Tuesday 17 May 2016

Core knowledge - a riff and some questions

People who have written to the DfE to complain about this year's SATs have received letters back from the DfE which explain that the children were tested on 'core knowledge'.

Let's riff on that one for a moment.

Who decided what was or was not 'core' knowledge? And what is it anyway?

If you've helped your child through the SATs and SPaG tests you'll know what some of these are: being able to fill in a subjunctive into a gap in a single sentence, coming up with the 'antonym' for a word, identifying the name of a tense of a verb, and so on.

Many people have questioned whether this is necessary core knowledge for 10 and 11 year olds. Some of it maybe, but all of it?

Now one key principle lying behind this core is testing. It's not a sideshow or an afterthought. It runs through the idea of core knowledge. In essence, core knowledge is not only core because of its actual or supposed status in our culture(s) but also because it can be tested in standardised tests. How else would governments know that it was being taught and learned? (As I keep saying, this was the justification for including SPaG testing when it was first mooted in the Bew Report of 2011. It was not because it was good, or great or the best. Simply that it could be tested reliably with 'right/wrong' answers.)

Core knowledge can be justified on the basis of very highflown stuff about the 'best that's known' and that sort of thing, but the rather more mundane truth is that knowledge can be as 'best'  as it wants but if it can't be sliced and diced up and put through a test, it won't make the grade as being suitable to be taught.

Take food. That's pretty essential stuff. In and around what's best to know about food are 'facts' about how to prepare it and cook it. If you eat meat, and you eat chicken, and you want to eat chicken, then knowing how long to cook a chicken is pretty good to avoid getting ill or dying.

Another good thing to know is the Heimlich manoeuvre. The design of our windpipes and gullets is not great, because food has to pass over the entrance of our windpipe to get to our gullets. If a bit of food gets stuck in the windpipe, we choke. Slapping someone on the back can well end up with the food getting more stuck. The Heimlich manoeuvre is a safer thing to do.

So, here are two 'facts': the time it takes to cook chicken so as to avoid dying; the thing to do if someone's choking to help them not die.
Rider to the one about chicken - a test to know if the chicken is cooked, is very handy too.

Are these core knowledge? If yes, I'll shuttup - (or think of some other things that might not be core knowledge!)
If no, why not?

One afterthought: if core knowledge is so vital, and testing for core knowledge is so vital, this means that core knowledge goes through the system that distributes 'owners' of core knowledge (pupils) on the basis of a 'bell curve'. In fact the tests for core knowledge ownership must, must, must be distributed on a bell curve or the test will be deemed as not right.

This means that there is a pre-judged set of pupils who will fail to acquire the core knowledge - or deemed to have failed and marked as that.  The justification for core knowledge is that it liberates the disadvantaged.

Who then are these pre-judged fails? What do they get from not getting to own the core knowledge? How is this different from any other knowledge-transmission-and-test systems? How liberated from their disadvantage (if they are indeed largely people deemed as being disadvantaged) are the people pre-judged to be fails?