Myth Seven – Teaching knowledge is indoctrination

Posted on 18-06-2013

This blog post summarises chapter 7 of my book Seven Myths about Education. It will be published on March 5th 2014 by Routledge. To read the introduction to this sequence of posts, click here. Click here to preorder if you are in the UK, and here if you are in the US.

In this chapter I look at some of the political arguments against teaching knowledge – the idea that it is impossible to make a politically ‘neutral’ selection of knowledge to teach to pupils, and that we should therefore not teach knowledge at all. The purpose of education should be less about pupils receiving knowledge and more about pupils sifting opinions and working with their own experiences. Here I look at the work of some influential curriculum theorists who all started writing in the 1970s: Michael Young, Michael Apple, Vic Kelly and John White. I then look at examples of lessons which clearly reflect this concern for the child’s own experiences and show a wariness about ‘external’ knowledge and its brainwashing potential. The problem with this argument is that it relies on there being a dichotomy between ‘bad’ brainwashing knowledge and ‘good’ empowering skills. In actual fact, as I hope I’ve shown, no such dichotomy exists. We can’t teach pupils to sift opinions and weigh up evidence unless they have some knowledge to work with. Nor can we expect them to work with their own experiences and then transfer these skills across to new knowledge, because, as we’ve seen, skills do not transfer like this. If we want pupils to be able to deploy their skills on knowledge outside their own experience, we have to teach that knowledge. If our aim is for pupils to be able to read broadsheet newspapers, be active citizens and to play a full part in the lives of their communities, we have to teach the kind of knowledge that makes such activities possible.   Education is often defended in economic terms, as a tool for making countries and individuals richer. But it undoubtedly has an important democratic role too, as a tool for making countries fairer.  If we don’t teach powerful knowledge in schools, we end up with social inequality, because richer pupils will gain that knowledge from their parents and private tutors, whilst poorer children will not.