What’s all the fuss about a knowledge-rich curriculum? part one

Here’s part of my talk from yesterday’s ResearchED,  A word of warning though, if you are a regular reader of my blogs, it is very similar indeed to my previous post ‘Mutual Misunderstandings’ although now with pretty pictures added. This blog talks about what knowledge is and features the first part of my intended talk. I massively ran out of time during my talk, so rushed through the bit on understanding somewhat breathlessly.  I will put that section into another blog in due course.

I was having dinner with a headteacher friend who told me how much my name was reviled by some of her colleagues because apparently, as an advocate of a knowledge-rich curriculum, I was in favour of bombarding children with facts in boring lectures and was only interested in teaching to the test.  This is frustrating, because it’s so wrong, and might lead to people missing out on the wonders of knowledge-rich goodness! So to put the record straight…

The first misunderstanding is to think that that when we speak of knowledge, we only mean acquiring facts.  That’s not the case at all. Knowledge can be divided into declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge.

knowledge isnt facts

Declarative knowledge includes concepts and rules as well as facts and will allow us ‘to recognize things, make judgments, classify things, discriminate differences and identify similarities.’[1]

So for example, it is declarative knowledge that lets us recognise a tree as a tree, judge that it is a mighty fine tree, or an old tree, classify it as a Horse Chestnut, discriminate how it is different from a Sweet Chestnut and identify how both are similar, being examples of deciduous trees.


Procedural knowledge is knowledge that produces action, that enables us to do stuff. It is goal directed, whereas declarative knowledge (the kind of knowledge that includes, but is not limited to facts) just sits there waiting to be of service. It doesn’t of itself result in any action.  Procedural knowledge actually enables us to do things. Most obviously, it involves motor behaviour; learning to play the guitar or catch a ball are both forms of procedural knowledge.  To throw a ball, you don’t need to also know the physics behind it, you don’t need factual knowledge of how it all works. You need to build motor memory and that is a form of knowledge learnt through paying attention and repeated practice. But procedural knowledge isn’t only about muscle movement, it also lies behind enabling us to use declarative knowledge.  Solving an equation or balancing a chemical reaction, both involve turning declarative understanding into procedural knowledge.

dec vs proc

To use an analogy, in football, its no good just having strikers who score goals, you also need players who can assist the striker, players who set up the opportunities for the striker to  do their thing.

assist striker.PNG


Of course we want knowledge to be put to work, to use declarative knowledge to do actual stuff, it’s just that you don’t get to do the stuff  unless  you have the requisite declarative knowledge in the first place. Yet the fear is that the knowledge-rich brigade are only interested in the declarative side of things. This fear is misplaced. The knowledge-rich crew simply value declarative knowledge as a crucial part of the learning equation – alongside procedural knowledge – and want to liberate it from its imprisonment in the dungeon at the base of Bloom’s taxonomy, derided as somehow objectionably  ‘lower order’, looked down upon in condescending fashion by the haute bourgeoisie of the ‘higher order thinking skills’ clique.


Instead, we want to champion the absolutely vital place it holds as enabling all further thought.  Instead of Bloom’s triangle, how about we have Sealy’s Funnel?

sealys funnel

Synthesis and evaluation – what we might call creativity and critical thinking – are only possible once vast amounts of knowledge have been understood.  Far from being ‘lower order’, knowledge is our precious  cognitive capital. with critical thinking its dividend.

Christine Counsell talks about the curriculum as needing a hinterland which nurtures and sustains the city. in the same way as a city needs a vast area of land surrounding it to provide it with the water, food, fuel and people it needs to thrive, so creativity and critical thinking rely on extensive and wide ranging knowledge.


People sometimes refer to the ability to do such things as acquiring skills rather than procedural knowledge. The word ‘skills’ however, is particularly problematic as it is used to mean several different things. For example, it is used to describe dispositions such as resilience and behaviours such as collaboration, it is also used to describe things such as inference and problem solving, which traditionalists are more likely to see as different kinds of disciplinary knowledge, and then again it is used for procedural knowledge. Knowledge-rich advocates positively embrace procedural knowledge and also are happy to endorse dispositions and behaviours such as collaboration and resilience, though might argue that there are plenty of opportunities for encouraging both within an ordinary maths or PE lesson.  The fault line lies  with the so-called generic skills such as problem solving, or explanation.

skills 3 ways

troub;e with generic

Knowledge-rich advocates argue that while things such as problem solving or explaining or observing are important, they are not generic skills.  These terms imply different things in different subjects. ‘Explanation’ in history has a different meaning than ‘explanation; in science for example. Even something apparently straightforward like ‘observation’ means something different depending on whether you are doing something in an art lesson or a science lesson. What is worthy of observing will differ.

For example, if I ask a bank robber ‘why did you rob the bank?’ I am expecting a moral or psychological explanation and not a logical one. I would not expect the answer ‘because that’s were the most money is.’  That’s not the kind of explanation I’m expecting.


Explanations in history and science are very different.

sceince vs hisotriy

Similarly, close observation drawing differs depending on whether its a science or an art lesson.

science vs artthe knowledge vs skills debate is an argument about the extend to which skills are transferable from one context to another and not about whether or not these  ‘skills’ are important.

k vs s




[1] From The Unified Learning Model, Shell , D et al  chapter 4

What’s all the fuss about a knowledge-rich curriculum? part one

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