting with different academic structures and expectations. They have to interact with new teachers and peers leaving behind what is known, secure  and routine . A significant minority of pupils experience a range of difficulties in adjusting to secondary school ,evidenced by a drop in performance, unreliable attendance, behaviour problems and increased anxiety.

But its often forgotten that the  social and academic challenges for pupils are just as real in the transition from secondary school to college and Higher Education. Young people are moving from one familiar learning environment to another very different one, requiring a different set of skills.  For example: self-belief, self-reflection, resilience,  critical thinking, independent learning  and,  crucially, management of expectations.

Many, particularly from the most disadvantaged cohort, are ill prepared for it.

A recent Roundtable this month,  hosted by Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice Chancellor of University of Buckingham , chaired  by Mary Curnock Cook,  looked  at the issues affecting students   in this transition. Sir Anthony  said that in his over 20 years of running secondary schools it had become very clear to him that there was a signal lack of connectivity and understanding between the secondary and Higher Education sectors. Schools don’t think that what happens in Universities has much to do with them, and vice versa.  However, nothing could be further from the truth.  Research for his booklet for the Social Market Foundation ’Solving the Conundrum: Teaching and learning at British universities’ revealed very low levels of knowledge and interest from HEIs in what is actually happening in schools. Dr Harriet Jones, of UEA,  has developed a particular interest in students transition from sixth forms/colleges to Universities, developing  Pre-University courses for students  which are used in over 300 schools to help prepare  students  for this transition.

Dr Jones said there was an obvious   chronic mismatch between what students expected from university study and what they actually experienced.  Surveys have shown that students, before they go to university, really don’t think  much about the academic challenges and transition that they face and what skills they may require to cope with their course work at university – instead, they think almost entirely about the social transition.  You have to understand young people’s perceptions and expectations to have a deeper understanding of the nature of the challenges they face in transition.  For example, a survey referenced by Dr Jones ,  found that 80% of those young people surveyed thought that all their university work would get personal feedback from a tutor and a similar percentage thought that a tutor would look at the first draft of their work.  So, differing expectations are a consistent and widespread problem.  Other Surveys, including the NSS, make it abundantly clear that young people believe that Universities are not delivering what they expected they would deliver.  This disjunction between their expectations and what they actually experience, needs to be addressed pro-actively.  A better and deeper shared understanding between students and universities has to be developed. .  They need to be informed – ie, this is what will happen in your first year and this is how you can  prepare for it. . Sixth formers are not being told what university is like and how it differs from the school learning environment.  In schools they are programmed to be taught by teachers to pass the test and exams.  The system is assessment driven.  That is what they are used to and prepared for.  At University it’s a  different learning environment. More of a partnership model where individuals need  agency and self-efficacy,   working with their tutors to develop as learners, needing  more  self-motivation  and initiative  and without the disciplined structure afforded by a school environment.

So, if there is a different approach to teaching and learning why don’t we better prepare young people for it?  And who should take responsibility? The answer is probably both schools and universities.

There are worries that a lack of funding in schools, colleges and sixth forms  is serving to narrow the curriculum offer,  further making it  even less likely that pupils will have the skills they need when they arrive in higher education. So there is surely scope  for universities to  step up to the plate on this and perhaps dedicate  some of their outreach funds to address this challenge.

Through Pre-University study courses and support in the first year at University there are a range of interventions that can help. But we first have to acknowledge that a problem exists. The Brilliant Club  has been doing some interesting work in this area. In seeking  to increase the number of pupils from under-represented backgrounds (those on Pupil Premium etc) progressing to highly-selective universities , it mobilises the PhD community to share its academic expertise with state schools through its Scholars Programme and Researchers in Schools,  running academic enrichment programmes. Students do apparently get a real sense of what will be required of them from people who have been through the process who act as mentors.

Dr Jones suggested that good sixth form preparation for HE, might include, for example

  • 3 A Levels
  • An Extended Project Qualification (EPQ)
  • Core Maths
  • Pre-University skills course


Much  more clearly needs to be done . To be fair some universities are already on  the case, but  the time has come for a more structured systematic  and coherent approach.  It  needs more  leadership from  the sector,   resources and  political backing,   to gain real momentum .

The Gatsby Benchmarks and the Careers Strategy

The Government is under increasing pressure to publish its long awaited  careers strategy. It has promised to release the  strategy ’ this autumn’. The ‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’  is upon us.The clock ticking.  Pressure is also mounting for it to have a more inclusive approach to the so-called Gatsby benchmarks ,produced by Sir John Holman which define the key concurrent  activities required to deliver high quality Careers Guidance. Ministers and the Careers and Enterprise Company consistently champion just two of the eight benchmarks, covering work experience and engagement with employers,   largely to the exclusion of the other six . It is widely accepted that the benchmarks are interdependent and mutually supportive, so that if just some activities take place, then the impact on outcomes will be diminished. The current narrative around careers guidance, particularly articulated   by Ministers, focuses almost entirely on the activities of the Careers and Enterprise company, and largely ignores what is happening through the National Careers Service and through other professional careers guidance  providers,  partnerships and hubs where there are many examples of outstanding practice often  confirmed  by Ofsted inspections. We should be acknowledging and   building on this best practice

Recently, the Minister Robert Goodwill in response to a PQ from Gordon Marsden, Labours Skills and HE spokesman said’  ‘The careers strategy will include proposals to improve the quality and coverage of careers advice in schools. These proposals will be informed by evidence regarding what works. The Gatsby benchmarks are based on the best national and international research and define excellence in careers provision. A two year pilot of the Gatsby benchmarks in the North East has demonstrated that significant improvements can be made.’ These improvements relied on an inclusive approach to the Benchmarks.

As the Minister stated Schools and colleges within the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (North East LEP) were selected in 2015 to pilot a new national careers guidance framework. This was  designed to encourage the next generation of young people to make fully informed decisions and to begin to equip them with the skills employers need. The pilot involved two years of intensive careers activity with schools, colleges and local businesses and is  including   four years of data collection, gathered and analysed by an independent evaluator, who will report on the impact of the national pilot in terms of student outcomes and progression into higher education, apprenticeships or employment. Ryan Gibson, National Facilitator for the Good Career Guidance Benchmarks Pilot at the NE LEP, said in June this year :

“The programme has been transformational in terms of improving students’ access to careers education and helping them develop the skills employers need. The initiatives the North East LEP has developed as part of the Career Guidance Benchmarks pilot have improved collaboration between the business community and the education sector, as well as provide teaching staff with workplace training and personal development opportunities to better equip them with the knowledge and skills to provide effective careers advice to students.”

Its pretty obvious that the government needs to focus on what works on the ground, learn from it , build on it and that the  resources that are available  should be directed to this end. At the moment this just isnt happening, to the frustration  of professional  guidance practitioners and to the cost of  people, including  many of our youngest and  most disadvantaged students  , seeking to make informed  career choices.Hopefully,  the Ministers reply , referencing the benchmarks  and evidence of what works represents  a nuanced  shift in policy. But dont hold your breath!

Eight Gatsby Benchmarks

A stable careers programme

Learning from career and labour market information

Addressing the needs of each pupil

Linking curriculum learning to careers

Encounters with employers and employees

Experiences of workplaces

Encounters with further and higher education

Personal guidance



See also  John Yarhams article in FE News October 2017

FE News

Knowledge, the Curriculum and the Substance of Education


A joint pamphlet has just been published by ASCL and Parents and Teachers for Excellence (PTE)- The Question of Knowledge- practicalities of a knowledge-based curriculum’. It reiterates just  how important the curriculum is , and how it is increasingly  seen as central to education reforms, reinforced by  the backdrop of recent speeches and commentaries from Ofsteds Amanda  Spielman, in  which she has made  it clear how much she rates the importance of  the curriculum –“One of the areas that I think we sometimes lose sight of is the real substance of education. Not the exam grades or the progress scores, important though they are, but instead the real meat of what is taught in our schools and colleges: the curriculum.”(23 June 2017)

There has long been debate about what the curriculum in schools should look like and offer . With Nick Gibb as Schools Minister there is much promotion of the knowledge based curriculum, heavily influenced by the thinking and teachings of ED Hirsch. Gibb firmly believes that the pendulum has now  swung  towards knowledge,  and away from skills .The alternative   ‘progressive’ view of the curriculum  is that it  should be more about skills development and cross cutting thematic approaches, in which core  content is more about  activities and skills,  fitted  specifically to the  needs of the 21st century , rather than relying so much  on traditional,  detailed subject-based content ,and the need for memorisation that goes with it.

Leora Cruddas ,until recently  Director of Policy and Public Relations, ASCL, now Chief Executive of FASNA ,  says of ED Hirsch “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.”

This booklet arises from a series of lectures, publications and public panels in England over the last two years on the subject of the knowledge curriculum.’ The centre right think tank Policy Exchange for example  published a pamphlet on Hirsch  in 2015 (see link)  When PTE and ASCL decided that they wanted to commission and publish this booklet, their  aim , apparently,  ‘ was to give a voice to the many educators who have attempted to answer these questions in their schools. We hope it is a useful contribution, particularly for those school leaders who are looking to explore the question of knowledge and the practicalities of a knowledge-based curriculum.’

Michaela Katib, Head of Cobham School, articulates the thinking behind the knowledge based curriculum well when she says  “ We believe that students need a knowledge-based curriculum to ensure they have solid foundations across a range of subject areas. We feel that a structured, well-planned curriculum, which offers appropriate progression and builds on prior learning, is the best way to prepare students for success in public examinations and equip them for their future careers.” And she introduces an important caveat “ The focus on imparting knowledge does not mean that we dismiss the value of pupils acquiring skills and, indeed, we feel that schools should offer a balance of approaches. However, we also recognise that pupils cannot be taught skills in a vacuum and benefit from expert, teacher-led instruction in order to acquire secure subject knowledge as a platform for their learning.”

Luke Sparkes and Jenny Thompson, of Dixons MAT say the secret to success isn’t the socio-economic make up of your cohort or the location of your school. For them:

“A knowledge-based curriculum is about harnessing the power of cognitive science, identifying each marginal gain and acting upon it; having the humility to keep refining schemes of work, long term plans and generating better assessments.”


The Question of Knowledge practicalities of a knowledge-based curriculum –Parents and Teachers for Excellence and ASCL  

The Question of Knowledge


See Also

Knowledge and the Curriculum: A collection of essays to accompany E. D. Hirsch’s lecture at Policy Exchange Sep 17, 2015




Parents and Teachers for Excellence (PTE) is a new movement to promote reforms within the education system and to spread good practice to help deliver excellence in schools across the country focused mainly on academy and free schools  as  engines of change

Web Site


The Times and many influential members of the establishment have expressed their growing concerns about funding cuts to the British Council. The Council has been seen as indispensable, they say, to the projection of our‘ soft power’, which we need more now than ever before.  Earlier this month The Times revealed the Foreign Office’s £39 million-a-year grant to fund much of its cultural activity in countries not entitled to aid was to be phased out over the next three years. It is reallocating funding towards poorer countries.  The council, a public body, also a registered charity, has promoted British values, culture and education around the world for 80 years, using soft power to cultivate relationships which survived the Second World War and the end of Empire. On the education front it has   offered, amongst other things , English language teaching abroad, seen to be its strongest card  and one of its  stated roles is to support UK  education exporters . It is partly funded by the taxpayer.

When the British Councils funding is thought to be under threat, it is a truth universally acknowledged that the great and the good, and the elite who define our culture for us,  become animated and   write lots of letters and  raise the matter  urgently in Parliament.  Make no mistake, the BC has many friends in high places.  In this case,  its supporters have  appealed to the Times. A supportive Leader,   somewhat inevitably, followed.

But as the Times reminds us the British Council has a reputation for  being poor at controlling its operational and staff  costs .  It also has a pretty poor record of  measuring its outputs, or demonstrating that it offers value for money to the British taxpayer. You see soft power is hard to measure and evaluate, so the BC always has a get out of jail card in its back pocket,when challenged about   value for money. In  the most recent Triennial review of the British Councils operations (2014)  concerns were registered by stakeholders  ie other English language education providers (remember its supposed to support our  education exports)about  its anti-competitive antics in the market,  as a subsidised provider of services. There are, and have long   been, particular concerns around the conduct of the BC covering   unfair competition,  conflicts of interest , and  a lack of accountability and transparency. The then junior Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire said in 2014 of the BC :

“I would argue that the threat from the commercial activities of the British Council has been real. Our concern is that in some ways, particularly in the provision of English language teaching and exams, it can freeze out the private sector. “

Spot on. This  was  the first time that any member  of any government had acknowledged that there might even  be an issue.  He went on to explain that  a  new independent complaints process was being  set up  run by a company called  Verita, which  was supposed to better  “hear and understand stakeholder concerns, including the concerns of the English language teaching and education sector, and take steps to address them.” Not much has been heard of Verita since.  Presumably its quietly going about its business.  Historically, though, complaints against the Council have rarely  been investigated with any semblance of  rigour.

The British Council wears many hats: it is a language school business, a language testing business, an international education marketing business (SIEM), an online english teaching business, a language school accreditor, an education service and support provider and  an exam provider . It also happens to compete in the above, with other UK providers , while ostensibly having the role as a promoter and supporter of these same providers. How does that work? Well, in short, it doesn’t and cant.  You cannot  work ‘for the benefit of all UK providers’ when you  compete directly with these same providers  for the same contracts abroad , often with a bit of very  special  bespoke support from local diplomats.

Kevin McNeany, one of our best education entrepreneurs  over  the last generation ,  having worked   in education for over 40 years,  told the Guardian a while back “ I never gave the British Council a moment’s consideration as a source of information and support. Even if they had information of commercial value, it would first be filtered through its own internal networks to see if it could be monetised for in-house benefit.” That’s what they do. Cherry pick for their own benefit,  and leave the rest   struggling with the remains

Going back to the  2014,  Triennial Review-it  found ‘ Feedback from some UK stakeholders reinforced our impression that the British Council was a less transparent organisation than might be expected of a major public body.’ That is an understatement. Its also hard to over -state how much ill feeling there is towards the BC in sections of the education market who believe that the BC,   far from supporting   their efforts,   actually undermine their business interests.   Not only have they used their privileged position to muscle out smaller providers from the market, but they use their contacts,  local intelligence and market  domination to secure the  big contracts, at the expense of other providers.  This is a nonsense if one is concerned about the development of this  education  export market and the  interests of UK plc , yet    its  been allowed to happen for years.

The   BC has also ,rather cleverly and quietly, been dipping into the aid budget too,   to make up for  the shortfalls in its FCO funding. The FCO has been subject to cuts, of course,  as has every other department ,excluding of  course  Aid.   Its not entirely clear why the BC should be exempt from cuts in a way that, for example , the Ministry of Defence and FCO aren’t.  Are we saying its Ok  as part of austerity measures to cut Defence (hard power)  but not  Culture (soft power)?

There is little evidence that the BC has done much in response to the recommendations made by the  last Triennial Review,  over improving its financial and operational transparency.   So, before one gets too dewy eyed about the BC and its ‘soft power’ being eroded , just remember that it should be subject to the same accountability  and transparency  as other bodies in receipt of taxpayers money. Which as things stand it isn’t.  .  As worrying is that in one  of the few export sectors where we should have a comparative advantage,  education,  and particularly  English language provision and related services, the BC increases the costs and risks of operating in that market, and acts as a barrier for many providers to enter that market in the first place. It reduces real competition in the market which affects  quality,   price and value for money. This all seems to be a matter of little concern to the great and the good,  or the Times, for that matter. One has to ask-why on earth not?