Knowledge for the powerful vs Power of knowledge

Education and knowledge are more often than not #appropriated by the powerful to hold control. Power can come from race or as in India and rest of South Asia from #caste. In this interview with #tes magazine, educator Michael Young raises some fundamental questions around the purpose of schools and education.

1 Like

The link is for a subscription-only article. It would be helpful to get key takeaways.

Michael Young, the British educational theorist and sociologist is probably best known for his theory ‘powerful knowledge’. Young defines this kind of knowledge as that which would either not be available to students or difficult to access unless they have been exposed to prior knowledge taught in schools. He further clarifies that it “is not a list of facts but a disciplinary way of thinking that applies these facts. The ability to apply the knowledge is what makes it powerful.” Debating this idea of powerful knowledge, here John White, Emeritus Prof of Philosophy of Education, UCL discusses what he identifies as weaknesses of this theory.

In this interview (behind paywall), Young quotes the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky to support his argument about the nature of learning: “acquiring knowledge in school has to be the voluntary act of a learner. You can’t actually teach anybody anything; they have to learn it. You can help them, but they’ve got to have that desire to know…If you haven’t encouraged students to engage in the process of acquiring knowledge, which is a very difficult process, then all you get is memorisation and reproduction in tests. I think this is why a lot of kids actually lose the desire to know during their time at school, whereas if we somehow found a way of enabling kids to discover that desire, which is inherent in all of them, schooling would be quite different. It would be a lovely thing to be a teacher, and not a struggle for much of the time. That’s been quite a revealing thought to me.”

1 Like

Some years ago, I was invited to address a college convocation: undergraduate students (a ‘name’ institute, now many times larger, run by a private trust). I have not kept notes, but clearly I spoke about how much had changed around me since my own graduation, and how keeping up (or trying to keep up) has been such an important part of my own change.

So, at the end, having kept 15-20 minutes for Q&A, the very first question I got was, “Do you mean we still have to go on studying even after graduation?” I could tell that it struck a chord with almost everyone in the room. Nobody laughed, or tried to shush the student.

Which was immensely depressing, that the process of reaching this graduation ceremony had been such a crushing process, that leaving college was in effect being released from prison, or a torture chamber; that the experience had made ‘learning’ itself a bad word.

Are our current schools obsessing over ‘powerful knowledge’ vs ‘forms of knowledge’ to the extent that they forget that an important objective of having schools is to have students who will at some point, preferably, before graduating, and even more preferably, not as the objective of the pursuit of graduating, actually acquire knowledge? Or, at least, the desire to learn consistently enough that it results in the acquisition of knowledge?

More importantly, I think, is this area of discussion prominent in informing the process of defining education policies in the country?

Where should the balance lie between enabling learning for all who want it (including those who may not know they want it) and dictating the minimum bundle of such knowledge to be made available? Can making it universally available be accepted as a limited priority, given the multiple calls upon a limited resource, or is a view that the resource base is limited reflect an institutional inability to comprehend the value of inculcating (or enabling) learning for all?

The debate (presented in the thread) between Prof Young and Prof White seems to support the notion that both sides have at their focus the acquisition of lifelong learning, but are quite at odds as to whether this concept of ‘powerful knowledge’ is defined precisely enough to justify curriculum design around it.

Other posts here in the maidan (eg, this ‘outdoor’ school) would argue that it is not so much ‘what’ is taught, but ‘how’ it is taught, that determines the extent to which the love of learning is inculcated.

Perhaps the process needs to be the focus, rather than the curriculum. But nurturing such processes does not fit the mould of a centralised diktat on what (and how) constitutes education, from which flows state support needed to ensure that schools will be both accessible and sustainable. The fact that schooling is very visibly neither accessible nor sustainable (there are widespread reports of schools – alarmingly, all too often characterised by the socioeconomic status into which the communities being served are born into – that lack the basics of both physical resources and of staff of any kind) seems to be outside the equation: having control of a system might seem to be the most important objective, and not the outcomes of having any such system at all.

1 Like

Both @privvcy and @RadG point out the ironies of a school. A place we go to, but do not remain there forever. So, wanting to get out of school is natural. And the reason why we go to school is we cannot get what we get outside the school. So, we need to go there.

We can learn to speak a language by living with people who speak it. But do we become literate by living with people who write and read? Since the latter doesn’t happen on its own, we create a school-like environment, whether school-school or home-school. The reasons, as I think more nowadays with the framework where I distinguish between conventional and constructive elements of learning. Natural language learning is a constructive process, so it could happen without a school-like environment. The problem is not with the schooling process, but what we prescribe must be learned in a school. If the writing system can be as natural as a speaking system, we must be able to learn through a constructive process instead of a convention-ridden process. We tried to create such a writing system called NaYaNa.

Unless we can make grammar and STEM topics become constructive, we cannot dissolve schools. Please note my careful use of the term ‘dissolve’ and not ‘de-schooling’. Constructive pedagogic methods are known to create ZPD (zone of proximal development) that Vygotsky talks about.

Fundamental to this is our definition of and understanding of a ‘school’ and its ‘purpose’. Some have argued that school is perceived and has been seen as a place of instruction and so they use the term ‘learning centres’. These are created and nurtured as places where everyone is a learner.

1 Like

It is undeniable that creating a large system of ‘schools’, by any name, title or label, that is associated with a ‘place’, is fraught with the risk of creating a system of either bureaucracy or commerce: in fact, both are intertwined.

The task of reconstructing schooling must be commensurate with the task of defining a route that obviates this risk. Else it falls right back into that trap.

1 Like