A Knowledge-led School

A knowledge curriculum can be a powerful force in combating educational inequality.

One of our ambitions at Michaela Community School, which opened this year in Wembley, is to place knowledge at the heart of education.

We believe, as Francis Bacon did in 1597, that knowledge is power: it empowers all children to achieve, choose their future and decide what legacy they’d like to leave.

We believe that broad cultural and historical knowledge improves all pupils’ academic achievement, especially poorer pupils. Even the very weakest pupils can study the greatest books ever written, such as Frankenstein, Oliver Twist and Animal Farm. All pupils deserve the chance to see Shakespearean theatre, fine art and classical music as accessible to them, not alien to them: access which richer pupils take for granted. Knowing about democracy, its origins, evolution and discontents empowers pupils to make their own minds up as citizens in politics, referenda and elections.

We believe that powerful mathematical and scientific knowledge empowers pupils to choose among the most competitive and selective vocations, such as (to name just a few) medicine, finance, engineering, technology and law, as well as to appreciate how the world works, in all its wonder.

Science backs these beliefs. Over a century of research into memory, learning and the mind has produced conclusions that are not scientifically challengeable:

WillinghamKnowledge   LongTermMemory

As cognitive scientist John Anderson says, ‘All there is to intelligence is the simple accrual and tuning of many small units of knowledge that in total produce complex cognition.’ Our logic is as follows:

The more knowledge you remember, the more curious you become.

The more knowledge you remember, the more intelligent you become.

The more knowledge you remember, the more you achieve academically.

The more knowledge you remember, the more choices you have for your future.

That is why we place the liberating force of knowledge at the heart of our school. Only a cohesive, cumulative, carefully sequenced knowledge curriculum will close the 10,000 word vocabulary gap between the poorest and wealthier pupils aged 11, narrow the 28% gap in GCSE attainment between poorest and wealthier pupils aged 16, and reduce the 80% gap between poorest and private school pupils attending University aged 18. The reason we want all pupils to have secure subject knowledge is because we think it is the best route to social justice.

A knowledge curriculum can be a powerful force in combating educational inequality. We hope that in time, knowledge-led schools will win the hearts and minds of the teaching profession.


Next blogpost, I’ll turn to the question: which knowledge?

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
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10 Responses to A Knowledge-led School

  1. Rory says:

    Which knowledge? Let’s always start with the basics: reading, writing, listening, speaking, information organization, critical thinking, success with math and study-skills. This is the knowledge that’s almost always passed over.

    • Heresy Rory! I don’t think that’s the kind of knowledge this article refers to =] On a serious note, this is an important point Joe – you say “only a knowledge curriculum can close the gap” but look at the EEF toolkit for just one obvious eg – the educational practices that are recommended as being of most benefit to Pupil Premium students also include things like metacognition, self regulation, dialogic learning… I’m curious, why are you going so hard on the language of “knowledge-led”, rather than say “knowledge rich combined with an evidence based approach to skills development”. Seems like a no brainer, but you clearly do have a fine brain, if I may be so bold, and so I’d very much like to understand your thinking around this extremely important point. I’d hate for Michaela to miss a trick coz you guys took a partisan approach to the KvS debate, and that is my basic concern…

  2. I’m puzzled by the claim that it is ‘not scientifically challengeable’ that thinking well requires factual knowledge stored in long-term memory.

    Taken one way, the claim that we need knowledge in order to think well might be backed up by conceptual considerations. We wouldn’t count anything as good thinking unless it was well-informed. Taken this way, the claim isn’t backed up empirically, but conceptually, and so is in a sense beyond scientific challenge – but not because it represents a secure piece of psychological knowledge, but because it expresses part of what we mean when we talk of thinking well.

    Taken another way – as a substantive claim about the psychology of learning – it would rest on empirical foundations, in which case, it would, like all empirical generalizations, be at best a well-confirmed hypothesis, not an unchallengeable truth..

  3. Onlyamanatee says:

    Some quick questions, which you’ll probably be addressing in your next blog post re ‘which knowledge’, but anyway…:

    It seems from the way that you talk about knowledge in your post above, you seems are referring specifically to ‘propositional’ knowledge – was that your intention? Do you also see a place for procedural knowledge?

    Skill is often used as pretty much synonymous with procedural knowledge, but would you consider such knowledge to differ from ‘skills’ in relation to teaching and learning? If so, in what ways?

    I’d be really interested in the ways in which your ‘knowledge curriculum’ itself makes provision for procedural knowledge. Is it explicit or implicit?

    Is it possible, in your view, to make more than an academic separation between procedural and propositional knowledge, especially during the process of learning?

    Assuming that you do not wish to exclude procedural knowledge (i.e. skills) completely, because you would be excluding basic literacy and maths techniques such as reading text, handwriting, calculation methods, etc., what would you say is the practical difference, in the classroom, between your curriculum and a non-‘knowledge’ curriculum?

    Lots of questions…..

    Thank you!

  4. Pedro says:

    Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    This ambition may seem a bit conservative to some, but there is indeed scientific evidence to back this approach (and I’m looking forward to the next blog post). The most interesting sentence in the post to me, is this one: “A knowledge curriculum can be a powerful force in combating educational inequality.” There isn’t a citation to this claim included in the text, but I would refer to Hattie & Yates 2013, check here.

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  6. Biljana says:

    Children are often armed with facts and rules during their years of education. In my opinion children have to be taught to think, evaluate and make correct decisions on their own using the facts that are widely available these days. That way we will be sure these children are prepared for life. That is the point of education – to get them ready to lead a quality life, correct?
    I believe that children’s creativity and thought process is developing fast through games and plays, songs, and stories. That is why I expect each school should plan to engage a children in school plays and motivate their creativity and personal development grow.

    I love what West End in Schools theater groups is providing for primary schools and the testimonials I’ve read are great.


  7. Jon Temple says:

    I have come across research which has discovered that educated people are less likely to have depression, attain more achievements, and are healthier. Researchers say that education helps people better manage their lives and overcome the problems they face such as unemployment, divorce, and the death of relatives and friends. Such scientific study confirms the significance of education, knowledge, and reading. Every day, scientists discover new benefits for knowledge.

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