Our purpose as a school is to ensure our young people can go out into the world and live a life of choice and opportunity. We want them to leave Ark Acton having been inducted into systems of worthwhile knowledge that enable them to participate in and shape the national discourse. In the words of Alex Standish, we believe that “school subjects then are a way of inducting children into the intellectual habits of humankind, and hence into a disciplinary conversation about knowing our world”

In order to achieve this vision for our young people, we place the curriculum at the heart of school life. It drives all other decisions that we make and is the best means we have of demonstrating as a school what we believe in and what we stand for. In essence our curriculum is designed to ensure that all pupils at Acton acquire disciplinary knowledge that they cannot learn at home and that this specified curriculum knowledge is based on the most coherent and tested ways of conceptualising the world that we have. We call this powerful knowledge.

What do we mean by powerful knowledge?

Knowledge produced by academics is special. It isn’t like ‘everyday’ knowledge. It lifts us into abstract concepts and technical generalisations which give us power to express ideas and bring about change.

This knowledge is structured and systematized. It is also provisional and revisable. We must prepare pupils to take their place in the continuing conversation, enquiry and debates of the particular discipline. Each subject refers to a practice outside of school – that of scientists, historians, musicians, artists – where knowledge in that field is constantly tested, renewed, judged, nurtured. This is the disciplinary dimension – the signal to pupils that the practice is living and constitutes an ongoing and distinctive pursuit of truth.

Through schooling knowledge can escape the origins of the powerful people who produced it. Knowledge confers power on others and so brings about equity. We combat disadvantage by giving all pupils equal entitlement to that knowledge. This is the democratic promise of state education.

Therefore our curriculum and the choices we make about it particularly matters for disadvantaged pupils because vocabulary size is a reliable correlate to social class. (Hart and Risley (2003))

Middle-class children had typically heard over 45 million words by age 3

Children from the poorest groups had heard an average of 13 million words by age 3

Vocabulary size is the outward and visible sign of an inward acquisition of knowledge. So to close this gap and ensure all our students can stand on an equal footing our curriculum must focus on privileging powerful knowledge. It also matters because many poor readers can sound out words from print, so in that sense, they can read. Yet they are functionally illiterate — they comprehend very little of what they can sound out. This is in part due to their lack of vocabulary and also due to them having been deprived of the cultural knowledge that literate adults take for granted. As Willingham points out, our broad background knowledge not only allows the reader to comprehend the sentences, it also has a powerful effect as you continue to read because it narrows the interpretations of new text that you will entertain. The cognitive system gambles that incoming information will be related to what you’ve just been thinking about. Thus, it significantly narrows the scope of possible interpretations of words, sentences, and ideas. This is why complaining about GCSE English texts being about surfing or Year 6 SATS tests referencing the Dodo is the right answer to the wrong question. The question is not why are the texts in the exam but rather why do our children in disadvantaged areas struggle with these questions.

Schema theory and powerful knowledge

A schema is:

  • a mental structure of ideas/words
  • a framework representing some aspect of the world
  • a system influencing how we perceive and what we notice in any new information

The accessibility of a schema (how quickly it comes to mind) influences the attention we can give to new information. Readers and listeners are more likely to notice things that fit into an existing schema. Rapid noticing enables ‘chunking’ of familiar ideas or words. This frees up working memory to embrace new content, take in the overall flow of a text or think about what is being apprehended. Schemata therefore affect uptake & absorption of new content.

The limits of short-term memory do not allow the integration of ‘unchunked’ material, and so crucial parts of meaning are lost to memory while other parts are being painstakingly worked out…. In this process, speed of comprehension is equivalent to quality of comprehension, because without the speed and the shorthand provided by well-organised schemata our circuits get overloaded”.

(E.D. Hirsch Jr (1988), Cultural Literacy.)

Therefore the curriculum has to foreground the role of schema and prototypes in enabling understanding and progress. Put another way, the requirement to teach content (hist, geog, science, music, art) was removed in France from the primary curriculum in 1989. The gap between disadvantaged and advantaged school-leavers’ literacy performance widened dramatically between 1989 and 2007. So a move away from powerful knowledge into generic skills further increased the advantage gap.

Fundamentally this is because of prototypes and schemata; prior knowledge affects:

  1. what pupils can comprehend (in reading, listening or observing)
  2. what effect a text, painting or music has on the pupil as reader, viewer or listener
  3. pupils’ capacity to discern or comment on the effect
  4. pupils’ capacity to call up an apposite word or phrase (when writing or speaking)

The fundamental question of curriculum design

“Why have some students gone through Ark Acton and yet not acquired the necessary schemata that others, equally capable, do acquire?”

The answer to the fundamental question is normally because either the component content:

  • was not identified and taught
  • did not receive necessary emphasis
  • was not delivered in a coherent sequence
  • was not taught using effective approaches
  • was not practised till deeply embedded and readily recalled

So every student at Ark Acton deserves access to the powerful knowledge that will build schema and prototypes and therefore our curriculum need to be driven by shaping pupil readiness:

  • The workings of schemata mean that pupil readiness for something new can be deliberately created.
  • By attending to the cumulative effect of specific knowledge teachers can shape readiness because that prior knowledge shapes what pupils then see/notice.
  • Departments can manipulate curriculum content and structure – its choices, blends, sequencing and patterns of recall and revisiting – to ensure readiness for new or more demanding content and for more complex operations.