Knowledge does not exist on the Internet. It only exists in the head

David Lambert

As a geographer, I find it interesting that it is politicians and thinkers on “the right” who appear to speak for knowledge in schools. In fact, geography tends to do well under Conservative governments. However, for me, the question of what has happened to the idea of education in recent years is much more important, a question that transcends party politics.

Although the 2010 White Paper The Importance of Teaching frequently mentions “core knowledge” as the substance of an enduring national curriculum, it does so in a way that is broadly based. It is the essential knowledge, concepts and understanding of school subjects, it says; teachers should know “how to convey knowledge effectively and how to unlock understanding” (para 4.8). However, it is clear how influential ED Hirsch has been in establishing “core knowledge” in the contemporary education lexicon. This is especially so now that Civitas has published its curriculum and its Years 1 and 2 books on “what your child needs to know”. It is no secret that Michael Gove, the education secretary, is a Hirsch fan.

I first came across the idea in a book shop in Boulder, Colorado – in 1992. A whole section was dedicated to the series of books on “what your child needs to know”. It seemed to be pandering to parental angst about the failure of schools to teach properly and their need to top up the experience to ensure educational advancement for their children. This appeared to be the main attraction of “core knowledge”:  as a silver-bullet solution to a deep-seated deficit model of state education.

I read more about it. Hirsch’s 1987 book, Cultural Literacy, describes a beguiling idea, with more to it than at first meets the eye. It makes sense that children need access to their national culture. Schools should teach a curriculum that takes children beyond what they already know and experience in their day to day lives.

As a geographer, I welcome the “knowledge turn” in schools. The story of the national curriculum since its introduction has been one of slimming down and reduction. Even if children experience lessons called geography, there are question marks about what makes it geographical.

What has replaced rigorous curriculum thinking (addressing the question of what we shall teach children) is the pedagogic adventure, wrapped up in some notion of “thinking skills” or “learning to learn”. I think it a wonder that children tolerate this at all.

However, what fuels the current core knowledge drive from government – at least in my subject – are questions such as: “Do 14-year-olds know the countries of Africa?” And statements like: “Children at 11 years old should know the rivers of England”. This is a shame, because it is mis-reads what Hirsch is saying. Thus, when I was told the rivers statement, all I could think of in reply was: “what, all of them?” It was meant as a light joke – but my serious point was: how many of the rivers of England would constitute a pass mark? Even more seriously: what do we mean by “know”?

Hirsch is brazen – and interesting – about this. Superficial core knowledge will do. It is almost as if Thames or Trent or Severn are simply words, to be used, more or less appropriately. The less you can do this with reasonable proficiency the less culturally literate you are – and the less enabled you are to converse, think and develop deeper, conceptual knowledge about … flood plains, electricity generation, transport, sewage disposal and so on.

My subject has a massive amount of potential “core knowledge” in this sense – every place name, feature, or wind pattern on Earth. We don’t need to know it all, but we do need to know some. It is embarrassing how little of this knowledge many children and adults seem able to draw on.

But perhaps core knowledge in the Hirschian sense holds less promise than its supporters allow. Like many ideas in education it gets over-invested in; we end up relying too heavily on it. I worry in particular about those lists!

I hope we can accept that geography (along with all subjects, surely) has its extensive facts. I hope we can hold this thought alongside the notion that our main priority in schools is to develop intensive deep knowledge (you may prefer “understanding”). I hope we can see that one feeds the other and that we need to teach them together. Core knowledge only becomes a problem if we marginalise it or ignore it as somehow low level or beneath us.

Geographers know what I am saying. “We can always look it up in at atlas” will not do, not if we want autonomous thinkers who know when they are being tricked. Knowledge does not exist in atlases or the internet. Knowledge only exists in the head.

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Posted in Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment
5 comments on “Knowledge does not exist on the Internet. It only exists in the head
  1. behrfacts says:

    Nice post David about a dilemma that even experts don’t fully understand. The only riposte I can think of to your conclusion is a famous quote by Einstein on why he didn’t need to remember his own phone number because it was in the directory. “Why should I memorize something when I know where to find it?”

    • David Lambert says:

      My worry about the Einstein riposte is partly … we are not all Einstein (he could get away with it, maybe). More seriously, I think applied too generally this attitude to knowledge (not information) is risky – dangerous even. I mean, when you go into the operating theatre, I guess the last thing you want to hear the surgean say is ‘oh, I am not sure about this – anyone got a reference book?’
      Clearly, I get your point. The speed with which we can find out stuff/information these days is exhilarating. But we cannot really operate intelligently if we do not personally assimilate this as knowledge, part of our personal capital?

  2. Miss Honey says:

    True, knowledge only exists in the head. However, if we live in a world in which there is far too much information to be stored in the head, and thereby be transformed into knowledge, then we need to select that information which is of most value to us, as being worthy of permanent storage in the head (core knowledge). My problem is with who does the selecting, and what beliefs and values accompany that selection. Do I wish my core knowledge to be selected for me by whichever government happens to be in power, or by whichever academic happens to reflect its views, or do I wish to be equipped with a level of critical thinking and information literacy skills to make my own selection? Or, do I want a balance of the two? For my part, I would rather program my own brain than have it done for me.

  3. Indra Persaud says:

    Very interesting post, which made me think of George Monbiot’s recent article ‘If children lose contact with nature they won’t fight for it’ (Guardian, 19th November 2012). Learning ‘facts’ about our world is important because core knowledge has a purpose. Knowing names, recognizing plants (i.e. the difference between a beech, oak or ash tree) is important because we need to be able to recognize when an ash tree is dying, and communicate that properly (many recent newspapers and online articles failed to do so).
    Sadly, more people are able to recognize and name commercial brands and logos (‘knowing’ that a large golden M means burgers, or that a small f on a blue background means facebook) than knowing the difference between an ash tree and beech tree. Recent studies show that young people are able to name over 1000 coporate brands from their logos but struggle to name a dozen native plants. Can you believe that over 18,000 people have rated the Logos Quiz game on itunes? A lot more than will read this blog, I suspect!

    Yet knowing names of things, like tree species or rivers on a map or national flags, will only score you points in a geography bee or pub quiz. Being able to put that knowledge to good use, to question its meaning and purpose, and ask ‘whose knowledge is it?’ is far more challenging. Knowing an ash tree doesn’t stop ash die back and knowing the name of the river Severn doesn’t stop it flooding.

  4. Kelly Kerrigan says:

    I agree, I feel you cannot truly understand a topic without core knowledge. Rote learning of information would move geography back a generation, but this should not be necessary if every lessons case studies, ideas and knowledge is placed – the National Curriculum and examination boards have strong influence here. (Doesn’t every subject involve memorising facts at some point?!) I agree that knowledge is only in the brain, we can as teachers help pupils discover knowledge through different means e.g. the internet, however, pupils should not be intimated by using a map/globe. If core knowledge is well integrated it will result in meaningful contextual knowledge!

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