The notion of Powerful Knowledge is very fashionable these days. Originally developed as a theory by sociologists of education Michael Young and Johan Muller, it has crossed over into the mainstream of teacher discourse. Having escaped the academy, Powerful Knowledge is now being discussed at teacher conferences, classed as an essential part of the curriculum by Ofsted, and even defining the ethos of certain schools.
But what is it? What does it mean for knowledge to be powerful? What even is knowledge in the first place? In all the excitement over the new catchphrase, much of the nuance of Young and Muller’s argument has been lost. In this blog, I aim to give some background to the theory of Powerful Knowledge. While I can be fairly certain about a few things it isn’t, it’s harder to pin down exactly what it is.
Knowledge and Control
Michael Young is well known in the education world as the editor of Knowledge and Control, a series of sociological critiques of traditional theories of knowledge and education. Simply put, his argument in the 1970s was that typical views of education — whether imparting worthwhile knowledge to students or initiating them into the disciplines — ignored the role of schools in reproducing social inequalities in society.
Knowledge could be seen as a tool with which the powerful exerted control over the not-powerful. To get into our club, this is the currency you need. The system inevitably excluded many students who arrived at school without the ‘cultural capital’ described by Pierre Bourdieu, hence its reinforcement of existing inequalities.
As his career went on, Young’s position shifted. Various experiences around the world, particularly in South Africa, led him to reflect on the role of knowledge and schools. While it was true that traditional education systems often served to reproduce inequalities, dismissing their work altogether tended to widen the gap rather than narrow it.
In other words, the powerful would always manage to get their hands on knowledge. Whatever the rights and wrongs of it, it invariably proved quite handy.
Knowledge of the Powerful
Working with Johan Muller, of Cape Town University, Young developed a distinction between Powerful Knowledge and Knowledge of the Powerful. The former is knowledge which is powerful in itself. What that means will be discussed later on. The latter characterised his earlier view; the language, ideas and social norms that serve to maintain states of social injustice.
I realised the extent of my own knowledge of the powerful when, as a young teacher, I organised a revision session for some Year 11 students in a trendy coffee shop in East London. I offered to buy the students coffee.
“What would you like?” I asked them.
They fixed their eyes on the board, frowning slightly.
“What’s a mo-cha?” one asked me, pronouncing the ‘ch’ as you’d hear it in the word ‘church’. Some of the other students began to laugh.
The student was lacking the knowledge that would allow him quite literally to sit at the table with those in power. To me, even when I was a teenager, going into a coffee shop was a perfectly natural experience. I knew that a latte would be milky and a cappuccino marginally less so. An Americano would be large, black and watery whereas an espresso would be small, black and strong.
When I started to visit coffee shops with work colleagues, it was not a daunting experience. I knew the lay of the land. For the uncertain student however, the list of strange sounding names was as alien as the selection of green and purple buns you might find in a Japanese sweet shop. This was the land of the powerful, and they felt excluded from it.
In Young and Muller’s account, powerful knowledge is distinct from knowledge of the powerful. While the latter might include the names of coffees, or which shoes to wear with which coloured suit, or even the very abstract notion of power itself (in the Machiavellian sense), the former is that knowledge which helps all of us make sense of the world.
Whereas the most important feature of knowledge of the powerful is who has access to it, what matters about powerful knowledge is what it can do.
Everyday and Specialised Knowledge
Young and Muller make another, less well-known distinction between everyday knowledge and specialised knowledge. This is helpful in understanding what they were driving at with PK. Everyday knowledge is that which students bring to school having grown up in their home environment. Specialised knowledge is that which they can only acquire in school.
An example Young often gives to illustrate this difference is that of cities. In many ways, my students know far more about living in East London than I do. I’ve learned all sorts from them: the price of three wings and chips in the local chicken shop; the road I need to go to find my stolen bike; the concepts of ‘shubz’ and ‘extra’ and ‘roadman’. (Note my use of inverted commas to denote how excluded I feel from such knowledge).
Students bring this everyday knowledge of cities to school with them. When they sit down in a geography class, however, they begin to look at cities in a very different way. The city is no longer the particular place they happen to have grown up in. It becomes a generalisable concept, with conditions, features and evolutionary patterns that can be observed in other, similar places.
This is what makes up the specialised knowledge of a geographer. The number of chicken shops on a particular road moves from being a fact of relevance only when the student is hungry, to being a marker of wider socio-economic trends in the city or country at large. If a student never attended school — or immersed themselves in the education engagement schools are designed for — they could not possibly acquire this knowledge. They would be forever trapped within their circumstances.
It is important to recognise that everyday knowledge is not ‘bad’ knowledge, per se. Knowledge about fast food and slang and bus fares does not mean having a ‘misconception’ of life in a city. Indeed, much of it is very useful in getting around safely and efficiently, much more so than the abstract, specialised knowledge students pick up at school.
Likewise, our intuitive notions of hotness and coldness are more than adequate for much of everyday life (cooking, dressing to suit the weather, keeping the house warm), despite falling short of a scientific understanding in terms of particles and energy. It is not necessarily wrong to talk about ‘coldness’ entering through a window; it is just not scientific.
The point is that specialised knowledge allows students to transcend their immediate surroundings. With abstract knowledge, their environment ceases to be a given that they must causally react to, and begins to be a comprehensible concept that they can reason with and start to change. It is this ability to change one’s circumstances that makes PK so powerful.
Just a Marketing Slogan?
As interesting as these distinctions are, one of the main critiques of Young and Muller’s theory has been that the conditions that make knowledge powerful remain too vague. What demarcates powerful knowledge from its less powerful brethren? How can we tell whether certain facts are powerful or not? Where do we draw the lines?
At a recent seminar at the UCL Institute of Education, John White (somewhat unkindly) compared Young’s notion of powerful knowledge to a marketing slogan, on a par with the claims made by Harpic toilet cleaner.
To me, this seemed to rather miss the point. Even if we cannot specify exactly what powerful knowledge is, the fact that it has helped to reignite a debate around knowledge and curriculum in schools can only be a good thing. There is a danger however that commentators may appropriate Young and Muller’s concept to support their own crude ideological positions. It is to this concern I now turn.
What Powerful Knowledge Isn’t
Some have used powerful knowledge as the kind of generic ‘strategy’ that can be dropped into lessons to tick whole-school boxes. I have heard stories from schools that claim to advocate a powerful, knowledge-rich curriculum. Teachers have put a coloured box around a definition that students are expected to write down, and claimed that highlighting it in this way it somehow made it powerful.
Others have subsumed powerful knowledge into the Hirsch & Willingham-inspired fetishisation of cognitive psychology, and its crude application in schools. Under Young and Muller’s banner, students are made to memorise large banks of data and procedures as if they are fixed entities. This overlooks the crucial aspect of powerful knowledge: that it allows students to transcend and change their circumstances.
It also ignores what Young describes as the ‘rupture’ students experience as they are displaced from their world made up of everyday knowledge, and thrown into a world framed by the abstractions of the disciplines. Students thrust into specialised knowledge too quickly feel like the uncertain student in the coffee shop. This is where much of the backlash to knowledge in the curriculum (seen as knowledge of the powerful) originated from in the first place.
Finally, there are those who have sought to claim that knowledge is powerful or empowering while arguing that education should simultaneously focus on skills for the 21st century. These people believe that knowledge is only empowering if students are left to immerse themselves in the disciplines, an assumption which — in my experience, as in Young’s in South Africa — fails to deliver the goods in the concrete reality of a classroom.
These thoughts have barely scratched the surface of Young and Muller’s enormous body of work around schools, knowledge and curriculum. Those interested in finding out more should read:
- Bringing Knowledge Back In (recently translated into Chinese).
- Knowledge and the Future School.
- Curriculum & the Specialization of Knowledge.
- Knowledge in Education: Why Philosophy Matters, by Jan Derry (who recently critiqued an over-reliance on cognitive load theory at a keynote speech at the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain Conference).
What I hope this blog has offered is a brief and accessible overview of some of Young and Muller’s ideas. I shall be publishing my own account of knowledge (and what makes it powerful) in an upcoming blog on developing a science curriculum at Bobby Moore Academy.