Knowledge vs Learner Voice

I hope you will forgive me another post with ‘Knowledge vs.’ in the title, but the role of knowledge is coming up again and again at the moment. This is partly because, alongside arguments about diversity of provision and behaviour, it has got caught up in the ongoing battle around what makes for social justice in education.

I did some thinking about learner voice in preparation for a talk I gave at Futurelab’s Challenging Learner Voice event. At some stage, I gather the presentation that accompanied that talk will be available on-line and I’ll link to it then, but for now, I wanted to throw out a couple of thoughts which occurred to me.

Michael Young, amongst others, have concerns about moving away from an idea of knowledge which is systematically and heirarchically organised within a subject discipline, and towards an emphasis on personal experience and what makes sense in a local context. He argues that such a shift has the potential to trap young people where they are by over-valuing knowledge which, while more immediately engaging, is only really useful in their context. If true, this would be a particular problem for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds (check out the interview I did with Michael for a quick overview of the argument).

However, those engaged in the development of learner voice will counter that traditional subject content, which tends to didactically taught, is a bigger problem as it teaches young people to be passive, that their perspective counts for little, and presents them with the knowledge powerful people think is important but which students can practically do little with (a perspective which of course Michael has some sympathy with, having started much of this debate running in the past). Many disengage with learning presented in that way, especially those that lack powerful external social pressures/incentives to do so. Worst of all, they argue, it teaches acquiescence to authority and fails to offer the kind of active, democratic engagement in a school community which will help us shape the citizens of the future. In this analysis, traditional teaching impoverishes the already disadvantaged by inhibiting their ability to criticalyl engage in and change their social context.

Both point to real problems. All agree that no young person deserves a second-rate offering on the basis of their background. But what should that mean in practice? All young people need both to understand the point of learning and to feel like knowledge is powerful in their lives, but also need the discipline and resilience to grapple with difficult concepts or the more tedious aspects of learning where its relevance is less immediately obvious.

In conversation with some people I met at the Geography Association, they talked about the value of subject integration in engaging young people, but made the point that it needed to be ‘strong inter-disciplinarity’. What this means needs further exploration, but intuitively I feel Opening Minds can offer part of the answer.

Teachers planning projects in an Opening Minds school will usually be subject specialists, working with others to incorporate the important content from their disciplines. They know and care about their subjects, and will work hard to ensure students a strong grounding that enables them to specialise later on if they choose to. However, the projects, led by the competences and usually having a practical outcome, will let young people use the knowledge they acquire for a purpose. And, within the parameters of project, they will let students explore the territory more freely than in a traditional classroom. This combination of purpose, freedom and support is both more engaging and empowering for young people, and results in better relationships between teachers and students.

We have a lot of work to do to understand what ‘strong-interdisciplinarity’ might mean, but it is important that we do. I hope the RSA with Opening Minds schools can play a useful role in developing our thinking.

– Ian McGimpsey

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One response to “Knowledge vs Learner Voice

  1. Pingback: We’re in the news! « RSA Education’s Weblog

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