A Rich Curriculum


Back in 1991, Martin Haberman, as part of his life long work into how education could tackle disadvantage, wrote “The Pedagogy of Poverty” in which he explores how the accepted norms and routines of teaching life act to hold down the very children we seek to lift up. In our work, Hywel Roberts and I refer to this idea of a Pedagogy of Poverty widely, but we need to explore how it fits in with current ideas about ‘rich’ knowledge and core knowledge curriculum models. 

All curriculum models have knowledge as a central part of their design. So why do so many advocate for a ‘knowledge rich’ curriculum? Well, Tom Sherrington summarises the key ideas of a ‘Knowledge Rich’ approach here very well and it’s difficult to argue against the idea that it is better for children to have explicit and clear recall of curriculum content than a vague recollection of some experiences acquired as a kind of “rubbing off” of content on memory. Let’s take his example of teaching the Romans. Tom suggests that it is better for children to have understood and retained the chronology, impact and key vocabulary of the Romans rather than to have a vague recollection of a trip to a museum and I agree. But the trip to the museum will also have had benefits that go way beyond that of remembering stuff about the Romans.

Hywel Roberts tells a story in his wonderful key notes about teaching in a school in Sheffield. The class are looking at town planning and urban developments, so as a way in, he asks them what they might find in a great city – if the city of Sheffield were to be redeveloped, what would they put there? One by one, the children list things the city should have – a Greggs, a BP Garage, a hairdressers called Streakers…they are describing their walk to school. For many of the children, their only experience of the city they live in is the walk to and from school. For those children and others like them, getting on a coach and going to a museum is about far, far more than remembering aspects of the curriculum. It can be literally life changing.

And as I outline here – we need to seize opportunities to broaden curriculum content out into much more than a series of well remembered facts. That’s the bottom line – the lowest common denominator. While I accept that perhaps we haven’t even achieved this as well as we might in the past, it is still no more ambitious a goal than getting the kit on a footballer without aspiring to put him on the pitch. When I teach the Romans, I firstly accept one thing:- I’m not going to have the time to teach it all. These historical periods are massive. So you have to focus in on the key areas and things you want them not just to KNOW, but to UNDERSTAND.

When I teach I want children to connect past, present and future. To link the then time to the now time with a view to impacting on future time. I don’t just want children to be able to identify the location of Hadrian’s wall on a map, to be able to recount who built it and why and to be able to map out the layout of the barracks. I want them to know that there were black skinned soldiers there who had marched from as far as Syria. If I choose to focus on a soldier there, I choose Syria because the name Syria resonates with children for wholly different reasons. I want children to understand that migration and population movements have always been with us. I want them to grow up to not be Arron Banks – so blinded by his own racism that he won’t even accept the evidence from classical scholar Mary Beard that it was even possible that the Roman army contained people with darker skins. I want them to be able to use all the knowledge and vocabulary that Tom describes. But I want more. Much, much more.

What keeps me awake at night when I think about teaching? It’s not Ofsted, testing, performance management…Ok – I don’t HAVE to worry about those things any more. But even when I did, it wasn’t that. I never gave a monkey’s who walked into my room to see me teach. I didn’t want prior warnings, I didn’t want grades. If I had time I might ask for a couple of tips about what they thought I could improve on – who doesn’t benefit from a bit of formative feedback? But what kept me awake was not surveillance. It was how to get through to children. It was how to not just engage them in tasks, but to make them care about the content we were covering. It was “how is my teaching going to impact on the future of the world? To make it a more compassionate and responsible place? How am I ensuring that children leave here able to form healthy relationships so that they don’t become lonely? How do I teach them to believe that they have the power to change the world, not just to recount what it used to be?”

We are awash with buzz words at all times in teaching. The buzz words of the moment are ‘knowledge rich,’ ‘mastery,’ ‘explicit teaching,’ ‘resilience,’ and so on. But if we’re not careful, they begin to undermine the very thing they aim to achieve. They strengthen the pedagogy of poverty. You cannot argue on the one hand that knowledge has to be painstakingly and explicitly taught and practiced because it can’t be left to chance, and on the other to casually suggest that compassion, criticality, creativity and other important human capabilities will just develop by chance on the back of knowledge. For heaven’s sake, you only have to look at our ‘knowledgeable’ government to see that won’t happen!

A rich curriculum moves way beyond knowledge. It moves towards the building upon knowledge to ensure that children know what to do with it. That they can’t just name emperors and kings, but that they can consider the pitfalls of power. That they can’t just name rivers and mountains, but that they understand how mankind is at the mercy of our natural environment as much as we are able to control aspects of it. They should understand that our capacity to destroy is matched by our capacity to create. They should know the best that has been said and done in a whole range of cultures as well as our own, but more than that – that the best that is to be said and done may well be yet to come. From them.


Year 2. We’ve been learning about the Great Fire of London. The children know the dates, the places, the statistics – the facts. We’ve acquired them largely by driving along in a story because we know that, according to Daniel Willingham, ‘stories are psychologically privileged’ in the human mind. They understand that the fire was bad, but also that it brought about benefits. I want to know just how much they remember and understand. So I test them. I test them not on paper (at least not at first – later they run to the writing because they are desperate to make their case). For now, we stand together in a darkened room. And I have a small candle alight in my hand.

“Let’s say…” I start, “Let’s say we’re back at the beginning. The moment when the fire broke out. Let’s say we have the power to blow this small flame out and stop the fire. Shall we?”

Bedlam breaks out. I do the “one at a time – one at a time!” and we listen to each other.

“We must blow it out! We could save at least nine lives – maybe more.”

“Hang on. If we blow it out, then the buildings won’t get better. There won’t be a fire service…”

“It could happen again and be worse if we blow this one out”

“The street won’t get cleaned up and the buildings will still be flammable if we don’t learn from this.”

“But we can’t let people die just so we can make the buildings better!”

“More people might die. It might have stopped the plague from coming back!”

“We don’t know that for sure – but we do know that if we don’t blow this out, people are definitely going to die.”

And so on. I can assess their knowledge and understanding, but more than that is going on here. The children have CONCERN.  The facts of the fire matter because they have been placed in a dilemma over which they have some (fictional) control. They are learning more than they would through a simple written test. They are learning that there are no easy answers to difficult problems. As one child sighed “maybe sometimes you have to let a bad thing happen in order for better things to come.”

This to me is knowledge rich. But it’s also humanity rich. Children have mastered content, but the quality of their discussions offer evidence of fluency. They are able to apply knowledge, consider, weigh and adapt. They are learning how to be wise, not just well informed.

So yes, let’s ditch the ‘we’ll learn about the Romans through a dressing up day”. But let’s not ditch the deep questions, the humanity, the links across time, place and context that connect with us all. Let’s have a future rich curriculum for all.

Addition 12th June:-

In response to some criticism that we shouldn’t be teaching children about issues like racism, I’d just like to say that a knowledge rich curriculum without racism would require removing colonial history, slavery, the holocaust (indeed probably the entire second world war), the civil rights movement, not to mention the Merchant of Venice and other great texts from our teaching. It would allow us to whitewash history, isolate children experiencing racism directly in their lives and enable others to become racist without fear of censure. Apart from that…

It might also be worthwhile pointing out that I’m not “teaching Syria”. I’m teaching the Romans from the perspective of a soldier from Syria. The children are familiar with the word Syria because that are familiar with news stories. I don’t really need to say much more about Syria than the name and where it is on a map. They see a man from Syria – a place they know people are fleeing from today – feeling homesick on Hadrian’s wall. I hope they understand that many people, far from home in circumstances they would not have chosen, feel homesick too. Stories provide safe distance from the real for children to explore these kinds of issues and History is full of stories. Personally, in my experience, that’s not too hard for children to grasp.



31 thoughts on “A Rich Curriculum

  1. The clearest statement of why the ‘knowledge-based curriculum (Hirsch) is wrong is perhaps this from Vygotsky, who is the main historic learning theorist whose work underpins ‘The Growth Mindset’, which is much misunderstood and often missrepresented.

    As we know from investigations of concept formation, a concept is more than the sum of certain associative bonds formed by memory, more than a mere mental habit; it is a genuine and complex act of thought that cannot be taught by drilling, but can only be accomplished when the child’s mental development has itself reached the requisite level.

    As a retired science teacher I know from more than thirty years of classroom and laboratory experience that Vygotsky is right. Take, for example, Newton’s Second Law of Motion.

    Force = Rate of Change of Momentum

    Understand it? No? Perhaps this is because although force is not too hard to understand (a push or a pull), what about momentum?

    Well, momentum = mass x velocity

    Does that help? Thought not. Is this just because you don’t remember what mass and velocity are, or because you confuse mass with weight? Then there is, rate of change. What does that mean?

    If I gave you a list of all the scientific terms involved in Newton’s Second Law of Motion and forced you to learn their definitions by rote so you could chant them on demand, would you then be guaranteed to understand Newton’s Laws of Motion? The answer is no and the reason is that given by Vygotsky. Piaget’s life work also helps a lot. In order to understand Newton’s Laws of Motion a student must have attained a sufficient level of cognitive sophistication. Piaget describes this level as ‘formal operational thinking‘. Kahneman calls it ‘System 2 Thinking‘.

    Read more on this here


    Debra and Hywel are right about the need for a genuinely rich curriculum.

    “This to me is knowledge rich. But it’s also humanity rich. Children have mastered content, but the quality of their discussions offer evidence of fluency. They are able to apply knowledge, consider, weigh and adapt. They are learning how to be wise, not just well informed”

    And by taking part in all these inspirational and deeply developmental processes, cognitive ability will also be enhanced”.

  2. Nobody who advocates for a knowledge rich curriculum would argue that it’s simply about learning dates & facts, though. Of course bigger questions come into it and linking knowledge (that’s the point) and this is knowledge that can be explicitly taught or discussed.

    It is the time wasting activities and the notion that what the skill is the most important thing and that knowledge is simply a vehicle to gain that skill, which is being criticised. A trip to the museum would be fun and interesting but the students wouldn’t learn much until that had some back ground knowledge, surely. So yes, do some fun activities, break things up, but don’t be fooled into thinking these activities will lead to much learning on their own.

    1. Actually several people would say that the facts are enough. There was a reaction to my post that argued exactly that. And bigger questions don’t ‘come into it’ unless they are explicitly planned for and time is made to consider them. I find it odd that people who make the case that knowledge must be explicitly planned for, ordered, broken down and tested, think that other aspects of learning simply come ‘naturally’. The word skills is a red herring here. All skills are forms of knowledge – practical knowledge, procedural knowledge etc. I see very few knowledge organisers specifically planning for more than simple declarative knowledge however. I see none with inquiry questions, experiences or types of testing other than written, individual tests planned into them. If you can furnish me with some of your own teaching examples that do this, I’d be delighted to see them.

      1. I think that’s a misrepresentation. My argument would be that facts are imperative and they are best taught explicitly and the more the better. The point is that these facts begin to form a web of understanding which means the student is able/equipped to ask/answer questions as they move from being a novice to having more expert knowledge. More ideas will evolve alongside these embedded facts. Students can make links that they couldn’t before. And yes, it is important that students know rather than just do, which is largely absent in our curriculum in Aust. That’s were the emphasis has been wrong for a long, long time. The knowing part is the most important part because you can’t get to the doing without the knowing, so spend more time on knowledge acquisition.

        1. So having said no-one advocates for just facts, you advocate for just facts that will magically weave themselves into a web. I find it so odd that so many people believe that facts must be taught explicitly but everything else can be an act of faith.

      2. Odd, why? It makes sense. The skills you want the student to have rest on a bed of knowledge. They are embedded in the knowledge. The facts will stew around in a person’s mind where they eventually formulate some ideas on the topic.

        1. Because that’s fantastical. You can no more be sure that someone will emerge from all that knowledge with wisdom and compassion or even with good old common sense than you can ensure that someone who has read how to play the piano will sit down and reel off Rachmaninov. It’s naive and misguided. If facts automatically led to wisdom, we wouldn’t have so many highly educated people making so many catastrophic errors of judgment in our societies.

        2. “The facts will stew around in a person’s mind where they eventually formulate some ideas on the topic.”

          Tempe, you cannot be a science teacher or you would know that this is not true. In chemistry you can learn the Periodic Table by heart without understanding the most basic principles of chemistry. The same is true of the Laws of Motion in physics. As for ‘the more facts the better’, this is plainly not the case, it just leads to greater confusion. So too in maths, where ‘facts about numbers’ proliferate not to mention the many rules of Euclid’s geometry. Learning all the facts does not of itself lead to the ability to solve mathematical problems.

          In the sciences experimentation is crucial to understanding. See


          It is not just the sciences. No one would doubt that the learning of the chronology of significant events is vital to historical study, but this is not enough to understand why these things took place. It is harder even than that, because things that took place decades, hundreds or thousands of years ago are still open to different interpretations about which experts continue to disagree, while accepting the same facts.

          Tempe, when it comes to the work of Piaget, Bruner and Vygotsky, have you studied it and rejected it, or are you just plain ignorant?

        1. A combination of knowledge, experience, perspective, balance, critical thinking, empathy and so on. Working in combination with the others. One doesn’t automatically ‘lead’ anywhere.

    2. “A trip to the museum would be fun and interesting but the students wouldn’t learn much until [they] had some back ground knowledge, surely. So yes, do some fun activities, break things up, but don’t be fooled into thinking these activities will lead to much learning on their own.”

      This reveals the poverty of Tempe’s knowledge-based approach. We are here in the ‘bucket theory of learning’ model, that was long discredited before being revived by the marketisation and academisation paradigm.


      For Tempe, the only reason to visit a museum is to ‘mine’ some knowledge defined in advance by the teacher.

      The uncomfortable truth is that regardless of the degree of the oppressive disciplinary culture of the school, the learner is always ultimately in charge of what will be learned. The role of the teacher is to inspire and support, to ‘light fires and open doors’. Fortunately, given the curiosity instinct that is deep in the genome of all children, this is not too difficult in a school that has the right learning culture.

      I remember when a Y8 pupil in a Birmingham selective school in 1960, the entire year group was taken by steam train from Snow Hill station to London Paddington, handy for the South Kensington museums. It was a great day out blighted only by the requirement to complete a homework assignment on the history of photography. I remember Alan Bennett reminiscing about his Leeds childhood and his regular visits to the Leeds City Art Gallery, which he claimed greatly influenced him by ‘a kind of non-specific soaking in effect’. I am sure that a rich education is one that provides lots of non-specific ‘soaking in’ opportunities.

    3. Sorry to be back again on the same subject, but who would have thought that good teachers back in the middle part of the 19th century had this knowledge/understanding issue sorted out. So too did Charles Dickens as revealed in ‘Hard Times’.

      The Reverend Richard Dawes graduated from Cambridge, and became a mathematical tutor and bursar. He was something of a radical and upset his academic peers by advocating the admission of dissenters to the university. In 1837, he left Cambridge to become a country vicar in the parish of King’s Somborne in Hampshire.

      He adopted a novel approach to teaching based on engaging pupils through the examples of the ‘common things’ found in their everyday lives, which were used as objects of study and experimentation. In this he was anticipating Piaget and the later developmentalists in his emphasis on grounding lessons in practical activities to provide a ‘concrete’ foundation for progression to abstract theorising. Having his pupils enthusiastically undertake practical activities in groups indicates a social approach quite different from the normal punishment driven, authoritarian instruction and repetition typical of the period that is so powerfully described in the contemporary works of Charles Dickens.

      Dawes proudly wrote: “Writing in my study, I heard a noise of joyous voices, which I found proceeded from half-a-dozen boys, who after school hours, had come to measure my garden-roller.’ They wanted to practise calculating the weight of a cylinder using measurements of the size and knowledge of the specific gravity of the material from which it was made.”

      It is clear that Dawes could not be criticised for any lack of ambition in what he expected his poor rural children to comprehend.

      In 1847 he published his masterpiece, which is a teachers’ guide to how to implement his methods: ‘Suggestive Hints towards improved Secular Instruction’. Dawes insisted on cheap editions being widely available. Many editions were published. The 1857 7th edition can be viewed on-line.

      More on Dawes and a link to his brilliant book can be found here.

      Depressingly, towards the end of the century Dawes’ approach fell out of favour with the government and all schools became subject to the ‘Gradgrind’ knowledge based culture.

      History is repeating itself.

  3. Debra is right (again). Skills are much misunderstood, but I agree with Tempe Lave about time wasting. I recall the vocational curriculum scam and in particular the four-GCSE equivalent ‘Travel and Tourism’ BTEC. One the recommended student activities was to plan and undertake a ‘reception party’ for the the package holiday punters on the first morning of their stay. This could be a huge time waster, while never covering the really important stuff: that the true purpose of these events is for tour reps to flog over-priced ‘excursions’, the commission on which forms a substantial part of their pay.

    In relation to ‘Skills’, an ‘i News’ article on the subject was illustrated by a picture of a Rubik Cube, implying that solving this classic 3D puzzle is a ‘problem solving skill’. It certainly is a skill, but is it ‘problem solving’ in any general sense? I know it is a skill because my grandson can do it within a minute. There are a number of algorithms (instructions in sequential steps) for achieving this and you can find them from Google. But this is not a general problem solving ability in the sense lamented by the CBI as lacking in our school leavers. A problem solving ability is a characteristic of general intelligence. Unlike solving a Rubik Cube, for which the skill is specific to Rubik Cubes, the cognitive ability level needed to solve a particular hard novel problem is transferable to all problems. See my article


    1. I think that’s fair comment Roger. There were some major errors made in many of the vocational qualifications you speak of. And to an extent in the emptiness of the English GCSE. But we’ve swung so much in the opposite direction now that it seems that all experience that might be sensory or interesting must be bad. At least the knowledge v skills debate is moving on a little – I’ve seen an acceptance emerging from the more traditional elements here that actually, when we’re speaking of skills, we’re just speaking of other modes of knowledge. That’s a shift from Michael Gove’s position of banning the word skills at the DfE! Imagine banning words. How infantile. That is shifting. And recent papers from the trad paragons of virtue, Sweller and Paas are starting to speak of the importance of movement and collaboration in relieving cognitive load. My worry is that this more recent research is ignored because it doesn’t conveniently fit the narrative that some thought it did.

  4. Hi Debra
    I don’t think you distinguish your approach from those calling for a knowledge rich curriculum by teaching about a Syrian Roman solder. This seems like just a choice of what knowledge to cover. Neither is the call to foster creativity, the knowledge rich proponents are just arguing some imparting of knowledge is a prerequisite part of that.

    It is your call to foster empathy that seems to be the difference. So my question is do you see any cost to this? I can imagine some counter arguments that left to individual teachers it gives a free hand to impart particular values. I think that is easily answered in the same way as any what to cover choice: some consensus is needed on what this entails and what it doesn’t. So a real question would be does fostering empathy take away from anything else? Even the effort required to agree on what it entails would be detracting from say effort to improve the teaching of reading. Perhaps you see easy low hanging fruit here for fostering empathy?

    There are also arguments that empathy is weak on generating actions, that you would do better focusing on say moral duty if you want a better world. Summed up here:
    This becomes even more contentious as it has to be decided what moral duties should be imparted to kids of various ages.

    1. Hi Stan. No I don’t think there’s a cost because the ability to weigh up multiple perspectives and consider the impact of decisions/policies/events on different people equips children very well for all kinds of future learning in all kinds of subjects, not to mention later in life. I don’t really think this is about empathy either, which can be debilitating in some ways. I prefer to think of it as a set of ways of thinking through dilemma. That involves active compassion rather than empathy because it is solution focused. Perhaps what I’m suggesting is that we plan for wisdom. Knowledge is a critical part of wisdom, but alone it’s not enough. Of course, in a single paragraph it’s not possible to explore an entire unit of work. The point about the Syrian soldier is really that I’m not sure when children study “The Romans” in primary school – the focus of which is largely on the presence of Rome in Britain, that they fully understand the diversity in the Roman army, how far some of those soldiers had travelled and how it might have impacted on them. There’s obviously also a nod to a broader theme about migration of people. It takes no longer to add to a more commonly used session on the day of a life of a soldier on Hadrian’s wall that the soldier is Syrian. So rather than a cost, I’d say there’s additional learning.

  5. I don’t pretend to be a pedagogical expert on the concept of a ‘knowledge rich curriculum’ and I think the idea of itself may have been distorted from its original purpose which I thought was pretty much to reinforce that students need a strong body of historical knowledge to be able to ask meaningful historical questions and structure answers to them rather than that the acquisition of knowledge is the goal of itself.

    I was particularly interested in your example of your conundrum surrounding the Great Fire of London – because (I apologise if I am misunderstanding) but it seems to me that what renders this discussion worthwhile is students detailed knowledge. To meaningfully put the fire into the context of what came after they need to have a detailed understanding of the 17th century, of London architecture and how this changed following the fire, the role of the Plague in London, the role of local government, the technological capabilities of the 1660s fire brigades etc etc. The stronger the knowledge is the more meaningful the discussion will be and vice versa the less knowledge the students have the more likely they are to drift into overgeneralised statements which will fire students imaginations for ‘what if’ but not move them closer to understanding the fire in a historically meaningful way?

    1. Yes. That’s what the blog is about. But it’s also saying that had I simply taught them the facts and then maybe tested them on paper, none of that dilemma rich conversation would have taken place. We need to plan for that as much as for the ‘delivering’ of the facts. Which were mostly gathered in role.

  6. Are you suggesting that knowing fewer maths facts will make you better at maths?
    “Learning all the facts does not of itself lead to the ability to solve mathematical problems.”
    Yeah, it does. You have no hope of solving maths problems unless you are fluent with procedures/formula/maths facts. How else will you solve a problem? By guessing?

    1. I was taught by rote, long multiplication and long division of decimal numbers in Y6 of primary school – nothing wrong with that, but I also recall the day the teacher went round the class (11 plus stream) asking every pupil in turn ‘what is a half times a half’. No-one offered the right answer. We all thought that when you multiplied two numbers together the result was always bigger than both, even though I could get long division and long multiplication ‘sums’ right.

      At secondary school, long before I understood what quadratic equations represented , I was taught by rote how to factorise them. I could get examples of those right too.

      You need to look at the EEF website which uses quality research to evaluate the effectiveness of teaching methods. The common theme in all subject areas is that although the memorising and recall of factual knowledge is important, it is never enough for deep learning.


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