The authors envision three futures for the school curriculum. In future one, ‘knowledge is treated as largely given, and established by tradition and the route it offers high achievers to our leading universities’; it tends to be ‘associated with one-way transmission pedagogy and a view of pupils that expects compliance from pupils’. This was the approach that went badly out of fashion from the 1960s onwards, condemned for being rigid and elitist.
The central criticism of the future-one curriculum was that it treated knowledge as static, and saw ‘the future… as an extension of the past’. Back in the 1960s, many intellectuals – Michael Young among them – sought to challenge this fossilised view of knowledge by stressing the extent to which knowledge is not simply handed down, but actively and socially constructed.
And these intellectuals were right – to a point. Berger and Luckmann’s brilliant little book, The Social Construction of Reality (1966), theorises the interaction between the objective world and the subjective meaning for those within it. Other contributions to the sociology of knowledge have emphasised that what we know is informed by the time and place in which we are living, the past that we draw on, and the way we are anticipating the future.
But just because knowledge is socially constructed does not make it arbitrary: and that was the problem with the critique of the future-one curriculum. Young famously, and bravely, underwent a volte face on the constructivist approach to knowledge when he became aware that many critics of the ‘old’ curriculum were demanding, not a more subtle, expansive, and dynamic approach to curriculum content, but the kind of curriculum that tried to avoid knowledge completely.
In this, the second future curriculum, boundaries between subjects disappeared, and much academic education became vocationalised. The idea that knowledge was ‘“constructed” in response to particular needs and interests’ replaced the subtle appreciation of the ways in which reality is socially constructed; knowledge became seen as the crude imposition of particular interests upon unwitting school students.
Criticisms of the elitism of the old curriculum were used to justify turning schooling into vocational training, based on ‘an increasingly instrumental view that education was a means to an end – usually expressed as the expectation of future employment’. As Young explains, this shift was not limited to particular subjects, or to low-achieving pupils, but became the ethos running through education as a whole: ‘Even the academic curriculum took on these “instrumental” features. Physics and history were given more priority because they were subjects valued by the top universities, rather than because they involved “the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake”.’
The anti-elitism of this second approach did nothing to tackle social inequality. Indeed, it makes the problems more entrenched, by denying pupils from lower-income backgrounds their ‘entitlement to knowledge’ – which, in Young’s view, should be the core purpose of schools. And at any level, turning the pursuit of knowledge into a race for qualifications ends up denying the very purpose of education: to know the world in order to transform it.
If teaching can do anything to give young people the means to shape their own destiny, it is this: provide access to the best of what is known, with the recognition that this knowledge can be developed and challenged. This, argue the authors of Knowledge and the Future School, can best be done through subjects: ‘the most reliable tools we have for enabling students to acquire knowledge and make sense of the world’.
Here we come to the future-three curriculum. The authors envisage it as more dynamic than the future-one assumption that the future is given by the past; it ‘does not treat knowledge as “given” but fallible and always open to change through the debates and research of the particular specialist community’. Yet unlike future two, ‘the openness of future three is not arbitrary or responsive to any kind of challenge – it is bounded by the epistemic rules of the particular specialist communities’. Ultimately, the future-three curriculum provides ‘a resource for teachers who seek to take their students beyond their experience in the most reliable ways we have’.
In this way, the authors tackle the challenge posed both by the instrumentalism of the New Labour government’s educational agenda, and the comfort blanket of traditionalism preferred by the current Coalition government. Their book is an engaging reminder of the need to avoid easy solutions, and to keep thinking.
First published by spiked, 10 April 2015.
- Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice, by Michael Young and David Lambert, with Carolyn Roberts and Martin Roberts, is published by Bloomsbury.