Curriculum, knowledge and inquiry

The curriculum has become the focus of developmental work in schools throughout England since September 2019. That is because the curriculum looms large in Ofsted's new inspection framework. Schools must provide a broad and balanced curriculum so that students have the opportunity to learn about the "best that has been thought and said." Ofsted elaborate on curriculum models in their research document, which has been published to provide evidence in support of the new framework. Here we come across the old dichotomy between knowledge and skills. In the debate about curriculum, inquiry teachers are often perceived to be on the back foot. Opponents characterise inquiry as skills-based, anti-knowledge and even hostile to the very notion of a set curriculum. None of these are true.

Of the three types of curriculum defined in Ofsted's research document, inquiry is most commonly associated with 'skills-led', occasionally with 'knowledge-engaged' and not at all with 'knowledge rich'. According to Ofsted, the 'skills-led' curriculum uses 'generic knowledge' to promote the development of skills, such as resilience, perseverance and a growth mindset. Inquiry seems to fit this definition because of its supposed emphasis on process over content. Teachers might also see inquiry as compatible with a 'knowledge-engaged' curriculum in which skills are developed once teachers have passed on the requisite knowledge. In this view, the only place for inquiry is after instruction. In Ofsted's third and final type of curriculum, there is no place for inquiry at all. Indeed, the traditional 'knowledge rich' curriculum, which involves the transmission and mastery of a body of subject-specific knowledge, is considered the opposite of inquiry learning. However, and perhaps surprisingly, inquiry turns out to be more knowledge rich than the traditional classroom.

In his classic text The Child and the Curriculum (1902), Dewey argues that the child and the curriculum are two limits on a continuous process:

Just as two points define a straight line, so the present standpoint of the child and the facts and truths of studies define instruction. It is continuous reconstruction, moving from the child's present experience out into that represented by the organised bodies of truth that we call studies…. The facts and truths that enter into the child's present experience, and those contained in the subject-matter of studies, are the initial and final terms of one reality. (pp. 11 and 12)

For Dewey, the curriculum could only have meaning when it becomes part of personal experience. In his Laboratory School at the University of Chicago, academic subjects were introduced as “organic outgrowths of the child’s daily experience” (Mayhew and Edwards, p. 345). For example, cooking provided an opportunity to learn about measures and constructing simple machines provided a context to learn about ratio and proportion. A curriculum map, therefore, could not replace a student's actual learning journey: “The logically formulated material of a science or branch of learning, of a study, is no substitute for the having of individual experiences” (The Child and the Curriculum, p. 20).

However, Dewey regarded the curriculum as having a pivotal role in the design of stimuli for new experiences. As he wrote in Experience and Education (1938), teachers should select situations with the potential to develop experiences into a fuller, richer and more organised forms that progressively approximate to the way adults learn subject-specific knowledge. Previously, in Democracy and Education (1916), Dewey had insisted that subject-specific knowledge underpins an environment in which the teacher develops desirable intellectual and emotional dispositions. He upbraided his followers at the 1928 convention of the Progressive Education Association for conducting their classrooms as though they regarded the "orderly organisation of subject-matter as hostile to the need of students" (Bowers, 1969, p. 11). The curriculum map, Dewey argued, allows the teacher “by indirection to direct” (The Child and the Curriculum, p. 31), serving as a guide to prevent useless wandering and point towards the paths that lead most quickly and securely to the desired forms of thinking.

Dewey’s notion is different to Ofsted’s definition of a skills-led curriculum because experiences are based not on generic knowledge, but on the "facts and truths ... contained in the subject-matter of studies" (The Child and the Curriculum, p. 11). Educative experiences, at least in theory, do not only aim to develop transferable skills; rather, they promote thinking and dispositions associated with the separate subjects.

However, in practice, Dewey proposed a universal hypothesis-testing model of inquiry that transcended subjects. In How We Think (1910), he described his method in terms of a double movement. Firstly, inductive discovery involves bringing together partial and confused empirical observations in a plausible, yet speculative, hypothesis. Secondly, deductive proof, characterised by further observation, leads to a larger pool of data that can be used to confirm or refute the hypothesis. Thus, for Dewey, deduction incorporates the experimental method of induction to check the plausibility of conjectures and inferences arrived at inductively. This weak definition of deduction is a long way from the rigorous logical approach to reasoning and proof required by mathematicians.

While Dewey’s general method was appropriate for his primary (elementary) school, it is difficult to sustain in secondary school. As subject knowledge becomes more specialised and concepts become more abstract - that is, more distant from everyday experiences -, so the method of inquiry takes on domain-specific characteristics. Secondary school inquiry integrates two types of knowledge, which I have adapted from the OECD’s definitions:

  • Disciplinary knowledge: subject-specific concepts, detailed content and procedural steps taken to accomplish a goal.

  • Epistemic knowledge: the understanding of how expert practitioners within disciplines think and inquire and how they create, validate and revise disciplinary knowledge.

This dual nature of knowledge is reflected in the inquiry-based curriculum. The ‘final reality’ at the end of Dewey’s student-curriculum continuum should contain both disciplinary and epistemic forms of knowledge.

In the inquiry classroom at secondary school, students learn disciplinary knowledge in an enriched process rooted in epistemic knowledge. This is the unique strength of inquiry-based learning. In each subject, students learn the concepts, content and procedures of the subject through the subject-specific method of inquiry endorsed by the domain’s community of experts. In the mathematics classroom, for example, inquiry is based on the community’s notions of induction (exploring, conjecturing and generalising) and deduction (explaining, structural reasoning, proving) along with specialised symbols and signs used in mathematical communication. In acquiring disciplinary and epistemic knowledge, students are not simply complying with specific rules and content; rather, they are "joining ‘communities of specialists’ each with their different histories, traditions and ways of working” (Young and Lambert, 2014, p. 101). Academic rigour is combined with intellectual curiosity as students learn when and how it is appropriate to question knowledge and the authority on which that knowledge is based.

An inquiry curriculum is very different to Ofsted’s three types of curriculum. It is not ‘skills-led’ because, rather than comprising a list of hybrid skills, it is built on a deep appreciation of subject-specific epistemic knowledge; it is not ‘knowledge rich’ because, rather than force students into a passive acceptance of content, it engages critically with disciplinary knowledge; and it is not ‘knowledge-engaged’ because, rather than artificially separate knowledge (first) from skills (second), it combines disciplinary and epistemic knowledge in a unified process.

Each discipline has its own form of inquiry through which disciplinary knowledge is created and validated. Indeed, mathematical disciplinary knowledge could not exist other than through a mathematical epistemic way of knowing that is built on the distinctive social and historical inquiry practices of the domain. This is just as true for the secondary school classroom as it is for the university faculty. You cannot have a mathematics curriculum built exclusively on disciplinary knowledge. It ceases to be mathematics.

Andrew Blair, April 2020

Bowers, M. (1969). The Progressive Educator and the Depression: The Radical Years. New York: Random House.Young, M. and Lambert, D. (2014). Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice. London: Bloomsbury.