Oak National Academy

How should we choose what we teach?

David Thomas


One of the hardest decisions we make in education is what to teach. This is always a decision that we make, whether we make it consciously or not. Even in the most standardised subjects we decide what angle to take on each topic and what context to present it in.

Bennie Kara wrote excellently in Schools Week about how our decisions have led to a curriculum that is unacceptably lacking in diversity. She picks out both the need to improve our school curricula, and the risk that we end up with diversity as a bolt-on. This blog is an attempt to clarify my thinking on how we do so.

I know that how we decide what we teach is incredibly controversial, especially in the current climate. But I also think it’s too important for us not to be transparent about. My hope is that being transparent about this draft we will get the challenge and feedback that helps develop a better approach.

In my thinking there are five reasons for selecting what knowledge to teach: two that we are used to applying, and three that we aren’t.

It gives you access to society

This is the classic Hirsch argument - that there is some knowledge assumed by society. Not knowing it limits your ability to understand the world around you. Our journalism, literature and conversations are littered with references to assumed prior knowledge. There is a strong social justice case for making sure all children receive this. To do otherwise is to disenfranchise them.

It has influenced the world today

Young says that knowledge is powerful "if it predicts, if it explains". There is knowledge that has had widespread influence on our modern world. We should teach this knowledge because of its explanatory power. Possessing this knowledge unlocks much more of what there is to learn.

These two reasons for selecting what knowledge is powerful are well rehearsed. Many of us have spent hours debating what to include in our curricula based on these criteria. They lead us to pick Oxbow lakes, the Norman Conquest and Shakespeare.
However these two reasons give us a very static view of what knowledge is powerful. They select content on the basis of what was taught and valued in the past. The knowledge that is assumed in society is generally assumed because it was taught to the last generation when they were at school, or because it is passed through the more advantaged sections of society. If we only follow these criteria we constrain future generations to the knowledge and misconceptions of past ones.

It challenges common misconceptions

Just as society holds some knowledge in common, it also holds some misconceptions in common. Many of those misconceptions will have arisen because of what was historically omitted from our teaching. We can choose to select some knowledge because it dispels those misconceptions. Learning about the great non-European civilisations, for example, dispels the misconception that white western Europeans are pre-ordained to be more economically advanced than other peoples. Learning about the Kingdom of Benin and the Mali Empire dispels the misconception that the only world-leading civilisation in African history was the Ancient Egyptians.

It introduces diversity

Young writes that powerful knowledge "takes [students] beyond their experiences". Very often this is interpreted in the social justice context of taking socio-economically disadvantaged children to experience the world of the white British middle classes. Whether we like it or not, being able to understand and be comfortable in that world still confers material advantages in today’s society. But this is only one angle. All children should be taken beyond their experiences - including the white British middle class. All children should admire the richness of other cultures and see them on a par with their own. And all children should see a recognition that their own culture is worthy of teaching.

As we continue to plan our curriculum at Oak we are going to have all of these criteria in mind. We won't reject the first two, as we have a duty to introduce all children to the seminal knowledge that has influenced the world today. However, we also have a duty to give them an accurate picture of the world, and to take them beyond the knowledge that has been taken for granted by previous generations.

In debating the thinking behind this piece with colleagues, I’ve come to the view that there is also a fifth reason.

It helps children find, and be proud of, who they are

Our lives are situated in very specific contexts. Our identities are shaped by the history and culture of our communities, and by the social context we grow up in. As educators we should give our children the knowledge to understand and articulate who they are, where they come from, and how they fit into the story of their community and our country. This is inherently local. Individual schools will need to make decisions for their context about what is the important history, geography, literature, art, music and citizenship to teach. It cannot be done effectively at a national scale. At Oak we’re not going to try and select this knowledge, because we’re not in schools’ contexts. I think it’s important for us to recognise that we cannot do this, and to encourage schools to emphasise it in their curricula.

Teaching and curriculum, at its best, helps shape and inform the next generation. Our task is to make them powerfully informed of the world as it truly is today, and with the knowledge to shape its future.