Which knowledge?

I often ask pupils at family lunch at Michaela what their favourite subject is. Many of them reply, ‘I love every subject, sir!’ What we choose to teach plays a big part in how much our pupils love learning. 

At Michaela, we decide which knowledge to teach based on three principles: schemata, challenge, and coherence.


Our aim is to help pupils remember everything they are learning, and master the most important content. To this end, subject content knowledge is best organised into the most memorable schemata. So we organise history and English literature chronologically. We start in Year 7 with classical antiquity: in History we study Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome and Roman Britain; in Religion, we study polytheism, The Old and New Testament, Judaism and Christianity; in English, we study Greek mythology, The Odyssey, Roman Rhetoric, epic poetry and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar; in Art, we study Egyptian, Greek and Roman art, sculpture and architecture. Chronological, cumulative schemata help pupils remember subject knowledge in the long-term: not for ten weeks or ten months, but for ten years and beyond.

EngHums Dovetailing hidden bodies of knowledge in 5 hours of English and 5 hours of Humanities


The subject knowledge we choose to teach our pupils to master is the most vital and the most challenging content. The pupils we teach often arrive at school far behind, unable to read fluently or multiply. Many have a vocabulary of under 6,000 words, while wealthier pupils often have over 12,000. So the opportunity cost of anything other than the most challenging subject content is high. Only the most challenging topics with the most stretching vocabulary, combined with high support so all pupils understand and use it accurately, will allow them to compete academically with the 96% of private school pupils who reach University. We dedicate extended teaching time for mastery of grammar, spelling and vocabulary, the hidden bodies of knowledge that make for accurate writing. Our pupils will have vivid memories of reading some of the most complex and beautiful texts ever written: Shakespeare’s Othello, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Shelley’s Frankenstein, Orwell’s 1984, Malcolm X’s autobiography, Duffy’s The Worlds’ Wife, and Mandela’s A Long Walk to Freedom.


Subject knowledge we select dovetails cohesively across and between subjects. At Michaela, our pupils will remember Year 7 as the year they learnt about classical civilisation. Across subjects, they are making exciting connections. Sacrifice, for instance, recurs in the stories of Abraham and Isaac in religion, with Agamemnon and Iphigenia or Minos and Theseus in Greek mythology. Across English and Science, the planet Mercury is named after the swift Greco-Roman messenger god as it is the fastest-moving planet, taking 88 days to orbit the sun. A dovetailed knowledge curriculum allows pupils to make these fascinating connections for themselves, and understand the ideas of democracy, dictatorship, hubris, nemesis, tragedy and monotheism from their early origins.

In short, we select challenging, sequenced, coherent schemata within and across subjects, so that our pupils remember what they’ve learned for years to come.

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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20 Responses to Which knowledge?

  1. Marco says:

    I really love this post – the idea of the knowledge, challenge and opportunities for connections that such a curriculum creates is really exciting, and I’m sure is hugely beneficial for the children. I teach in Year 5 where two thirds of the class are entitled to pupil premium. I would love to know the nature of how you teach for mastery of vocabulary, spelling and grammar, if you have any further information – particularly on spelling.

    Many thanks


  2. Pedro says:

    Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    Last week there was the clear message: a school based on knowledge. Now the answer: which knowledge. Interesting post, very interesting!

  3. Rory says:

    Which knowledge? The answer is always the same: reading, writing, listening, speaking, information organization critical thinking and math.I also like people of all ages to know how to start on time, stay on task, complete assignments.

    It’s amazing how these skills and behaviors are being totally ignored by “edumacators.”

    More baloney for the baloney fed crowd. Knowledge, indeed!

  4. dodiscimus says:

    I would be very interested in more details of the science curriculum. I think that one of the major problems in science teaching is that the size of the curriculum makes it difficult to achieve much depth or mastery for many children. Best wishes.

  5. misslisa67 says:

    Seems to make sense to gently tease apart the ‘subjects’ on entry to Sec phase while increasing challenge and complexity at same time. (@Lisa7Pettifer)

  6. The idea of a chronological curriculum is great, Joe. As is dovetailing across subjects. But in the chart you show, the subjects aren’t dovetailed, not chronologically, at least. Is there a reason for that?

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  13. Which knowledge? Always the same: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ukNjeFipeIlHX42_8rrnuroh5FfTmXcr–y90HWLU6k/

    Of all the teachers I’ve ever met (hundreds and hundreds), only about 10% grasp this essential. The rest are baby sitting.

    • Max Downham says:

      I agree. The ninety per cent are out there babysitting, or sheep herding. Of that 10 per cent, less than half would qualify as good teachers. Real education is only of interest to the small minority amongst us who insist on knowing. All the rest is mere sheep-herding. Our education systems have degenerated into official conditioning agencies, as Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and many others could foresee. It’s shame. All that potential pissed down the drain.

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