Part 2: The Knowledge Rich Curriculum

Part 1 of this series discussed the knowledge which teachers need. A vital part of this is the knowledge of the curriculum, this is the knowledge we seek to impart to our students, the legacy we pass on to them. It’s imperative that we give due consideration to the content of this curriculum, the knowledge rich philosophy guides us in doing so.

The ‘knowledge rich curriculum’ is a phrase being used a lot in education at present, but what does it actually mean? I think we’d all agree that one purpose of education is to impart knowledge, so aren’t all school curricula knowledge rich? Consider the following quote from Christine Counsell.

“A curriculum exists to change the pupil, to give the pupil new power. One acid test for a curriculum is whether it enables lower-attaining or disadvantaged pupils to clamber into the discourse and practices of educated people, so that they gain the powers of the powerful.”

What is it that these lower-attaining or disadvantaged pupils often lack? Things like exposure to a wide range of texts, experiences and cultural knowledge which ‘the educated’ take for granted. Think of the children who don’t see education as being relevant to their lives, those who might hear about university and think it so alien that they could never imagine going there, those whose experience is limited to the small part of the world in which they and most of those whom they associate with have been born and have grown up. The knowledge rich curriculum aims to give these pupils access to the powerful knowledge which will take them beyond their everyday experience and enable them to step beyond their familiar sphere of existence if they desire to do so.

Michael Young describes this powerful knowledge:

“Powerful knowledge refers to what the knowledge can do or what intellectual power it gives to those who have access to it. Powerful knowledge provides more reliable explanations and new ways of thinking about the world and … can provide learners with a language for engaging in political, moral, and other kinds of debates.” (Young, 2008, p. 14)

“‘Powerful knowledge’ is powerful because it provides the best understanding of the natural and social worlds that we have and helps us go beyond our individual experiences.” (Young, 2013, p. 196)

This is all very well in theory, but what does it actually mean in practice? We really need to answer three questions; What is knowledge? What is the purpose of an education? What is a knowledge rich curriculum?

What is knowledge? 

It is often assumed that knowledge is just another way of saying facts, that knowledge rich is all about rote learning. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Knowledge is anything about which we can say, I know. Let me illustrate with a few examples (courtesy of and INSET presentation by Jonathan Mountsevens):

  • I know that Lusaka is the capital of Zambia. (I have memorised a fact.)
  • I know how to dance a waltz. (I have practised until I can do something confidently.)
  • I know why the USSR collapsed. (I understand a collection of facts and what links them together.)
  • I know Jane Eyre. (I have paid close attention to something and am familiar with it.)

What is the purpose of education?

Education has many purposes, a few examples include (also from Jonathan’s presentation):

  • To enable students to achieve success in exams.
  • To open doors to fulfilling careers.
  • To inspire a passion for learning.
  • To develop tomorrow’s responsible citizens.
  • To endow students with the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century world.
  • To develop a deep understanding of the world we live in and how we relate to it.

You may feel that some of these are more important than others, I certainly do, but whatever you view as the primary purposes of education, I hope you will see that a knowledge rich curriculum will go a long way to ensuring that these are fulfilled for all students.

What is a knowledge rich curriculum?

Tom Sherrington (2018) synthesised the curricular thinking of several others (linked in his post) to set down four key principles of a knowledge-rich curriculum, I have sought to expand upon each point:

  1. Knowledge provides an underpinning philosophy:
  • A curriculum should be more than a means to an end. There is intrinsic value in the knowledge itself as well as in the qualifications that knowledge enables a student to obtain, and the doors that these may open. We are empowered by knowing things – the more we know, the more we have to think with, the better we can understand and meaningfully engage with the world around us – the curriculum should ensure that all students have the opportunity to gain this knowledge. And by knowledge, we mean much more than facts. Knowledge includes skills, understanding, and the ability to apply these within the context of the subject.
  • All academic disciplines have a unique body of knowledge which we must value and give high status to. We must model this with our students, expecting them to make use of the correct vocabulary or techniques. Part of ‘teacher knowledge’ is the ability to explain and induct students into the workings of the academic disciplines which our subjects relate to.
  1. The knowledge content is specified in detail with thoughtful selection:
  • Sherrington discusses “doing the Romans”. If you’re anything like me you will have memories of “doing the Romans” or “doing the Tudors” in history at school. My memories of these things consist of dressing up, making model shields and tudor houses and seeing how food would have been cooked in the Hampton Court kitchens. I’m sure my teachers talked about the specifics of when these historical periods were and some of the political events and influences of these times, but I don’t remember these – they were coincidental in the experience, rather than being a key part of it. In a knowledge-rich approach, certain facts, events, people etc would be specified as being knowledge which students should remember with the aim of building their understanding of the timeline and course of history and the events which have shaped the society and culture that we live in today. A greater knowledge of the global stage might also be included.
  • Knowledge should be more than encounters with facts – in all subjects we want students to have specific knowledge, not simply vague ideas of events, theories or concepts from incidental and passing encounters with facts.
  • Knowledge should not be defined by a topic title (e.g. The Romans, or Fractions) with the specific content being left to chance – the individual pieces of knowledge (the ‘triangles’) are specified.
  1. Knowledge should be taught to be remembered, not merely encountered:

Curriculum and lesson planning should incorporate the principles learned from cognitive science about memory and learning. This is a huge topic which can’t be covered in detail here. I strongly recommend Daniel Willingham’s book, Why don’t students like school? As a very readable introduction to how the principles of cognitive science can be applied in the classroom. A couple of key principles are:

  • Knowledge which is used, requires students to think, and is periodically revisited will be the knowledge which lasts the longest. This knowledge will truly be learned, rather than encountered.
  • We can maximise the chance of content being remembered through thoughtful planning of learning sequences, explanations, what we expect students to do with the information they are learning, and opportunities for retrieval practice.

Clare Sealy’s blog, Memory, not memories, is another excellent read on this point of teaching for long term learning.

  1. Knowledge is sequenced and mapped deliberately and coherently:

The process of building up a schema (the structure of knowledge) in the minds of students must be carefully considered. This requires an understanding of the different structures of knowledge within each subject. Ruth Ashbee has written a blog introducing this idea and explaining its importance and application in various subjects. If you want a more in-depth read her excellent book expands on this thinking. 

Decisions about sequencing across a subject or year group will probably be taken at a department level, but as a teacher you will definitely be able to think about the sequencing and how knowledge links together within a topic. Useful questions to ask are: What do students already know? What future knowledge are you laying the foundations for? Is what you are teaching fitting between these things in a logical, coherent and helpful way? More about this later. 

It’s also worth taking time to consider misconceptions and preconceptions. Planning how to overcome or avoid these is crucial. Even just being aware of where common misconceptions are likely to come can be helpful in checking for them and preventing them.

If your perception of a knowledge-rich curriculum is a list of facts and rote learning, I hope this has gone some way to explaining that it is a much more nuanced and complex idea.

Why is it important?

Fundamentally, I see the knowledge rich curriculum as being about meaning making – through delivering such a curriculum we will enable students to make meaning of what they observe and encounter, both in the world around them now, but also in the past, and looking to the future. A knowledge rich curriculum will empower students which in turn brings success, both academically and in the broader sense of opening doors to full participation in society. The knowledge rich approach is often criticised as being elitist, but the reality is the opposite – it aims to give all students access to important knowledge which they may not otherwise acquire.

Part 3 of this series looks at the importance of knowledge of the curriculum and PCK in planning and teaching, and how this can be developed.

Links and References

Christine Counsell’s blog:

Reading on Powerful Knowledge from Michael Young:

Young, M. (2008). From constructivism to realism in the sociology of the curriculum. Review of Research in Education, 32, 1–32.

Young, M. (2013). Powerful knowledge: an analytically useful concept or just a “sexy sounding term”? A response to John Beck’s “Powerful knowledge, esoteric knowledge, curriculum knowledge”. Cambridge Journal of Education, 43, pp. 195–198.

Tom Sherrington’s summary of what is meant by a Knowledge-Rich Curriculum:

Why Don’t Students Like School – Daniel Willingham

Clare Sealy’s blog ‘Memory not Memories’:

Ruth Ashbee’s work on the structure of knowledge in different subjects:

And her website:

And book:

5 thoughts on “Part 2: The Knowledge Rich Curriculum

  1. Hi Helen,
    I really enjoyed your post and related to many of the points that you made about curriculum and learning. The topic about a knowledge rich curriculum is one that is hotly debated at the moment. Your references to current opinions and research and your interpretations were beautifully articulated. Thank you for such an insightful post!


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